Soon after Nick Land coined the phrase “Dark Enlightenment” there was a flood of articles on the subject. However, most of the articles that actually tried to explain what it was were written by those hostile to the concept. Now that the furor has subsided it seems like a good time to try to explain to newcomers what the Dark Enlightenment actually is from a sympathetic angle. With so many different writers it can be intimidating for newcomers to tip their toes in the water without having to jump in to the ocean. So this will be a primer for those who are perhaps curious and looking for an introduction.
In Nick Land’s Dark Enlightenment series he never actually defines it, so I am going to go by Jim’s description: that the Enlightenment was dangerously optimistic about humans, human nature, and the state, that it is another good news religion, telling us what we wish to hear, but about this world instead of the next. http://blog.jim.com/culture/the-dark-enlightenment/
Claiming that the Enlightenment was optimistic about human nature is nothing new. In fact, much of the Enlightenment itself was dedicated to this. Just think of Locke’s skepticism about innate ideas, Hume’s denial of knowledge of the self, or Kant’s denial of knowledge of things-in-themselves. This skepticism concerning knowledge was carried to its completion in the 20th century with Sellers’ denial that we possess direct awareness of our perpetual states, and reached its apex with Millikan’s attack on “meaning rationalism,” where even the meanings of our own thoughts and language are not directly given to consciousness.
So what is the Enlightenment view of human nature against which the Dark Enlightenment sets itself? Here we seem to have pretty strong agreement that it is the blank slate view of human nature that is not only wrong but disastrously so. (Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is required reading for anyone delving into these waters.) The blank slate was originally an entirely epistemological notion; it was the claim that knowledge came from the senses and that there were no innate ideas in Descartes’ sense. Restricted to this sphere it was relatively unproblematic and it is a view I share. But in the late 19th and 20th century the notion of the blank slate was extended way beyond its merely epistemological origins to encompass the entirety of human psychology. It is this expansion that the Dark Enlightenment sets itself against.
It is illuminating to understand how communism claimed it was the rational conclusion of the blank slate. Communism held that human nature is entirely malleable and that education and propaganda can shape people in any way desired. Communists held that people were so malleable that, say, parents’ affection for their children could be educated away and children could be happily abandoned to be brought up by the state, or that people’s self-interest could be overcome through education, and so people could work not for their own interests but for the benefit of the state, or that people could be educated out of their desire for material goods, and so on. The communist views were actually quite reasonable given blank slate equalism. For example, I seem remember reading somewhere that Trotsky claimed that there would be a Leonardo Da Vinci on every street corner after the revolution, and why not? If everyone is equal then inequality must be the result of social conditions. If there could be one Leonardo Da Vinci why can’t everyone be a Leonardo Da Vinci if we are all equal and society is perfected?
The official socially-approved lesson from the fall of communism is that it fell because it failed to see that people are naturally self-interested. Even uber-Lefty Peter Singer in his book Darwinian Left concedes that a political system can not require that people act against their self-interest. This is the view of the neo-liberalism that has reigned for the last 30 years: blank slate + self-interest. Neo-liberals of the right and left generally believe in the blank slate in all areas except that people are naturally materially self-interested.
The Dark Enlightenment puts a lot more back into the self in addition to self-interest. The reason for this is that the DE sees psychology as a branch of biology. I won’t argue for this point here except to claim that if minds are the result of the functioning of our brains, and brains are biological organs, they must work under the same principles as the rest of biology. This actually could work as a definition of the Dark Enlightenment: biology applies to people too. Which might be rephrased as: realize that you are a designed being. For example, one thing we put back into human nature is biofunctional psychology, the view that mental states must be understood the way any other biological process in understood. Take the feeling of hunger. What effect does hunger produce that might explain how it contributes to the well-being of an organism? It seems clear that hunger is supposed to, is designed to, get the organism to procure food. This is the function of hunger just as it is the function of the heart to pump blood, or red blood cells to carry oxygen to the body. The same account can be given of other feelings like thirst, fear, anger, and other mental states like beliefs, hopes, intentions, and desires.
A parent’s greater affection for their children than for unrelated children is another thing we put into human nature. We generally use the theory of kin-selection to explain this. To reiterate, it used to be thought by communism (and in the Israeli kibbutz as well) that children could be brought up communally, without attachment to their parents, and that parents could happily surrender their children to be raised by the state, and that children could thus come to care for the state more than for their families. But wherever this is tried parents come to reject it and desire to look after their children’s welfare personally. The Dark Enlightenment sees a parent’s love and partiality for their children as part of human nature.
Another thing we put back into the self is sexual attraction. It might surprise some today to know that not long ago it was believed that sexual attraction and identity were purely a matter of social conditioning. It was thought that if a boy was raised as a girl from childbirth, he would go on to identify as a girl, and be attracted to boys, and display other feminine traits. Here is a documentary that looks at this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiJVJ5QRRUE
This view has proven to be entirely unfounded, yet you can see how it follows from the extreme blank slate dogma. But if psychology is understood biologically it makes sense that sexual attraction would be built into humans just as it is in other animals.
Another thing we put into human nature is diversity. In the biological world everything from the length of one’s big toe, how fast you can run, the number of hair you have, and so on, is distributed along a range of values. This should apply to psychological states as well. Some people might be natural hot-heads who have stronger feelings of anger, the highly intelligent kids in your school probably were actually smarter than the slower kids, some people might have a natural talent for music, and so on.
So what is dark about the Dark Enlightenment? Absolutely nothing. The Dark Enlightenment only looks dark in contrast to the blinding (as in, it blinds you) optimism of flash-in-the-pan of blank slate equalism. The things that the DE contend about human nature–that parents naturally favor their children, that sexual attraction is a biological phenomenon, that some people are naturally smarter or faster than others–were all accepted as common sense for most or all of human history. It is the unrealistic utopianism of modern liberalism which is ridiculously absurd. The Dark Enlightenment might be better termed The Return to Normalcy. So the phrase “Dark Enlightenment” might not be the best, but it has received enough attention that I don’t think we should abandon it.
Each aspect of human nature I have discussed here has its own branch of the Dark Enlightenment tree (and its own websites dedicated to its discussion). Having accepted Jim’s definition at the outset of this post, I now wish to reject is as too limiting. The Dark Enlightenment extends far beyond the account of human psychology discussed here. For example, I haven’t discussed politics or religion (or gnon). In short, our political discussions center on what social and political structures are needed to create a stable, peaceful, prosperous, and enduring civilization for such a creature. Elsewhere ( https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/teleology-and-the-dark-enlightenment/ ) I have argued that the Dark Enlightenment should be identified with a revival of the relevance of teleology. These are all fertile areas for exploration for anyone interested in these topics.