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  • Critique, Progress, Autonomy
  • James Swenson (bio)

At the opening of the twenty-first century, competing versions of religious fundamentalism dominate global conflict. Intellectually, only the representatives of these fundamentalisms dare to claim the mantle of universalism. It is possible that this state of affairs means that we have passed the historical limit of the age of enlightenment, however broadly conceived, and that we now live in a world in which its fundamental concepts are no longer particularly relevant. This can be described as the postmodern thesis, and some version of it is widely accepted. Different configurations emphasize information technology as a revolution on the scale of printing, the "globalization" of the economy and a concurrent decline of the power of the classical nation-state, a loss of confidence in narratives of universal progress, the equal dignity of all cultures, or the return of religion. It is also possible that enlightenment considered as a struggle and an imperative is far from over, and that the Enlightenment in fact has something important to do with the twenty-first century.1

Critique is the first word of the Enlightenment. Critique examines both factual and logical consistency, but it is not primarily a relation to newly produced knowledge in the manner of experimental verification. Critique always concerns received ideas, that is, tradition. The Enlightenment begins with Pierre Bayle's argument in the Pensées diverses sur la comète that [End Page 1] neither unanimity nor length of belief, the two hallmarks of a solid tradition, are in any way an index of truth.2 By definition, we might say, enlightenment is corrosive of authority, tradition, and settled custom.

Bayle's critique in the Pensées is directed against "superstition," that is, the overlap between religion and knowledge (or ignorance) of the natural world. Bayle's critique refuses to grant religious authority the right to make any pronouncements about the natural world. But Bayle goes even farther. The core argument of his Commentaire philosophique is that the inner light of natural reason provides a more compelling form of divine revelation than the historically uncertain and possibly allegorical text of scripture does.3 Religious authority does not even have the right to pronounce upon itself. For Bayle himself, of course, critique led to fideism, a withdrawal of belief into inner and purely individual experience. Other important figures of this first generation of biblical criticism (such as the Oratorian Richard Simon) were similarly devout, if not always orthodox. But this is also the moment of the Trois imposteurs and clandestine "spinosisme."4

The all-corrosive negativity of critique has always made it the primary target of anti-Enlightenment thought. The great philosophical attacks on the French Revolution that establish the canon of Romantic reaction by Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, and Louis de Bonald (and, one could argue, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) are all primarily concerned to reestablish the immanent rationality of tradition. A similar strategy is at work in all attempts to separate liberalism in the classical sense from egalitarianism, to reconcile the critical social forces of modernity (which means, above all, capitalism itself) with traditional social forms. This critique of critique did not in fact begin with Burke; it was already active within the Enlightenment itself in the unimpeachably "enlightened" discourse of De l'esprit des lois.5 For the baron de Montesquieu it is the absence of effective resistance to the despot's whim (frequently expressed in projects of reform and rationalization) that characterizes unfreedom. His concept of liberty, conversely, is a properly conservative one, tied to the inertia and resistance to change of social institutions, most notably in the forms of legal procedure and the independence of the judiciary or in the feudal nobility's point d'honneur. Even despotism finds in religion a certain degree of stability without which society could not persist.6

In contemporary discourse the key word for this social inertia that needs to be protected from the corrosive forces of critique and capital is culture. Tradition as culture needs to be defended both as a rampart against what the sociological tradition calls anomie, the dissolution of the social bond and of solidarity, and...


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