The Enlightenment Gap

The Enlightenment failed to solve two key knowledge problems.

Posted Oct 17, 2020

Although the Enlightenment revolutionized human thought and transformed the world, it failed to produce a coherent theory of knowledge. The central reason is that the modernist systems of science and philosophy that emerged during the Enlightenment failed to produce a clear descriptive system for understanding the relationship between (a) matter and mind and (b) social and scientific knowledge. These two problems combine to make up what I call the Enlightenment Gap.

The claim these are two unresolved problems that stem from Enlightenment thinking does not require much justification, as they represent some of the most prominent areas of controversy and confusion in modern sense-making. Consider, for example, that the “mind-body problem” is central to modern discourse (see, e.g., here for a video series on this issue). In addition, the disputes between modernist and postmodernist sensibilities center on interpretations of truth and scientific knowledge relative to the social construction of the knowledge and the linkages of knowledge and power. In other words, the postmodern critique arises from the failure of the Enlightenment to resolve the social versus science knowledge problem. 

As those familiar with my work know, I am obsessed with what I call the problem of psychology. Although the problem has many facets, the core of it refers to the fact that, unlike physics, chemistry, biology, and neuroscience, psychology lacks a clearly defined subject matter. Consider that some psychologists define the field as the science of the mind, whereas some define it as the science of behavior, and most define it as both (i.e., the science of mind and behavior). This is just the start of the problem, as the field also struggles deeply in its efforts to define what is meant by either mind or behavior. In addition, it is not clear if the primary referent for the science of psychology is: (a) all animals; (b) some animals; or (c) only the human animal.

We can directly link the problem of psychology to the Enlightenment Gap. Indeed, it is helpful to look at the relation between the two bi-directionally. First, we can consider the problem of psychology as the downstream consequence of the Enlightenment Gap. It makes perfect sense that, lacking a coherent frame for differentiating mind from matter and social knowledge from scientific knowledge, the science of mind and behavior would be convoluted.

Second, we can reverse our perspective and consider the Enlightenment Gap through the lens of the problem of psychology. The utility of doing so becomes more apparent when we consider the place of psychology in our systems of human knowledge. Specifically, the field of psychology lies at the heart of academic knowledge, sitting on the fault lines between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

Here is how I defined the problem of psychology in A New Unified Theory of Psychology:

The problem of psychology is the joint observation that the field cannot be coherently defined and yet it connects more deeply than any other discipline to the three great branches of learning. Taken together, these observations suggest that the problem of psychology is a profound problem in academia at large. This conclusion is bolstered by the fact that as psychology has lumbered along acquiring findings but not foundational clarity, the fragmentation of human knowledge has grown exponentially. All of this suggests that the question, "What is psychology?" is profoundly important, one of the central questions in all of philosophy. Asking the right questions is often the most important step in getting the right answer. My interest in psychotherapy integration ultimately led me to ask the question, "What is psychology?”. Although I had no idea at the time, it turns out that this is the right question. And, as startling as it sounds, because psychology connects to so many different domains, the correct answer to it opens up a whole new vision for integrating human knowledge.

As this quotation notes, the problem of psychology is central to our human knowledge systems. The failure to define psychology, coupled with its connection to so many different disciplines, identifies it as a nexus of conceptual confusion. Now, looking back, we can see the discipline as an amorphous "science of mind/behavior" that fills the shadow space left by the Enlightenment Gap. Its lack of form is a consequence of the failure of the Enlightenment to achieve a workable, synthetic philosophy of science that was up to the task of achieving consilience.

One great hope is that the 21st Century will result in us solving the problem of psychology and achieve a consilient vision of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities such that we can usher in a second Enlightenment.>>>>


For more information on how to resolve the Enlightenment Gap and solve the problem of psychology, visit the Unified Theory of Knowledge homepage.

See here for Daniel Schmachtenberger calling for a Consilience Project that is part of a spark for an cultural enlightenment.