"“Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-inflicted immaturity. … ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’—that is the motto of enlightenment.” -Kant


"the difference between science and other things comes up when people pretend to have the authority of science for things that aren’t science. But on the bigger picture, the more important demarcation is between reason and unreason." -David Deutsch


Is 'the enlightenment project' still coherent, or definable? Is it still a motivating framework to take philosophy and society in a (the?) desirable direction?

I have encountered views that the 'enlightenment project' has failed, dissipated, become obscured, or otherwise needs recapitulating, and 'fighting for'. Is this only politicised hyperbole? Or is the idea of an enlightenment project that is the sole arbiter of reason politicised hyperbole? Have modern philosophical trends failed to live up to desirable aspirations of the age of the emergence of science in some way/s?

A frequent implication of these critiques, seems to be that there is a crisis in Western culture, of confidence, of values, and in the capacity to assert shared ideas about how best to be. Is there? It has been argued this problem arises from the state of moral discourse and I can't help but notice that virtue, once a mainstay of philosophical discussion, is now seemingly a term too 'uncool' to use, and no one would unironically declare themselves virtuous.

In short, what is the status of 'the enlightenment project', if there still is one, in modern philosophy?

Edited to add:The article posted by @Gordon sums up a common critique https://areomagazine.com/2017/03/27/how-french-intellectuals-ruined-the-west-postmodernism-and-its-impact-explained/ The rejection of 'postmodernism' in this way. I am very interested in Jurgen Habermas' reaction/approach. It seems that postmodernity is not an alternative to modernity, but a critique to be integrated into a new modernity?

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    your juxtaposition of the words enlightenment and project is syntactically correct but beyond that your question makes no sense. The 'enlightenment' which started in the Renaissance is not a 'project' as defined by the dictionary. The 'enlightenment' or the age of modernity started during the age of the Renaissance is recognized by many as ending in the mid-1940s and gave way to the postmodern age. Commented May 30, 2018 at 4:55
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    The Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason; in French: Siècle des Lumières "was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century". Thus, when referring to "the enlightenment project" are you referring to a philosophical movement ended two centuries ago or are you referring to a generic "-ism" that try to encompass every movement and worldview centered around "reason" : from Socrates to Popper ? Commented May 30, 2018 at 7:00
  • Habermas tried to work out something reasonable, but I am not familiar with his later work, and whether his project continued along the same lines. G. Lukacs said the unwinding (I.e. the new irrationalism) started with Schelling/Kierkegaard; it came to full flower with Nietzsche; then we had the disaster of what developed in France in the '60s. My opinion of course.
    – Gordon
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 15:30
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    An article I found with a quick search. areomagazine.com/2017/03/27/… I am sure you are familiar with these issues already.
    – Gordon
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 15:43
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    One of the key sources on this issue is Adorno-Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment that anticipated much of the postmodernist critique of Enlightenment, i.e. of classical rationality, and suggested a project to replace it with "humbled" rationality, "rationality with human face". Both belonged to the Frankfurt school which continued to pursue the project, Habermas is a prominent recent representative. Analytic philosophy, continental hermeneutics are also broadly rationalist but they are less focused on ethics.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 17:28

3 Answers 3


“The Enlightenment Project” is a phrase used mostly by its critics—or rather the critics of an idea which they make into a phrase to criticize. To the extent that it means the triumph of ideals expressed by those retrospectively called “enlightenment” figures, like privileging human reason and inquiry over divine revelation and scriptural authority, their degree of success depends on where you look. In Europe and anglophone societies, many formerly theological institutions have become secular, and science widely plays an increasingly prominent and authoritative role. Those enlightenment ideals have thrived in such societies over the past 300 years. But they have not thrived not everywhere in such societies, certainly, nor everywhere in the world. So the best one can say about its triumph in society is “kind of.”

Similarly, in Philosophy, we find that Philosophy is vastly more secular, and as a whole much more friendly to science, than a few hundred years ago. But while some in Philosophy would explicitly embrace enlightenment ideals, “The Enlightenment Project” has specific negative connotations for many of those who use it. It is thought to be oppressive. For them, if it has succeeded, it is not a success! They would almost certainly say that its influence is still strong in Philosophy, and still terrible.

  • Oppressive /by who/? My sense is that there was a postmodern critique of ideas about 'universality', and of the idea of achieving objectivity even while justifying various oppressive status quos. But there seems to be a positive view of some kind of modernity, by Habermas and I presume, others?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 16:09
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    Horkheimer and Adorno, for example. “Dialectic of Enlightenment” Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 16:26
  • +1. Good short answer. Best : GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 10:32

I have some idea about political thought, and Machiavelli is supposed to have been an early enlightenment thinker, in a conventional sense, and I have read a lot of his works. In fact the definition I like for the enlightenment is a vague negative one i.e. intellectual enquiry not constrained greatly by any external power-structure (predominantly religion). It wasn't particularly confined to philosophy, unless you want to bring even science within the ambit of 'natural philosophy'. Kan't definition, seems to have too many metaphysical undertones, that people might have differing views on. Many people would also disagree that 'Science' with the capital 'S', is the most inevitable part of the enlightenment.

