Note to David Brooks

There weren’t no “British Enlightenment,” and Burke wasn’t an Enlightenment thinker except in purely chronological terms.

1. There weren’t no “British Enlightenment.” There was a Scottish Enlightenment, led by Hume and Adam Smith.

2. Descartes misses being an Enlightenment thinker by a century and change. The French Enlightenment thinkers admired Descartes, but his rationalism had nothing to do with politics.

3. Burke wasn’t an Enlightenment thinker at all, except chronologically. The ideas Douthat Brooks attributes to Burke – a kind of cautious moving-forward, paying due respect both to the need for adaptation and to the limits of pure reason in figuring out the consequences of social change – are really those of Oakeshott. Burke was an advocate of mystification.

Yes, I know Douthat Brooks had to go to Harvard the University of Chicago rather than to someplace first-rate such as UCLA. But really, there’s no excuse.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

15 thoughts on “Note to David Brooks”

  1. I would have thought the note would be aimed at the always-execrable David Brooks rather than the usually-execrable Douthat.

  2. Read the preface to Descartes' "Meditations" sometime. It's obsequious pleading to the Doctors of Theology of the Sorbonne, that they accept his humble offering, and correct any errors that the Devil allowed in. Probably he had to do that, but he's no Voltaire.

  3. Um, doesn't he have an editor, fact checker thats supposed to catch that stuff? I rarely read his stuff unless it is linked so it can be mocked and snarked upon. BTW enjoy your writing style.

  4. Burke was of course "counter-Enlightenment" — he thought the Enlightenment was a cause of the Revolution.

    Re: Descartes & grovelling, as CC notes, Descartes had a motive. Galileo's example was a conspicuous one, to say nothing of Bruno's.


  6. I'm rather fond of Burke, so I will try to defend him as an Enlightenment thinker.

    He was a polemicist, not a systematizer, so it is easy to read into Burke whatever you might like. There is definitely a touch of the obscurantist in him, although his obscurantism is generally in support of legitimation. Legitimacy is a snaky circular kind of thing, reliant in large part on history and myth. But it is also the stuff of practical politics, which Burke practiced. I read "Reflections on the Revolution in France", to a large extent, as a manual on practical politics–Machiavelli transposed to the late 18th century.

    I'm not sure it is fair to deprive Burke of credit for Oakeshott's ideas. Oakeshott was a systematic thinker, and deserves credit for structuring Burke's ideas. But you can find them in Burke.

    Burke was definitely opposed to some thinkers associated with the Enlightenment, especially Rousseau. (Opposed might be too kind a word. Burke hated Rousseau, despised him, anathematized him.) On the other hand, Burke and Adam Smith were a mutual fan club, and Burke supported the American Revolution (which was steeped in Enlightenment ideas). He had one foot in the pre-Enlightenment world of honor, but the other was firmly planted in the world of mercantile credit.

    Remember that Burke surprised many people when he came out against the French Revolution–they thought he would be a natural advocate of the 1790 version of the French Revolution.

    Ultimately, I think that Burke's position vis-a-vis the Enlightenment depends on what you view as the Enlightenment as Scottish or French. David Hume and Adam Smith versus Voltaire.

  7. On the basis of recent scholarship, I think it's fair to say that there was a British and not just a Scottish Enlightenment; see e.g. Roy Porter's Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000). But the Enlightenment was an international movement whose internal divisions cut across national and linguistic boundaries — see, e.g., Jonathan Israel's great series of books on the Radical Enlightenment, which very definitely had British members.

  8. "There weren’t no “British Enlightenment.” There was a Scottish Enlightenment, led by Hume and Adam Smith."

    Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

  9. Re Scottish vs. British — the first is a subset of the second, and the time of the Enlightenment, educated Scots proudly considered themselves north Britons. That's why they entitled their compendium of knowledge the Encyclopedia Britannica . . . .l

  10. Does UCLA's remedial reading exceed that offered at Chicago or Harvard? 😉

    … Hobbes is a somewhat dubious "Enlightenment" figure, but Locke is indeed pretty foundational. I think references to "the celebrated LOCKE" were mandatory for entry to the best salons.

  11. To repeat (and slightly add to) the last couple of comments, and without either reading or defending Brooks, can't Locke and Paine qualify as part of a British Enlightenment?

  12. What Cosma Shalizi said. Also Joe S. Also, excising Descartes from "the Enlightenment" because he wrote nothing about politics strikes me as odd. John Locke would still have been a figure of the Enlightenment as I understand it on the basis of *Essay Concerning Human Understanding* alone.

    All in all, I'd say Brooks wins this round, since we must judge him by the gentle standards appropriate to a columnist. Writers of somewhat pedantic blog posts must be held to a higher standard.

  13. I finally read the Brooks piece. Typical Brooks–a high-priced hack.

    His distinction between the French and Scottish Enlightenment is a bit simple, but is reasonably reality-based. That's the well-dressed part. Mark should have focused on the hackery: typical Brooksian false equivalence.

    "Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems."

    Brooks equates the Jacobins of the right with the — uh, uh, nemmine. Democrats–at least the technocratic class–do believe that market failures are sometimes worse than government failures. And that's about it. This is a far way from "tremendous faith" in anything. It's like equating an Enlightenment-era deist with Savonarola. It's classic Brooks.

    I can't leave this thread without one fun fact. Did you know that Thomas Paine was a monopoly bank propagandist? In 1785 (or maybe 86), he wrote some stuff in support of Robert Morris' Bank of North America. Oh, well. He wasn't the only skilled polemicist to shill corporate propaganda.

  14. Come on, the only way one could be affiliated with the Enlightenment wasn't politics, but rather mathematics! Last time I checked, Descarte was a mathematician! -Kevo

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