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Guest Post by Trevar Simmons: The Enlightenment Never Happened

Thomas Whitley

The Enlightenment Never Happened

The Enlightenment never happened.
The modern period didn’t exist.
Postmodernism is a fairy tale.

The Enlightenment, Modernism, Postmodernism, the Romantic Period, the Victorian Age, the Industrial Age. These names are paradigms, particularly worldview paradigms. They are umbrella terms that are heuristic. That is, they group a massive amount of people over a long period of time, allowing a lot of play as to who fits under the umbrella where—who is closer to the definition and who barely fits. And because of the play, no one definition really says exactly what the paradigm “is,” but rather attempts to define the limits, hence it is heuristic, something just for the purpose of learning.

Last night in class, Dr. Berry asked, “what is the Enlightenment?” I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself, not at Dr. Berry, his question, or his teaching methodology. I chuckled, because I knew the answers received from the students and the ones proffered by my professor would be different than what I would hear in my English classes, different from what I might hear in psychology class, and different from what I would hear in a philosophy class, and different from what I heard when I was studying Enlightenment texts in the undergrad (Palm Beach Atlantic’s honors program relied heavily on paradigms—not necessarily a bad thing).

One response was about science. Another was about biblical interpretation—theologians explaining away miracles (demyhtologization, more or less). Dr. Berry talked about the milieu of certainty. The umbrella for the Enlightenment is so large that wikipedia has multiple articles on it.

The problem with paradigms and umbrella terms is that they shoot themselves in their respective feet, they put the nails in their own coffins, they defeat themselves, they include their critiques, they presuppose their own insufficiencies—or however you would like to put it, cliché or not.

Let’s say the Enlightenment is characterized by a new scientific idea of certainty that bled into all disciplines and discourses—by a (Cartesian) foundationalism that led people to believe they could discover absolute truth. Experimentation, reason, and logic in science led to facts. Experimentation, reason, and logic led to the certainty of facts in literature, philosophy, medicine, religion, interpretation, politics, and life in general.

What about the disagreements in the Enlightenment? What about the changing and evolving ideas during this time? And what of the time span? When, exactly, did the Enlightenment begin and end? Scholars don’t agree. They don’t agree because it didn’t happen. A paradigm doesn’t occur. They don’t exist. They are rationalizations we superimpose upon the “shifting phantasmagoria” of existence and they are unfaithful to that which they represent.

We place the label “Enlightenment” over a vast history of “Western” existence, although we sometimes try to be more specific by saying it was a phenomena in the ever-ambiguous concept of “Western Philosophy.” What of the lay person? What about the displaced Easterner existing in the West? What of the mystics? What of the philosopher, scientist, and theologian who was a Enlightened person six days a week, but a mystic on Sunday, on their deathbed, in the presence of the miraculous, or in the presence of loss, especially the loss of death? What about the philosopher, scientist, and theologian who exhibited uncertainty?

What about David Hume’s skepticism? What about Emanuel Swedenborg’s detailed theosophical mysticism? What about the artistic possibilities in William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge? What about Mary Shelley’s hesitancy and questioning in my favorite Enlightenment work, Frankenstein?

The umbrella is an umbrella, because the term “Enlightenment” cannot be specific. So the handle extends to hold the covering that branches out and covers a majority, allowing for some play, expecting play, needing play. Yet, in presupposing this wiggle room, it presupposes its own insufficiency. Anything that does not fit it calls an exception to the rule, but under the magnifying glass the paradigm dies the death of a thousand qualifications. The wind—pneuma, ruach, (zeit)geist—blows precipitation to those under the umbrella, blows the umbrella inside out and away.

The only part of the umbrella that allows the play is the part of the umbrella that cannot exist in play—the handle and limits, the definition, that which makes it what it is. If the handle cannot have the play it defines, then it transcends the umbrella. But if the handle transcends, that it is no longer the handle and the umbrella has no limits, no coverings, no protection from the elements.

All that existed and exists are people and ideas, none of them categorized or completely consistent. Paradigms are fictional. People, events, and history are not theories.

Thus other paradigms are also broken umbrellas, umbrellas that are not umbrellas. No one is liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, or any combination of the three. No one is extroverted or introverted for those paradigms are not actual. Myers-Briggs is heuristic, but not actual.

The Enlightenment never happened.
The modern period didn’t exist.
Postmodernism is a fairy tale.

Trevar Simmons