Swiss newspaper Limmattaler Zeitung published an article last week connecting the Age of Enlightenment, which ended the Middle Ages and laid the foundation for our prosperity today until today‘s infodemic.
“Wild assertions remain wild assertions, even if you refine them with the label “lateral thinking”. The erosion of public reason,” Christoph Bopp writes so well that we must reproduce the text here in its entirety.
“Have the courage to use your own intellect!” This was the motto of the Enlightenment, decided the philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1784 in his popular writing “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? Who could object to this?
Certainly not any more today. People no longer only refer to the freedom of thought, but also to the freedom of lateral thinking. One may and should think what one wants. Or to put it another way: the only right thing is to think that thinks differently than you should think.
That sounds so paradoxical that it needs to be analysed more closely. Kant recommends the use of one’s own intellect. What he meant by that, of course, was not the arbitrariness of personal opinion, but something else. Thinking is supposed to liberate from arbitrariness. It works with concepts and is oriented towards reason. Reason is in a sense the organ or the eye of mankind. It checks whether something is generally acceptable, whether it contributes to the general good or serves particular interests.
The Enlightenment also had a new idea of publicity in its wake. Universities, but also newspapers and magazines created public space for debate and discussion. New ideas had to face up to public debate (and, in Germany, censorship). But this did little to diminish the awareness that there was a movement towards freedom and betterment. In the light of reason, the powers of the Ancien Régime, nobility and clergy, found it difficult to retain their power over publicly expressed ideas and thoughts.
In the 19th century, this awareness struggled to be realised. A shining example is Switzerland, which was able to retain its liberal democratic constitution of 1848 and also put it on a broader basis by expanding popular participation. For Europe, 1945 – the end of the Second World War – was the beginning of a brilliant epoch: nation state, democracy and social market economy seemed to guarantee that every generation was better off than its parents. Of course there were crises. But apart from the general uncertainty we are now experiencing, what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas called the “legitimacy problems of late capitalism” was small.
Even the most critical thinking had to work off this reality. There was a consensus of values and attitudes that had to be respected. One trusted reason, even when criticising the current conditions. Do my thoughts meet the criterion that everyone could agree in principle? Reason is what is generally considered reasonable and true. Deviations from this must be justified.
Today it seems to be the other way round. The concept of reason has eroded. It has been replaced by the sense of identity. Consensus no longer needs to be established by rolling over concepts and making distinctions, but one already knows what one belongs to. “People” or “tribe” create a feeling of belonging. This slide into self-assurance was triggered by globalisation. Many new, unusual and threatening things came along. People looked for simple forms of certainty. A good example is the frequent reference to “our Christian values”. These must be defended, whatever they are and against whomever. And this while no one goes to church any more.
Reason has become an anti-world. The general is now called mainstream and is suspicious, the government is lying to us – a decisive fact: because faith has become more important than knowledge. Instead of: I know that my knowledge must prove itself; prevails: I firmly believe it, that is enough.
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