Caputo: Chapter Four—The Enlightenment and Its Critics: A Short History—Part One

Caputo begins chapter four with these questions:
“How did we get from Augustine to Derrida?  What happened to truth in modernity to precipitate the postmodern turn?”
To answer those questions, Caputo tells us that such,
“…requires a closer look… [of] first, [the] history of philosophy from Descartes to Kant and then from Hegel to Nietzsche, which follows the fortunes of truth from the early modern period to the end of the nineteenth century.  If, as we will see, all the work that had been previously done by God and truth was shifted to Reason, then the question is whether Reason is up to the task.  Does the light of the Enlightenment shed sufficient light on truth, or is it like an overexposed photograph, where the light is too harsh to pick up all the different shades?”
Caputo then goes on to explore briefly the architects of modernity.  He does this under the sub-title: How Reason Ended Up Looking Foolish.
After a quick look at Copernicus (1473 –1543), Caputo begins with Rene Descartes (1596-1650).  He brings up Copernicus because the idea that we couldn’t trust our common sense notion that the earth is not moving and that the sun moves through the sky, was truly staggering at that time.  What could we trust then?  That was the starting place of Descartes’ philosophy.  Descartes wondered what would happen if we were to doubt everything—would there be one thing we could not doubt?  If so, wouldn’t that be a good place to build one’s philosophy?  Of course, the Church was concerned with how he might use the term, “doubt” so Descartes had to reassure them he was talking about strategic or purposeful doubt, not any real doubt, for instance, regarding God’s existence and so forth.  Regardless, eventually Descartes found his foundation and it wasn’t in the Church.
“Descartes found it not in the Church but in his famous cogito, ergo sum.  If I doubt, I think; and if I think, I am.  From the cogito he proceeded to deduce the existence of God, who is the author of our nature and the guarantor that if we use our faculties properly and do not rush to judgment we will find the truth.  Truth (veracity) was a function of divine veracity.  God, who used to be identical with truth, is now reduced to supplying a lifetime warranty on his products, but the warranty was only valid if we followed the instructions on the label and did not abuse the product.  The instructions read: judge only upon matters that are clear and distinct and do not rush to judgment.”
Descartes was doing his philosophy by imitating the mathematical method where we move from indubitable premise to conclusion with each step building on the one prior.  He did this until he had, he thought, “…reconstructed the whole of reality—the existence of the soul, of God, and of the physical world—on a secure basis.”  And, of course, this is where we get the modern epistemological notions of foundationalism and correspondence (I say “modern” because of course Aristotle gave us a form of correspondence).  He was, “…in effect, already distinguishing private (ethico-religious) and public (mathematical and scientific) matters.”  As much as he assured the Church this was not real doubt and simply a method, they sensed it could become something else and indeed it did; it became the modern world (modernity).  Descartes put the world and God in doubt and, in some ways, reversed the displacement performed by Copernicus and reinstated man as the center of the universe (“I think, therefore…”). Thus, that all important, “I”, is key to understanding modern western individuality and its distance from the communal sensibility in many Asian, African, and eastern communities.  What a ripe foundation for Capitalism, as well, no?
“Instead of starting with God in his heavens, o’erseeing all, he began with the opposite, the entirely suspicious idea there may be an evil demon out there using all his powers to deceive us so that every time we think something is clearly true, like 2+2=4, this may be the evil spirit deceiving us into thinking it is true (this is the sort of thing we normally think you should see a doctor about, who will start by asking about your relationship with your mother).  Descartes put our mind on the one side, and he started from the inside, asking if there was anything outside, anything else ‘out there’.  If so, he demanded it present its papers, prove itself by the criteria of truth (that it be clear and distinct) that he was laying down.  Everything had to meet the demands of this method, or else it was out of luck, out of ‘reality’—up to and including God.”
Basically this meant man was now the final judge and God was in the dock along with everything else.  Of course, the way Descartes made it out, God’s papers were in pristine and perfect order and he came out smelling like a rose.  However, as Caputo notes, this was:
“Too little, too late.  The damage had been done.  The light of the Enlightenment meant not the all-embracing premodern and pre-Copernican sun of truth under which we all basked, but the flashlight held up by reason, which, like a good detective, meticulously rooted around the inventory of our minds, sorting out what is objectively there from what is merely subjective.”
Caputo goes on to point out that from here we get our modern ideas of subjectivity and madness.  Here, indeed, the earth is moved.  In ancient times, the idea of objective and subjective truths was not really known.  They thought more along the lines of lower and higher truths.  We should always aim for the higher and a mistaken thought or conclusion was usually associated with missing the target rather than being completely wrong about something of for that thing to be false.  However:
“For Descartes a mistake was more like a hallucination in which we confuse a subjective buzz inside our head for something real out there.  We can see this in two different uses of the English word ‘opinion’.  When it is used to translate Plato’s doxa, the ‘world of opinion’ means the people who are held under the spell of changing things in the sensible world and are unable to rise to the higher intelligible world of unchanging essences.  When we use it in its contemporary sense, it means ‘personal opinion’, what is inside somebody’s head.”
