How woke was the Enlightenment?

by Jeroen Bouterse

At the core of Susan Neiman’s new book Left is not Woke, which is an attempt to sever what she sees as reactionary intellectual tendencies from admirable progressive goals, is the idea that for progressive values to be sustainable, their roots in the philosophy of the European Enlightenment need to be recognized and nourished. “If we continue to misconstrue the Enlightenment”, she says, “we can hardly appeal to its resources.”

The misconstruction that Neiman alludes to is a view that sees Enlightenment thought as deeply hypocritical: talking the talk of liberty and equality, but guilty in practice of systematic motivated reasoning that at best failed to question, and at worst actively contributed to racist and sexist ideologies justifying oppression by European men. Her double thesis is that this is an inaccurate view of enlightened thought, and that bad-mouthing the Enlightenment in this way leads us to discard indispensable tools for combating injustice in the present.

For Neiman, this error defines wokeness: ‘woke’ escalates a concern for inequalities of power and for historical injustice into the belief that history is a matter of power only. “Anybody who says the word ‘humanity’ wants to deceive you” sums up the cynicism that Neiman sees herself as being up against. It is a quote from the Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt, who in Neiman’s narrative serves as a bridge of sorts between the 18th-century counter-Enlightenment, and a post-WW2 anti-humanism that got us Foucault and left-wing “tribalism”. It is an uneasy grouping from the start, but this could be a sign that an interesting argument is coming up.

A sign to the contrary is the lack of dialogue with actual representatives of the tendencies Neiman observes. Rather than named living thinkers, Neiman’s primary target is “Those who”. Reading her attacks on “those who believe that only tribal interests are genuine”, “those who […] are now content to whittle all the elements of our identity down to two”, or “those who would convince us that progress is impossible”, I often wondered who these people are and whether it would be too much to ask for references. Criticisms of wokeness are particularly vulnerable to imprecision. On a theoretical level, Neiman’s analysis would surely have been none the worse for citing or interrogating writers that she counts as woke. It would also have shielded her from the objection that her fears about the prevalence and implications of tribalism may look plausible in theory, but don’t hold up in practice.

Outgrowing Thrasymachus

The complaint that some ideas may work in theory but not in practice is not one that Neiman would find sympathetic. She writes, approvingly, that Immanuel Kant’s essay against this old cliché is meant to turn the claims of “those who call themselves realists” on their head. Throughout her work, a key feature of her reading of Kant is the existence of a productive tension between theory and practice, between ideals and the world. Already in The Unity of Reason (1994), she writes:

Kant holds that it is only the recognition that there is a gap between the needs of reason and the demands of nature that creates the possibility that the two might be brought closer together. […] Accepting the legitimacy of regulative principles requires not only the acknowledgment of a disharmony between reason and the world that all our efforts have been directed to ignoring: it requires the still more difficult acknowledgment of our absolute freedom in the face of this disharmony. (203)

Our knowledge of what is reasonable, moral, and just is, in the end, rooted in something other than the world itself. In our judgment of the world, we do not – or should not – simply accept its contingencies and injustices. As moral agents, we have a role to play in bringing reason and nature closer together. “Things are not as they should be, and you can neither get the should nor the things out of your heart.”

This beautiful sentence comes from Why Grow Up, in which Neiman connects the metaphysical gap between is and ought to a notion of maturity.[1] There are multiple responses to this gap, and all too often, she believes, irony and cool detachment are seen as the grown-up attitude. The case in point is Hume, who “preferred to give up the ought” (101), arguing that nothing in the world could ever support a statement about what the world ought to be so that ought-statements, like so many other things, fell outside the scope of reason. Neiman notes that Hume dispelled the alienation and melancholy that his philosophy could cause in him with “a good meal, a game of backgammon and a couple of merry friends” (104); evidence, she thinks, that Hume’s deflationary views of reason effectively lead him to strengthen conservative tendencies of habit and custom.

In a previous column, I have commented on another philosopher who judged Hume rather harshly for playing the occasional board game. Yes, Hume admits that there are moods in which he is inclined to “live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life”, but the antithesis follows almost immediately: inclinations to reflect on the principles behind morals, aesthetics and reason, and ambitions to contribute to human knowledge “spring up naturally” as well, under the right circumstances. Hume’s confession that he thoroughly enjoys a night in with his friends stands in service of a larger argument in favor of philosophy; his conservative description of this philosophy as somewhat impotent is intended to contrast its cautious progress with the dangers of superstition.

