Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason
Mark Thwaite: Dan, thanks for submitting to my questions and agreeing to this! So, for starters, what gave you the idea for The Threat to Reason?
Dan Hind: After 9/11 I noticed that the word Enlightenment seemed to be cropping up much more regularly - one source suggests that the phrase "enlightened values" cropped up four times more often in broadsheet newspapers in Britain in the period after the terrorist attacks in the US. People started to claim that we had to defend enlightened values from Muslim fanatics. This made me wonder what the Enlightenment was as a set of historical events, and what we could learn from it now. The book came from out of that curiosity, and from an impatience with what some liberals and progressives were saying, especially in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
MT: How long did it take you write it?
DH: I started writing some notes in the summer of 2004. Francis Wheen's book, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World was kind of the last straw... I wrote a first draft Autumn 2005 - Spring 2006, which I sent to publishers And I wrote the final draft in the Autumn of last year when Verso) signed me up. Apart from that final re-write I was working full-time, so the book came along quite slowly.
MT: Lets get back to basics: what was and is the Enlightenment?
DH: What was the Enlightenment? That's big question! Put neutrally it was a period of philosophical and political upheaval between the Glorious Revolution in Britain and the French Revolution around a century later. If I had to give a more substantial definition, I'd say it was a collection of attempts to describe the world more accurately, by replacing dogma with experiment and open debate. A world understood more clearly could be improved. That was, I think, the characteristic hope of Enlightenment. That's what it was, at least seen in one light. There are other ways to describe it and I talk a little about them in my book. But that is a useful definition to start with.
MT: Why is it perceived to be under threat? Is it?
DH: Well a number of movements consciously or implicitly reject the ideas that we associate with the Enlightenment; most spectacularly some religious fundamentalists insist that science cannot challenge the authority of scripture. More complicatedly, postmodern philosophers have sometimes seemed to argue that Enlightenment universalism is only ever a cover for imperialist land grabs.
In my book I argue that the enlightened inheritance really is under threat and that it should be defended, but that its most significant enemies usually pose as its friends. Science is under constant, corrupting pressure from the institutions that fund it, or example. All the time these institutions pose, sometimes very convincingly, as the defenders of science. Angelina Jolie perhaps alludes to this with her tattoo, 'What nourishes me destroys me'. Too often defenders of the Enlightenment engage in a kind of intellectual Punch and Judy show, a formal confrontation between faith and reason, say, where everyone happily talks at cross purposes and hits each other with rhetorical sticks. Reality doesn't have the same, reassuring, seaside-knockabout form. Enlightenment is a much more unsettling subject than most of its self-appointed defenders are comfortable admitting; the word itself demands a state of constant vigilance in those who presume to use it.