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What is Enlightenment? (1784) (earlham.edu)
144 points by anuraag2601 64 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

Regarding 2:

>> Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men ... It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.

This is beautiful in its simplicity and still has a piece of truth. But a more elaborate modern take would be probably that we also have finite resources. I do believe for instance that the earth surface is spherical, although I cann't immediately come up with an argument to prove this. I have not personally traveled around the world in a boat or launched satellites.

It seems that there is fundamentally no choice but to trust some people or traditions of thought on some things and then somehow to decide when to start doubting. Which is why fake news is a problem, for instance.

You'd be surprised how much resources you have available if you spend zero time in front of the TV or surfing the web, and spend all your free time on a hard chair with pen and paper studying.

>>You'd be surprised how much resources you have available if you spend zero time in front of the TV or surfing the web

Not really. Your available time, even if not wasted is still tiny. Seriously, just think about it, after college maybe you have some 40 years of peak productivity, if not less (and I suspect it is a lot less for most people). That doesn't really sound like a lot to me. Especially if you want to spend it doing things that are none trivial.

>>and spend all your free time on a hard chair with pen and paper studying

You cannot do this. You need to unwind. You need to enjoy culture, watch some TV, have relationships. Otherwise you will likely just burn out early. Plus, inspiration many times comes when you are just relaxing doing something completely unrelated to what you are pursuing.

>You need to unwind. You need to enjoy culture, watch some TV, have relationships.

In my experience, these things merely distract from underlying pain, including the underlying pain of human mortality. When you free yourself of this pain, weird and unexpected things happen.

Don't think that unwinding and freeing oneself of human mortality necessarily have anything to do with each other. I don't have any problem with human morality whatsoever. I doubt many atheists do. But one still needs to have balance in their life. Sam Altman even once said that many people work so hard precisely because they want to get away from the meaninglessness of everything, in a way. That is the exact opposite of unwinding.

Of course, one can attempt to be intensely spiritual and live their life like a monk or a yogi master; if such mental states are real and attainable then one would be without any entertainment all the time. However I doubt that would be practical for most human beings (also not sure how many people have truly achieved it historically instead of just leaving false records behind), and even if one achieves such a state, how much good can you do for the society if your existence is so remote from it already?

EDIT: I also agree that being stoic and a kind of "detached" as you mentioned in the followup explanation helps a lot. But there is a certain limit to that and one has to also be connected to the secular life in a sense.

>many people work so hard precisely because they want to get away from the meaninglessness of everything, in a way. That is the exact opposite of unwinding.

Exactly, they are putting deliberate focus on something, in this case work, that distracts them from the underlying meaninglessness, and enables them to not face it, because deep down, they find it (and/or have been taught to find it) objectionable in some way.

This deliberate turning of the head away from the existential fears creates this sensation of “winding”, but they accept it, knowing that they have methods of “unwinding”. I understand less why this is called balance, when it really sounds more like oscillation.

Of course, the winding is multi-dimensional; there is more or less stress about different aspects of life, varying over time. Relationships, finances, social status, existential angst, etc.

I’m proposing that it is possible to be OK with the meaninglessness, and even feel good about the state of things, and even while consuming minimal entertainment and distraction. I’m saying there exists a state where not consuming entertainment does not feel like you are depriving yourself at all.

>even if one achieves such a state, how much good can you do for the society if your existence is so remote from it already?

Well, the promise is literally freeing all living beings from suffering. Of course, to do this, one does have to “come back down” from time to time, and 100% agreed that coherently integrating this with existing society is a challenge. But it’s not a binary thing, and I think the level of coherence can improve over time.

I see what you mean. When I ask myself "why did I watch this series?" I realize that it is mostly to take my mind away from stress. Stress from work, stress from mortality or stress from my relationships. I have an approach on how to free myself from the suffering of this pain (pain will always exist). Unfortunately, I am too lazy at this point. My approach: eat healthy, healthy social life, exercise and meditate.

Yes, please do explain further.

Could you explain further?

I propose that there exists an active mental state in which one is emotionally neutral (i.e. no emotional valence) toward any possible outcome -- removal of access to entertainment, pleasure, one's relationships, even your own death.