Neiman takes Hume’s conservatism to run deeper, however. If you ask her, it is typical of all thinkers who hack away at the philosophical foundations of idealism until there is nothing left to believe in. They see themselves as ‘realists’, with the courage to look the world as it is in the eye, resigning themselves to its ways. They even present their weariness as a mark of intellectual maturity; but it is not, says Neiman, and the fact that growing up is so often portrayed as ‘coping’, as implying a decline of vision, passion, and earnestness, is part of a “web of interests that operate against our coming of age” (218).

Skepticism and irony are not in fact the marks of adulthood, but of adolescence. The infancy of reason is dogmatic, but “the wild swing from endless trust to permanent distrust is not yet maturity.” (4) (Neiman is paraphrasing Kant here, but we can safely assume the claim to be hers as well.) Coming-of-age is defined by the earnest recognition that the world is not as it should be, that the real is not rational, and that we have a duty to act so that things can be better.

To Neiman, this definition of maturity is at the core of the Enlightenment. Consistent with this, she portrays attempts to dismiss or progress beyond the Enlightenment as regression to lower developmental stages. “Rejections of the Enlightenment result in pre-modern nostalgia or postmodern suspicion” (43), which we should understand as childish dogmatism or adolescent contrarianism. Neiman’s model for the haughty teenager who sees through it all is Thrasymachus, a sophist who in Plato’s Republic acts as “the first recorded thinker to suggest that morality is nothing but self-interested, deceptive rhetoric.” (95)

Fearing the intellectual pull of this kind of cynicism, Neiman takes it upon herself to expose the assumptions of such a ‘realism’, that reduces humanity and human society to amoral forces. In Widerstand der Vernunft (2017), she writes: “‘Be realistic’ sounds innocent, almost banal; but there is a metaphysics behind it […] What, then, is real, what is phantasy, what is impossible, what is inconceivable?”[2] Neiman is convinced that universalizing concepts such as truth, justice, and rights should be part of the vocabulary with which we measure the world. They are neither impotent and empty concepts divorced from actual reality, nor do they merge smoothly with the flow of things, as tools for furthering the cause of particular interests. They are instruments of critical reason; and in so far as they are tools, they are tools for the benefit of all humankind, enabling us to detect what should be different. The claim that everything is ‘only’ or ‘merely’ power or material interests and that ideals cannot be real, undermines the critical function of those ideals.

A costlier clay

The positive case Neiman makes for her Kantianism is strong and sympathetic. She shows how philosophical perspectives on what kind of beings we are and what our relation to the world is can bear on our attitudes to social organization, ideology, and politics. The belief that we are the kind of creature that can orient itself towards universal values has implications for how we look at ourselves and others, and she believes that such a belief in human dignity should not be thrown aside lightly. The flipside is that under Neiman’s treatment, all non-Kantians look alike. Marxists, neoliberals, evolutionary biologists, postmodernists, Michel Foucault and Donald Trump – they have all through their words or actions furthered Thrasymachian anthropologies, and as such, they are all part of the problem.

I think this does not do justice to at least half of them. In particular, I think that Neiman’s classifications rely on an incomplete view of the Enlightenment to which she appeals so unfailingly. Some of the most radical, emancipating, or groundbreaking voices of the Enlightenment were the same voices that deconstructed high-minded views about humans’ special relation to the moral realm, of which the main proprietors in the 18th century were not Kantian philosophers but theologians. Cutting humans down to size was not a nihilistic move, but an emancipatory one; sometimes, a little irreverence is the way forward.

Julien de La Mettrie declared in the mid-18th century that people were material beings not fundamentally different from machines, plants, or animals – that “man is not moulded from a costlier clay”. It led him to empathize with animals, as well as with the worst criminals he could think of. (A curiously large number of his examples were female cannibals.) Given the universality of what he supposed to be the natural feeling of remorse, it seemed to be superfluous – and, he implied, a little mean – to threaten murderers with hellfire, too. The most exciting, shocking and liberating Enlightenment thinkers were the ones who showed by example that an uncompromisingly materialist philosophy, a thorough naturalization of concepts and phenomena usually reserved for respectful treatment by theologists and classicists, a laconic dismissal of all the values in which theologians presumed human dignity to reside; that all of these could easily go together with an indiscriminate charity towards the human species and even towards non-human animals.

