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  • The Epistemology of Error in Late Enlightenment France
  • David Bates (bio)

The Enlightenment stance toward error has been defined in a fairly straightforward framework: it was something to be eliminated in the name of truth and progress. Whether the Enlightenment project is romanticized or subjected to relentless criticism, the opposition between truth and error within Enlightenment discourse remains. Once error was uncovered and recognized by the light of Reason, it would have no place in science or society; its perpetuation could only be a tactic used by authority figures interested in maintaining popular ignorance. As one historian writes: “The movement of ideas we call the Enlightenment conceived its task as the release of men from error and prejudice—forms of disorder—and as the achievement of truth and human welfare—forms of order.” 1 When truth and order were identified, moreover, there was no conceptual space in the Enlightenment vision for anything irrational, exceptional, deviant, or errant. “Aberrations in language, body, and imagery incarnated unenlightenment in the Age of Enlightenment.” 2 Although there may have been some debate over whether or not errors might in special circumstances prove useful in certain social contexts, it would seem that the mainstream of Enlightenment thinkers clearly distinguished forms of truth from irruptions of error. 3

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno point out that truth, for the Enlightenment, was a function of systematization. Truth was universal [End Page 307] and totalizing because the “ideal is the system from which all and everything follows.” Multiplicity and dissimilarity are eliminated by a process of abstraction that makes everything equal by reducing identity to relations of position and arrangement. Enlightenment, they say, “excises the incommensurable” in this effort to submit everything to rational calculation. 4 This critique of Enlightenment is persistent. From the opposite political stance, Carl Schmitt agrees: Enlightenment cannot tolerate the exception, because it “confounds the unity and order of the rationalist scheme.” 5 This order is established by decomposing identity, subjecting it to rigorous procedures of analysis with the instruments of signs, so that it can be dismantled and redeployed within comprehensive systems of classification. Meaning in the Enlightenment, according to Foucault, could only be understood within the table of signs itself. Every “discordant element” had to be banished to maintain this unity. 6 Enlightenment rejects what cannot be integrated: as Lyotard comments, the Jews are not converted but expelled in this period. 7

This critique of Enlightenment is linked to the progressive deconstruction of truth and identity in twentieth-century thought. If the Enlightenment attempts to convert difference into similarity with a universal reason in order to establish the unified system of meaning, it can be understood as the “other” of post-modern discourse. As Lyotard put it, the post-modern project is a “war on totality,” an effort to “activate the differences.” 8 The subject must be liberated from coercive social, psychological, and epistemological frameworks. 9 Truth becomes suspect, and error can serve as a positive metaphor for liberation, freedom, and resistance. 10 The Enlightenment project to clear away error and difference must now be characterized as an illusion. More important, it is seen as politically dangerous. For Enlightenment, it is said, was instituted in the French Revolution as an attempt to create a homogeneous society freed from conflict and disruption. Resistance was of course inevitable, but the Terror intensified the logic of Enlightenment, ruthlessly eliminating the “errors” of the social body, excising the enemies of national harmony until society reemerged to affirm its essential heterogeneity. 11 The Enlightenment project must be criticized as essentially contradictory: emancipation through “reason” will always lead to repression.

In the context of this particular critique of Enlightenment, eighteenth-century epistemology assumes crucial significance. For it is within the empiricist methodology of the philosophers that this effort to eliminate difference through rational analysis took place. Truth was a function of the system, so error would be corrected only if illegitimate relations could be identified. It is therefore surprising that on closer inspection a strict distinction between truth and error within Enlightenment epistemology is actually quite difficult to establish. In fact, error turns out to be a complex and ambiguous problem for many thinkers, and the...

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pp. 307-327
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