Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason

Here is the first part of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso):

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.

Readers Comments

  1. This is a book about a very important subject. I think that Dan is right to 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". I think that he is right to say that the Enlightenment has become a rhetorical stick in a Punch and Judy debate. Elightenment values should mean that we try to understand better the world, so among other things we should try to understand better what is happening in the Islamic world. Yet the very people who claim to be defending "the Enlightenment" also argue that "understanding" is "appeasement" and make frequent use of words like "Islamofascism", which adds nothing top our understanding of the world.

  2. Guano, I am very glad to have met a kindred spirit. Too often the word 'Enlightenment' is used as a stick to hit people who are trying to understand the world as best they can. Hopefully we can take the word away from those who aren't interested in open debate and who equate "understanding" with "appeasement".

  3. Hey Dan,

    Wheen might be my bete noir too (despite my admiration of his warm and informative Marx biography), but I'm interested in your take on John Gray here. He seems to have spun Adorno and Horkheimer's "Dialectic of Enlightenment" in the oddest of ways. He seems to see a totalitarian edge to everything and yet seems shy of nuance!

  4. It is difficult to keep track of John Gray's position, so I hesitate to comment on his new book until I have had a chance to read it. But he has written in the past in ways that suggest at the very least that the Enlightenment has somehow been discredited by Nazism, Stalinism and neo-liberalism. I think that is a mistake, and one with serious consequences.

  5. If some people (such as Gray) think that the Enlightenment has been discredited by Nazism, Stalinism and neo-liberalism, this is possibly becuase they are confusing scientific progress with technological progress. The Enlightenment is closely linked to the Scientific Revolution, which involved scientific methods (such systematic observation, forming and testing of hypotheses). Many forms of Marxism and neo-liberalism are based on untested assumptions (that a revolution will create a worker's democracy, that a level playing field for a free market can be created): they aren't really Enlightenment projects, and they often require a considerable amount of faith in untested assumptions. They do, however, promise technological progress despite their weak scientific basis. There is a risk here of throwing out the baby with the bath-water, of discarding scientific rationality because faith in ever-greater technological progress is faltering.

  6. Thanks for this, Mark. I look forward to the rest of the interview.

    If I'm thinking of the right person, we have an earlier book by Gray about the Enlightenment--my wife had it from college; it made her pretty mad!--I haven't read it yet...

  7. Readers of this important discussion and the interviews with Dan Hind might find the following of interest: 'All life is a struggle in the dark. As children in blank darkness tremble and start at everything, so we in broad daylight are oppressed at times by fears as baseless as those horrors which children imagine coming upon them in the dark. This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and the inner workings of nature.' This seems to me a good description of what I understand the spirit of the Enlightenment to have been, and continues to be. It comes from the Latin philosophical poem De Rerum Natura (literally, 'Concerning the Nature of Things' -- perhaps something like 'How Things Are') written about 2000 years ago by Lucretius (trans. R.E. Latham). I am not a scientist, but I think that when we forget the truth of Lucretius' point here, especially the second sentence, we get into deep deep trouble.

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