2016 ISSEI conference
The University of Lodz, Poland
Workshop: Enlightenment and Idealism: On Reason, Religion and European Values
The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was a massive cultural revolution, which discovered, as Hegel put it, that “everything exists for the subject.” The needs, powers, and purposes, the freedom of the individual, become central philosophical and social concerns, and with this shift the modern world is born. The Enlightenment is a Pan-European and a self-conscious phenomenon: thinkers of the Enlightenment know themselves to be doing something ground-breakingly new, not simply retrieving the past. Political and economic institutions, religious beliefs, cultural values, even our sense of ourselves as individuals and our place in nature and society: these are all now subject to critical examination, and must prove their validity in light of human reason. Values, institutions, and relations of all kinds must be probed, not simply accepted as traditional or given; their claims to our allegiance must be examined, and if they fail the test, they must be repudiated and changed. The Enlightenment is the self-conscious revolution of critical reason.
From this point of view, the Enlightenment would seem to have a very close affinity with the ethical programmes of German Idealism, but these two intellectual movements are often seen as being in tension. If the Enlightenment discovers the centrality of the subject, how is this modern subject to be conceived? How does German Idealism address the need for a robust conception of human action, self-consciousness, and new forms of social interaction? How and to what extent do the idealists carry out the Enlightenment demand for the rational justification of power and for the claims of freedom and the autonomous use of reason, against authoritarian impositions and stultifying orthodoxies? The views of the idealists have implications for a wide range of recent debates on culture, politics, and identity, and religion in the New Europe and beyond. To clarify the relation of idealism and Enlightenment is to make these implications explicit.
One such recent debate has centered on religion. While the idea or identity of “Europe” grew out of the dialectic—not always pacific—between rationality and religion, the rise of rationality and science and the concept of the secular state gradually produced a separation between religion and state, whereby religion was relegated to the private sphere, while public legislation was to be guided by free will and human reason.
The impact of these changes on human values has been with us ever since. Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers asserted the primacy of reason as the way to truth, thus transforming the ancient concept of “wisdom” into a “scientific” question. More specifically, in the Kantian model the human subject faces the world as an object. His autonomy as a subject is founded on reason, which also guarantees it. Thus the concept of autonomy is intrinsically linked to that of rationality. But when we consider the subject per se, leaving aside the question of objective knowledge, his autonomy appears under another aspect, that of freedom. And here we are confronted by the apparent contradiction between the subject as cognoscente (embodying a universal rationality that is aware of its limits) and the subject as freedom.
What then is the role of religion in this rationalist conception of human beings and of the world? Is not human freedom, often considered as contraposed to religious insights, an axial element between the objectivity of rationality and the “supra” (not “anti”) rational insights reached through religious experience and beliefs?
Human values appear here as the disruptive intersection between rationality and religion. This is so because values connect actions with their referents, the subjectivity of individual actions with their objective social impacts, thus casting doubt on the permanence of at least some of Europe’s fundamental values. In other words, can reason alone respond to the demands of an action inspired by a religious experience by pretending that it has no significance for social life? And conversely, can religion alone be aware of the dynamic of historical change while preserving its deepest truths?
These questions are particularly relevant today when Europe is struggling to reassess the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and autonomy as it confronts deepening social and political divisions and a growing diversity in attitudes to religion. What role, then, should basic European values play in thinking the relationship between rationality and religion in the New Europe?