The Enlightenment Monster
Susan Neiman is a moral philosopher with an interest in exploring the persistence of Enlightenment thought and reinterpreting past thinkers for contemporary contexts. She is the current Director of the Einstein Forum, having previously taught at Yale University and Tel Aviv University. The Wall Street Journal called her 2008 Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists “an argument for re-engaging with the moral vocabulary of the country.” Her 2002 work, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, explains philosophy’s quest, touching on Kant, among others, as one perpetually in search of a perfect understanding of evil. Born in Atlanta, Neiman received her doctorate degree from Harvard University.
Neiman: The enlightenment monster is a being that is created by a whole bunch of caricaturists but it’s interesting that virtually anybody--unless they’re a professional historian writing about the enlightenment--anybody throwing out discussions about the enlightenment, whether it be Robert Kagan on the right or--gee, I don’t know who on the left--Foucault on the left, whoever it is sees the enlightenment as an icily cold being who has sublimated all passion to reason, who believes that reason is instrumental in calculating and a matter of technology, who has a blind faith in progress and thinks that the world is inexorably going forth for the better. What are some other features of the enlightenment monster? Those are the crucial ones. They don’t actually fit anyone, which is why I called them the enlightenment monster in the book because if you look at the enlightenment itself-- And you don’t need to be a historian and you don’t need to dig in to the archives. All you need to do is read Candide, which was written in 1759--that is in the middle of the enlightenment--by Voltaire. You see a critique of this very simplistic enlightenment attitude, some- the heart of the enlightenment itself. That is the enlightenment itself knew that progress wasn’t necessary; they only thought it was possible. They knew that other things besides reason were important. They spent at least as much time talking about the emotions as they did about reason and they weren’t interested in reason because they were icy or because they were merely technological but because reason was a democratic instrument against superstition and authority. Reason is opposed not to passion but to somebody’s intuition. Right. This is-- Well, “God told me to invade another country so that’s a private intuition and there’s no way that I can explain it to you but I just know it” is one way of not using reason. Another way of not using reason is to simply use rhetoric, to simply use sound bites,
play the same sound bites over and over without looking at an entire speech in context, and to create superstition and fear, and the enlightenment was attempting to use reason, which is a faculty we all have, we can all develop, and we can all debate about, as I gather you’re doing with this program, rather than appealing to authority or superstition. So all of those- all those criticisms of the enlightenment occurred within the enlightenment itself. The idea-- The other feature of the enlightenment of course is that people think it was totally irreverent and anti-religious. It was not irreverent. It-- Most members of the enlightenment-- There are some who were sheer atheists and who I even would call irreverent, lacking a sense of reverence, and I do think it’s terribly important but most of them thought that science would lead to a greater appreciation of the glories of creation and gratitude for the fact that we live in a marvelous world. That was how they saw science, as contributing to human progress, not simply--although these are important enough--helping to eradicate disease and poverty and prejudice but also in creating a sense of wonder and gratitude.
Question: What’s the most important lesson of the enlightenment?
