Ohio History Journal

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Historical News

Historical News




The thirty-seventh annual meeting of the American Council of Learned

Societies, held in Washington, D.C., January 26-27, featured a panel of

twelve scholars discussing the "relevance of eighteenth-century ideas in

twentieth-century society." Thinking Americans have been aroused from

their complacency by the greatly increased contact with other nations and

cultures, many of which are in sharp conflict with our national interest,

values, and way of life. The startling realization of the divergencies of

nations and cultures, and the portent of active hostilities, has forced Ameri-

cans to review their own heritage "with a view both to reassuring ourselves

and to assaying the contribution of the American experience to the rest of

mankind." To this inquiry the panel and the council devoted themselves.

Professor Walter L. Dorn of the department of history of Ohio State

University was one of the twelve panel specialists. Speaking on the question,

"Does the United States Still Need the Eighteenth Century?" Professor

Dorn said: "An abject and uncritical prostration before the thinkers of the

Enlightenment is just as mistaken as an attempt to throw their ideas bag

and baggage into the dustbin. . . . What they meant by rationalism was a

severely empirical inquiry into the facts of observation and experience. The

defense, consolidation, and popularization of this analytical and empirical

procedure has rightly been called the core of the Enlightment. . . . That this

basic procedure which they and their successors applied to the entire area

of human experience, religion, morality, and society, still retains its essential

validity and still constitutes a source of confidence that mankind is master of

its destiny is the position taken here.

"The great values of the Age of Reason, the belief in the oneness of

humanity, the rights of man, its respect for the human personality, its

freedom and equality which constitute the matrix of our democracy, are

surely axiomatic in our own day. We have gained some historical, psy-

chological, and sociological insight since the Age of Reason, and we may

no longer share its robust faith in the progress of reason in history--

though surely we have not abandoned it. We have not renounced its ideals

or its methods which demand a rational empirical study of experience that

will meet the most rigorous standards of intelligence. Conceived in this