- The Enlightenment’s Enemies
For years now bookstore chains have carried an inexpensive multi- volume anthology of the major philosophical writings of the western world. Each volume deals with an age: the Age of Belief, Adventure, Reason, Enlightenment, Ideology, Analysis. The sequence strongly suggests a progressive emancipation of human reason from the fetters of faith, stalled temporarily during the nineteenth century by ideological subversions, and brought back on track in the Age of Analysis. This enterprising anthologist evidently shares an eschatology with the authors of the two books under review. Eugene Goodheart and Christopher Norris think philosophy is due for another rescue, not through Analysis, but by recapturing what they call the Enlightenment project.
Their books sound an alarm: the project is under attack from all sides. Deconstructionists reject the very idea of an objective world to which we have access and by which we confirm or refute our conjectures, substituting in its place the opacity of inherently ambiguous texts. [End Page 414] Ideologues deny any truth save political rectitude, though they know of course who oppresses and who is oppressed. A wholly new curriculum called Cultural Studies appears in college catalogues, its raison d’être being the claim that truth and proof are cultural artifacts: we can’t criticize or describe alien practices or beliefs lest we impose our local values, we can’t even admire them without being accused of theft. These are indeed familiar anti-intellectual currents. Do Goodheart and Norris respond effectively to them, or anyway offer a little comfort in these dark times?
I fear they do neither. For one thing they seem to think the tide of ideological and relativist disruption can only be stemmed by a general epistemological theory. As one would expect, this ambition is long on advertisement and short on accomplishment, especially as they fail to come to terms with Wittgensteinian arguments which suggest that project is incoherent. For another they suffer from the disease of abstraction without illustration, having become infected perhaps with jargon-ridden literary theory and multiculturalism in the heroic effort to combat them. Norris (of the two) is much the worse offender, as will appear. Goodheart’s language betrays the tell-tale sign of semantic inflation mostly when he reaches for words to announce or describe the territory reclaimed from the routed enemy. In hoping for a return from exile of terms like autonomy, transcendence, and universalism one senses the fervor of incantation more than the cold light of sober reason.
“Take care of the sense,” the Duchess admonishes Alice, “and the sounds will take care of themselves,” a bit of advice postmodernists turn round or upside down. Social scientists once had a corner on sounds without sense. Odd, isn’t it, that students of literary masterpieces, whose trade exposes them to good style, should now vie with sociologists and psychologists for the dubious honor of a prize in this journal’s Bad Writing Contest. I used to worry that I was distracted by the social scientist’s abuse of language from deeper problems (or perhaps even achievements). No longer: postmodernists have convinced me that language is the problem, just because bizarre ways with ordinary speech are advertised as the essence of postmodernist achievement. They prove their point that the text is all, that it is not about anything, by writing in a way that could not be about anything. Thus has language become ritual. Choke your readers on strings of floating abstractions, and, chances are, they will believe you’ve said something profound, when in fact you’ve said nothing at all. It being an accepted truth that [End Page 415] you can fool most of the people all of the time, there is nothing like a clotted and indigestible prose to dazzle the audience, and send it forth parroting your glossolalia. Postmodernists would have convinced me of this if social theory had not. A comment on style...