Neiman: I talk about four enlightenment values because I don’t simply think that there is one. One of the things that when people associated something positive with the enlightenment, which unfortunately is rare enough these days, they talk about tolerance. Tolerance is fine as far as it goes if you already believe in something but it’s deeply wimpy in the sense that you might conceivably get somebody to refrain from doing something in the name of tolerance. You will have a very hard time getting them to do anything for something in the name of tolerance because it’s not a value that has a lot of content. So instead I’ve asked that we look at four different enlightenment values, one I named to you already which is reason. The other is reverence which I also discussed. A third which we’ve come to take for granted is happiness. I think it’s very easy for fundamentalists to look at American consumerist culture, and we’ve seen terrorists do that, and say, “You know what. This is not my idea of the meaning of life, a society that’s consumed with whoever dies with the most toys wins as a bumper sticker in the ‘90s used to say. There is something revolting about that as a sense of value. That’s not what the enlightenment was talking about, about sheer materialism. The enlightenment was talking about a right to happiness as distinguished from whatever fate you got stuck with. I start my chapter on happiness with the Book of Job, which may seem like a counterintuitive place to start, and I start it that way because the Book of Job is the most read book of the Bible but until the enlightenment everyone who read Job read him the way Job’s friends did, that is Job had it coming. Okay. And they went to crazy lengths to try and construct a story such that Job deserved whatever it is that he got. In the enlightenment you suddenly began to have a notion that hey, actually it would be possible for bad things to happen to good people and good things to happen to bad people; this is not what God has ordained. And what that means is if bad things happen to good people the world- people in the world have a right to step up and try to change them. You see, before you have that idea, if people were sick, well, it was probably God’s will. If people were poor, hey, that was certainly God’s will. So until you have the idea that happiness is not something in a lost golden age or something that you might look forward to in heaven but something that if you fundamentally do what you should do you have a right to on earth, until you have that idea you don’t get a sense of justice. So that’s the third enlightenment value and the final one is the value of hope, which is very different from optimism. The people in the enlightenment were not sunny. They knew how bad things could be. If you read some of these pieces, you’ll be amazed. They sound like they could be written in the late twentieth century as far as their understanding of just how dark human beings could be. So they don’t believe that human beings are perfect. They just don’t believe that they’re committed to original sin and interestingly enough I think both- a lot of traditional Christians as well as a lot of secular postmodernists--and this is very interesting--someone like Foucault is actually talking or-- He doesn’t talk about it of course but he’s actually giving us as a foundation a notion of original sin, whatever one tries to do, okay, to improve on the world is doomed to futility because in fact we’re all driven by nothing but power and whatever looks like an alleviation of injustice is in fact going to be a refinement of certain techniques of power. So when the enlightenment does away with those kinds of ideas of original sin--that’s a postmodern return to original sin--they are saying, “You know what. Things can get better,” and I think our own time has seen so many clear ideas- so many clear examples of ways in which the world has been changed by ideals for the better but not necessarily. Torture is a very good example. If you think about the fact that 300 years ago scenes that would turn your stomach to read about are things you would have taken your kids to watch on a Saturday afternoon and you realize well, that was in the heart of civilization. We’ve abolished that now. Of course, as we’ve seen in the last five years, this is not necessary progress. You can turn the clock back and one of the things that has to happen to restore America’s moral authority is for us to take a resounding stand again against torture and for the enlightenment, but it is a kind of progress. It happened. It doesn’t happen necessarily but it can happen if we work towards it.
Susan Neiman on how Enlightenment values are misunderstood, and their importance today.
What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.
Controversial physics theory says reality around us behaves like a computer neural network.
- Physicist proposes that the universe behaves like an artificial neural network.
- The scientist's new paper seeks to reconcile classical physics and quantum mechanics.
- The theory claims that natural selection produces both atoms and "observers".
Vanchurin interview:<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="539759cbfd8fcd5b6ebf14a3b597b3f9"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/bmyRy2-UhEE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Vanchurin on “Hidden Phenomena”:<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="18886ffd5e5840bb19d4494212f88d82"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/2NDVdNwsHCo?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>Vitaly Vanchurin speaking at the 6th International FQXi Conference, "Mind Matters: Intelligence and Agency in the Physical World." The Foundational Questions...
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.
Having been exposed to mavericks in the French culinary world at a young age, three-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn made it her mission to cook in a way that is not only delicious and elegant, but also expressive, memorable, and true to her experience.
43% of people think they can get a sense of someone's personality by their picture.
If you've used a dating app, you'll know the importance of choosing good profile pics.
Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
Quarantine rule breakers in 17th-century Italy partied all night – and some clergy condemned the feasting
17th-century outbreaks of plague in Italy reveal both tensions between religious and public health authorities.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts between religious freedom and public health regulations have been playing out in courts around the world.