Jeremy Bentham famously declared the concept of natural (human) rights “nonsense upon stilts”. There was nothing Thrasymachian about his deconstructionist views on human rights, however; he also said that the law should not “refuse its protection to any sensitive being”. The essential question was “not ‘Can they reason?’, nor ‘Can they talk?’, but ‘Can they suffer?’”. A more inclusive and universal definition of moral value is hard to come by.

While there are lots of ways in which a less flat, more aspirational definition of moral worth could do good, it comes with a risk, too. If you raise the bar, it is easier to talk yourself into believing that others don’t meet it. Kant called black people “children” and wrote that they “can take on the culture of servants, but not of free people, and are unable to lead themselves”.[3] This would be revealing enough as a statement of simple bigotry, which is how Neiman reads Kant’s “occasional racist comments”: she says that “Enlightenment thinkers were men of their time […] and their struggle to free themselves of prejudice and preconception could never be final.” But in a thinker who sees Enlightenment as adulthood, as the capacity to be free, claims like these are more than casual: they draw new boundaries around the moral agents club.[4] As Marianna Lieder wrote, Kant comes “dangerously close to denying to non-whites the ‘capacity for reason’, which is after all essential to his definition of being human.” Similarly, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze noticed that in the writings of Hume, Kant, and Hegel, “‘reason’ and ‘civilization’ became almost synonymous with ‘white’ people and northern Europe […]”.[5]

I don’t mean to fall into the trap that Neiman warns against, of believing that because the terminology of reason, freedom, agency, and maturity has been used in exclusionary ways, it must therefore always be a sham. But surely, it is noteworthy that these terms can and have been used in these ways, not just by slaveholders but by Immanuel bleeping Kant himself, and that key terms in several of Kant’s racist comments are precisely those that Neiman considers to be core values of the Enlightenment. “The Enlightenment introduced the very idea of humanity”, Neiman writes proudly. If so, then Kant’s claim that “humanity is in its greatest perfection in the race of the whites” was not just old, unexamined prejudice, but a newly articulated thought hitherto impossible. Something has to give.

Getting up

Perhaps what needs to give is the interpretation of the Enlightenment in which it reaches its highest point in Kant; in which its achievements are seen primarily in the pedestals it raised – for humanity, reason, and rights – rather than in the pedestals it razed, which were sometimes the same. If we agree that at least some Enlightenment thinkers came to undermine what were seen as indispensable pillars of Christendom and civilization – to do the skeptical work that Neiman associates with adolescence, without setting themselves on a path to particularism, tribalism or nihilism – then the distinction between the Enlightenment and what Neiman calls woke may be much smaller than she fears.

A charitable reading of ‘woke’ discourse is not that it dispenses, explicitly or implicitly, with universalist aspirations, but that it aspires to a purer kind of universalism, purged of colonialism, sexism, or other stains on earlier iterations of these aspirations. When “those who are concerned with colonialism” cite reactionary critiques of mainstream Western thought, or when “even those who know about social construction” insist upon the importance of racial categories, Neiman seems to believe this implies a resignation to social Darwinist, zero-sum game thinking about identity. I am not so sure. Again, I feel like I am defending a strawman, but it seems to me that universalist language is still rather plentiful, and that the word “justice” is not at risk of under-use in present-day left-wing thought.

Confusingly, Neiman herself often admits, emphatically even, that those who commit the woke intellectual and historical errors she warns against have perfectly progressive aims.

The woke yearn for progress as much as I do, and many of those who reject the idea of progress get up every morning to work for social change.

Well, then; what was the issue again? Reconciling the claims that the woke both yearn for and reject the idea of progress, my best interpretation of Neiman’s warnings is that the woke are idealists at heart, even activists in practice, but that they have come to be cynical about the prospect of success. They are potential and even actual allies in the fight for improvement, but they have come under the spell of right-wing counter-enlightenment propaganda leaflets, which threaten to sap their resolve. “Those who would convince us that progress is impossible” have got to them. The woke are not Thrasymachian, but they listen to Thrasymachus’ podcast too often, and now they are at risk of becoming defeatist about justice and progress. Rather than by their opinions, aims, analyses, or even their vocabulary, the woke are identified by their cynicism or pessimism. They lack the hope-in-spite-of-everything that characterizes Enlightenment thinkers.

