The Two Enlightenments

February 20, 2024 • #

We learn about “The Enlightenment” as a singular entity, a historical age associated with rationality, scientific inquiry, humanism, and liberty. The Enlightenment and scientific revolution were defining moments that spawned an unprecedented period of progress and human flourishing. But in his book The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch adds useful texture for better understanding the motivations of the Enlightenment’s contributors.

He divides the movement into two broad forms: the “British” and the “Continental”.

Both branches agree on the core principles of rationality, progress, and freedom. Where they disagree is on how to achieve these goals. They pursue the same ends, but disagree on the means. The British model builds on the concept of fallibilism: progress happens through conjecture, empirical evidence, and falsification. The Continental relies on pure reason, and our theoretical ability to find final, objective truth. Thinkers like Kant, Rousseau, and Voltaire best fit in the Continental camp. The likes of John Locke, Edmund Burke, Karl Popper, and Adam Smith in the British.

Here’s a summary of qualities that differentiate these two approaches to pursuing human progress:

Continental Enlightenment British Enlightenment
Utopianism Fallibilism
Society can be perfected Society can only be indefinitely improved
Problems are soluble, NOT inevitable Problems are soluble, AND inevitable
Perfect the state through design Improve the state through gradual evolution
Top-down Bottom-up
Comprehensive reform of institutions Messy, improvement of imperfect forms

Deutsch himself favors the British form. As with issues of contemporary politics and philosophy, it’s important to understand not only the goals a particular philosophy seeks, but how it proposes we go about doing so.

Topics:   enlightenment   science   government   evolution