The lecture referred to herein is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pNPtmxMUC8 and it is certainly better to watch that than read my notes. And no doubt it is better to read his book which I have just ordered which can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Creation-Modern-World-British-Enlightenment/dp/0393322688
To begin: what an exhilarating, insightful talk. Here are some brief notes if you want a “sort of” 5 minute version. This talk might reasonably have been called:
"England: an intellectual celebration"
When a German philosophy professor posed the question “What is the Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant responded that “We are not in the Enlightenment but we are becoming enlightened”. This is Kant in the 1780s. But more tellingly Kant suggested that although people should “think for themselves” under the watchword “Dare to know” following the Roman poet Horace this was conjoined to the proviso “only in one’s capacity as a bureaucrat or civil servant, as a professor - as an employee of the state. He must nevertheless also obey the prince.” 🤬😱
Kant’s suggestion that we are becoming enlightened rather than already enlightened may have been true of his own city - but it is not true now. And it is sad it is simply taken as fact by historians and others - even now. Kant never left East Prussia for the entire 80 years of his life. Kant’s denial that he was living in an Enlightened age probably applied to all of Prussia at the time. 🤭
This is all to be contrasted with England not only at the time and much earlier. Much earlier in England there were far more astonishing moves towards a genuine Enlightenment. For example Ambrose Philip’s magazine. - before Kant was even born and called “The Free Thinker” adopted “Dare to know” as it’s masthead in 1718 - launching an assault on superstition. This was in a nation that had outlawed formal censorship in 1695. 🤛
Kant referred to as “the timid state functionary” 😂😂
Historians of earlier times, as now tend not to study the English Enlightenment…perhaps out of modesty as this is English culture. The idea “we have excelled the world” in philosophy, science, governance, politics and so on seems a vanity that more suits the mainland/continental Europeans. The ideas they - the English are doers rather than thinkers. Yet Americans traditionally in academia have tended to look more to the French than the English for enlightenment ideas. Perhaps they prefer sabbaticals in Paris? 😏
England: a country that curbs the power of the king without unleashing anarchy. 😎
England: an example of everything autocratic governments say we should fear; especially economic individualism leading to commercial success. Yet it proves them wrong each and every time for it excels, succeeds, prospers and flourishes. How else to explain this? 😇🤑🤑
England equated with Newton equated with Light. Newton broke light into its constituents - began our scientific understanding of light. An English scientist existing in fertile free thinking soil. England = Newton = Light = Enlightenment.😍
John Locke lay some foundations of restricted government and individual rights and moreover a vision of the mind that is infinitely improveable . 🧐
England gives birth to William Godwin who did not just want to eliminate government but marriage and even orchestras because they were tyrannical over the individual. 🤯
England had fertile soil for these individual rights because of institutions especially free media and the novel - a great variety. This happened more in England and earlier in England than anywhere else. 🥳🥳
England - the birthplace of a modern institutionalised culture of criticism where “nullius in verba” could be taken seriously. While Kant’s “enlightenment” could suggest little more than one, ultimately, defer to a prince, a philosopher king…an authority. Take their word for it. 🤩
These two visions are the exact opposite of how to think and how to organise civilisations.
Societies fail. But none fail because they focussed too much attention on detecting and correcting errors. This is to say: criticising too much or too often. A criticism is an explanation of why something is faulty, flawed or false. It is the necessary precondition for solving a problem: to identify what is wrong, and correct it. All extinct societies have failed because they have failed to solve their problems in time. One important reason is that in those societies there have become taboos that have slowed the rate of problem solving. Traditions about who to defer to, for example. The belief that king must always be deferred to (because, implicitly, he must always be right because he is divinely so!) - or some leadership committee or the commissars - and so on, are required to be above criticism in order to maintain stability (by which is meant “order”). Laws appear that make it mandatory to speak with deference about the ruler or rulers and never to criticise. To be critical of this, but never that. Indeed to be especially skeptical of certain ideas (like, say, “freedom” or “equality”) – skeptical and perhaps insulting and emotional: not critical in a reasonable way. So, for example, North Koreans must never criticise the leader or regime – but they should be careful to be especially “critical” of the United States and the system in South Korea. Insulting and emotionally “critical” that is. Not reasonably.
In a genuine tradition of criticism no such taboos can persist, even if they arise for a time – because they will be criticised and corrected. In all areas of life, in an open and dynamic society where there exists a tradition of criticism frank and honest discussions can be had about all the factors, on all sides, from all perspectives, about the most pressing problems.
Without this panopticon approach to speech and criticism we end up in a state where certain situations and scenarios cannot be broached and never recognised as actually of civilisational consequence. The traditions within societies that do not cultivate a tradition of criticism do not allow for the conditions for all important problems to be identified in time. Or if they do, they do not permit them to be broached. Or if they do, not broached in the most effective ways. Were any of this false, those civilisations would still be with us. But they are not because they did not solve their problems in time. The ancient society of Pompeii did not solve its problems in time. Did they not know about the volcano? Why not? Why was their progress too slow in identifying the risk and saving the members (if only by fleeing in time).
Criticism is destabilising - in OUR society - of ideas, not the society itself that thrives upon it. A tradition of criticism imported into, say, North Korea would destabalise that society but not civilisation. Indeed it would bring improvements to civilisation by civilising it. One might claim “But there have been countless societies without a tradition of criticism that have been stable. I suspect many more for much longer periods of time.”
But this is false. There have not been. All those were, demonstrably - by the very evidence of their own non-existence *now* - all inherently unstable. Moreover what stability they did superficially appear to possess was due to the opposite of a tradition of criticism. They enforced the status quo. This is the “inherent instability” in the system. For any society – the mere “appearance” of stability is not actual stability unless there is a good explanation as to why things are not changing. For example, it may superficially appear that an ancient tribe that has existed in the same way for thousands of years is “stable”. But this is only apparent stability. Not genuine stability. They are pencils balanced on their tip. Sure, if nothing else changes in the environment – there is no little bump – the pencil remains “stable” (balanced precariously). But is it actually stable? What mechanism to prevent it toppling over is there? Or is there every reason to think that any number of things could make it fall? Our thousands-of-year old ancient society is unstable in the same way. There is every reason to think that any problem we would easily solve would wipe them out. Their society is inherently unstable.
Unlike ours. Which is stable. Inherently. But only if we maintain a tradition of criticism. Ours is not like that precariously balanced pencil standing on its tip but rather a modern skyscraper with earthquake prevention mechanisms, a great firefighting system and computer controlled environment, surrounded by surveillance cameras and with a full time team of engineers and others maintaining its day to day stability, checking each rivet and bolt and column with sensors placed all about the precision engineered structure. It is maintained and many of the causes keeping it up are in the conscious awareness of those experts who are continuously finding areas of concern and correcting problems to ensure that should the building move even just a little this way or that, the support structure corrects it, to keep it upright.
For all societies (or individuals) problems are inevitable. Some large number could be lethal and will be lethal – permanently revealing the inherent and latent instability that was always there in the system – by destroying it. Unless, of course, the problem is identified in time. And corrected in time. To maintain the stability. But that requires criticism in time, and continuous criticism in time. But that of course takes a particular kind of tradition. One that protects criticism. All criticism. It’s the only thing that is an explanation for genuine stability – which is quite unlike superficial stability that has persisted - but only by good fortune. We have that too - but not only that. We also have a deeper explanation of the causes that keep us stable. The thing that allows us to "change" with the problems of our times. By adapting, making progress and improving - in time. It's what we're used to now. We're used to criticising things - that's our tradition. It's what keeps the whole thing stable.
The most valuable thing you can offer to an idea