Dare to Know

In 1785 [Kant] wrote a short essay in response to a request from the Berlinische Monatschrift for an answer to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’ He defined Enlightenment as ‘man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage’, tutelage being the inability to make use of one’s understanding without direction from another. It is self-incurred if failure to use one’s own understanding is due to laziness and cowardice.

Kant therefore suggests a motto for the Enlightenment: ‘Supere aude’ – ‘Dare to know’ or, as he paraphrases the Latin injunction; ‘Have courage to use your own reason’.

– Alexander Broadie (Ed), The Scottish Enlightenment: An Anthology


Why should we be discussing the idea of a second Enlightenment?

During Chris Barnatt’s talk on sustainability I was struck by how difficult it was to propose answers to the challenges that he outlined. It took me back to a show that I worked on about seven years ago which explored issues around global warming. One of the things that the show tried to express was the general feeling of paralysis and helplessness that we as individuals tend to feel when confronted with such massive global issues – a sensation that came back to me as we tried to grapple with those questions in the workshop.

It occurred to me that perhaps part of the reason why we find it so difficult to address these issues is because we might be framing the questions in the wrong way. Our automatic starting point is to ask ‘What is the solution?’ – as though the ‘solution’ boils down to one simple answer that already exists somewhere out there in the world, waiting for us to discover it if only we think hard enough.

But the problem is that the ‘solution’ isn’t out there just waiting to be discovered – it’s something that we need to create ourselves, building it from the ground up. When we ask ‘What is the solution?’ we immediately feel compelled to produce an answer on the spot, and the problem is that that’s not how creativity or invention works.

A great many writers that I’ve worked with will tell you that if you start writing a play already knowing what ‘the answer’ is then you’re probably going to create quite a didactic and boring piece of work. You’ll probably also find yourself suffering from a continual writers block as ‘the answer’ never seems to come out in quite the way that you thought it would.

All acts of creation, whether artistic or scientific, are fundamentally about exploration. We have to work our way through the questions and challenges one-by-one as they arise. Sometimes you might find yourself following a wrong path, but trial and error is a fundamental part of the process. If you don’t make mistakes along the way then you’re not likely to learn very much.

And that, for me, is where the concept of the second Enlightenment comes in. What interests me about the Enlightenment is the fact that it was founded upon a process rather than being about one particular strand of thought. This meant that Enlightenment values and principles could be applied to any field of study. Indeed one of the defining features of the Age of Enlightenment was that it grew out of philosophy to encompass science, economics, politics, agricultural improvement and every field of the arts. It paved the way for both the Industrial Revolution and the Second Agricultural Revolution and was largely responsible for shaping the modern world.

One of the defining features of the Enlightenment was its attitude towards the democratisation of knowledge and debate, and this is what I believe we have to harness if we are to make any kind of headway in tackling the environmental, economic and political challenges that face us in the 21st century. The only way in which potential ‘solutions’ are going to emerge is if we have tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people all generating and sharing their ideas.

So what is preventing us? A few days after I returned home from Clore I stumbled across the following quote from Scottish historian T.C. Smout. Discussing the rise of Socialist politics in the late 19th century he says:

Perhaps, though, it was the notion that man’s fate rested in his own hands and that he should act to do something about it rather than rest upon the vagaries of fate, God and the ruling classes that linked radical and socialist alike to the Enlightenment, and which most differentiates them from the twentieth-century mood that puts trust so unheedingly in the ‘experts’ of a modern bureaucratic state.

– T.C. Smout, A Century of the Scottish People 1830 – 1950

And that pretty well summed it up for me. The challenge that we face in modern Britain is that every aspect of our society has been captured by a bureaucratic target-driven culture. Instead of having politicians who act as public servants working for the benefit of society we have a society where all of our public services have been harnessed to serve the interests of politicians.

Within the arts we have become consumed with the idea that articulating the instrumental benefits of our work is the only way to justify our existence. We have allowed our minds to become colonised with the language of Key Performance Indicators and Gross Value Added. It’s easy for us to feel guilty about the fact that for many of us a large proportion of our personal incomes are derived from state subsidy. The important thing here is that we’re not alone in this predicament.

In October last year Professor Peter Higgs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for having correctly predicted the existence of the subatomic particle that now carries his name (the Higgs-Boson). When he was interviewed in the months following the award he claimed that it would probably have been impossible for him to make that discovery nowadays due to the target-driven culture that governs academic research. Similarly we can find other examples from the education, healthcare and social work sectors, where the drive to meet externally imposed targets has fundamentally damaged the quality of teaching or the care that is provided to patients.

During the short course we were introduced to the Locard principle that says that every contact leaves a trace. Similarly within science there is a phenomenon known as the ‘observer effect’ that recognises that there are some situations in which the very act of observing or measuring an object or event will fundamentally alter the nature of the thing being observed. My worry is that the instrumental focus that arts organisations are increasingly conforming to will, by its very nature, distort the sort of work that we choose to make or present. This in turn has the potential to limit the range of voices that are able to contribute to the discussions that urgently need to be had.

Culturally we have to realise and accept that ‘more’ does not mean ‘better’. In the last six years we have seen our financial system collapse and water levels start to rise, and yet we still seem to cling to the idea that social improvement is synonymous with increased consumption.

If we are to have any chance of changing direction we need to stop measuring what we do and set about the work of building something new – something which encompasses as broad a range of voices as possible. And some of the things that we build will fail. Many of them may never show a direct return on the investment needed to build them. But if even one of those developments helps us create something like a ‘solution’ then all of them will have been worth it.

We have to have faith in our instincts and courage in our convictions.

We must dare to know.


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