Essay subject: According to some academics, the Enlightenment was an optimistic time, but the Nineteenth Century was seen as pessimistic. How do you anticipate this issue playing out in relation to race and race science?
In a way, the Enlightenment is experiencing a revival. As a reaction to relativism and “identity politics” on the left and nationalism and racial intolerance on the right, a few centrist and conservative writers have recaptured the intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Among them are Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive psychologist who argues in Enlightenment Now for optimism and human progress against those “who despise the Enlightenment ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress,” Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist who sees himself as a bulwark against the forces of “chaos” and “postmodernism,” Jonah Goldberg, a conservative pundit who argues in Suicide of the West for capitalism and Enlightenment liberalism, twin forces he calls “the Miracle” for creating Western prosperity.
Major currents like race and colonialism are mostly ignored in their accounts of the Enlightenment, if they are mentioned at all. This “Enlightenment” acts as an ideological talisman when it is removed from its cultural and historical context, having less to do with challenging ideas or comprehending history and more to do with identity. It serves as a benchmark to separate those who adhere to it between “rationalism” and “classical liberalism.”
But despite how highly they regard the Enlightenment, many authors actually underestimate its impact on contemporary society. The movement’s central paradox was that concepts of human freedom and individual rights emerged in societies that held other people in servitude and were afterwards eradicating their native inhabitants.
These weren’t only unrelated events or the lingering effects of past intolerance. The Enlightenment gave rise to race as we know it today, a biological taxonomy that converts physical differences into dominance relationships.