September 11, 2016
by Michael Wood
THE DREAM OF ENLIGHTENMENT
By Anthony Gottlieb
300 pp. Liveright Publishing. $27.95.
A man is asleep at a table, his arms half-covering a drawing. Behind him a whole crowd of owls, bats, cats and less easily definable creatures hovers, crouches and flutters. One of the most humanoid of them is holding out a pen, and seems keen for the man to wake up. On the side of his table, written in large letters, are the words El sueño de la razón produce monstruos. We are looking at one of the etchings in Goya’s late-18th-century work “Los Caprichos.” The sleep of reason produces monsters. Or is it the dream of reason? The Spanish word allows either meaning. Goya’s note on the etching suggests he inclined to the former sense: The monsters arrive when reason is no longer alert. But the other reading has a long and persuasive history: When reason dreams, it dreams of monsters.
When reason dreams, it dreams of monsters.
“The Dream of Reason,” the first volume in a history of Western philosophy by Anthony Gottlieb, a former executive editor of The Economist, appeared in 2000, and took us from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance. The new work starts with Descartes and ends on “the eve of the French Revolution.” Another book is promised, picking up the tale with Kant. Gottlieb’s aim, admirably fulfilled, is to help us see what older and newer philosophers have to say to us but not to turn them into mouthpieces for what we already think we know. “It is tempting to think that they speak our language and live in our world. But to understand them properly, we must step back into their shoes.” This will be true no doubt of the post-Kantian volume as well. Even the shoes next door can look pretty strange if they belong to a philosopher.
Philosophy is many things, Gottlieb suggests, including much that we no longer call philosophy, but one of its recurring features is what William James called “a peculiarly stubborn effort to think clearly.” As Gottlieb declares in the first volume, the idea of clarity has not always seemed foremost, but the stubbornness is everywhere. “The attempt to push rational inquiry obstinately to its limits” is the name of the project. Sometimes it fails entirely, and the dream “seems merely a mirage.” At other times, though, “it succeeds magnificently, and the dream is revealed as a fruitful inspiration.” The dream appears as either fantasy or revelation, and Gottlieb skillfully tells “both sides of the story.” But what about the monsters?
Gottlieb reminds us that, for Bertrand Russell, Rousseau was responsible for the rise of Hitler, because his idea of a general will “made possible the mystic identification of a leader with his people.” Leibniz was inclined “to confuse his own mind with that of God.” Descartes “was too quick to assume that whatever seemed to him to be necessarily true was in fact so.” Hobbes was “almost charmingly naïve” about the supposed rationality of sovereigns with absolute power. This last instance becomes especially strange when we think of Hobbes’s eloquent elaborations of what people are like when left to their own devices (“no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time . . . no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death”) but then, as Gottlieb shrewdly says, Hobbes “wanted above all to scare people by stressing the anarchy that would prevail in the absence of government.” He could idealize government on the same pretext.
Gottlieb is fully aware of the monsters in the dream, but doesn’t allow them to dominate his book. He is committed to the positive aspects of inquiry, especially where scientific advances are involved. “It is by virtue of its engagement with the special problems posed by modern science that modern philosophy is distinguished from premodern philosophy.” Gottlieb often makes fun of his philosophers, but gently, as a way of bringing us closer to them, and they emerge as brilliant, vulnerable humans rather than monsters of any kind. Descartes worried about “the divine insurance plan”; “Hobbes got rather carried away” when he told us how solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short life was. “If Leibniz had been a composer, most of his symphonies would have been unfinished.”
Descartes gets a slightly harder ride than the others, and Gottlieb seems to have changed his mind about him since he wrote the earlier book. There his writings were described as “engaging,” and now they appear as “dubious” and “built on sand,” with Descartes himself accused of “trying to work out too much in his head.”
This last remark looks like a rather odd verdict on a philosopher, but it makes sense in the context of the book, and of course Gottlieb is not denying Descartes’s immense influence. All of Gottlieb’s chief subjects — Descartes himself, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Hume — are engaged, precisely and in a new way, with the world outside the head. Even geometry led to politics and social theory; advanced theoretical thought constantly engaged with the physical and mechanical sciences — for a long time these disciplines were still housed under the name of philosophy. There was plenty of room for work inside the head, of course, and as Gottlieb says, “philosophers always travel in several directions at once,” but the material world was a laboratory and an authority replacing, even for religious thinkers, the old, unappealable orders of the church.
Thus Hobbes sought to “disentangle politics and religion.” Spinoza said, “I do not differentiate between God and Nature in the way all those known to me have done.” Locke was suspicious of unempirical theories that “make the mind sound lazier than it is.” And even Leibniz, whose interests ranged from waterworks and proto-computers to the secret order of the universe, insisted on the intimate relations of thought and substance, claiming “not only that matter cannot account for mind but that mind is needed to account for matter.” Hume meanwhile taught that “extrapolating from experience” was just as unreliable as other philosophers thought it was but still more trustworthy than any other methods we might imagine we have. And Descartes, despite overdoing his mental homework, did not maintain, as he is often supposed to have done, that the mind and the body are irrevocably split from each other. “He could not explain how it is that mind and body are united, but he was sure that they were.”
The “Age of Reason” is a phrase usually applied to the 18th century, but Gottlieb invites us to take it all the way back to Descartes’s “Discourse on Method” (1637) and his “Meditations” (1641), as long as we are willing to see reason as part of the puzzle rather than its solution. Is reason the same as enlightenment? For their conservative enemies, both are equally dangerous. Gottlieb’s description of his 18th-century philosophers actually applies to all of those he discusses: “They were asking difficult questions where no questions should be asked.” Did they spread light? Of course, but they didn’t always know the answers to their questions, and this is why it is appropriate to think of enlightenment as a dream: It won’t always translate into the working day. It’s still a great achievement, of course, and Gottlieb gives the last quoted word to the French philosopher d’Alembert, who is defending knowledge against those who claim it is dangerous. He doesn’t believe “that anything would be gained by destroying it. Vices would remain with us, and we would have ignorance in addition.”
Michael Wood teaches at Princeton. His most recent book is “Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
A version of this review appears in print on September 11, 2016, on page BR20 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Reasonable Age. Today’s Paper