I don't claim that this mental state is "better" or that anyone should try to achieve it, but experiencing it does tend to disrupt beliefs about what is necessary and important in life. Evidence suggests that desires and pleasures and entertainment and social comforts and ways to unwind that previously felt reasonably harmless and natural start to feel irrelevant and unimportant.

As far as I can tell, most of the written evidence is from the spiritual perspective, which is not always the most intellectually rigorous perspective. For a more scientific treatment of the underlying neuroscience, I'd recommend Thomas Metzinger's work; "The Ego Tunnel" is a good start. My experience is that understanding the physiological mechanisms behind our awareness, cognition, and emotion gives us a better map of how we might engineer different mental states, some of which have significant overlap with historically desirable mental states.

Metzinger proposes that our conception of "self" is basically an illusion that our brain generates in specific ways for specific purposes. Conceptually experimenting with "if this was true, what would it imply?" seems to lead to a world in which no one and no event can hurt "me", because in a way of speaking, there is no "me". Then backing down the ladder of abstraction, if I really, truly believed this, but of course still had the brain-generated perception of self, what would it imply for my everyday behavior?

The result seems to be sparser but deeper and more meaningful relationships (including with myself), much less interest in mindless entertainment and distraction, and intensified curiosity about the natural world. To the point where spending "all your free time on a hard chair with pen and paper studying" actually seems like a good idea.

Thanks for your comment. I've got Metzinger's book on my shelf so thanks for the reminder to read it :).

I must admit I have similar ideas about the self, I am currently inclined to believe that it is indeed an illusion but have not thought about the implications of that illusion (I have peace with it though).

I'm a bit more nuanced towards the emotional side. I think we all have emotions but being able to perceive them as just that, gives us true freedom. There are people that chase the emotional state/high of being happy above your normal baseline/hormonal levels, as the emotional state they want to have continuously. True freedom however comes with accepting all these states as they are. That means you are not chasing any "happy" states or getting out of other states.

How do you link the illusion of self to intensified curiosity about the world? I've always had an intensified curiosity but I'm unable to link this to "self".

Thanks for this comment. I've added it to my list of 'things to process' :).

I'm inclined to agree with you, despite the fact that I often have immense trouble being mindful (which I think is basically what you're getting at), and will go for various kinds of 'junk food', whether television or food or gaming.

The times where I've managed to focus on 'sparser but deeper' endeavors, the result was always better in every way.

I agree with what you mean.

But do you read all the medical literature before going to a doctor when something just feels weird?

Or, somewhat differently, do you read the source code of all packages on your computer to ensure there is no malware?

I'm a universalist as much as I can, but there's a reason specialization, division of labor, results in productivity increase. Somewhat funny that Kant himself also argued for division of labour, just a year after publishing the Enlightenment article, [0].

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Division_of_labour#Immanuel_Ka...

I attempted that three times. It lead to low per hour performance, frustration from slow progress and to depression twice.

Turns out, I need to spend some time relaxing.

Have you done this?

That can be just as exhausting as watching TV or surfing the web. All time and life experience need not be optimized, mechanical, and efficient - just because some aspects of it 'must' be.

The entire frame is bogus. Starting with Socrates, westerners like Kant believe that cognition (computation) is a solitary endeavor. Thus humans are "vulnerable" to group-think and it's up to the philosopher to "break free" from the illusions of common society. But this is of course the "very persistent illusion." The reality is humans are group think machines, carefully evolved to carry out distributed cognition (language, consciousness -- which is always of others).

Kant is fundamentally wrong when he suggests that a single person is unenlightened if he only accepts such truths from others because any rational and sane person in any significant group (>150 people) must accept the vast majority of their knowledge from second hand and third hand sources -- or go live alone in the forest. His command -- “Have courage to use your own understanding!” -- must be directed to the society as a whole. An enlightened society would be precisely that which had freely investigated and shared all of its knowledge as widely as possible.

>But this is of course the "very persistent illusion." The reality is humans are group think machines, carefully evolved to carry out distributed cognition (language, consciousness -- which is always of others).

First, this presupposes ("of course") what it should prove.

