Abstract. This article is devoted to the theoretical explication of the concept of “Counter-Enlightenment,” which is being debated today in the historiography of Western thought. The term gained currency after a famous 1973 essay by the English thinker Isaiah Berlin and has since been used to describe various attempts to criticize the philosophy of the French Enlightenment. In this text, the Counter-Enlightenment is seen as a socio-philosophical project that proceeds from the idea that modern man has not yet reached maturity or adulthood, which would allow him to rely solely on his reason, without relying on external authority. Various versions of Counter-Enlightenment thought, primarily in Russia, are discussed, leading to the conclusion that Counter-Enlightenment can be not only traditionalist, but also futuristic. Such a denial of the maturity of modern man would amount to the recognition of some envoys from the future, a role that contemporary technocratic Utopias may assign to artificial intelligence. The general conclusion is that the contemporary period is a dialectical combination of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment projects, the clash between which goes a long way to determining the trends of the modern epoch.

* This article is part of the project for the study of critical thinking, Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University.

The debate concerning the relevance of introducing the concept of “Counter-Enlightenment” [2] to describe a certain current of thought is one of the most intense in the contemporary history of ideas. The beginning of this argument can be traced to the publication in 1999 of an article by John Pocock who stressed the term’s theoretical weakness [14]. In his opinion, the authors of studies who use the Counter-Enlightenment concept are sometimes unable to state clearly whether they are discussing variants of Enlightenment – for example, radical and moderate – or whether they reject Enlightenment as such. Pocock argues that most of those whom Isaiah Berlin considers to be “enemies of Enlightenment” (above all Herder) can actually be described as advocates of a relatively mild version of Enlightenment.

I will try to give a philosophically clear definition of Counter-Enlightenment proceeding from Immanuel Kant’s famous article “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?”1 In analyzing Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” we should distinguish the material aspect of Kant’s recommendations (his famous “reason but submit”) from his conceptualization of the modern era. Here we are interested not so much in what Kant promises to man in connection with the advent of the era of Enlightenment, but in the problem of identifying the arrival of that period and revealing its meaning. I focus on the question of historical “maturity” (“majority”) of man. Kant famously answered the question of what is Enlightenment in 1784: “Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another” [8, p. 17].

Let us consider the character of this proposition and what type of knowledge it represents. Obviously, by declaring that mankind or a people have emerged from the state of minority, Kant puts forward a certain version of the philosophy of history whereby man in his social evolution passes through the same phases of “childhood” and “adulthood” as in the process of biological growth. And yet we do not have criteria of the historical adulthood of man similar to the criteria of puberty. More precisely, we have no convincing grounds for asserting that the emergence of some social or cultural institutions – for example, representative government, industrial production, or empirical science – guarantees that a people in its historical evolution has reached a stage of “majority” that entitles it “to use its reason” independently.

In a sense declaring oneself a “major” is something like a performative act of practical reason, a kind of Fichtean “deed-act” – i.e., a practically motivated statement that is actually nothing but a reflection of a corresponding act of will. Such a claim would have been convincing but for the fact that Kant himself resolutely rejected the possibility of universalizing the imperative of “majority.” In a 1785 review of Herder’s book Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Humanity, Kant did not rule out that the happiness of the inhabitants of Tahiti could be sacrificed to the goals of Providence. For Herder, the happiness of a savage could not be a priori valued less than that of a cultured person, hence it cannot be sacrificed to the priorities of civilized development, the final goals of which savages are unable to understand. Kant categorically rejects this proposition. He stands up for the principle of the philosophy of history that Herder considers to be patently inhumane. The principle is as follows: “The human being is an animal who has need of a master and expects from this master, or from their connection, the good fortune of his final vocation” [10, pp. 142, 141]. Kant has no doubt that for a significant – perhaps the larger – part of history, man has been an “animal,” and such a man does indeed need a wise guide whose role can be played by more cultured nations. Kant agrees that happiness cannot be ranged by degree, and in that sense, the happiness of a child or a youth is no less valuable than the “happiness of a man”: the problem is that according to Kant, the goal of Providence acting in history is not to increase happiness and not to raise the degree of happiness, but, as it were, to awaken man’s independence – the capacity to behave in a responsible and independent manner. But this, too, is not the same thing as moral improvement. Providence does not guide humankind toward a millennium of the kingdom of good nor toward universal harmony, but to the era of Enlightenment – i.e., the exit (Ausgang) from minority and transition from childhood to adulthood. All the historical works of later Kant are devoted to proving this historiosophic hypothesis.

