I first came across the term "American Disenlightenment" in a work by the intellectual Kevin Phillips. Phillips is a critic of the zeitgeist; his writings mark him as a bit of a visionary, for he has a tendency of being always a little ahead of the curve. His excellent Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism (London: Penguin) appeared in 2008, just when the Great Downturn happened. Evidently he had been working on this project when stocks were still rising and the bubble was still in the making. The term "American Disenlightenment" is from an earlier work; American Theocracy: the Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (2006). Phillips dedicates it "to the millions of Republicans, present and lapsed, who have opposed the Bush dynasty and the disenlightenment in the 2000 and 2004 elections."
Disenlightenment? Disenlightenment? I remember how startled I was when stumbling over this when opening the book four years ago. Before I turned to Philosophy of Climate, my academic bread-and-butter had been the Enlightenment, the Aufklärung and Kant. After earning tenure I studied the Eastern variant of the Enlightenment (Erleuchtung in German), and researched the Leibniz-Wolffian links from East to West, from Erleuchtung to Aufklärung, or how the Jesuit reception of Chinese wisdom triggered the Age of Reason in Germany. I thought I had been familiar with the topic, but suddenly there was this new term: not Enlightenment, but Dis-Enlightenment, and in America no less -- even though the United States had been a creation of the Enlightenment. This was curious.
So what, actually, is Disenlightenment? Phillips approaches the question by a characterization of decline. Four social traits are linked with empires in decline: Angst, or a spreading sense of anxiety; bible-thumping or increased religious fervor; anti-rationalism or skepticism; and lastly the expectation of demise. Add to this three political and economic traits: military overreach, a people in debt, and systemic corruption.
Disenlightenment, as the profile of a zeitgeist, involves features such as structural stagnation or regression; an embrace of supernatural absolutes and a devaluing of the human community; narcissist individualism (the consumerist ego) or contempt for public spaces; distrust of reason (which expresses itself philosophically in analytic and postmodern variants of skepticism), and lastly a sense that reality is opaque (absurd, terrifying, puzzling). Generally, disenlightenment boils down to a disconnect from reality, science, and humanity.
In 2008 the Philosophy Department organized a workshop-conference on "Science in Society". I was asked to join in and thought that, well, the most intriguing society, to me, is the American one, being at the anthropological limit and all, and the most impressive science, to me, is climatology, involving the largest research collaboration in history, and disclosing, for the first time ever, the probability-cones of our collective future. So what about climate science in American society? Given the denial, the doubt, and the dismissal, here is the perfect example. U.S. climate denial--what better illustration can there be for the reality of American Disenlightenment?
At the time my presentation elicited confusion and annoyance, especially among my more scholarly colleagues. The sense was that this topic is a bit nuts. And perhaps it was. But strange, from a research perspective, is to see the rise of this subject-matter from curious beginnings to a straightforward field of study. After witnessing the general cultural unraveling, the liberal apathy, and the rise of ideological extremism, there is no doubt anymore that the American Disenlightenment has arrived. I couldn't give the same kind of conference lecture now that I gave then because with climate denial at an all time peak domestically while the whole world is moving in a postcarbon direction, the topic has become almost trivial. There is soon little for philosophers left to study; the topic will become the work of sociology, anthropology, and history.
Sixty-one months left.