Box 21, Item 705: Draft of Impact of alternative systems on Enlightenment Project


Box 21, Item 705: Draft of Impact of alternative systems on Enlightenment Project


Printout of draft, dated 9 May 1995.


One of ten papers digitised from item 705.



The University of Queensland's Richard Sylvan Papers UQFL291, Box 21, Item 705




This item was identified for digitisation at the request of The University of Queensland's 2020 Fryer Library Fellow, Dr. N.A.J. Taylor.


For all enquiries about this work, please contact the Fryer Library, The University of Queensland Library.


[7] leaves. 19.4 MB.





There is a recent debate, arising out of older debates, concerning logic, rationality, truth,

science and, more sweepingly, the Enlightenment Project. It is a debate where the concentrated
intellectual superpower formed from those substantially committed to the Project is matched

against dispersed anti- or counter-Enlightenment forces, and so confronted with protracted
guerilla activity. Historically furthermore, the scattered and diverse counter-movement has
taken various different forms at different times. In the main respects the recent debate has
crystallised into one between definite realism and an egalitarian relativism (as revealed in a

useful working example, the debate in Z Papery Oct-Dec 1992). Let's call these sides rea/^m
and re/af/VLym for short, though the divisions are more complex than that (for one reason,
because "realism" comprehends an idealist "anti-realism", and "relativism" includes
"constructive" forms).

The contrast is invariably presented (as in the debate in Z Papery) as between f/te ane
correct theory, that ultimately delivered by Science, on the one side, and many stories, many

points of view perhaps equally good, on the other.i But, presented thus, it is almost obvious

that what is offered affords a/a/.ye contrast. For omitted are alternatives with more than one
correct account (some of these accounts perhaps better than others), but with many other stories

faulted. For instance, neglected is my own preferred /mJiPe way, which recognises many

correct accounts, none absolute, and many defective stories.2 Such further plurallistic
alternatives are not glimpsed for several reasons: one is a false underlying absolute (one) verytAy
relative (many) dichotomy^; another is a false (also absolute) character accredited to received

See Albert's Editorial, p.2, and the clearly stated position of 'the three defendents', namely
Albert, Chomsky and Ehrenreich.

It is both curious and revealing that the debate should have taken f/?A polarized course, given the
question addressed to 'the six critics' (of the Enlightenment Project). Namely, 'Do we need to
reject/transcend/escape an old way of thinking variously called Western
Rationality/Science/Logic if we are to attain a better world? (quoted p.17). Put differently, what
is role of received "enlightenment" in a/! Amelioration Project?
Because of these <%/erenf issues there is much (loose) arguing at cross-purposes in Z Papers

Such a way is elaborated in DP.


logic and scientific methodology. Thus a longer subtitle for the present exercise might well run:

concerning logic, rationality, science, truth and all that: the Enlightenment Project
and its Enemies, a pluralistic resolution.
Realists take their stand on the basis of received logic and scientific methodology,
typically as if that were an indisputable given, in great intellectual shape. A couple of

statements will confirm this:
... we do not have to transcend science or rationality as a prerequisite to
developing worthy vision and strategy... logic and the roles of evidence
are here to stay. Moreover, they're on our side.4

Even some small criticism of science is justified; for instance 'science is sometimes
narrow, mechanical, colonizing or hypocritical'.$ What lie beyond such critical reach are

rationality, reason and logic; '... to critique reason or logic as being at the root of sciences many
ills is wrong' 'and has no role in making the world better'. Despite extensive left political
activity, 'I have not once criticized rationality or logic, and anti-intellectualism has always been
anathema to me'.6 Others appear fractionally more cautious about reason and logic (not
Science!): a discussion...there are certain familiar ground rules: those of
rational inquiry, ... what seems to be under discussion here is whether
we should abide by these ground rules at all (trying to improve them as
we proceed?). If the answer is that we are to abide by them, then the
discussion is over: we've implicitly accepted the legitimacy of rational
inquiry. If they are to be abandoned, then we cannot proceed until we
learn what replaces the commitment to consistency, responsibility to fact,
and other out-dated notions.^
Before a final quoted sentence rounding off this passage notice the equations made:
procedures in a discussion (ground rules) = methods of rational inquiry
= commitment to consistency, responsibility to fact, etc.