Even so, the question remains: what gives man the right to call himself mature, what justifies the courage to declare oneself to be mature? Neither reason, which brings empirical facts under a general category, nor practical reason with its universal maxims can answer the question of whether the category of “majority” can be applied to a certain reality, to a certain moment in the history of the human race, to a concrete social or even national community. Kant describes the Enlightenment through such a subjective category as “courage,” the “lack” of which, in his opinion, explains the delay in the development of man who is mature enough to be independent. But if we flip Kant’s formula around, we can speak of the opposite kind of courage – the courage to admit that man has not yet come of age, the courage to admit his own immaturity and, contrary to the imperatives of Enlightenment articulated by Kant, accept the authority of the book that “understands for me,” of the “spiritual adviser” who replaces conscience or the “doctor” who decides upon a treatment for me [8, p. 17]. Obviously, in the absence of reliable and objective proof of mankind’s maturity, both decisions – in favor of Enlightenment and against Enlightenment, a readiness to accept the fact of its maturity or an intention to renounce it – call for an equal degree of philosophical audacity. People who renounce adulthood would not be exposed to the category of “guilt,” just as this category would not be applicable to savages who would dare to accept the tutelage of “cultured nations.” For Kant, the main question in this case is how do we know that we are no longer “savages,” that there are nations more “cultured” than us to whose cultural dominance we should submit.

Let us make it clear that both projects – Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment – hinge on the answer to this philosophical dilemma. Enlightenment, following Kant, maintains that the modern man has those rights that stem from the fact of its majority (maturity) no matter how broad or narrow these rights are. Counter-Enlightenment insists that modern man is in a certain sense still “a child,” and his personal conscience, his idea of happiness, cannot be a reliable guide in life. Man still needs “a spiritual adviser” to substitute for his not-quite-mature conscience. For someone who thinks in the frame of reference of Counter-Enlightenment, the question is whom to submit to, whom to trust so unreservedly that in the event of a clash between personal conscience or personal opinion with the bidding of an external authority, he would chose the latter without hesitation.

Kant, of course, was aware of the complexity of betting on the Enlightenment project, whose anthropological validity was sustained solely by man’s hypothetical notion of his own historical “maturity.” The whole of the second part of The Conflict of the Faculties is devoted to the question, what can be a historical guarantee of the modern man’s claim to “maturity”? In it, Kant asks the question: what special kind of experience can man’s reason rely on in order to consider himself capable of being a “maker” of history? Kant formulates his question upfront: how is a priori history possible? How can it be proven that history is changing its character and the time is coming when the human race will acquire the capacity “to be the cause of its own advance toward the better, and (since this should be the act of a being endowed with freedom)… the author of this advance” [9, p. 151]. I submit that this is essentially the question I am asking: when does man acquire the right to consider himself to be “mature”? What exactly gives us the right to say that we have entered the era of Enlightenment in which man can be considered culpable if he does not recognize his own “maturity”? Let us note that The Conflict of the Faculties is in many ways a continuation of the article answering the question “What Is Enlightenment?” written 14 years earlier. The three sections of this work correspond to the three criteria of “majority” identified in the 1784 article: the dispute of the philosophical faculty with the theological one is of course the dispute about the relationship between the authority of the Bible and philosophizing reason; the dispute of the philosophical faculty with the law faculty is in one way or another connected with the capacity of the enlightened man to live according to one’s conscience without a “spiritual adviser”; and the dispute between the philosophical and medical faculties as presented in The Conflict of Faculties is obviously prompted by the author’s wish to take care of his own longevity independently without medical supervision.