Second, even if humans are indeed "group think machines, carefully evolved to carry out distributed cognition" that doesn't mean they arrive at a more accurate description of reality via that method -- just that this way of "group thinking" is evolutionary more advantageous.

A view that is accurate and one that has evolutionary fitness are not necessarily the same thing.

In fact, they can be the very opposite. E.g. an animal that inaccurately considers all instances of another group as one and the same based on limited prior experience (e.g. as enemies) will be more likely to survive that one that tries to accurately gauge what the intentions of each new member of the other group it meets actually are.

To quote Nietchze:

"Where has logic originated in men’s heads? Undoubtedly out of the illogical, the domain of which must originally have been immense. But numberless beings who reasoned otherwise than we do at present, perished; albeit that they may have come nearer to truth than we! Whoever, for example, could not discern the "like" often enough with regard to food, and with regard to animals dangerous to him, whoever, therefore, deduced too slowly, or was too circumspect in his deductions, had smaller probability of survival than he who in all similar cases immediately divined the equality. The dominant tendency however, to treat as equal that which is merely similar - an illogical tendency for there is nothing equal - is what first created the whole basis for logic. It was just so (in order that the conception of substance should originate, this being indispensable to logic, although in the strictest sense nothing actual corresponds to it) that for a long period the changing process in things had to be overlooked, and remain unperceived; the beings not seeing correctly had an advantage over those who saw everything "in flux" In itself every high degree of circumspection in conclusions, every sceptical inclination, is a great danger to life. No living being might have been preserved unless the contrary inclination to affirm rather than suspend judgment, to mistake and fabricate rather than wait, to assent rather than deny, to decide rather than be in the right had been cultivated with extra ordinary assiduity. The course of logical thought and reasoning in our modern brain corresponds to a process and struggle of impulses, which singly and in themselves are all very illogical and un just; we experience usually only the result of the struggle, so rapidly and secretly does this primitive mechanism now operate in us."

"We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up." Hayek

It's probably deeply rooted in our social organ. So often people will choose to delegate (knowledge, action) instead of doing it themselves. It's even got a bad name in programming: NIH. I also think it's why people like money so much. It's the infinite delegation medium.

I lived the opposite of that, I needed (as a lack of trust or other emotional factors) to understand it all. Probably why I liked Lisp so much too, you integrate less, you use lisp to melt lisp into the desired shape. But enough Lisp for now.

I wonder if society would be better with more people avoid (or reduce to the bare minimum) reliance on others for understanding. Could be, or not.

> I wonder if society would be better with more people avoid (or reduce to the bare minimum) reliance on others for understanding. Could be, or not.

Absolute independence leads to a breakdown in communication, understanding, and empathy. We all need to rely on one another at some point or another because these are things that keep us connected, even during the times we choose to be disconnected.

I do think so but I'm not sure how much.

Personal preference, maybe?

I know sometimes it can feel like a choice you don't have, but it can often feel like everyone you try to connect with seems to think you do.

Money, to someone who orders, organizes, and directs individuals, represents efficacy and skill already established and therefore, rewarded. So when money directs in bodies of organizations, it is done so with intent. Intelligence is always the same thing, the symbols change, sometimes you get it wrong, sometimes right, sometimes can't predict the outcome because one individual self is in a tenuous balance of connection-disconnection that.. seems to oscillate in cycles around a self that doesn't truly exist.

Money can also be a distortion, that's the basis of my behavior. At the bottom, people are paid for knowledge, but at the top of companies, it's a lot of marketing games, where the price is not linked to the quality. Laptops are shiny for a reason, a bit of appealing surface can work better than a proper product (to an extent).

I do agree with you, but the argument has dark spots.

Yup, I agree with you as well.

> It seems that there is fundamentally no choice but to trust some people or traditions of thought on some things and then somehow to decide when to start doubting.

It's either you choose to trust and open yourself up to making the error while trusting, or you choose to not trust and either learn you took the longer route to discover the same truth, or you discover a different truth and wonder if there is more to it than that.

If anything, this particular paragraph has motivated me to become understand how to be as self sustainable as possible.

> This is beautiful in its simplicity and still has a piece of truth.

