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Introduction by Caspar Einem | SEM16

New Enlightenment: an introduction

It is difficult to grasp the meaning of the German term for the Enlightenment, “Aufklärung”, immediately – its original meaning is too far removed from its linguistic usage, or at any rate, from its everyday use. The closest to its origins we can get might well be overheard when listening to the weather forecast announcing that, following a storm with heavy rain, “es klare auf” – literally it is clearing up. Light is slowly coming back.

The English term “Enlightenment” leaves no doubt as to what is meant: it’s getting brighter. It is the idea that the darkness of prejudice, of belief void of knowledge, the darkness of irrationality should be broken through, cleared up, brought to light by the use of reason.

So what exactly is it that moved us to choose precisely “New Enlightenment” as the title of this year’s symposium in Alpbach?

On the one hand, it was probably the impression that the strength of Enlightenment has been languishing ever since its fundamental principles were established in the 18th century, or at any rate that it has been experiencing a considerable loss of influence. Let me illustrate this with three examples.

  • Is falling back into new forms of nationalism in Europe not a highly irrational reaction to the fears regarding the consequences of globalisation?
  • Surely, the new jihadism has nothing to do with reason-based politics? At heart, is the war against so-called Western values not a war against Enlightenment and its positive impacts?
  • Even today, are there not still crucial societal areas in which the power of religious norms, or rather of norms of various religions, is still felt, which cool reason has passed by, in which emotions have more weight than rationality? Where does the discussion about the polygamy of Muslim migrants, which has recently been inflamed in Italy, fit in when thinking in terms of the Enlightenment? The problem has been solved by international civil law according to the principles of the Enlightenment, but the considerable upset which it spurred points to the possibility that in large parts of the population, there is still a significant gap between the law and the perception of the law.

Just for those of you who do not know these principles of international civil law: The law of marriage is governed by the law of the state, where marriage takes place – if it’s a Muslim country polygamy might be lawful. If the Muslim migrant wants to marry in Italy then its Italian law which counts.

On the other hand, however, there are also developments which reveal negative consequences of the Enlightenment. This would explain the desire to reflect on a New Enlightenment. For this too, I will provide three examples.

  • Without a doubt, the almost stormy evolution of science, especially that of natural sciences, is a positive consequence of being liberated from bans on thinking. But is the ever increasing specialisation which makes communication between scientists of different disciplines, and even between scientists of the same discipline but different research fields, nearly impossible, not also a consequence of bringing increasingly smaller elements to light?
  • It goes without saying that the evolution of democracy is one of the positive consequences of the Enlightenment. But don’t the most recent developments for instance in Turkey reveal the limitations of the rational liberation of the individual when democracy is fully unleashed, of the will of the people who are guided by a democratically elected president?
  • The criminal law which applies to large parts of Europe and the world is based on two aspects of its effectiveness which are deemed certain. On the one hand, the clear display to the eyes of potential criminals and those of the world of the serious punishments which they would have to face if they did commit a crime supposedly deters them from that crimes. And on the other hand, punishment presumably deters criminals who have already broken the law from reoffending. These are the basic principles of general and specific deterrence. They are products of the enlightened reason. But if one keeps up with the discoveries of brain research over the last decades, the idea that these principles are products of purely reasoned reactions to deviating and unwanted behaviour does not seem as certain anymore.

Could a New Enlightenment be an answer?

What are the roots of the problems which have just been mentioned?

What has to be done?

  • On the one hand, we are here dealing with emotions, which frequently come into conflict with the principles of reason.
  • On the other hand, the requirement to use one’s own reason in order to escape from immaturity is not a small one.

Maybe the challenge is to bridge the gap between feelings, to which people are more easily drawn to than to self-liberation from an immaturity of their own making, and reason – to build a bridge between feelings and reason. To introduce empathy as an element of reasoned behaviour. And at the same time, to respect emotional receptivity. The answer can already be found, pre-formulated for us, in Kant’s categorical imperative: do not expect more of another than you would want to be expected of you.

As for science, this idea extends to not only apply to the relation between one individual and another, but also to the responsibility towards society, which has to be kept in mind – large scale empathy, so to speak.

My hypothesis therefore is: New Enlightenment cannot be managed without taking into account people’s emotionality, but will nevertheless have to stay bound to the core principles of reason. The task field which lies ahead is not exactly a small one.

So finally I hope that the seminars and symposiums of the Alpbach Talks will help us make a progress on these questions.


Caspar Einem, 17. 8. 2016