To go back to the central problem of the second part: what special experience entitles man to overturn the former logic of history in which he was only an object, but not a maker, in which he did not have the spiritual potential to attain the “majority?” It is in the answer to this question that the topic of “revolution” crops up in Kant’s philosophy. He refers to it as the event of our time (die Begebenheit unserer Zeit) – a “historical sign” pointing to a trend characteristic of the human race as a whole. Kant claims that the “revolution” that broke out in France in 1789 was such an event. Its true meaning was not the often morally reprehensible acts committed on the historical stage by the participants in the French troubles, but the emotional reaction to the revolution on the part of the observers. It was owing to this, in many ways, paradoxical “response” that Kant, who categorically rejected revolutionary violence, concluded that this event “in human history is not to be forgotten, because it has revealed a tendency and faculty in human nature for improvement such that no politician, affecting wisdom, might have conjured out of the course of things hitherto existing” [9, p. 159]. It was the revolution, or rather, the experience of revolution as a universal event that made it possible to predict “the union of nature and freedom in the human race under internal principles of right” – i.e., to recognize man’s independence, an acquired capacity to behave morally without control by those who claim to be “spiritual advisers.” But then it turns out that before the revolution, for example, when answering the question “What Is Enlightenment?” five years before the storming of the Bastille, Kant had no particular grounds to speak about the coming of age of the whole human race and specifically the coming of age of his compatriots, the subjects of the Prussian king. It is only the emotional response to the French Revolution, some supra-empirical understanding of its universality, it being part of the large historical context that transcends national and even civilizational, i.e., narrow European boundaries, that makes a priori history possible and provides philosophical justification of the proposition that the quality of the historical subject has changed and that the era of Enlightenment has arrived.

This brings us to an interesting point in which Kant’s transcendentalism approaches what may be called epistemological grounds of the philosophy of all-unity – man’s capacity to pass judgment on the character of the times or, if you like, the ability to adequately read and interpret “historical signs.” From this it is but a step toward symbolism because such “signs” are undoubtedly symbols that the human spirit imbues with special meaning. But reasoning in this manner, following Kant, we may stray far from our topic: the origin of Counter-Enlightenment. There is no doubt that a thinker following this tradition reads “historical signs” differently than the enlightener. To him, the French Revolution is not evidence of the end of the period of humankind’s “childhood,” but, on the contrary, a clear manifestation of “childhood” readily confirmed by the sad fate of the revolutionaries and the divergence of the consequences of their actions from their original plans. It is not that the “revolution, like Saturn,” devoured its children, but that it turned out to be a force beyond the control of human reason that had naively come to think of itself as “the maker of history.”

To an adherent of Counter-Enlightenment, the revolution is rather like a fire made by children who decided to play with matches while the grown-ups were away. This is the view of history and man that emerges from Considerations on France by Joseph de Maistre, one of the seminal works of the Counter-Enlightenment. The basis of this trend, however, is not the recognition of the weakness and immaturity of individual human reason, but the conviction that a people or even the whole of mankind should submit to some external authority of a historical age that is different from that of the modern man. The simplest and yet very rare form of Counter-Enlightenment would recognize one’s own people as being at a low stage of development and therefore not deserving to be independent from more enlightened and cultured nations – i.e., a kind of interiorization of “colonial consciousness” by the peoples deprived of political subjectivity. Admittedly, such “colonial” Counter-Enlightenment is a very rare phenomenon. In Russia, it is associated not so much with a particular author, as with the character in The Brothers Karamazov who argues that a “stupid” nation should submit to a “clever” one.