And of course this led to the distinctions and dichotomies of modernity.  Descartes sorts out those aspects he thinks objective: the mathematical, the physical features of the world, all that can be measured or weighed, while all else, the qualities (color, sounds, taste, touch, aromas) are subjective.  The disenchantment and reduction of the world starts here.  This is why Descartes is considered the ‘cartographer’ of modernity.  He redrew the maps.  The Platonic dualism between the higher and lower was replaced with the dualism of mind and body.  Whereas the ancient world had posited that mind and matter were one, Descartes split the two and many modern philosophical disputes still arise from that rending.  Probably the best example of this is the notion of a “ghost in the machine” or the soul or spirit as something floating above our heads or following us like Peter Pan’s shadow and influencing us like a puppet master pulling strings.  The ancient world and certainly Christian theology knew none of this.
We now turn to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Caputo asserts that Kant represents the high point of the Enlightenment but also the lowest.  Here is where he thinks Reason goes mad and begins to look foolish.  The ReasonKant came up with, and in many ways the idea of Reason we still live with, results in a ‘deeply divided world.’  Kant moved from ‘Truth’ as it was once known to something more along the line of ‘principles’.  What is ‘universal’ is more important than even ‘Truth’.  Kant led us to an even further dichotomization, one between knowledge and truth and he did this to leave room for ethics.  Just as Newton had given us laws of nature, Kant wanted to give us moral laws.  And just as the laws of nature are universal and must be obeyed (if one disobeys the law of gravity—he may lose his life) so too must the moral laws operate. 
Kant’s revolutionary turn was to take Aristotle’s idea of correspondence, making the mind (the inward) conform to reality (the outward), and positing rather that we submit reality to the work of the mind.  Kant said that knowledge does not just happen through a simple correspondence, but rather our minds immediately process the data from the outward reality and puts it into some sort of rational order.  It’s not just a jumble of information we receive, we immediately draw causal connections and relate all the sense data into a picture that makes sense and can be understood.  From this came Kant’s ‘noumenal’ and ‘phenomenal’ categories.
“Kant thus introduced a distinction that no one before him could have imagined—a distinction between knowledge and the ‘real’ or even ‘true’ world—and this was the direct result of his own Copernican revolution in the definition of truth.  Plato had made a distinction between the true world and the apparent one, but he said knowledge was of the true world while appearances yield mere opinions or vague beliefs.  But Kant said knowledge, scientific knowledge, objective knowledge, was of appearances, of phenomena that the mind itself has constructed and made agreeable to the mind, subjected to the conditions of the mind, while the true world lies outside the scope of knowledge.  There’s a bit more madness: the mark of ‘knowledge’ is that it cannot possibly be of the ‘true’ world.”
And thus the world was carved up even further.  And Kant took Descartes’ inward turn and moved it even further inward by making our minds the creators really of what an intelligible reality looks like and the way it must be understood.  As Caputo notes, this led to a “wave of German Idealist metaphysics.”  This meant taking a time specific, geographic specific, culture specific, language specific, religion specific and many other factor specific way of processing information and universalizing it as the way that “minds” in general work, everywhere.  One could imagine what this meant for other cultures and people groups who then had to interact with Western powers and influences (colonialism anyone?).  Clearly, we can look back now and see many problems (many saw them at the time) but Caputo then points out his own concerns:
“…my own objection concerns what Kant calls pure Reason.  Speaking as an academic philosopher, I would be the first to admit that Kant is fun.  He has constructed an ingenious system of distinctions that is a joy to work out and teach.  In the days when we used such things, you would fill up the blackboard with his ‘architectonic’, a magnificent conceptual architecture of categories, forms, faculties, syntheses and distinctions of level that together make up what he called the ‘system of pure reason’.  But the end result outside the classroom, when the students and professors had returned home that evening for dinner, is to ignore the whole thing.  For, at the risk of certain caricature, Kant depicts human life as a badly divided and alienated creature, a bit of a train wreck after all; a victim of everything that is wrong with the excess of Enlightenment reason.”
What Kant did was turn ethics into principles or rules that had nothing to do with Truth, or beauty, or wisdom, or goodness, only duty.  Regardless of truth, or beauty, or wisdom, or the good, one must do his duty and this is a universal principle—just like a law of physics.  Even worse, Kant reduced religion to ethics and what mattered to him was the universal principle and the duty it commanded, not in the substance of belief or its direction and content (and Caputo rightly notes that this puts us very close to Nietzsche’s announcement of God’s death).
“At this point, the disengagement of Kant’s pure Reason from reality, from the world in which everyone else lives, is so complete that it really does begin to look quite mad, as if he needed some time on the couch.  Reading Kant’s philosophy is like reading the work of an extraterrestrial being sent down to earth to make an inventory of a curious sublunary species whose heads come equipped with a intricate system of buckets, gears and gauges by means of which they make their way around a world of whose true reality they profess to know nothing, while marching in step with a voice which they profess not to understand, and which commands them to act in a world whose pleasures they carefully monitor lest they fall in love with their life.”

