Steven Levine: A Comment on Bilgrami

Steven Levine is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Prof. Bilgami’s make two central claims in his illuminating paper: 1) that certain malignant aspects of Western development and society are internally and not contingently related to the scientific rationality of the Enlightenment, and 2) that it is not science itself that leads to these malignant aspects but rather an interpretation—and the practices based upon this interpretation—of what science requires of us in our thinking about rationality and value. As Bilgrami himself points out there has been a long history of thinking—some of which was contemporaneous with the scientific revolution itself—which makes claims similar to these. Because the particular tradition that I stand in, Left Hegelianism, is part of this long history of counter-thinking, I find both claims very plausible. In our preferred jargon, the point that Bilgrami is driving at is encapsulated by the phrase ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’. The dialectic of enlightenment claims that enlightenment reason is at odds with itself, that while it provides for the possibility of an autonomous form of life, one not determined solely by the contingences of nature and fate, it, in securing this possibility, often expresses itself instrumentally. When instrumental reason is take to be the whole of reason the malignant aspects of Western development and society mentioned above follow, i.e., nihilism and new forms of domination. The left Hegelian does not take it that this dialectic requires the abandonment of enlightenment reason for the irrational or the mute silence of the Other, rather it signals the necessity for undertaking an immanent critique of dogmatic conception’s of enlightenment reason and the practices based upon these conceptions. Dogmatic conception are ones that overlooks the dialectic of enlightenment, taking it—as Buruma and Margalit do—that the principles of the enlightenment are only contingently related to their malignant consequences.

The goal of the left Hegelian is to achieve a higher order type of reflection in which reason reflects on its blind spots and potential one-sidedness. This task is especially important now since a dogmatic conception of the enlightenment and enlightenment reason informs the position of most US policy makers and ideologues who still, post-Iraq, take it to be their duty as Enlightened to maintain US hegemony. The question is whether this charge applies to Buruma and Margalit. While Buruma and Margalit don’t endorse open hegemony (indeed both were against the Iraq adventure), they are still, so Bilgrami argues, ‘Cold War Intellectuals’ who contribute to the ideological underpinnings of Western dominance. How does he make out this claim? To first thing to recognize is that Buruma and Margalit ignore completely internal critiques of the enlightenment—those offered by the early modern radical enlightenment, left-Hegelianism, or more distantly, Ghandi—and instead focus all of their attention on Slavophile, Japanese, and German Romantic and nationalist writing, as well as Islamist Occidentalist writings. In my view, this selection of topics, one very reminiscent of Paul Berman’s influential yet incoherent Terror and Liberalism, is prepared for by a certain imaginary that shapes the views of many if not most current ‘Cold War Intellectuals’. This imaginary posits a simple opposition between the enlightenment universal and the non-enlightened particular, Gesellshaft and Gemeinshaft, the progressive and the reactionary, the Lexus and the olive-tree, etc. Once this imaginary is in place, the affinity between Western romantic and nationalist writings and Islamist Occidentalist writings seems commonsensical. And indeed, there are obvious affinities here. The problem is not in identifying affinities, but in the narrowing of vision in which the positions mentioned above—the early modern radical enlightenment, left-Hegelianism, and Ghandi—disappear from view altogether. In performing this disappearing act, liberal intellectuals like Buruma and Margalit, who otherwise might be one’s political ally, play a key ideological role in the ‘War on Terror’; for now political argument cannot call upon the resources of the excluded positions but can only express which side of the simple opposition one is on. This narrowing of argumentative space is distinctive of our age. One of the virtues of Prof. Bilgrami’s paper is his attempt to reopen this space and let a bit of light shine in.

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