Pyotr Chaadayev as the Classic of Russian Counter-Enlightenment

Meanwhile in Europe and in Russia, the 19th century saw many intellectual attempts to find in political reality an external authority – an institution of a different historical “age” than the mass of the population that should follow its recommendations. First and foremost, of course, was the Pope, in whom de Maistre found a possible center of the Western civilization and whose undermining during the Reformation triggered a spate of revolutions. If we turn to Russian philosophical thought, we see that the logic of Counter-Enlightenment, if not de Maistre’s actual political project, was very well received there. The first name that springs to mind is of course Pyotr Chaadayev, an avowed follower, if not an epigone, of de Maistre. His Philosophical Letters were probably the most outstanding monument of Russian Counter-Enlightenment, or at least its starting point.

Chaadayev’s central thesis is the need to maintain within the European cultural space unconditional trust in some external institution that translates the Christian ideal into social reality. For the West, such an institution was the Pontiff, and for Russia – the Tsar. To this day Chaadayev is mistakenly considered to be the patriarch of Russian liberalism and even a representative of Russian Enlightenment, whereas in reality, it was in his works that Counter-Enlightenment ideas were described in the most systematic way in Russian literature. Chaadayev considered the propagation of Counter-Enlightenment to be Russia’s historical mission: in the 1840s, he argued that Russia should help bring Europe, smitten by the Reformation, back to the ideals of the Middle Ages – i.e., put the peoples under a supreme spiritual adviser again. According to Chaadayev, the model of such power was the theocratic rule of Moses, who led his people to the Promised Land for 40 years not expecting the Jews to understand the significance of this passage.

However, in Chaadayev’s opinion, the peoples are still in a state of historical infancy, and Russia should bring an awareness of this circumstance of fundamental immaturity, “minority” of peoples, to the Western world. The author of Apologia of a Madman claims that this should have been the “Russian idea” if it had been correctly understood by his fellow countrymen, if Russia had not insisted that its historical path was different from Europe’s and had devoted itself to the mission bequeathed to it by God. Insisting on the need to help European reaction in the struggle against the demon of the 1848 revolution and challenging the Slavophile isolationists, Chaadayev wrote in a September 26, 1849 letter to Aleksey Khomyakov: “Europe envies us, and I am sure that if it knew us better, if it saw how happy we are in our home, it would envy us still more, but this does not mean that we should leave it to its own devices. Its enmity need not deprive us of our lofty calling to save order, to bring back peace to the nations, to teach them to obey the authorities the way we obey them – in short, to bring our salutary influence to the world in which lack of authority holds sway.” Zakhar Kamensky, who published and commented on the letter, discerned “Chaadayev’s irony” in the passage about “our salutary influence.”2 But Chaadayev had expressed exactly the same idea in an earlier letter to Fyodor Tyutchev (July 1848) in which he elaborated the concept of “salutary influence” that Russia exerted and which was woefully lacking in Europe that was engulfed by a new revolutionary wave. This influence consists in “the valor of our fathers, their spirit of obedience, their reverence for the Tsar, [and] their tendency toward self-sacrifice and self-abdication” [5, pp. 225, 377, 214].

What Chaadayev here calls our “salutary influence” is the message of his Philosophical Letters: he rejects the key idea of Enlightenment concerning the autonomy of human reason, and its potential to become a reliable guide for man on his historical path. Chaadayev believes that man does not have and will probably never have here on earth a sufficient spiritual potential that would earn him the right to freedom and independence. The very notion that such a right exists is already an ideological justification of the revolution for which Kant and Socrates are as much to blame as Rousseau or Voltaire. For Chaadayev, the European revolution is akin to the rebellion of the Jews against the dictatorship of Moses. He condones Moses’ reprisals against alien peoples and his fellow tribesmen who had reneged on their mission. In Chaadayev’s view, the Enlightenment philosophy “did not understand that man, who was such an outstanding instrument in the hands of Providence, privy to all its secrets, could only act similarly to Providence, similarly to nature; that time and generations of men could not present any value to it. That its mission was not to present a model of justice and moral virtue, but to implant into the human reason the greatest idea which reason could not generate itself [5, p. 424].

