Wednesday 18 August 2010


Not a perfect book - Todorov sets up easily-dismissed strawman versions of the internet's potential (and actual) impact on human co-operation and the space program's relevance to our fate as a species. There's also a sense that his vision of Enlightenment thinking is so subtle as to be almost nebulous - it's not the radical descaralisation and scientism of Dawkins et. al., nor the radical relativism of post-modernism, just as much as it isn't the pursuit of theocracy or autocracy, but I think this is to the good, as I'll explain in a moment. He makes an important distinction between societies that uphold the common good and the general good - the former leading to some form of totalitarianism while the latter necessarily embraces diversity. In his conclusion he points out that 'the fate of humanity is not to find truth, but to pursue it', and this is as compelling an argument as any not to enshrine a rigid set of ideals or ideas as our guiding light, but to imbibe the spirit of open-minded, clear-thinking questing as individuals and as a species. There are certain basic values that we are to be guided by - Todorov rejects the Sadeian notion of the individual as a sort of monad, adrift in a hostile world, pointing out that we are embedded in a web of relationships without which we could not exist. However, there is no privileged source for these values or for answers to the many social, economic, political and moral questions that face us. Todorov makes the case that a certain bent of mind, identified with the Enlightenment, can give us a way to negotiate these challenges without resorting to the kind of totalitarian or Manichean policies that made the 20th century such a minefield and seem likely to do the same for the 21st.

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