Towards A Post-Enlightenment Vocabulary

Words matter. Language matters. Words are the symbols through which we view the world, understand the world. If, as Terrence Deacon argues1, humans have become the symbolic species, then the best we can do is watch our language.

The text books will tell you that Enlightenment Science and Enlightenment perspectives emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Taking a longer view, the Enlightenment attitude is an aspect of an approach to the world that became dominant millennia ago. Paul Shepard2 dates it to the end of the Pleistocene Era, with the advent of the Holocene; with the rise of agriculture, animal husbandry, mass stratified societies and captive population husbandry.

In The Limitations of Enlightenment Science3 i attempted to chart the thread of the Enlightenment from then to now.

A post-enlightenment vocabulary may be of limited use if, as some believe, this global civilisation is at the point of disintegration. However, if any records survive it could perhaps be of some use to those few humans catapulted into a mock-Pleistocene world and (apart from simply surviving) are asking the question “why did it all go so wrong?”

A post-transition barren landscape?

Robert Harding / Alamy

How to start? Maybe the first question is: who decides language; who controls language?

In ‘Limitations’ it was argued that at the heart of any dominant epoch –  system of values and ideas – can be found a priest class that understands itself as the guardian of that created reality: usually claiming it to be eternal and true. Language comes into play as the re-inforcer of that reality, making it very difficult to think otherwise. So part of the role of the guardians is to defend language; to promote and defend the symbols through which we are allowed to understand the world.

Examples given in ‘Limitations’ are the early god-centred religions; the radical notion of a god beyond nature, demanding obedience and generating guilt; then the scholasticism of the later Christian Church; finally the Enlightenment model as the now dominant method for approaching our world.

There have always been doubters, questioners, heretics, often severely dealt with by priesthoods zealously defending their orthodoxies.

It follows that any challenge to a dominant model of reality must take on – challenge – the symbols, the language, through which it is expressed – its vocabulary.

Yet why would they (we) want to do that?

It could be argued that so long as a worldview delivers an ongoing stable civilisation, valid on its own terms and within its own realm then the stance of its values guardians, its priesthood, is justified.

There may be conflict at its boundaries – say between Christianity and Islam in earlier centuries. There may be revolts, uprisings and power conflicts. Considering these would take us into the arena of social politics: beyond the scope of this essay. Most of all there is, and has been, the continual putting down of heresy against the model, against the values.

What if a worldview ceases to be able to continue delivering that stability, even on its own terms? This appears to be the situation now for the Enlightenment project and for Enlightenment science in particular.

The core mantras of Enlightenment orthodoxy may be noted: –

  • There is a single objective reality behind all subjective impressions/appearances.
  • In principle this reality is discoverable.
  • The tools for achieving this are logic based reason and verifiable observation.
  • With these tools all problems are solvable.
  • The investigator can ‘stand outside’ the reality being investigated.
  • Thus total human control over nature is assured.
  • All world views not based in this approach are faulty.

In recent times several of these tenets of Enlightenment science have been, are being, challenged.

  • At the scientific cutting edge observed ‘reality’ has become more, not less, complex. Differing interpretations and alternative models have multiplied4. The dream of a unified field theory has receded.
  • It has been demonstrated that total knowledge of everything is not possible5.
  • The either-or, true-false foundation of logic is shattered by recognition of incommensurate features or qualities which cannot be compared or measured against each other6.
  • The observer (or observing culture) cannot stand apart from the world it both experiences and is part of, leading to valid yet incommensurate ‘brought forth worlds7.
  • On a planet with co-existing yet incommensurate cultures, “we alone have the objective truth” is arrogant and a recipe for conflict8.
  • So far from having control over nature, humanity, with Enlightenment optimism and confidence (read arrogance) as its engine, is busy destabilising the natural environment that it has relied on to become a superorganism9,10.

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Having hopefully answered the “why challenge the model?” question, the task of offering a post-Enlightenment vocabulary can begin with some keywords.

Surprisingly we could start with a concept that Enlightenment science at its best has in common, should have in common, with a post-Enlightenment world (assuming that there will be one). That notion is integrity, being true to our understanding of the world around us and of our place in it: not faking it, not fixing the result to suit an agenda.

Despite the unreality of ‘a single objective reality’ the words/concepts of objective and objectivity are core mantras of Enlightenment speak. They are used especially in contrast to subjective, taken to imply biased, inferior knowledge. In the short essay Beyond Objective and Subjective11 the notion of intrinsic knowledge, valid within each brought forth world that is honoured in common by a culture or values system, was offered as a post-Enlightenment alternative.

It was noted that within the model of Enlightenment science, its own intrinsic knowledge could be held to be true: regarding it from the outside as one brought forth world among others.

This leads on to the truth question. Within Enlightenment science the true/false polarity hangs on both the axiom of a single objective reality and the either/or foundation of logical reasoning. A proposition is said to be true if it corresponds to the facts. (Three other definitions of truth are discussed elsewhere12.) Once single objective reality is challenged (as above) and the notion of incommensurate, non-comparable, statements and judgements is taken account of, the concept ‘true’ loses its absolute quality.

The term valid could qualify as part of a post-Enlightenment vocabulary since it implies context: a judgement appropriate to the given situation.

There is greater difficulty in challenging some other core values of the Enlightenment since they are not expressly stated other than in historical references: “The Lord gave man (sic) dominion over the Earth.” The right to dominate, to control, to extract, is simply assumed.

In contrast a post-Enlightenment vocabulary would (and among some values minorities does) lay stress on humility, modesty, complementarity, restraint plus intra human co-operation.

Even the apparently virtuous notion of stewardship is ambiguous since it implies ‘enlightened’ control over the natural world.

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The above proposals are, as the title implies, only pointers ‘towards a post-Enlightenment vocabulary’ that can embrace post-Enlightenment values – values that may, or may not, provide reference for some future humans.

Woody Wood    August 2019


The Symbolic Species   Terrence W Deacon, W.W. Norton & Co    1998 pbk    ISBN 978 0393317541

2   Coming Home to The Pleistocene   Paul Shepard, Island Press/Shearwater 1998 pbk    ISBN  978 1559635905

The Limitations of Enlightenment Science   Woody Wood,     Devolve! 2019 pbk  ISBN  978 0993112638

4     Ditto pages 55 ff  plus page 69

5     Theories of Knowledge and Theories of Everything   David Wolpert,   chapter (pp165-184) in The Map and The Territory Springer 2018  ISBN 978 3319724782

6    Enlightenment’s Wake essay on agonistic liberalism  John Gray  Routledge 1995 hbk  ISBN 978 0415124751

7    Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realisation of The Living   H. Maturana and F. Varela    Springer   1991 pbk  ISBN 978 9027710161

8      refer to No 6 above

9      Scientists Warning   

10    The Ecological Legacy of The Holocene Lisi Krall  Article in The Ecological Citizen vol. 2, No 1 pages 67-76 ISSN 2515-1967

11    Beyond Objective and Subjective  essay in Planet Centred Forum web site

12    refer to No 3 above  pages 37-38 

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