Counter-Enlightenment Logic in Vladimir Solovyov’s Moral Philosophy

Several thinkers are Chaadayev’s spiritual heirs in the tradition of the Russian Counter-Enlightenment, above all Tyutchev. In a typically forthright Slavophile fashion, he juxtaposed the Russian source of authority, the Tsar, to any Western claims to imperial status. In Tyutchev’s opinion, Russia alone, being the heir to Byzantium, had the right to be an empire, which is why the entire political and social order of the West and its very existence as an imperial-civilizational project is vulnerable from the mystical point of view, which the 1848 revolution demonstrated. (For more on Tyutchev’s geopolitical and Counter-Enlightenment project, see [18].) Gogol is another heir to the Counter-Enlightenment discourse. In his Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, the theme of the social responsibility of the elite for the state of morality of the lower orders totally displaces the topic of liberty, including legal emancipation [11]. A controversial crowning of this tradition is the theocratic preaching of Vladimir Solovyov, who undertook to combine in a single mystical-political project two central Counter-Enlightenment figures – the Roman Pontiff and the Russian Emperor – adding a third figure, that of a prophet. Solovyov attributes all the mistakes of medieval theocracy to the lack of a third element of theocracy in the system of division of “sacral authorities” – namely, the prophetic element (see [16, p. 254]).

However, Solovyov’s ambition goes further, viz., a synthesis of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, as manifested in a somewhat oxymoron-like expression “free theocracy” (for more on the complex relationship between de Maistre’s ideas and those of Solovyov, see [12; 13]). Intrinsically, theocracy cannot be free, since if all power comes from God, man is clearly not permitted to seek freedom from His power. Solovyov was well aware of the demonic character of such freedom and in his later works repeatedly wrote that freedom from God is the lot of fallen angels. Even so, Solvoyov never gave up the idea of the supra-personal and supra-societal character of power.

A popular view is that in the 1890s, Solovyov abandoned utopianism and embraced the Kantian idea of the “autonomy of good,” which he proclaimed in the introduction to his book on moral philosophy. The first to suggest that later Solovyov had become a Kantian was Professor Aleksandr Vvedensky of St. Petersburg University [19]. But it was Sergey Hessen who offered an expanded version of virtually the same idea [7]. Both followers of Kant believed that in the last decade of his life, Solovyov had grown disappointed in theocracy and embraced liberal Christianity of the Kantian persuasion. This hypothesis is seemingly at odds with the philosopher’s oft-proclaimed indifference to the constitutional system, but the indifference was often interpreted as an eccentricity of a disenchanted Slavophile.

Solovyov’s article “The Significance of the State” [17] was often overlooked by his interpreters. Under the initial plan of the book “Foundations of Moral Philosophy,” which Solovyov shared with Sergey Trubetskoy in a letter of December 24, 1894, this article, which was not published in any of the editions in his lifetime, was to be included in the future book as Chapter VI “The State. Law and Power. [Ethics and] Politics” of the third part “Applied Ethics, or Doctrine on the Application of the Moral Principle to Human Society” (quoted from [4, p. 13]). I would not be all that wrong to suggest that the greater part of the article “The Significance of the State,” like the full-scale description of “the ideal of free or true theocracy,” did not make it into the final edition of the book because in this material Solovyov set forth his views on the state more candidly than in his other works of the later period, declaring himself to be an advocate of autocracy. Solovyov believes that “the West European political idea,” as manifested in the constitutional system of European states, reduced statehood to the balance of rival forces (in describing the West European constitutional idea, Solovyov directly refers to the concept of François Guizot, spelled out in his History of Civilization in Europe) [17, p. 810]. However, this idea leaves unanswered the question of how and due to what factors the balance shifts toward the better, “what force controls the improvement” of society. Solovyov contraposes the “Western political idea” to the idea of Christian monarchy put forward but not implemented by Byzantium. Solovyov uses the expression “autocracy of conscience” to characterize this idea. He describes it in the following way: “The bearer of supreme power, of the truth and mercy entrusted to him by God, is not subject to any but moral strictures; he can do anything that is congruent with conscience and nothing that is contrary to it.” Solovyov stresses the theocratic status of the Christian monarchy, maintaining that the ideal autocrat is “the servant and representative only of what cannot be evil; the will of God and the grandeur of his position is matched only by his responsibility” [17, p. 812].

