Response to Matthew Taylor’s ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’

11 07 2010

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA since 2006, has written an essay entitled ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’, which presents the thinking behind the RSA’s new strapline. It invites us to ‘return to core principles of autonomy, universalism and humanism, restoring dimensions which have been lost and seeing new ways to fulfil these ideals.’

The essay contains a (great) number of well-presented mini-summaries of current thinking. We get Matt Ridley, Tsvetan Todorov, Jonathan Israel, David Halpern, David Willetts, Mark Lilla, Antonio Damasio, Anthony Giddens, Robert Kegan, Manuel Eisner, Paul Collier, Evgeny Morozov, Marc Hauser, Scott Atran and Mary Douglas. Essayist staples Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault unsurprisingly also get cameos.

The Strengths

Taylor’s section on ‘self-aware autonomy’ is the strongest in the article, nicely reflecting Kant’s 1784 view of the goal of the enlightenment: ‘Know thyself!’ . He cites recent research which suggests how the eighteenth-century model of human autonomy we have inherited is deficient, or at times simply wrong. He recognises that most of our behaviour is the result of our brain responding to the world around us, and it is easier to change things by changing contexts, rather than by trying wilfully override our brain’s activities. Taylor’s ‘championing of a more self-aware, socially embedded model of autonomy” makes a convincing case.

Furthermore, the three areas Taylor outlines which need development in order to close the ‘social aspiration gap’ (between where ‘we are going’ and ‘where we want to go’) make interesting reading. This encompasses engagement – recognising your own role in changing things; self-sufficiency and resourcefulness – managing your own life and taking the initiative to change things; and being pro-social – building social capital. Some readers may see a close parallel with some of the ideas the coalition government has developed as part of its Big Society agenda.

The Weaknesses

Taylor refers to ‘the Enlightenment project’ throughout the essay, although he himself recognises that there was not really a ‘project’ in any meaningful sense. He also displays the same desire to pull diverse, even divergent, themes and issues into a single narrative: ‘there is a general consensus on the key challenges facing national and global society’. Really? We all agree poverty and disease are bad, but other than that there does not appear to be anything approaching a genuine ‘general consensus’. Perhaps Taylor means ‘among the fellows of the RSA’; but even there I suspect he might struggle.

This leads us to the main problem with the essay, and indeed, the RSA’s new strapline. ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’ is a lovely piece of branding; it is not a good piece of thinking. In another blogpost on the topic, Taylor calls for ‘a return to core enlightenment values’, even though (and if he has read Israel he must know this) no such ‘core values’ ever existed.

The phrase ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’ is symptomatic of Taylor’s desire to simplify and narrate a version of history to suit his ends, which undermines  the more astute pieces of analysis in the essay. For example, we have a rose-tinted version of the pre-industrial period as enjoying ‘shorter working hours, more festivals and parties, stronger community and family bonds’; ‘many Enlightenment thinkers’ believing that religion would decline in the face of scientific rationalism – this was not the case; and a confusing model of ’empathy stock’ which seems to argue at one point that ‘the stock of human empathy’ is ‘just as important’ as worldwide  education.

Taylor also distrusts ‘competition’ as a means of galvanising meaningful social change, and relies too heaving on top-down initiatives like ‘institutions of global governance’ to effect change in a post-bureaucratic world. The notion of being critical of established norms, and constantly revisiting the questions ‘where are we going, and why’ is exactly the kind of activity the RSA should be engaging in; creating grand, but flimsy, historical narratives to tie in with neat straplines is not.

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin )

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