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Akeel Bilgrami - Politics, Nature, and Enchantment

Par Akeel Bilgrami
Publié par Clifford Armion le 14/01/2011
I will begin with a point of intellectual history. It is well known that one difference between ancient Scepticism and modern scepticism as first formulated by Descartes is this. The great innovation in Descartes' First Meditation was to suggest that if one could doubt our knowledge of the external world, then one put into doubt the very existence of the external world. In ancient scepticism, though doubts were also raised by philosophical sceptics about our knowledge of the external world, this was never meant to put into doubt its existence.

I will begin with a point of intellectual history.  It is well known that one difference between ancient Scepticism and modern scepticism as first formulated by Descartes is this.  The great innovation in Descartes' First Meditation was to suggest that if one could doubt our knowledge of the external world, then one put into doubt the very existence of the external world.  In ancient scepticism, though doubts were also raised by philosophical sceptics about our knowledge of the external world, this was never meant to put into doubt its existence.  Why not?  Because it was assumed that there were other ways of relating to the world than via knowledge of it.  One could relate to the world by merely living in it.  Thus the elevation of knowledge (logos) to paradigmatic status (sometimes referred to as logocentrism) by the rise of modern science and Cartesian epistemology generated the idea that living in the world was always to be mediated by a certain kind of detached understanding of it (natural science being the most systematic and regimented formulation of such an understanding.)

My paper, which I am now summarizing, gives a philosophical analysis and intellectual genealogy of this transformation and elaborates some of its political consequences.

I begin with a distinction in Spinoza. Spinoza draws our attention to the distinction between the two judgements "I intend to do X" and "I predict that I will do X".  In the latter judgement, one takes a detached perspective on oneself. We step out of ourselves and look at ourselves as another might look at one. One takes oneself to be an object (of study) not a subject.  By contrast in the former judgement, when one intends something, one is asking, what should I do? and so one views oneself as an agent or subject.  It is an engaged point of view, not a detached one.

I claim that exactly this distinction of our two points of view on oneself also applies to two points of view that we take on the world.  One can take a detached point of view on the world, explaining it, predicting events in it on the basis of our explanations of it, and natural science is the paradigm elaboration of the exercises of such a point of view. Or one can take an engaged point of view on the world.  We can and do have these both points of view on the world.

But then a question arises, what would the world have to be like, what would it have to contain, such that one can not only study and explain it and predict what will happen in it, but also engage with it in practical terms as an agent.  I argue that over and above containing the properties that natural science studies the world (including nature) would have to contain value properties that make normative demands on us to which we respond with our practical agency.

Until the seventeenth century in Europe, these value properties in nature and the world around us were often taken to have a sacred source in the widely held pantheisms of popular Christianity which is often described by intellectual historians as 'neo-platonism' and it is the loss of this source of value in nature that Weber describes with his term 'disenchantment of the world'.  In fact, Weber himself was not always clear about the fact that the death of God' is a far less interesting phenomenon in this context than the exile of God from his presence in nature to an external place outside of the universe with only a providential role.

Though Descartes and Bacon were early figures in shaping this metaphysical outlook it was not until Newton and his influence that this transformation began to have real political consequences.  The idea that motion for an inertial universe came from a push from an external place by a providential divinity was meant to replace the neo-platonist idea of popular religion that an inner source of dynamism (God himself) within matter and nature was responsible for motion.  This enforced migration of God to an external, Archimedean place (Deus Absconditus) was central to the motives of various worldly forces that emerged in this time, first in England and the Netherlands and spreading elsewhere in Europe. (My paper focuses on England).  The Royal Society formed alliances with the commercial and mercantile interests as well as established Anglican interests to argue two things.

First the consequence that nature, now evacuated of a sacred presence was brutely material, and one could take from its bounty without constraint or qualm coming from a sacralized presence.  This generated a political economy of systematic extraction  - mining, deforestation, plantation agriculture (what we would today call agribusiness) and the 'enclosures' that had begun some time before, now became a system that was given a legal basis, thus destroying the aspirations of radical sects such as the Diggers and Levellers of a more egalitarian conception of a collective cultivation of the commons.

Second, it had the effect of creating an ideal of governance that was based on elite notions of civility.  The exile of God from the world (including nature) removed him from availability to the visionary temperaments of ordinary people to a place of inaccessibility except to learned and scriptural judgement of university trained divines and this elite formation was, by the very alliances I mentioned earlier, erected beyond the religious sphere into notions of governance by a monarch and his courts (of propertied elites) whose rule over a brute populace was supposed to be a mundane version of a providential, external God's rule over a brute desacralized universe.  These elites stipulated a notion of 'civility' which was defined as a property possessed by the courts and propertied classes by contrast with the 'cruelties' to be found in the lifestyles and behaviours of the rude populace. This had the effect of hiding from the ruling elites the cruelties of their own perpetration on the populace since their civility' was by definition contrasted with cruelty that happened in another class.  I argue that the subsequent notion of rights, which is rightly celebrated and deserves our admiration, nevertheless has the same screening function that civility had in this period  - of hiding from the nations that proudly proclaim rights and constitutions, the cruelties that they have perpetrated on distant lands, since they only recognize cruelties as what happens in nations without rights and constitutions (Saddam's Iraq, Mugabe's Zimbabwe...).

To sum up, the paper gives a genealogical analysis of four transformations that all emerge from developments in the Early Modern period in Europe around a metaphysical outlook around the new science in which one began to make central to our world - view an attitude of detachment towards it.  These are:  the transformation of the concept of nature into the concept of natural resources, the concept of human beings into the concept of citizens, the concept of people into the concept of populations, and the concept of knowledges to live by (i.e., values democratically available to the visionary temperaments of ordinary people) into expertise and civilities to rule by.  These are all at bottom the same transformation owing to a very specific genealogy, which Weber described much too crudely with the omnibus and not very clear idea of 'disenchantment'.

And the question remains: assuming that we in our own time are no longer able to think of sacralized forms of enchantment with any conviction, is there any scope at all today to theorize more secular forms of enchantment. Much could turn on the answer to this question.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Akeel Bilgrami, "Akeel Bilgrami - Politics, Nature, and Enchantment", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2011. Consulté le 21/05/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/les-dossiers-transversaux/developpement-durable/akeel-bilgrami-politics-nature-and-enchantment