In other words, even late in his life, Solovyov does not give up the idea of Counter-Enlightenment and does not take the Kantian Enlightenment stance. Needless to say, the philosopher who advocates freedom of conscience and the right to openly practice his faith and freely express his convictions would have subscribed to Kant’s maxim “reason but submit.” Solovyov had no quarrel with the German philosopher on that point. At the same time, he could not consider man to be sufficiently mature to be allowed to do without the external force that the Roman Pontiff and the Russian Tsar were for the integral Europe. Nations were to obey their power freely on the basis of their awareness of their own historical limitations, and out of a sense of reverence for the top figures in the theocracy similar to the reverence that an infant feels for its parents.

The contradictions in Solovyov’s project, which of course can be traced back to Shelling, consisted in the combination of elements of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment. Solovyov’s political and philosophical idea was based on a felt need for a synthesis of these currents, a more fundamental synthesis than that envisaged by Hegel in his apotheosis of the Prussian constitutional monarchy. According to Solovyov, Enlightenment goes through a cycle of development at the end of which man freely accepts the fact of his own fallibility and reverently submits to the triple power of the Tsar, the Pontiff, and the prophet. Freedom is thought as dialectical self-unfolding of what might be called the idea of the Christian church or the theocratic order sublated in the course of subsequent synthesis. As soon as that aspect is sublated, the need for freedom does not just disappear, but becomes definitely unpardonable. The eventual “zeroing” of freedom met with a generally valid criticism of The Justification of the Good on the part of Boris Chicherin, a Hegelian for whom any romantic concept of wholeness, including Solovyov’s, logically led to justification of Inquisition, suppression of dissent, and intrusion of privacy. In a critical analysis of Solovyov’s moral philosophy, Chicherin successfully revealed its Counter-Enlightenment aspects that Solovyov failed to conceal even by removing the section dealing with “the ideal of free theocracy” [6]. The critique on the part of the leading Russian follower of Hegel pained the philosopher, who wanted, due to considerations of expediency rather than on principle, to hide from the wider readership his continued adherence to the tradition of Counter-Enlightenment that by that time was regarded as reactionary by Solovyov’s liberal milieu.

Counter-Enlightenment on Behalf of the Future

The idea of Counter-Enlightenment (or Counter-Modernity, as I prefer to call it in other articles) goes through the same period of dialectical self-unfolding as the idea of freedom, which Hegel places at the foundation of European progress. The underlying problem of this dialectic is that people, institutions, or even cultures supposed to have different historical ages coexist in time. The problem can be put in another way: if we think we have not yet emerged from the state of “minority,” whom should we obey, whose opinion should we heed, putting it above the voice of our own conscience? To put it simply: where should the “spiritual adviser” come from? This question can be answered in two ways: one is that it must come from the past; it is historically “older” than the majority of humans and thus is not only the custodian, but also the true interpreter of tradition that prevents humanity, which is still in its childhood, from falling into chaos. Thus, the Pontiff is seen by the Catholic Church as a representative of the religious tradition that has sacral authority on matters of faith – i.e., the right interpretation of the Scriptures. Counter-Enlightenment addresses the sacred figure of the Forefather, a kind of First Elder, on behalf of the past.

