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.