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What Comes After (the) Enlightenment?

February 11th, 2021 by dk

I feel like I’m performing a John Cage ASLSP composition, striking a single note once a year. If you aren’t familiar with Cage’s “As Slow As Possible” works, there’s one being currently performed on the St. Burchardi’s church organ in Halberstadt, Germany. It’s slated to finish in the year 2640. I don’t know whether there’s an intermission scheduled.

French philosopher René Descartes died 371 years ago this week. The year 1650 is commonly used to mark the beginning of an epoch of Western civilization that Descartes called “the Age of Reason.” It later became known as the Enlightenment. Almost everything around us took shape inside its influence.

I’ve been harping on the idea for several years that this epoch is ending. We’ve used it to organize our perception of the world, but it’s been crumbling around us for decades. Recent events have merely seized on the chaos that’s been gurgling below the surface.

Has the Enlightenment epoch already ended? If it has, it wouldn’t be widely recognized by people living through its demise. Its terminus will be clear only in retrospect. The epoch’s finale will have to be reviewed like Cage’s ASLSP performance in Halberstadt. Time, duration and endurance are essential to the piece.

Whenever I posit that our civilization’s entire framework is collapsing, I get one of two responses. Some counter that our recent penchant for silliness will dissipate once we face a foe that endangers every human equally. An alien invasion will shake us back into our collective senses. COVID-19 has shown that optimism is misplaced.

The other response my declaration elicits came first after a speech I gave to one of Eugene’s Rotary Clubs maybe two decades ago. Jim Ralph was a step ahead of others, including me. “If what you’re saying is true,” he asked, “what follows? What comes next?”

I admitted that I didn’t know, then mumbled some sort of guess about recursion. Following the “As Slow As Possible” model, let me hit a new note in response. 

Abandon the Cartesian dualities and embrace German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel’s refined dialectical model. Both men saw polarities, but Hegel’s model offers a path forward. Every thesis evokes its antithesis, eventually producing a synthesis (which then becomes a new thesis, perpetuating motion).

The “age of reason” has provoked a continual backlash for centuries. We’ve long known the limits of reason. To be completely rational can be unreasonable. 

Romanticists chose beauty over critical thinking. Populists — and now pollsters — have embraced emotions over reason. The puzzle of a path forward remains. What does reason leave out or overlook? What incorporates expertise and the populist refusal to accept it? What force will compel us forward?

I believe our future — if our species has one — is pulling us toward empathy and understanding.

We feel for other people. We ask for help. We articulate our intent. These unique skills bring us together. They build our collective understanding. We see our part, while also recognizing a greater whole. How long will the transition to a new epoch take? I have no plans until 2640.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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