Yet one can think of another answer to the question about the different “ages” and the topic of “spiritual advisers.” According to that answer, some “people from the future” should come to us who know the ways of history, know in what direction history is moving, have the competencies that we who have lingered in the past do not have, and it is these “people of the future” that the people of today, who are far from “maturity,” should obey. Whether or not they will have the right to “reason” or whether “the people of the future” will strip them of this right is a secondary question that obviously has no bearing on the problem of Enlightenment/Counter-Enlightenment. The main thing is that this “progressivist” version of Counter-Enlightenment sees attachment to tradition, the past, and national or even religious sources as narrow-mindedness from which the “spiritual advisers” from the future are called upon to rescue humanity. Indeed, Solovyov, who reflected deeply on all the aspects of Counter-Enlightenment, introduced the figure of such a sacral representative of the future in his theocratic synthesis – i.e., the figure of the religious prophet. Solovyov, of course, assumed that in his theocratic scheme, the high priest and the prophet would always be in accord with one another, like the prophet Moses and the high priest Aaron in ancient Israeli theocracy. However, the conflict between Counter-Enlightenment on behalf of the past and between Counter-Enlightenment on behalf of the future can by no means always be resolved happily, let alone harmoniously.

History has seen several variants of Counter-Enlightenment on behalf of the future, and they had no connection with either religion or mysticism. “Enlightened” peoples justified their power over primitive peoples by their greater “maturity” and advancement toward the future, while the progressivist classes used similar arguments to justify their hegemony over allegedly “reactionary” classes. A typical form of such Counter-Enlightenment on behalf of the future is “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” a social system under which the more “progressive” class was supposed to lead the more “backward” classes. If the representatives of the backward classes had agreed to consider themselves to be insufficiently “mature” to move through history independently, without assistance from the more progressive hegemon, and developed consent to a dictatorship of a higher class into a special philosophy of history, that position would have fitted into the logic of Counter-Enlightenment acting on behalf of the future and not on behalf of the behests of the past. In all cases, recognizing one’s “minority” (“immaturity”) would presuppose the existence of a social stratum that is more mature and equipped with life experience, or, on the contrary, of an advanced stratum of people who could play the role of “spiritual advisers.” But if the question is put about humanity as a whole, then the logic of Counter-Enlightenment calls for some non-human or super-human forces that could lead mankind into the future. Where could such forces come from, leaving aside religious mysticism?

Strangely, one can get a glimpse of the answer already in Kant’s discourse about the ability of the human race to occupy the leading position among other forms of intelligent life in the universe if it attains moral independence. One can imagine that some extraterrestrial race would acquire such independence ahead of earthlings, and if that race is more developed and more powerful than humans, it will have the moral right “to lead humanity out of the state of childhood.” All possible historical collisions stemming from the appearance of self-appointed “parents” and “midwives” have been described in detail in Western and Russian science fiction. Clearly, the role of “extraterrestrials” or “people from the future” can in reality be assumed by some self-proclaimed prophets or people claiming to have been “awakened” who, owing to various mental and psychological circumstances, profess to have super-human faculties. However, not only living beings can speak on behalf of the future: according to one popular hypothesis, the role of humanity’s “spiritual adviser” may some day be assumed by artificial intelligence. In futurology, this hypothesis is often designated by the term “transhumanism,” with some of its proponents predicting an early arrival of the moment in anthropological evolution when artificial intelligence will cease to be controlled by man and will make history independently. That moment, in terms of transhumanism, is called “technological singularity.” The problem of transhumanism in the context of Enlightenment merits separate discussion, but at this point, it is important to show that this trend can be seen as a logical outcome of the dialectics of Counter-Enlightenment.

What Does the Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment Lead to?

