Let's get enlightened 1

February 23, 2007

In an instructive and illuminating review of Jonathan Israel's Enlightenment Contested (Books, February 16), Simon Blackburn concludes by regurgitating an example of the "invisible dogma" that Spinoza - the principal subject of the book - aspired to debunk.

Postmodernism and critical theory, Blackburn asserts, dismiss the ideals of modernity by identifying them as "totalitarian". On the contrary, many of the most influential contemporary critical thinkers - Foucalt, Derrida, Habermas - caution against the pursuit of totalitarian projects in the name of "democracy", "freedom" and so on. They commend the deconstruction of an ahistorical essence that is casually attributed to modern ideals - by builders of military coalitions, chief executives, management consultants and even vice-chancellors - for their own chauvinistic advantage.

Postmodern thinkers emphasise the importance of appreciating the vulnerability and sustaining the impetus of the kind of radical enlightenment commended by Spinoza.

They are indeed postmodernists, not anti-modernists. They aspire to "radically enlighten" invisible dogmas of modernity of the sort perversely invoked and reinforced by Blackburn in the conclusion of his review.

Hugh Willmott.
Cardiff University

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