Two Theories of Change
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: May 24, 2010 on NYTimes.com
When I was in college I took a course in the Enlightenment. In those days, when people spoke of the Enlightenment, they usually meant the French Enlightenment — thinkers like Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire and Condorcet.
These were philosophers who confronted a world of superstition and feudalism and sought to expose it to the clarifying light of reason. Inspired by the scientific revolution, they had great faith in the power of individual reason to detect error and logically arrive at universal truth.
Their great model was Descartes. He aimed to begin human understanding anew. He’d discard the accumulated prejudices of the past and build from the ground up, erecting one logical certainty upon another.
What Descartes was doing for knowledge, others would do for politics: sweep away the old precedents and write new constitutions based on reason. This was the aim of the French Revolution.
But there wasn’t just one Enlightenment, headquartered in France. There was another, headquartered in Scotland and Britain and led by David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. As Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in her 2004 book, “The Roads to Modernity,” if the members of the French Enlightenment focused on the power of reason, members of the British Enlightenment emphasized its limits.