Thus, Counter-Enlightenment cannot be reduced to one particular era in the history of social thought or to the reactionary ideological trend that supposedly petered out by the end of the 19th century. Counter-Enlightenment is an intellectual tradition as powerful as Enlightenment itself. Contemporary people may consider themselves to have outgrown the stage of “minority,” or they may feel they are still in that stage by virtue of some external authorities. In the history of modernity, socio-ideological constructs that combine elements of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment are thinkable and even widespread. The most obvious of ones are ideologies that justify colonial domination, the hegemony of allegedly “grown-up” “enlightened nations” vis-a-vis allegedly “imperfect” and “unenlightened” ones.

Moreover, it is quite probable that any concrete social order with elements of hierarchy and subordination have aspects that reflect the logic of Counter-Enlightenment. However, the trend of the modern era is determined by the conflict between the social order with its obligatory Counter-Enlightenment features and the imperative of equality, the demand for class emancipation and national equality. This conflict could be resolved by conferring the status of “sacral authority” on some super-human entity that is beyond the space of humanity as a biological species. All these ideas are being mulled over today by the philosophy of transhumanism, but it cannot be ruled out that transhumanism itself is not the final form in which the dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment is embodied and which, as I have sought to demonstrate in this text, leads man from loyalty to the behests of the past to unconditional loyalty to the unknown future. For my part, I would like to stress that with the futuristic version of Counter-Enlightenment on the offensive, it is necessary to highlight the conservative aspects of Enlightenment as formulated by Kant. This determines the need to develop a philosophical project of conservative Enlightenment. However, the discussion of the potential and perspectives of this project is of course beyond the scope of this article, whose aim is to stress the philosophical heterogeneity of the modern time in which the logic of Counter-Enlightenment plays such a high-profile role.


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9. Kant I. The Conflict of the Faculties. Trans. by M. J. Gregor. New York: Abaris Book, 1979.

10. Kant I. Review of J. G. Herder’s Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Humanity. Id. Anthropology, History, and Education. Ed. by G. Zöller, R. B. Louden. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007, pp. 124-142.

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12. Mezhuev B. V. Vladimir Solovyov and de Maistre: The Experience of Rethinking the Medieval Worldview. Tetradipo konservatizmu (= Notebooks on conservatism). 2017. Vol. 1, pp. 32-37. (In Russian.)

13. Parsamov V. S. Vladimir Solovyov and Joseph de Maistre. Voprosy filosofii (= Questions of Philosophy). 2019. No. 7, pp. 175-187. (In Russian.)

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17. Solovyov V. S. The Significance of the State. Vestnik Evropy (= Herald of Europe). 1895. No. 12, pp. 803-814. (In Russian.)

18. Tsymbursky V. L. Morphology of Russian Geopolitics and Dynamics of International Systems in the 18th-20th Centuries. Moscow: Knizhny Mir, 2016. (In Russian.)

19. Vvedensky A. I. On Mysticism and Criticism in Solovyov’s Theory of Knowledge. Voprosy filosofii i psikhologii. 1901. Vol. 56. No. 1, pp. 2-35. (In Russian.)


1 Scholars have reservations about this work and indeed about the whole body of small texts on sociopolitical topics written between 1784 and 1798. See [1; 2].

2 Only blind acceptance of the false image of Chaadayev as a critically minded liberal, if not a political revolutionary, entrenched in historical tradition can justify the judgment of another historian, Dmitry Shakhovskoy, who, ignoring the Counter-Enlightenment thrust of Philosophical Letters, claims that this proposition is “clearly informed with irony; Chaadayev knows that ‘humility’ and ‘self-negation,’ which Tyutchev considers the core features of the Russian idea, cannot get you very far” [Chaadayev 1991, p. 367]. Gustav Shpet alone discerned the Counter-Enlightenment character of Chaadayev’s reasoning and wrote the following in his synopsis of the second part of his Outline of the Development of Russian Philosophy: “Chaadayev is a reactionary,” “Chaadayev is a moralist, pragmatist, and philosophizer” [15, pp. 76, 91].

Social Sciences Vol. 53, No. 3 (2022), pp. 79-91