Thinking recently about the origins, purpose, and fate of encyclopedic museums like the Art Institute, I've been reading around in books about the Enlightenment--the period of intellectual ferment around the scientific and political revolutions from 1688 to the early 19th century. It was during this period that the first encyclopedic museum, the British Museum, was founded.
Following a fallow period, when postmodern theorists worked to debunk the Enlightenment era's confidence in objective and verifiable truths, there seems to be a revival of interest in the Enlightenment—even a recent four-volume Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. A few books from this plethora of publications have really caught my eye: the French philosopher Yzvetan Todorv's Defence of the Enlightenment (the spelling is British) and the Israeli political scientist Zeev Sternhell’s The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, both published in 2006.
Both authors start with the political writings of Immanuel Kant, who in 1784 answered the question “What is enlightenment?” by saying that all that was needed to achieve enlightenment was “freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.” In the same year, Kant wrote an “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” and declared that “the highest purpose of nature, a universal cosmopolitan existence.” For Kant, all human beings have the inalienable right to be free and equal, which compels one to work toward the establishment of a cosmopolitan society: for freedom to prevail among men within the nation state in which they live, their freedom must not be threatened by the action of other states.
Individual agency to exercise reason, the freedom to do so publicly, and respect for the rights of others everywhere to do the same—these were the foundations of Enlightenment political theory. And they were also the ideas challenged by early 19th-century critics, whom Sternhell calls anti-Enlightenment writers. His book is a powerful critique of these writers, whom he claims were against “the vision of the Enlightenment as a movement of emancipation of reason, of resistance to all forms of unjustified domination and against ideological dogmatism.” His conclusion is powerful and speaks directly to our age:
“It was not ‘belief in a universal truth’ that caused the massacres of the twentieth century; it was not a desire to break away from the existing order or the idea of the right to happiness that motivated them but, on the contrary, an eruption of irrationality, the destruction of the idea of the unity of human race and an absolute faith in the capacity of the political power to mold society. These were precisely the evils the Enlightenment fought against, and the Enlightenment . . . exists in every period. Progress may not be continuous, history may advance in zigzags, but that does not mean that humankind must trust to chance, submit to the regime of the hour, and accept social evils as if they were natural phenomena and not the result of an abdication of reason. To prevent the people of the twenty-first century from sinking into a new ice age of resignation, the Enlightenment vision of the individual as creative of his or her present and hence of his or her future is irreplaceable.”
As Enlightenment institutions, encyclopedic museums contribute to a cosmopolitan view of the world. Presenting their collections of the world’s many cultures without privilege or prejudice, they are dissipating ignorance and superstition about the world and promoting inquiry and tolerance of difference itself. In this respect, Todorov's and Sternhell's books are not only relevant but timely.