Monday, 26 October 2009

Enlightened blogging

Too much other stuff in the last three weeks but I realise the only way with a blog is to make yourself keep up with it. Those who are good at this must presumably put all their scraps of ideas and notes onto the blog the moment they occur, so the blog functions as almost their notebook or scrapbook. I find it hard to do that because I see the blog as publication, thus imposing an obligation to make it a bit polished. I can’t do it without spending time on reworking. And I'm less happy to devote the time when I've already got all the writing work I want. The blog is great for when there’s nothing else on the go.

One thing on the go is turning a talk into an article. The theme was ‘Is English an Enlightenment project?’. That is, in the focus I chose, is English essentially about truth and reason? I got thinking about the topic because of talks we’ve had in our London English Research Group from philosophers who emphasise the continuing relevance of Enlightenment notions (Kant, Hegel and some recent Americans) in education, as a counterweight to all the dumbing-down and reductive ideas that are around. The article has to be a lot shorter so I've basically ditched the points that addressed what our philosophers said about, for instance, inferentialism and abstraction and have focused on English and knowledge.

In the course of my slow progress on that I've been reading more stuff about the Enlightenment and Romanticism, trying to get clear about the relationship between them. I liked Aidan Day’s argument (Romanticism, 1996) that (a) the Enlightenment (e.g. Adam Smith) was much more about feeling, human sympathy and imagination than is usually supposed and (b) Wordsworth and Coleridge in their radical younger years were thoroughly Enlightenment thinkers and only became Romantics when they lost their political idealism and retreated into political reaction and the cult of individual aesthetic feeling, with a big dose of religion and mysticism.

Then I find that one of my oldest friends has been thinking about the same stuff, initially in the context of the disastrous ideology that currently dominates social work (his original field), and in fact rules right across the public sector, including education. Bill identifies this as the still vigorous utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, a philosophy that was a bastard child of the Enlightenment that retained its rationality in the form of mechanical calculation and forgets the importance David Hume and Adam Smith attached to ends rather than means, to ‘moral sentiment’ (human sympathy and solidarity) and to confining rationality (and market forces) to those areas in which they were appropriate.

I don’t have all this straight because I’ve never read much of that 18th and 19th century philosophy but my provisional conclusion for English is that it should clearly align itself with the Enlightenment values of Hume and Smith rather than Bentham, and equally should avoid the dead end of Romanticism’s retreat into what Fred Inglis called ‘cherishing private souls’, a phrase taken up by Douglas and Dorothy Barnes to great effect in their 1984 Versions of English.

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