Conspicuous in Albert's own efforts. Albert attempts to recast the multi-faceted debate in these
elementary white and black terms: rationality and science 'real science' which is one and unified)
versus anti-rationalism, which is utterly relativist. Anti-rationalism he can then jammer as
abandoning truth as well as science, as giving away rational and intelligent (and effective)
methods, and as accordingly self-defeating in arguing for ameliorating social change (see p.51).


Albert, Z Papery, p.51.


One sample from half a page of 'balancing criticism' in Albert, p.50.


Albert, p.56.


Like Neurath in his boat, a favourite image of the American intellectual establishment.


Chomsky, Z papery.

The last are variants upon (Albert's) methods of standard logic (consistency-based) and rules of

evidence. Discussion or debate has accordingly been

narrowed (in broad form):

1. by a rationality constraint
2. by explication of rationality through a standard system (by consistency, maximum
expected utility, etc.). Pictorially:



discussion/ inquiry

Short of some instruction on this matter... new procedures or ideas to
replace the old...we are reduced to primal screams.^
That is hardly so. Almost everyone is familiar with inquiries, debates, arguments and generally

procedures that do not proceed rationally, by any means or standards, but which do not reduce
to screams (though some no doubt do). Regrettably few, by contrast, are familiar with

aZ^rnaf/ve systems of rationality and logic by which inquiry and so forth can proceed, quite
rationally. These alternatives confound and upset realism and the Enlightenment Project.^

That impact of alternatives on the Enlightenment Project—an impact not recognised or
acknowledged by realists—is a main topic to be pursued. But first the uniform, definite realist

The Project itself which persists.
The Enlightenment Project can be drawn out of standard accounts of the Enlightenment
and the world discerned under it.

The Project involved proceeding in accord with
Enlightenment practices and in bringing its vision to fruition. First, then, a revealing picture ot


Chomsky continuing Z Papery, p.52.


The useful term
Project coalesces in the course of the debate. In the course of
trying to shame and chastise left intellectuals and left counterparts for their neglect of human
concerns, of emancipation, removal of oppresion and similar, Chomsky assigns a central place to
the "project of the Enlightenment" in serving emancipation, in displacing oppressors, removing
monopolies of the powerful, and supplying liberating information and technology. That
expression which he has drawn from essays he is commenting upon, quickly contracts to "the
Enlightenment project (same page, p.57).

My own opinion is that Chomsky has grossly overestimated the positive role of the
Enlightenment Project in achieving emancipation and social amelioration. Patently too, he
similarly underrates environmental negativities and externalities of implementations of the



the world discerned by the Enlightenment and the associated ideology (drawn from Berlin), and
secondly the sort of accompanying Project which that yields.
The world discerned was a rational scientific world conforming to 'materialism,

