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The Enlightenment thinkers emphasize the individual human being, over his cultural or ethnical affiliation.

This is done by a faith in a universal capacity which is reason, a distrust towards despotism, a pursuit of scientific knowledge, an advocacy for (religious) tolerance, the belief in the doux commerce to attain peace between the communities, and of course on a strong commitment to individualism (the individual must be allowed to pursue their own goals).

However, many societies/traditions (including European ones) do not share these values. They emphasize the (ethnical/cultural/religious) group over the individual.

This can create an asymmetry where an (A) Enlightenment-committed society or individual consider as their human-brother the (B) members of these societies/traditions, while (B) in turn do not consider (A) as their human-brother.

Did the Enlightenment thinkers identify this asymmetry their philosophy might create, and how did they propose to tackle it?

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  • What you call The Enlightenment, is really the fruits of Christianity — Tom Holland 《paraphrased and summarized》Scrivener's book is a longer summary
    – Rushi
    Jul 30, 2023 at 4:47
  • Rajani Kanth is a complementary view. Also here
    – Rushi
    Jul 30, 2023 at 5:15
  • @Rushi IMO, emphasizing the "Christian origin or identity of the Enlightenment philosophy" is a big fallacy, because Enlightnement thinkers 1/ where deist, that is, the belief in a supernatural power is dependent on reason, and the human life is independent from any supernatural will 2/ they emphasized the universal over the religiously/ethnical/cultural peculiar.
    – Starckman
    Jul 30, 2023 at 6:00
  • One can from a scientific/historical perspective find the influence that Christianity could have had on the Enlightenment philosophy, but giving the primacy of the former over the latter is, IMU, a fallacy. The Enlightenment philosophy has been deeply influenced by the hellenistic civilization, by the roman civilization, by the Renaissance humanists, and of course by the geo-political situation of Europe.
    – Starckman
    Jul 30, 2023 at 6:03
  • 2
    The result that emerged from Game Theory is that the only stable equilibrium of cooperation is "tit for tat" - cooperate with cooperators and punish or rebuke defectors. If this fails, the only possible strategy is to never cooperate at all. So, it has nothing to do with any ideas or reasons, it is just math.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 30, 2023 at 14:42

1 Answer 1

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Enlightenment thinkers were not unaware of the potential for asymmetry or conflict with non-Enlightenment societies. Indeed, many of them engaged deeply with the issue. They sought to reconcile these differences in a variety of ways.

1. Universalism of Reason:

Enlightenment thinkers posited that reason was a universal capacity, inherent in all human beings regardless of their cultural or societal background. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant argued that this faculty of reason could bridge the gap between different societies and traditions. Even if a society did not currently embrace Enlightenment values, the potential was always there, since reason was inherent in every individual.

2. Cultural Relativism and Tolerance:

Some Enlightenment thinkers advocated for the idea of cultural relativism, which suggests that no culture is superior to another and that every culture has its own intrinsic value. This perspective respects the diversity of cultures and promotes tolerance. Voltaire, for example, advocated for religious tolerance and respect for all cultures, even as he was a sharp critic of organized religion. This might not eliminate the asymmetry, but it could mitigate potential conflict.

3. Education and Progress:

Many Enlightenment thinkers believed in the power of education to spread Enlightenment ideals. They believed that through education, societies could progress and eventually adopt Enlightenment values. This perspective is evident in the work of thinkers like Rousseau and Diderot. The Encyclopédie, led by Diderot, was a major endeavor to disseminate knowledge and Enlightenment values across Europe and beyond.

4. Trade and Commerce:

Enlightenment thinkers also believed that trade and commerce could act as social levellers, creating common ground between different societies. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, argued that the invisible hand of the market could harmonize the interests of individuals and societies, potentially reducing conflict and promoting understanding.

However the Enlightenment thinkers did not entirely resolve the asymmetry with non-Enlightenment societies. Their belief in the universality of reason and the potential for all societies to progress towards Enlightenment values has been criticized as Eurocentric or even imperialistic. Moreover, the Enlightenment itself was not a monolithic movement, and different thinkers proposed different solutions to this problem.

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    "3. Education and Progress:" But how to enact this? I mean, the societies who do not recognize the Enlightenment ideas will no allow them to be taught!
    – Starckman
    Jul 30, 2023 at 7:58
  • Same for "2. Cultural Relativism and Tolerance". Many non-Enlightenment societies/traditions do not hold "cultural relativism" and "tolerance" as positive values, on the contrary. So an Enlightenment person might be tolerant to them, but this tolerance will not be reciprocal (something Diderot alludes to in his Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville)
    – Starckman
    Jul 30, 2023 at 8:01
  • Re: reason - the Game Theory result in my comment to the question should be discoverable by people with any sort of ideas and beliefs. Reasonable people would then find through interaction with others that their cherished beliefs are not operative of anything in the world and they would discard those beliefs. Perhaps this is a sort of post-Enlightenment thinking? I call it common sense, but in many places it is rare.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 30, 2023 at 14:49

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