But they also get up every morning! Throughout Left is not Woke, a fundamental difference is suggested between pro-Enlightenment thought on the one hand and woke anti-Enlightenment-thinking(-without-knowing-what-the-Enlightenment-was) on the other. “It’s not small differences that separate me from those who are woke”, Neiman claims; but does it come down in the end not to differences in ideals, nor to differences in willingness to act, but just to differences in the probabilities assigned to the likelihood of progress? Perhaps not even to those. When Neiman follows Kant in saying “we cannot act morally without hope”, she immediately follows it up with another distinction. “To be clear: hope is not optimism.”

It is a very precise mood, then, in which we have to get up, a Goldilocks sliver of moral courage between childish optimism and adolescent despair. “Those who dismiss Enlightenment thinkers as naive or optimistic”, Neiman says, “not only ignore their writings; more importantly, they ignore the history that formed the background to their thought.” To set the record straight, she fills the second chapter of Left is not Woke with quotes by 18th-century thinkers who criticize colonialism and slavery in no uncertain terms.

Neiman’s survey of enlightened anti-imperialism is powerful and instructive. Sharing her respect for the thinkers she quotes, my only comments would be about the role their moral clarity plays in Neiman’s larger argument. First, I have already made the point that Enlightenment thought was diverse. Neiman applauds Kant for deconstructing Locke’s labor theory of value, which justified settler colonialism – but it would be hard to maintain that Locke’s ideas about property don’t themselves count as genuine Enlightenment thought. Second, it seems that Neiman needs a little more than evidence that the noises Diderot and Voltaire made were sincere. Her argument is not just that people can and have spoken truth to power, but that power can be moved by truth; that reason and justice can make a difference, in a conception of those terms where they do not reduce merely to power and interest.

In that light, it is noteworthy that some Enlightenment thinkers themselves had little faith in the power of their own arguments in the face of real oppression. “Diderot”, Neiman writes, “thought the enslavers would not be moved by pity or moral reasoning, and concluded that enslaved Africans must liberate themselves by violence.” He is also quoted as exhorting the Hottentots to “take up your axes” against the Dutch East Indian Company; “bend your bows, and send a shower of poisoned darts against these strangers.” I copy these citations from Neiman, not as evidence that she is wrong to believe (or hope) that universalism and humanism are real moving forces, but to illustrate that her opposition between the liberating thinking of the Enlightenment and the pessimism of ‘Those who’ often breaks down.

There is a lot in the Enlightenment that could classify as woke, not just in the unambiguously positive sense of social activism and resistance against oppression, but also in what is for Neiman the dangerous sense of far-reaching skepticism. Enlightenment thinkers could be irreverent about high-minded concepts, reductionist and materialist about what drives people, and doubtful of the power of reason and ideals in the face of human stupidity and self-interest. This strengthens Neiman’s case that the left should keep tapping into its 18th-century roots; it also undermines the idea that postmodern or woke thought has already strayed outside the orbit of enlightened progressivism. If Neiman’s thesis is that woke thought is enlightened without being aware of it, her argument loses most of its polemical value and urgency; if she believes that it rejects and undermines the values of the Enlightenment, she has not shown it – neither in practice nor in theory.


[1] Susan Neiman, Why grow up? Philosophy in transit. Penguin Books: 2014, quote from p. 91.

[2] “‘Sei doch realistisch’ klingt harmlos, beinahe banal, doch dahinter liegt eine Metaphysik, welche die Politik bestimmt. Sie verbirgt eine Reihe von Voraussetzungen: Was ist denn wirklich, was Fantasie, was unmöglich, was unvorstellbar?“

[3] Quoted in David Baumeister, Kant and the human animal: anthropology, ethics, race. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2022, 111.

[4] See also chapter 5 in Baumeister (op. cit.): Kant sees the human as a twofold subject, as animal and intelligence. Baumeister explains the implications of his anthropology: “Black intelligence denied leaves only Black animality to affirm” (109).

[5] Introduction by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze in his Race and the Enlightenment: a reader (Blackwell 1997); quote on p. 11.