Awareness of the Enlightenment
From my experience, I think there is a major problem in the way the history of thought is taught in India. A physicist told me sometime back, "Everyone should know about the Enlightenment!" This got me thinking about how Enlightenment, and pretty much the entire field of philosophy is given short shrift by the Indian education system. Is this omission some sort of a reaction to Thomas Macaulay's rightfully derided condescension? Or are we asking too much of high school kids by expecting them to read about David Hume and others?

I have found that one underlying problem with dogmatic people, especially in India, is their ignorance of the significance of the contribution of the stalwarts of the Age of Enlightenment.

Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Francis Bacon, Voltaire, Rosseau, Montesquieu, etc. are all taught about in different courses in different historical contexts. We are only told about their field-specific achievements- Newton and his laws, Smith's 'Wealth of Nations', French philosophers' influence on the US and French revolutions, etc. Hume, Locke, Diderot, Spinoza, and other philosophers were not even spoken of. Further, the revolution in human thought that this collective represented was never made explicit- either in the textbooks or by teachers.

I think this is a pretty serious problem that predisposes kids to religiosity in later life. My reasoning is that when the same kids grapple with philosophical questions- about faith, empiricism, 'boundaries of science', etc. as adults, they should know that the answers they are seeking were answered satisfactorily 300 years ago by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. The failure to see the significance of the Enlightenment may also be the reason for how the 'Western influence' is seen as a largely negative thing in India. While McD, Coke, MTV, malls, and Chevys (I know, that's so 1999) count as Western influence, the right things India needs to imbibe from the West are the contributions of Hume, et al. and their successors.

What are your experiences and views about this?
The Enlightenment is perhaps the one historical precedent which many leaders of the New Atheist movement see as their mission to replicate and renew and it is not uncommon to describe the ongoing project as Enlightenment 2.0. Enlightenment 2.0 seemed an apt title for The Science Network's Beyond Belief 2007, a series of talks which featured as its speakers many of the most recognized New Atheists.

Prof. Amartya Sen on more than one occasion, cautions against treating the European Enlightenment as a singular event which claims the attention of advocates of Reason, to the exclusion of other events which may prove similarly instructive if not more. Quoting from the preface of 'The Idea of Justice':

Quote:Some of the reasoning of, for example, Gautama Buddha (the agnostic champion of the 'path of knowledge'), or of the writers in the Lokayata school (committed to relentless scrutiny of every traditional belief) in India, may sound closely aligned, rather than adversarial, to many of the critical writings of the leading authors of the European Enlightenment. But we do not have to get all steamed up in trying to decide whether Gautama Buddha should be seen as an anticipating member of some European Enlightenment league (his acquired name does, after all, mean 'enlightened' in Sanskrit); nor do we have to consider the far-fetched thesis that the European Enlightenment maybe traceable to the long-distance influence of Asian thought. There is nothing particularly odd in the recognition that similar intellectual engagements have taken place in different parts of the globe in distinct stages of history. Since somewhat different arguments have often been advanced in dealing with similar questions, we may miss out on possible leads in reasoning about justice if we keep our explorations regionally confined.

Jennifer Hecht's 'Doubt:A History' surveys a number of historical instances which seem to fit the Enlightenment archetype. One particularly sobering example, serving to remind us that every 'Enlightenment' is hard won but vulnerable to reversion, is the short-lived Enlightenment experiment of the Hellenized Jews.

Commentators variously choose to refer to the European Enlightenment or the proposed Enlightenment 2.0 as themselves attempted sequels of the Axial Age from 800- 200 BCE. Historian Michael Wood in The Story of India, notes how the Buddha, the Confucians and the Socratic traditions are all contemporaries in this sense. What were the historical influences that led to these advances in civilization, and how can 'similar intellectual engagements' be actively occasioned and fostered by learning from history, are insights that can be found aplenty in the Axial Age.

While the Enlightenment framework may not circumscribe all ethical inquiry, just as Renaissance art is not the culmination of all art, one area of human endeavour where the pre-eminence of the European Enlightenment seems less in question is Natural Sciences, for which there seem to be no comparable historical precedents or parallels can be found and which more than anything else explains the Great Divergence.

More than Enlightenment, I think it is the exposure to accessible philosophy that comes as a shock. As Micheal Sandel says, once you read some philosophical viewpoints, there's just no going back. Indian philosophies like Buddhism, even though amenable to freethougt (in some forms), are encapsulated in enough BS about the 'self' (or 'non-self') that they aren't lucid enough to be worthy of our time in the age of information overload and information prioritization.
(23-Mar-2012, 07:14 AM)Lije Wrote: Indian philosophies like Buddhism, even though amenable to freethougt (in some forms), are encapsulated in enough BS about the 'self' (or 'non-self') that they aren't lucid enough to be worthy of our time in the age of information overload and information prioritization.

Like Buddhism continues to bear on itself 'the indelible stamp of its lowly origin' in the metaphysical morass of post-Vedic India, Aristotlean Ethics emerged from a slave-owning society, and a great deal of Enlightenment thought, for instance John Locke's, seems motivated by or at least compatible with the colonialist project. A student in Prof. Sandel's course makes an insightful observation that Locke's emphasis on private property rights over the land for those who demarcate and cultivate it, seems particularly convenient and also made to order for the European settlers in acquiring, or as some later historical narratives would say 'usurping', land from the Native Americans who were more pastoral than agricultural. The study of any school of thought regarded as 'classic' therefore brings with it the onus of sifting through arcana and reexamining arguments which might have been made under assumed premises which now maybe unacceptable to us either on empirical or ethical grounds.

For today's information overload to result in any substantial delivery of value, there is an urgent need to complement access to information with training in skills to evaluate and organize the information, efforts towards which have so far seemed to receive less priority than they deserve. In particular, there is a case here for teaching critical thinking to children not just in the framework of Science class, but also in History class where too they will be presented with plenty of extra-ordinary claims and purported evidence.

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