utilitarianism, ethical naturalism and atheism':
Whatever the differences that divided the French /z/zzZagop/z^g and their
disciples in other countries...there existed nevertheless a wide ca/zg^zzgzzg:
it rested on an acceptance of what was in effect, a secular version of the
old natural law doctrine according to which the nature of things possessed
a permanent unalterable structure, differences and changes in the world
being subject to universal and immutable laws. These laws were
discoverable in principle by the use of r^agozz and controlled observation,
of which the methods of the natural gcz^zzc^g constituted the most
successful application. The most powerful instrument in the acquisition
of knowledge was held to be mathematics... f/ze
/zaf/z fo ^nawZ^g^
wag f/zaf q/V/z^ na/araZ gcz^zzc^g; that is to say, all statements with claims
to truth must be public, communicable, testable—capable of verification
or falsification by methods open to and accepted by any rational
investigator. From this it followed that aZZ ar/z^r %?^g q/aza/zarzZy w^re
and in particular such foundations of faith as sacred texts,
divine revelation and the dogmatic pronouncements of its authorised
interpreters, tradition, prescription, immemorial wisdom, private intuition
and all other forms of non-rational or transcendent sources of putative
knowledge. This principle was held to apply to both the human and the
non-human world: to abstract disciplines, such as logic or mathematics,
to the applied sciences which established the laws of the behaviour of
inanimate bodies, plants, animals and human beings, and to the normative
disciplines which revealed the true nature of ultimate human goals, and
the correct rules of conduct, public and private, social and political, moral
and aesthetic.
According to this doctrine, aZZ g^KZ/z/ig qz/^gaozzg were zzz qrznczqZe
azzgweraZzZe.* rraf/z wag one, error multiple; the true answers must of
necessity be universal and immutable, that is, true everywhere, at all
times, for all men, and discoverable by the appropriate use of reason, by
relevant experience, observation and the methods of experiment, logic,
A logically connected structure of rules, laws,
generalisations, susceptible of demonstration or, at least in practice, of a
high degree of confirmation (and, where required, of application
appropriate to differing circumstances) could, at least in principle, be
constructed, and could replace the chaotic amalgam of ignorance,
laziness, guesswork, superstition, prejudice, dogma, fantasy, and, above
all, what Helvetius called 'interested error', which enabled the cunning
and the strong to dominate and exploit the stupid, ignorant and weak, and
had throughout human history been largely responsible for the vices,
follies and miseries of mankind. Only knowledge, that is, the growth of
the sciences, could rescue mankind from these largely self-induced evils.
Some believed that certainty in empirical matters was attainable, others
that no more than high probability could be achieved; some were
pessimistic about progress towards virtue or happiness, others were more
sanguine. But the majority of the q/zzZagaq/z^g were agreed that if
irrational passions could be controlled, and ignorance, prejudice, fear and
greed diminished, an end could be made to the worst confusions in


human thought and feelings, which led to blind fanaticism in thought and
savage barbarism in practice. **
Though we should contest very many of those claims, it would be foolish to deny that there
that was enlightened, by comparison with what had gone before, in Enlightenment
proposals. 12 In many respects, the proposals were socially and otherwise enlightened, though
definitely not environmentally so.
Proper affords a brief convenient way of alluding to the prime aims
and objectives of the Enlightenment, which largely coincide with those of modern secular
science broadly construed. Central among emphasized objectives were: pursuit of the truth;
exact deployment of rational methods, including logical argumentation; reliance on science and

especially rigorous empirical procedures. A suitable mnemonic would be TRASH, (short for

truth and reason, and science and (atheistic) humanism).
The Project also included these components:
* as regards
of rational and scientific practice and methods, and
of other methods, such as those depending upon closed authority, private or
organisational revelation, magic and so on.

* bringing to^h/mon.*
the intelligent inhabitants of the Earth (humans)

in particular

in their practice; corollaries are extensive, and include
programs (e.g. humans have to be in a position to use their intelligence,

and not ill, disabled, enslaved, etc.);
o&raMimg that accessible correct information.
For all its apparent merits, the project had, and has, a large downside. For example, the
Project underwrites monopolies and elites, namely those who held control of the correct
methods, the right procedures. It brings in its train all those strait-jacketing features now so

familiar in scientific and intellectual life: experts, technocracy, the peer group process,

procedural correctness, scientific accountability, and so on. (Plurallistic criticism will pull the

blocks from under all this familiar rigmarole.)
What looks even worse (from outside), main oppositional groups assume a similar set of
assumptions. Present monopolies and elites are simply mistaken about the truth, which they

have no monopoly upon and do not even hold. Nonetheless truth will out (e.g. with enough

publicity or disguised propaganda, when the public wake up or become informed, or

whatever). Then that opposition, in possession of truth and rationality (or its relevant variants,

Berlin pp. 162-4.


See DP, final chapter. A
critique of both the Enlightenment project and its Anti-Enlightenment
alternatives is offered in this work.

