Liberalism and Enlightenment History

By Chris Mooney | June 24, 2011 7:41 am

In preparing for my recent Point of Inquiry podcast with Rick Perlstein, I knew my guest would debunk right wing historical narratives of the sort that we’ve recently heard so much of, and do so with gusto. I screen guests at least that well.

But I didn’t know he was going to offer a thesis so in line with the one that I’ve been pushing myself lately–that when it comes to history, liberals are wedded to an Enlightenment tradition that creates its own biases and myopias. Here’s Perlstein:

Liberalism is rooted in this notion of the Enlightenment, the idea that we can use our reason, and we can use empiricism, and we can sort out facts, and using something like the scientific method—although history is not like nuclear physics—to arrive at consensus views of the truth that have a much more solid standing, epistemologically, than what the right wing view of the truth is: which is much more mythic, which is much more based on tribal identification, which is much more based on intuition and tradition. And there’s always been history writing in that mode too. But within the academy, and within the canons of expertise, and within the canons of professionalism, that kind of history has been superseded by a much more empirical, Enlightenment-based history.

As I’m no historian, I’m not exactly sure what the key turning points were–I mean, you could argue that mythic and triumphalist history goes all the way back to Homer. I’m sure much has been written on this, and I bet there’s a canonical work of historiography on this very topic.

In any case, as Perlstein goes on to argue, Enlightenment history has the virtue of being rigorous and accurate–like science does–but all the rigor, and all the details, can get in the way of telling an inspiring and motivating story. Therefore, you sort of have to grudgingly admire the effectiveness of conservative history–at least conservatives know that part of history is about telling a good story, mythic or otherwise.

For more on Perlstein’s thoughts, listen here.


Comments (6)

  1. A thought occurs to me– you keep saying that liberalism is based in the Enlightenment idea that rationality and reason can lead society to the truth. However, it was out of the left wing that came the whole post-modernist, reality-is-a-shared-social-construction view that’s at direct odds with this. This was a rejection of the enlightenment, painting those who would cling to such modernism as conservatives.

    I certainly agree that **right now**, the liberals in the USA and thereabouts are far more in touch with reality than conservatives, **as a group**. It may also be that over long terms, that’s the case. But I’m not so sure that that really was true if you look at the 60s through the 80s in the USA. If you think about liberal causes then, it was more associated with caring and having a big-tent for a wide variety of social causes than it was with rationality and scientific reason. New Agers, for example, were far more likely to be liberal than conservative. Soft hearts rather than hard heads.

    You may well be right for the overall trends, but there are two things to be aware of. The first is that there are at the very least exceptions to this trend.

    The second is more important. Claiming that “rationality and reason are on my side” may well be little different from claiming that “God is on my side”. There’s no doubt that in the case of things like evolution and climate change, the liberals (at least in the USA and Canada) have scientific evidence on their side. Claiming that reason is on your side, however, ironically may make you less likely to critically evaluate your own claims. It’s also a very aggressive claim in that it implies that those you debate with are not reasonable or not rational, which will only make it harder to debate with them. It’s very much like the new atheist tactic of describing theist scientists as “intellectually dishonest”, and pedantically defending that description. (Conservative discourse is said to be based on tribal identification. At least the blogosphere incarnation of new atheism, however, is *extremely* tribal in its labelling of “us” and “them”, its demands of utter conformance to be part of “us”, and its rejection of those not “us” as “them”.)

  2. Chris Mooney

    Huge can of worms. Have you heard my Point of Inquiry shows with Lakoff and Perlstein, or read my American Prospect article? That is the basis for the liberal-Enlightenment linkage.

  3. James

    Have you read any Howard Zinn? His “A people’s history” presents the “liberal” history; written to give the oppressed people that the US steamrolled in their rise to power a voice. As compared to the history you get in your general social studies classes in K-12 schools here in the US, I think it presents a clear contrast.

  4. Terry Emberson

    It is certainly clear that liberalism is an Enlightenment ideal which focuses on real information and clear thought. I don’t know that that necessarily equals the American left being more driven by an Enlightenment ethic. The choices of the American left are not any more rooted in liberalism than the choices of the American right. In fact, the modern right is more intellectually rooted in John Locke’s and Adam Smith’s liberal narratives than the modern left.

    This argument is, in my opinion, tantamount to a one church group claiming to be more godly than another church group while debating church finances.

    (I recognize that respect for real knowledge is much more related political issues than godliness is related to financial issues, but being closer to the Enlightenment does not make one more right in modern political issues.)

  5. shams

    I think the Enlightment is a red herring.
    The difference between conservative and liberal ideology is that conservatism is anti-empirical– it doesnt work.
    Conservatism proceeds from first principles, dead white guy philosophy (Hayek and Hume for example), and risk management through maintenance of the status quo.
    Liberalism at least advocates guess and test.

  6. shams

    that when it comes to history, liberals are wedded to an Enlightenment tradition that creates its own biases and myopias.

    meh. far more simple and elegant than that.
    its first culture conservative/libertarian intellectuals, vs second culture scientists and third culture intellectuals.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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