It will likely always be true. It is human nature.

> I do believe for instance that the earth surface is spherical (…) I have not personally traveled around the world in a boat or launched satellites.

Eratosthenes needed neither[1]. With a pair of sticks and friend far away, you can replicate the experiment and conclude for yourself.

[1]: https://youtu.be/0JHEqBLG650

That's useful, thanks. But to be a bit pedantic, this can only show that at a particular place where the measurement is taken, the earth has some curvature, that its a bit like a hill there. This does not show that the earth is globally a sphere, which would mean for example that if you go in the same "direction" long enough, you arrive at the same point.

Sure. But the game is to think of experiences that are more or less likely depending on which guess is true. Any ‘crucial’ experiment is only so given some background.

It might be fun/useful to spend five minutes writing down all the experiences like that that you can think of. (E.g. I’m writing this from a town on the edge often Rocky Mountains facing a plain. If I climb up, how would how far I can see vary with the height?)

"This video contains content from eOne UGC, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds."

It’s a clip from Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage”[1]. Searching for “Eratosthenes” returns tons of other videos that explain the experiment.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmos:_A_Personal_Voyage

Michel Foucault also wrote about this essay. His essay starts thus:

> Today when a periodical asks its readers a question, it does so in order to collect opinions on some subject about which everyone has an opinion already; there is not much likelihood of learning anything new. In the eighteenth century, editors preferred to question the public on problems that did not yet have solutions. I don't know whether or not that practice was more effective; it was unquestionably more entertaining.

> In any event, in line with this custom, in November 1784 a German periodical, Berlinische Monatschrift published a response to the question: Was ist Aufklärung? And the respondent was Kant.


Paragraph 1 reminds me of a Yuval Harari quote from an article discussed here https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13905249

>The other major contribution, I think, is that the entire exercise of Vipassana meditation is to learn the difference between fiction and reality, what is real and what is just stories that we invent and construct in our own minds. Almost 99 percent you realize is just stories in our minds. This is also true of history. Most people, they just get overwhelmed by the religious stories, by the nationalist stories, by the economic stories of the day, and they take these stories to be the reality.

Reading this through the lens of a current era where hierarchies are being subsumed by networks, and then reasserting themselves, this was written in a similar context, can't help but recommend "The Square and the Tower," a recent book that talks about the historical tension between networks and hierarchies.

Obligatory Niall Ferguson link for modern take on history, and a pleasant sunday afternoon listen: https://youtu.be/f3rhUZPNqX0?t=576

> One age cannot bind itself, and thus conspire, to place a succeeding one in a condition whereby it would be impossible for the later age to expand its knowledge (particularly where it is so very important), to rid itself of errors, and generally to increase its enlightenment.

Unless they are talking correctly about truths which are unchanging. in which case, good sir, you have a philosophical bias towards false progress.

Plato teaches me far more about true knowledge than does the enlightenment.

Plato's procedural/dialogical approach to learning is also vastly superior to the Kantian/illuminist 'one and done' understanding of proof and discovery. Kant was a funny sort of progressive, who also believed that his work in metaphysics and epistemology laid the absolute foundation for the field.

It's odd but only enlightenment and post-enlightenment thinkers seem to approach their work this way, as if it were an absolute step forward which will never need to be revisited. You don't generally find it in ancient or medieval philosophers, who are much more interested in eking out nuance and exposing difficulties than in laying absolute groundworks and so on. In the enlightenment (at least in philosophy), progressivism and delusional absolutism always go hand in hand.

There is some truth in this. Two and two will never be five.

Unfortunately I most often see the notion of eternal unchanging truth invoked to defend very temporal and mutable things: cultural and aesthetic biases, social and economic hierarchy, gender roles, racial stereotypes, religion, the state, etc.

People wish to rub some of the eternal truth of math and logic onto their favorite idols but it never sticks. Human hierarchy and symbol are very mutable.

Nobody bothers to pound the table about the eternal truth of actual eternal truths. There's no point.

