to Content

An Introduction to “New Enlightenment”

By the Executive Board of the European Forum Alpbach, October 2015

New Enlightenment ahead

The tools for thought of the Enlightenment no longer suffice for mastering the challenges of the present. The course European societies are taking can be compared to the exploration journeys of bygone days. Maps, which ought to provide orientation and security, seem to have lost their value. We are journeying into the uncertain and have yet to discover new paths and routes in many areas.

The situation two hundred and fifty years ago, at the time of Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire, was very different. The Enlightenment was the great intellectual project of a self-confident Europe in her prime. The Industrial Revolution, revolutionary discoveries in science and the development of human rights emerged from it. Generations later we could still witness the effects of the light and dark sides of the Enlightenment. A century of European intellectual and geopolitical dominance was the result.

At present, the dream of the universality of Enlightenment values has been exhausted. Today, European ideals have to compete on the global market just as our products, goods and services do. Is it at all possible globally to preserve the gains made by the Enlightenment, such as human rights? What role does Europe play in a multipolar world? How can it credibly represent its values? Is there a European model of the Welfare State which will be able to bear up next to competing American and Asian concepts?

New Tools for Thought

Dealing with complexity has become the central question of the 21st century. While technocracy is falling at the hurdles of complex systems and insecurity, we adhere to these old ways of thinking. And that although recent discoveries in neuroscience, neurolinguistics and behavioural psychology have fundamentally questioned the Cartesian conception of man. Today, we have to accept that increased awareness and rational understanding do not automatically lead to changes in behaviour. However, we will still require these in order to prevent a global environmental catastrophe. A social model based purely on consumption and growth is driving our planet to ruin.

The Radicalism of the Enlightenment

We still continue to underestimate the radicalism of the Enlightenment as a phenomenon in contemporary history and in the history of ideas, as well as the bravery of its actors. Enlightened thinking contained enormous social explosive force and many representatives of the movement had to work underground. Which are the theses facing resistance today, like the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot and Holbach did at that time? Which social models are being formed outside the mainstream? And who are the pioneers today establishing radical new organisational structures and cultural techniques, and consciously excluding themselves from learned templates? Decentralised organisational structures are enthusing a young generation of entrepreneurs. Open innovation processes are successfully placing in doubt the use of patented and protected knowledge. New business models are stirring up the markets. Cooperative movements and a focus on the common good are booming. Are these structures the first manifestations of a new enlightenment?

Digitalisation – The Motor of the Upheaval

At first, digitalisation and the internet were interpreted as a departure into a new epoch of the Enlightenment. Many expressed exalted hopes that participation and connection in the digital arena would bring about the final breakthrough for democracy and rationality. Access to knowledge and information alone would protect humanity from radicalisation and ideology: so ran the assumption. Whoever casts a glance over the global flashpoints of today will realise that a hyper-connected, global communication platform does not automatically lead to more peace and cooperation. Additionally, algorithm-driven, self-learning structures are developing their own dynamic which for many people is cause for some concern. This automatisation is penetrating the world of work and fundamentally changing the economy. The most recent advances in new, easily accessible technologies such as nano- and biotechnology have their own risks. At the same time, enormous technical possibilities being developed can be implemented to the benefit of all. Which form of public enlightenment do we need for this?

Just as on every voyage of discovery, we are experiencing in every field how truths that were considered valid up until now are being questioned, re-interpreted and rebutted. From one day to the next, firmly held models in politics, economics and society are turning out to be obsolete. How can Europe orientate itself in times of upheaval and insecurity? Where are the intellectual beacons who can capture the new in words and deeds? Where are the utopias which would be worthy of a new Enlightenment? We will hunt for the answers to these questions together with hundreds of people from all generations, disciplines and regions under the general topic of “New Enlightenment” at the European Forum Alpbach 2016.