Witchcraft, my family, and reparations

Next year marks the 300-year anniversary of a landmark event in human achievement:

“The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1716, when Mary Hicks and her daughter Elizabeth were hanged.”

By the early Enlightenment, Europe had progressed to the point of shedding many superstitions and the often-bizarre cultural, political, and legal practices based upon them.

Yet, 300 years later, I wonder if I should initiate a claim of reparations. After all, who knows where the Hicks clan might be now if we hadn’t been so unjustly persecuted?


PowerPoint added: The Enlightenment

condorcet-stampFor Week 8 in my Western Civ course: The Enlightenment.

Previous files in the series:
1. Introduction.
2. The Renaissance Context.
3. England to the Glorious Revolution.
4. Justice and Modernizing the Law.
5. From Feudal to Modern Business and Economics.
6. The American Enlightenment.
7. The Battle for Women’s Liberty and Equality.

Audiobook version of Explaining Postmodernism

I’m happy to announce the audiobook version of my Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. We’re releasing one chapter a week here and at YouTube. Thanks to Christopher Vaughan for his editing and production work. To begin, here is the first chapter.

Chapter One: What Postmodernism Is [mp3] [YouTube] [38 minutes]

ep-audioThe postmodern vanguard: Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Rorty [mp3] [YouTube]
Modern and postmodern [mp3] [YouTube]
Modernism and the Enlightenment [mp3] [YouTube]
Postmodernism versus the Enlightenment [mp3] [YouTube]
Postmodern academic themes [mp3] [YouTube]
Postmodern cultural themes [mp3] [YouTube]
Why postmodernism? [mp3] [YouTube]


hickss-enlightenment-vision-flowchart-fullChapter Two: The Counter-Enlightenment Attack on Reason
Chapter Three: The Twentieth-Century Collapse of Reason
Chapter Four: The Climate of Collectivism
Chapter Five: The Crisis of Socialism
Chapter Six: Postmodern Strategy

The Explaining Postmodernism page.

Beiser on why the Counter-Enlightenment still matters today

A key exchange between 3:AM Magazine and scholar Frederick Beiser:

fate-of-reason-beiser3:AM: But this is the question that German philosophers in the last decades of the eighteenth century started asking: as you put it, they asked, ‘what is the authority of reason?’ They were looking critically at ‘the fundamental article of faith for the European Enlightenment.’ Why did this happen? Was it that philosophers started to see that Kant and Spinoza in particular were potentially corrosive? Hume played a huge role in this didn’t he? You label the early history of Kantian criticism ‘Hume’s revenge.’

FB: The authority of reason became problematic for essentially two reasons. First, there was the revival of Spinoza’s naturalism. Spinoza’s naturalism was taken to be the paradigm of rational thinking, because it radicalized the methods of the new mechanical sciences. But those methods seemed to lead to atheism and fatalism. hume-100x129That raised a question about the authority of reason: should we follow our reason to the end if it destroys our moral and religious faith? Second, there was almost simultaneously the revival of Hume’s skepticism (through Hamann, Jacobi and Maimon). If we follow Hume’s skepticism to the bitter end, we are left with nothing, because it seems we can know only our passing impressions. We have no reason to believe in the existence of our own selves, other minds and the external world, let alone god. The revival of Hume posed the problem of the authority of reason in a very dramatic way. It raised the spectre of nihilism. When Jacobi introduced this word (Nihilismus) it referred to a Humean form of skepticism: that reason leads to nihilism because it does not allow us to believe in the existence of anything but our passing impressions.

Kant seemed for a brief while to give some relief from Hume’s skepticism. After all, there was the transcendental deduction, which seemed to show that the possibility of experience requires synthetic a priori principles.kant-i-75x83 Maimon quickly put an end to this respite: he pointed out that the deduction begs the question against Hume, who would have doubted the existence of experience in the strong sense required by Kant (i.e., the conformity of representations with universal and necessary laws). There was no Prussian bastion to stop the Scotsman’s swift conquest of the territory once claimed by reason. I think that these Spinozian and Humean problems are still very much with us. Here is another reason for going back to 1781 to 1793: it poses these issues in such a clear and forceful way it is impossible not to think about them.

* * *

From that skeptical turn to our current postmodernists is the subject of my Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault.

Richard Marshall, Diotima’s Child, 3:AM Magazine, September 21st, 2012.

The Enlightenment Vision — updated flowchart

The Enlightenment of the long 18th century was an era of awesome intellectual and cultural transformation.


This Enlightenment Vision flowchart is pitched at a high level of abstraction, showing schematically how the philosophical revolution of the 17th century led to the 18th-century revolutions in science, technology, politics, and economics — which in turn led to the dramatic increases in health, wealth, freedom, and goods in the 19th century.

To put it another way, the chronology shows how the ideas played out as philosophy, then as an intellectual movement, then as activism, then as the working technology of culture.

I first develop the chart for my courses in philosophy and intellectual history and published a version of it in Explaining Postmodernism. It’s posted here as a PDF, as a JPEG image, or as an Excel file, in case you’d like to adapt it for your own purposes.

(Thanks to Brian Schwartz for prompting this update.)

The Enlightenment vision

apple-88x50Stephen Hicks discusses the Enlightenment vision of the eighteenth-century. This is from Part 14 of his Philosophy of Education course.

Clips 1-3:

Previous: What modernism is.
Next: Post-modernism’s themes.
Return to the Philosophy of Education page.
Return to the StephenHicks.org main page.