> There is some truth in this. Two and two will never be five.

unless you swap some digits name's :cough:

I think you're misreading Kant. He's not saying that it's impossible for a particular truth to be immutable; he's saying that every generation must make its own judgment about the truths that are handed down to it (which is compatible with accepting that received knowledge is valid).

a call for generations to challenge the limits of our understanding of reality ? reminds me of the poetic roots of facism (not calling this idea a facist idea as the mainstream notion of the word)

This review of What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics and The Ashtray: (Or the Man Who Denied Reality) contains an excellent introduction to Kant's ideas:



This was a really enjoyable read that goes through the history of science from the 20th century, and draws connections between the measurement problem from quantum mechanics and ideas from philosophy including logical positivism and transcendental idealism. It's well worth reading if you are at all interested in open problems in quantum mechanics.

This piece is one of the foundations not only for Illuminism, but for modern thinking in the western culture in general. Thanks for submitting.

Steven West's podcast `Philosophize This` has a neat explanation of how this work came to be and paints a picture of what life was like during this time. I think episode ~50ish

Text in original language, German: http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/-3505/1

The German "Unmündigkeit" has more formal connotation than immaturity in the English translation. For instance you are considered "Mündig" when you are 18 years old.

>> Thus a public can only attain enlightenment slowly.

Its unfortunate that somethings never change. Even as technology is growing at an ever increasing rate, human nature sets to dampen most of its adoption. And since the largest expansion of population is coinciding with the largest increase in longevity, we're seeing a even larger dampening effect.

This is something a lot of our peers in the tech world don't realize. Too great an effort is put into building said technology and not enough is put into helping the public adopt it.

Sad to see that the public discourse has moved away from point 5 with the freedom to argue. To the point of that I'm afraid of giving examples.

Tell me about it! Everyone in my village knows full well my neighbor is witch. But if I even suggest we hold a witch trial, some weak-kneed SJW tries to de-platform me. The Enlightenment is truly dead.

These days, the witch is a Russian troll, an alt-reicher, maybe a closet "bro", or heaven forbid, a g@merg00ber.

The political is personal.

It's a polically-correct (at that time) revolt against the King and the religion. The word light refers also to the religion (first words of the Bible and the angel of the light).

Nope. "Enlightenment" in German is "Aufklärung", which is not cognate with the German for light ("Licht").

It's a french invention.

‘Le siècle des Lumières [plural] … Le terme de «Lumières» a été consacré par l’usage pour rassembler la diversité des manifestations de cet ensemble d’objets [la superstition, l’intolérance, l’abus des Églises et des États].’ (fr.wikipedia.org) — Except for Postmodernism, an era does not usually give itself a name. The term was coined later on (say, just about the acme of the revolution’s Terror, when a cult of such lights/gleams/luminaries was contrived). Where in German it reads ‘Aufklärung’, in French ‘éclaircissement’ is used instead.

First words of the Bible: בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’ (Gn 1,1) — Okay, the third verse reads, in French (Bible de Sacy translation): ‘Or Dieu dit: Que la lumière soit faite. Et la lumière fut faite.’ — Not a plural.

The angel of the light = Lucifer (<Lat. ‘light-bearer’); cfr 2 Cor. 11:14: ‘And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.’ — I don’t believe Kant could ever have imagined him being associated with satanism…

Probably not but he is german, not french. French philosophy and ideology assimilated elsewhere.

sounds like blabbering to me.

Your username suggests Indian heritage. I find a great deal of Indians interested in this topic, as am I.

I'm not sure how correct this description of enlightenment is, but my personal description of it is simply this: a state of total, mindful flow. Like when you solve a problem effortlessly because you have such a deep, intrinsic knowledge of it. It seems to impart a very profound feeling of calmness and equanimity across my mind.

A rather wise old man once told me, enlightenment is existing with intrinsic knowledge of your "sense of existence". Apparently it's very subtle and not so easy to pin down mentally... Still not sure how to interpret that, but part of me thinks there's some value in it.

It is simply being fully awake. We take our consciousness for granted, but in reality, we are sleep-walking the majority of our waking lives. Reacting, not Acting.

It is a wakefulness that is universal, I would image another species of intelligent beings also existing with full knowledge and acceptance of existence, be they organic or digital. It is not a human quality, but something much more.

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