The Second Western Enlightenment

"Sea got angry" by gliak00 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
This may sound naive, but: Are we starting to experience the logical and ethical limitations of the first wave of Humanism? – boundaries exposed by this present manifestation of The Disaster? Has our era reached the point at which inherited Humanistic values cease being able to guide us fully, through the unprecedented and extraordinarily destabilizing cultural forces that we face today? 

Those forces include:

    • disjointing of rational compensation from work and labor
    • loss of the social understanding of a classical livelihood or Craft
    • dwindling of mainstream adult education and training
    • data sciences that analyze and predict human responses
    • AI learning to replace human workers and service sectors
    • the need for a science of consciousness
    • absence of an acceptable secular concept of Beingness

Let’s go ahead and presume that this argument has won: we’ve reached the limits of the effectiveness of the initial Western Enlightenment to inspire us to be evolved and good beings. 

That represents a problem, since society lacks comparable kinds of ethical cohesion and moral grounding – however, the diagnosis above also presents an opportunity. We have reached the threshold of transitions into new social logic and global identity patterns that have been in the works for a long time. Our generations are participating now (whether consciously or not) in the distributed, shared, contributed overhaul of Western ethical value systems and moral institutions – necessitated particularly by information and communications technologies.

"robots" by jmorgan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.These forces call for updates to Humanism and to the Western Enlightenment: most importantly, these will take into account the ‘transhumanism’ that is implicit in the problem of full or strong Artificial Intelligence (passing the ‘singularity’ after which it can teach itself, then achieving exponential dominance over all electronically-mediated ecosystems, including power sources and grids). (It’s pretty much Terminator.)

There are countless other contemporary challenges. Yet in this fairly essential set above, we can see a common phenomenal thread. The common thread is work, and particularly the intimate linkage that should exist between work and dignity – that is, according to our inherited Western Enlightenment values, democratic practices, and social policies – the crowing glory of which is our majestic concept of Human Rights. 

Work Is Our Common Humanity

Everyone understands what work is, regardless of whether one is a ‘worker’, or, one has found ways to avoid work by passing it off to others. At some level, even the most pampered of humans must do some kind of work for oneself (even, if only the exertion required to order others to do something in a certain way). Indeed, work-masters often know more about work and its business value than their wage-workers.

Of course, there are infinite variations on the theme of work in human worlds, and infinite experiences of this phenomenon. But, there is also a much subtler, essential consciousness rooted in our primordial concepts and the meanings referred to by the words ‘work’ and ‘labor’. This conceptual region is directly and necessarily connected with the phenomenality of doing, and doership, and therefore ideology. 

Since we’re right now surveying the broad significance of work, it is apropos to consider also the relation between working (as a central type of doing) and choice, will, freedom, intention, effectiveness, and so on – which always has formed one of the core question-areas for Philosophy. As you can see, the question of work in toto is philosophically interesting – in the extreme.

The Paradox of Doing a Philosophy of Work

I would rather not work on this kind of ethical philosophy. That’s because I do not think that work in the primordial sense – understood organically by every child who has passed through the Mirror Stage (at about eighteen months) – presents any problem, intrinsically. It is only work that is encumbered and threatened by the disruptions of chance circumstances (like birth defects), or the greed/cruelty of other humans’ ideologies, which calls for remediation as a problem to be solved. What we have in the phenomenology of work is an epic, historical, socio-cultural problem.

Without the pressing urgency of the contemporary problem of work before us, in other words, I would naturally gravitate to questions of constitutive ontology (Beingness) and the phenomenality of technology. I would rather not do Philosophy-work on work, but I find that it is necessary. 

This problem is on an evolutionary order, and is of the highest practical importance, which means that it is preeminently relevant for us, the people living today. Let’s also reflect very briefly for context upon the connection between working class life (hardship, in a word) and the public status quo constructed largely by the financial and consumerism communities (where ‘communities’ is a euphemism).

The Most Useful Enlightenment

What would be more useful to the most people than having more leisure (along with the financial security that allows them to enjoy it)? 

Philosophy at the moment has the responsibility to doubt and inquire into the hegemony of the perennial lie that in America people face a status quo of scarcity and danger that is just part of life in our cruel world (. . . meanwhile, employers provide themselves with abundance and relative safety by relying upon the public’s wealth). For example, Philosophy must ask:

Can you imagine if people were enabled and encouraged to stay home or go to their own workspace, every day, to do their own forms of livelihood-work, rather than providing mere cheap labor for the rich? – such that, people actually could be with their children, parents, spouses most of the time, the way it should be?

Can you imagine if all of the petty retail properties and malls were freed up by public policy ushering most of that non-essential business online – and then, all of those properties, as it were, could be transformed into civic parks, social services, daycare, recreation facilities, educational spaces, and housing? (Can you imagine ‘housing’ actually meaning affordable shelter?)

News flash: the public is wealthy already. Our society produces enough resources and wealth for all to live abundant, happier lives right now, not in some socialist fantasy.

News flash: the terrible scarcity doesn’t exist. Our civilization has won. It has been conquering the environment, and automating enough work already, so we now observe that the only reason people are expected to ‘work hard’ and race to ‘get ahead’ is to provide the rich with exponential returns on their investments. 

That’s right: most work is, from the standpoint of most people, contrived entirely to make more money for the owning and investing classes. Most work (especially the kinds that people must force themselves to do) is unnecessary, and therefore it necessarily wastes people’s life-time. 

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

– Buckminster Fuller quoted by, ‘The New York Magazine Environmental Teach-In’ by Elizabeth Barlow in New York Magazine (30 March 1970), p. 30.

A skeptic may ask doubtfully about this ‘financial security’, and might remark that it’s a fantasy in this hard world! And the philosopher could reply that it’s not necessarily fantastical to think that the general public can organize its own financial system, and guarantee a basic living expenses budget, as well as healthcare, child care, and educational resources for each citizen – enjoy, in others words, and put to good use a fraction of the ‘welfare for the rich’, those government subsidies and tax loopholes that the rich arrange in order to legally steal from the public. 

The Most Important Thing Is …

Perhaps the the most important element that sets apart this Enlightenment, our Enlightenment, from the historic first one that inspired the American Revolution and the US Constitution is this: 

Knowledge of facts, plans, and we-should-isms that might form the mental litany of a ‘Second Enlightenment’, whatever they may be, are not enough. This time, the flowering of understanding registers throughout society (yet in each case uniquely) as becoming enlightened: the focus now is on direct experience of the Enlightenment by everyone.

Anything referring to the experience of the entire public might on the face of things seem dubious or even suspicious, in our era rife with conspiracy fantasies ‘going viral’. In this case, ‘Enlightenment’ means simply a greater consciousness of our shared Humanity, which could manifest as a reigning social consensus based primarily upon our common Humanism – which supersedes any other point of difference and yet allows our interesting differences to be beautiful.