And as someone pointed out, the enlightenment is the name for the intellectual culture of a historical epoch, that we have named so in retrospect, in contrast with other kinds of intellectual cultures that have existed at other points in history. It wasn't a project in the sense, the Manhattan project was a project. A good acid test for the health of the enlightenment today would be the freedom and culture within universities, to ask questions, disseminate ideas and rethink cultural norms. So unless, someone comes along and starts firing all the Jewish professors or something like that, we can be fairly sure that the enlightenment is still on.

Regarding your encountering views that the enlightenment is dead and things of that kind. 'Trend alarmism' is a very common social phenomenon, and most such alarmisms have not quite fulfilled their predictions. The alarmism around the decline of Rome, has an interesting history. The 'end times alarmisms' are, as you know, quite common. Sure, one could point to a university that has declined in quality, or a biology department filled with creationists and things of that kind. But I think it is naive to suggest any general regression, at least in the 20th century. Personally, I think, Freud and 20th century psychoanalysis, is as important a landmark in the long road of human intellectual enquiry as Plato. I would strongly claim that no century since the 15th has seen a general regression. The verdict regarding the 21st century can be only done later.

  • I would suggest journals, the exchange of letters (& books, & lectures), was more important during the enlightenment era itself, than universities who's culture has always lagged the influential discourses. The 'trend' is often assertive -Islamic- theocracy, and the reaction to that seeming ro be limited to populist autocrats, from Turkey & Hungary to France & Italy, to the USA. I am surprised you pick Freud, it seems hard to justify the significance of any of his ideas, except as historical footnotes to the develooment of better, evidence-based ones.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 16:18
  • When was politics free of religion? When was American politics free of religion? Sure since 9/11, the world has become more unstable, to that regard. But there is nothing that is fundamentally on any wrong track, I would argue. The world has been through much worse political crises. And using 'postmodernism' as a whipping boy is sheer lunacy and idiocy. Postmodernism and deconstruction, is not any state sanctioned ideology. It is just a set of ideas that exists in the the public square, within the perimeters of enlightenment values, just like any other. Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 14:54
  • 'and in the capacity to assert shared ideas'. This is a meaningless statement really. If you share a set of values, then there is no reason to assert them. On the other hand, if you assert values you do not share, or differ in degree, it can be reinterpreted in many cases as cultural imperialism, and things of that kind. The French say such things about American attitudes. Such views are also quite common in the post-colonial stuff, regarding Indian colonial analysis etc. Analytic philosophy, thus performs the useful role of getting philosophy done without getting into this mess. Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 15:09
  • You seem to neglect how societies arrive at their values, and how these change. Disputing any call to values as 'imperialist', the postmodern perspective that all knowledge claims are power claims, was exactly what I had in mind. Does this bode hyper-individualism, and retreat from advocacy of shared values, that have bound, and created, societies?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 16:21
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    For socio-political discourse, I think Rorty's pragmatism is the only hope we have. If the European wars of religion had firmly established secularism, why was 20th century Europe so concerned about the 'International Jew', and eliminating the 'bourgeoisie'. Why aren't Ukrainians 'secular' to the Russians? Secularism and any other political idea, should be understood in context, not for the sake of relativism or for religious polemics, but for the sake of intellectual honesty. Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 16:24

Are you askinhg about the state of university philosophy?

The state of modern university philosophy is so dire that nobody could imagine it has an 'enlightenment project'. The enlightenment ideal never really caught on in philosophy and even QM has had little effect. I feel we can only wait for it to become extinct.

The quotes from Kant and Deutsch are excellent but do not seem relevant to professional philosophy.

My views on this issue are extreme so I'd better stop here.

  • Many of the most significant philosophers were of the enlightenment era and arguably shared something in their advocacy of reason which could be called an 'enlightenment project'. Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Hobbes, Wollstencraft. How can you justify saying 'it didn't catch on' without being obviously disingeneous?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 16:04
  • @CriglCragl You have a point, My comment was a bit clumsy. But how are these names more or less reason-driven that Plato and Aristotle? I do not see the modern philosopher as being driven by reason so much as by tradition. The idea that philosophy has beome 'enlightened' is odd when applied to a tradition in which philosophers do not understand philosophy. I do not believe that many modern academic philosophers use their reason in an enlightened or effective manner.
    – user20253
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 11:33
  • Plato advocated lying to maintain political control, essentially the precursor to a theocratic state that holds 'if God did not exist we would have to invent Him'. Nietzsche and many others react against reason, and tradition.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 13:08

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