Free will, by Reyes Mate

This post is also available in: Spanish

In both cases we take free will for granted.

Modernity and postmodernity cannot be imagined without the subject’s autonomy. There have always been deterministic temptations but, if there’s something that makes the Enlightenment great, it’s the discovery of the subject’s autonomy. The idea that the moral, political, even aesthetic construction of the world cannot be determined by wills which are alien to the individual’s, such as Nature, religion or myths. Ethics and politics are constructions from freedom, from the subject’s autonomy. This is the great legacy of modernity. If today we speak about postmodernity it’s because something’s happened. That enlightened, European project of building a world from reason and freedom has not happened. Postmodernism is born in the 20th century when history proves that the enlightened project ends up in the most barbaric of experiences. The 20th century has been the most violent in history. Postmodernity is really born between wars. As a reflection on World War I. Which, unlike the second, is seen by European culture -philosophers, but also writers and artists- as the failure of Enlightenment. They envisioned a universal, peaceful, emancipating project and the result was a war of nationalisms. That is, exactly the opposite. Rosenzweig, who is key to interpret the 20th century, said that in the first World War the Enlightened project is consumed. It’s consumed in the double meaning: it is exhausted and realized. The realization of the European project is its exhaustion. And there begins the great postmodern reflection: what to do with a project which was built on the idea of freedom and autonomy of the subject and which has failed. There are two lines: one suggests not giving up on the ideas of autonomy of the subject and universality which were the characteristics of Enlightenment, but to think about them in a different way (fundamentally this is what the Frankfurt school suggests); the other suggests ending the universalist aim of the Enlightenment. This is similar to the postmodernity we know now: definitely this world is fragmentary, particular (because the concept of universality always ends up being particular). Therefore, let’s say goodbye to the pretensions of universality of the European project. In the core of this current, modern history is the subject’s autonomy.

In this same line, René Girard claims that current nihilism is a consequence of the Enlightenment’s failure. But, for him, the way out is religion.

For him and for many. Girard’s -and Benjamin’s- problem is how to rethink the enlightened universality, after acknowledging its failure. Benjamin realizes that rethinking the Enlightenment means rethinking the relationship between reason and religion. Historical 18th century Enlightenment is content with a settling of old scores between reason and religion. Religion becomes a private matter and reason becomes the axis of the rational and free construction of history. After its failure, Benjamin considers rethinking these relationships. What does he expect from religion to save reason? -because what Benjamin wants is to save reason, not religion-. He says a there are a series of experiences which are fundamental to rebuild rationality and which were rejected by reason, but which have been left in religion. Those are the worries about the meaning of failure, of death, justice towards the victims, the meaning of a logic of progress on which history has been built but which can only advance by sacrificing (the idea of sacrifice is the link to Girard’s thought). The enlightened reason did not consider some experiences, which are now deemed crucial to rebuilt a reason that’s failed, as necessary.

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