With my next post, we will turn to Hegel (and others) and his critique of the Enlightenment.
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2 Responses to Caputo: Chapter Four—The Enlightenment and Its Critics: A Short History—Part One

  1. Burk says:


    Overall, this is an interesting discussion. But consider what “disenchantment” means.

    Enchantment means conferring on some objective phenomenon a subjective property or gloss. Making a god of a tree, or a ghost of a noise in the dark. It is clearly an overuse of imagination to make up realities and meanings that are not intrinsic. It is hard to understand why this kind of thing is so pined for.

    On postmodernism..

    Let me note that this is a community-specific issue. Scientists have no problem with their model of truth. It is humanists who never really had a serious model of truth, and are still hunting around for one. They found that the old truths of god, king, and country didn't cut the cultural mustard anymore, but have a serious problem finding new ones, because social truths really are socially constructed.

    Reason is not up to the task, because as I never tire of pointing out, the criterion of morals, same as that for political goodness and aesthetic “truth” is fundamentally subjective.

    In political terms, the enlightenment shifted the focus of legitimacy and the subjective criterion from what the elite (king, clergy) wants to what each person wants on democratic principles. But it did not by reason say what it was that everyone wants. That remains up to grabs.

    Mixing science into this is quite beside the point. It is true that its move from theological / social / intuitive criteria to empirical ones was momentous, but has nothing to do with postmodernism or your issues with the enlightenment.

    On Kant…

    “But Kant said knowledge, scientific knowledge, objective knowledge, was of appearances, of phenomena that the mind itself has constructed and made agreeable to the mind, subjected to the conditions of the mind, while the true world lies outside the scope of knowledge.”

    This seems a bit extreme, conflating truth with noumenal. I think even Kant accepted that our phenomenal mental maps of things can be accurate, without being perfect.

    Anyhow, the issue of “duty” in Kant- the categorical imperative- is yet again an attempt to codify his (Germanic) subjective feelings about how people should act towards each other. Fully acceptable and decent, but in no way founded in anything objective. Then Nietzsche came along and had his own subjective ideas.. all equally well-founded, really. You can make up your own based on beauty or whatever … we then get to pick and choose which ones we like better.

    “an extraterrestrial being sent down to earth to make an inventory of a curious sublunary species whose heads come equipped with a intricate system of buckets, gears and gauges by means of which they make their way around a world of whose true reality they profess to know nothing, while marching in step with a voice which they profess not to understand”

    Very funny… but the buckets and gears part is quite appropriate. If Kant was taking an anthropological approach, the more power to him. But the irony is that everyone professes to know the truth.. and they are mostly wrong! Certainly those besotted with “voices” of “enchantment”.


  2. Darrell says:


    “…But the irony is that everyone professes to know the truth.. and they are mostly wrong!”

    Clearly more ironic than you realize…


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