facts and consistency, etc.) will triumph. These oppositional groups have premissed their
opposition upon similar monistic illusions (but nor is
pluralistic truth hidden away in the

background). 13
Criticism of the Project: trashing TRASH.
As a sidelight, the Project was
in principle. It implied that there was a set of
methods by which any sought piece of knowledge could be obtained. But given the logical
systematization the Project presumed (with its consistency requirements, etc.), there are no such

methods; there are inevitable limitations to knowledge.^
The problems with the Project are not restricted to knowledge and information. The idea

that all genuine questions are in principle answerable is similarly flawed. As there are

unknowable truths, so there are unanswerable questions.
As a result, the Project has to withdraw, to retract some of its sweeping claims—else it
fragments, admitting different logical theories which skirt the limitations, in different ways.
Much as with naive set theory, where consistencizing repairs yield many competing
alternatives, none intellectually decisive, so it is elsewhere. Paradoxes and puzzles produce a

plurality or "solutions". Likewise, and in any case, the Project fragments, or rather plurallizes,
so it can be argued. But, most important for present purposes the Project fragmented, and was
to fragment.
The Project breaks up into a plurality—of projects, frameworks, ideologies, and so
forth— because of
of one sort or another. Fundamental among these are
alternative systems of logic, alternative correct systems, and therewith of alternative

frameworks of reason and rationality. As von Wright has contended, "there is not one logic
which is
But from such a plurality of logics derives a plurality of reasoning and
rational procedures, and therewith of all theoretical domains deploying logical methods. From


Most of my own experience confirms the contention (defended at the beginning of JB) that truth, even
in fairly degenerate forms, win not out. Certainly not on its own; but I grant that we should be
working and agitating to force truth (plural) out. Even then truth may not emerge and be recognised in
time, before people are hanged, or species or cultures lost. The traditional tag
is itself infected with falsity.

The erroneous assumption that truth (similarly reason) will win out on its own, without agitation or
political activity is also a prime reason, or excuse, for much academic and scientific inactivity and
complacency. An associated illusion in that f/7^y have grasped the truth or, if not, have a better grasp
upon it (now singular) than any others. It is an illusion shared with—what enjoys significantly less
respectable evidence—monistic religion.


Details are given in NL.


Havas, agreeing with von Wright's thesis (presented in his 'Logic unified ), p.149.


these flow, directly or by analogous arguments, alternatives elsewhere, indeed everywhere in
sciences and arts.*6

is intended to take in a wide sweep of alternatives: alternative logics,

alternative mathematical systems, alternative theories or theoretical systems more generally,

alternative cultural arrangements, and shifting definitely down to a semantical level, alternative
actual worlds, alternative realities, and so on.
An obvious reaction—had all the alternatives now (beginning to be) appreciated been

systematically assembled at once, in an appropriate show of alternative strength—should have
been pluralization of the Enlightenment Project. Each viable system of alternatives would have

its own project or set of projects. There would be enlightenmenty.^
But, for one thing, the alternatives did not appear historically all at once, but in dribs and
drabs; for another, some have not yet been widely appreciated at all (e.g. alternative logics,
alternative rules of evidence, alternative rational methods). So alternatives and diversity could
be fought off or For yet another, some unwarranted reactions occurred, which

both neglected and further information did little to justify These included for instance, outright
rejection of the Project, and debilitating relativisation.^

Most philosophers, indeed most intellectuals of scientific disposition, are still caught up in
the Enlightenment Project, in what should be a defunct Project.
M. Albert (ed.),
I. Berlin,
A. Gare, AWZAw?i

1(4), Oct-Dec 1992.
, Hogarth Press, London, 1979.
, Eco-Logical Press, Bungendore, 1994.

K. Havas, "Differences in the unity",

AnaZy^ 14(1986) 149-150.

R. Routley, "Necessary limits to knowledge: unknowable truths"; referred to as NL.
R. Routley, ExpZormg

Jt/ngZ^ #7izZ RryonJ, Australian National University 1980;

referred to as JB.
R. Sylvan,
PZ^raZZ/^w, Bungendore, 1994; referred to as DP.


Detailed arguments are assembled in DP.


It seems a similar plural development should have occurred with oriental religions, such as
Buddhism, advocating enlightenment. But religions tend to fossilize.


Consider? for instance the search for uniformity and commonality which is often implausible, as at
more than a superficial level, in ethics or aesthetics.


Rival forms have evolved and developed. Thus what was Anti-Enlightenment became Post­
modernism, including both Nihilism and Egalitarian Relativism (see Gare). [Also "middle way" needs
further explanations ]



Richard Sylvan, “Box 21, Item 705: Draft of Impact of alternative systems on Enlightenment Project,” Antipodean Antinuclearism, accessed April 23, 2024,

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