The French Revolution and the ending of slavery

When did slavery end?

Intellectual historian Zeev Sternhell makes the following observation:

french-revolution-163x100“But it is above all the French Revolution that is overlooked. Slavery was in fact abolished by the French Revolution. The slaves, like the Jews, were liberated, and for the first time in history, all men living within the frontiers of a single country, France, were subject to the same laws and became free citizens with equal rights.”

That’s from page 46 of Sternhell’s The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (Yale University Press, 2010).

The “first time in history” is striking. Anti-slavery societies had been founded during the Enlightenment in the United States, Great Britain, and France.

But, despite its many sins, the French Revolution should get major credit for being the first to eliminate this ugly, ugly practice.

Herder on multicultural relativism

[This excerpt is from Chapter 4 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]

Herder on multicultural relativism

herder-50x61Sometimes called the “German Rousseau,”[57] Johann Herder had studied philosophy and theology at Königsberg University. Kant was his professor of philosophy; and while at Königsberg Herder also became a disciple of Johann Hamann.

Herder is Kantian in his disdain for the intellect, though unlike the static and rigid Kant he adds a Hamannian activist and emotionalist component “I am not here to think,” Herder wrote, “but to be, feel, live!”[58]

Herder’s distinctiveness lies not in his epistemology but in his analysis of history and the destiny of humankind. What meaning, he asks, can we discern in history? Is there a plan or is it merely a random happening of chance events?

There is a plan.[59] History, Herder argues, is moved by a necessary dynamic development that pushes man progressively toward victory over nature. This necessary development culminates in the achievements of science, arts, and freedom. So far Herder is not original. Christianity held that God’s plan for the world gives a necessary dynamic to the development of history, that history is going somewhere. And the Enlightenment thinkers projected the victory of civilization over the brutish forces of nature.

But the Enlightenment thinkers had posited a universal human nature, and they had held that human reason could develop equally in all cultures. From this they inferred that all cultures eventually could achieve the same degree of progress, and that when that happened humans would eliminate all of the irrational superstitions and prejudices that had driven them apart, and that mankind would then achieve a cosmopolitan and peaceful liberal social order.[60]

Not so, says Herder. Instead, each Volk is a unique “family writ large.”[61] Each possesses a distinctive culture and is itself an organic community stretching backward and forward in time. Each has its own genius, its own special traits. And, necessarily, these cultures are opposed to each other. As each fulfills its own destiny, its unique developmental path will conflict with other cultures’ developmental paths.

Is this conflict wrong or bad? No. According to Herder, one cannot make such judgments. Judgments of good and bad are defined culturally and internally, in terms of each culture’s own goals and aspirations. Each culture’s standards originate and develop from its particular needs and circumstances, not from a universal set of principles; so, Herder concluded, “let us have no more generalizations about improvement.”[62] Herder thus insisted “on a strictly relativist interpretation of progress and human perfectibility.”[63] Accordingly, each culture can be judged only by its own standards. One cannot judge one culture from the perspective of another; one can only sympathetically immerse oneself in the other’s cultural manifestations and judge them on their own terms.

However, according to Herder, attempting to understand other cultures is not really a good idea. And attempting to incorporate other cultures’ elements into one’s own leads to the decay of one’s own culture: “The moment men start dwelling in wishful dreams of foreign lands from whence they seek hope and salvation they reveal the first symptoms of disease, of flatulence, of unhealthy opulence, of approaching death!”[64] To be vigorous, creative, and alive, Herder argued, one must avoid mixing one’s own culture with those of others, and instead steep oneself in one’s own culture and absorb it into oneself.

For the Germans, accordingly, given their cultural traditions, attempting to graft Enlightenment branches onto German stock has been and would always be a disaster. “Voltaire’s philosophy has spread, but mainly to the detriment of the world.”[65] The German is not suited for sophistication, liberalism, science, and so on, and so the German should stick to his local traditions, language, and sentiments. For the German, low culture is better than high culture; being unspoiled by books and learning is best. Scientific knowledge is artificial; instead Germans should be natural and rooted in the soil. For the German, the parable of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden is true: Don’t eat of that tree! Live! Don’t think! Don’t analyze!

Herder did not argue that the German way is the best and that it is justifiable for the Germans to become imperialistic and impose their culture upon others—that step was taken by his followers. He argued simply as a German in favor of the German people and urged them to go their own way, as opposed to following the Enlightenment.

Herder is relevant because of his enormous influence on the nationalist movements that were shortly to take off all over central and eastern Europe. He is also relevant to understanding how far from Enlightenment thinking the German Counter-Enlightenment was. If Kant is partially attracted to Enlightenment themes, Herder rejects those elements of Kant’s philosophy. While Herder is broadly Kantian epistemologically, he rejects Kant’s universalism: for Herder, how reason shapes and structures is culturally relative. And in contrast to Kant’s vision of an ultimately peaceful, cosmopolitan future, Herder projects a future of multicultural conflict. Thus, in the context of the German intellectual debate, one was offered a choice—Kant at the semi-Enlightenment end of the spectrum and Herder at the other.


[57] Barnard 1965, 18.

[58] In Berlin 1980, 14.

[59] Herder 1774, 188.

[60] Herder 1774, 187.

[61] In Barnard 1965, 54.

[62] Herder 1774, 205.

[63] Barnard 1965, 136.

[64] Herder 1774, 187.

[65] Herder 1769, 95; see also 102.


[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at Amazon.com. See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]