Is nothing private anymore?

Battle of Ideas festival 2013, Saturday 19 October, Barbican, London


‘Dare to know.’ This was the battle cry of the Age of Enlightenment in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. This spirit remade the world, birthed new sciences and inventions, breathed life into democracy and unleashed economies that lifted millions from obscurity and destitution.

Today, by contrast, daring seems to be in short supply. A strange cloud of both complacency and despondency seems to have settled over the Western world. From climate change to the cost-of-living crisis, we are told both that our problems are enormous, and also that there is not much we can hope to do to fix them – except to lower our expectations. Such a mood strikes a stark contrast with the spirit of the Enlightenment, which assumed that through reason, science, argument and human ingenuity, all the problems that society faced could be dealt with.

Across the political divide, there seems to be a shared assumption that human agency is at best a mirage, at worst a dangerous fairytale. We live in an ‘age of determinisms’ – techno-determinism, neuro-determinism, environmental determinism. Popular historians and philosophers announce that human beings are at the mercy of immovable processes. Research in genetics is used to suggest that government policies and individual effort matter little in accounting for social outcomes. Conspiracists proclaim that we are all pawns of globalists pulling the strings.

Yet this whole mood seems challenged by masses of people across the West who feel their societies are heading fast in the wrong direction. The desire to ‘take back control’ echoes across the globe. This demand could have easily been another Enlightenment slogan: the idea that by turning power over to the people, we might attain mastery over the forces that shape society. Both on left and right, there has been much discussion about how to give voice to the demand for change.

But perhaps what is needed is less a new technocratic innovation – a people’s assembly or a voting reform, a new social media tool or a new form of community service – than a way to give room to a spirit of popular engagement. The Age of Enlightenment, by way of comparison, was clearly founded on a ‘republic of letters’ that extended from the most prestigious journals and universities to the humblest of coffee houses.

Where, then, are we to find the successor to the Enlightenment coffee house? How do we recapture the spirit of an age that insisted human beings could remake the world? Do we need a new Enlightenment, and how do we ‘dare to know’ today?

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; executive director, MCC Brussels; author, 100 Years of Identity Crisis: culture war over socialisation

Professor Jonathan Israel
professor emeritus, School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; author, Spinoza, Life and Legacy and Radical Enlightenment

Munira Mirza
chief executive, Civic Future

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; independent peer, House of Lords; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!