[Jonathan] Ree countered by saying the Enlightenment had never happened – or at least certainly not in the shape we think it did. It was a retrospective creation in the nineteenth century designed to make the eighteenth century look silly – the gist was that excessive pride in human rationality was a story which had ended in tears in the brutal terror of the French Revolution. Ree pointed out that all the great thinkers attributed to the Enlightenment such as Hume, Locke, Kant were actually religious believers and none of them believed in progress.
Three initial remarks: (1) Bunting is reporting what she remembers from an exchange involving others; (2) as she notes, she is not a philosopher (or an intellectual historian); and (3), she probably wrong about Hume (though his religious views remain a matter of controversy).
Nevertheless, it would be uncharitable not to notice both that it is certainly correct to say that the Enlightenment and “the Enlightenment project” are movements and events that were discerned in retrospect, that the contours of those events remain in dispute, and that the figures that we today think of as central to the Enlightement didn’t think of themselves as belonging to any current under that description. The idea of reason’s over-reaching ending in tears in the Terror is also, recognizably, the story Hegel tells in the Phenomenology and elsewhere.
There are many ironies in Bunting’s critics waving the flag of Enlightenment as they do. Among them is the fact that as Robert Wokler explains in his The Enlightenment, the Nation State and the Primal Patricide of Modernity (pdf), many of the central ideals of the Enlightenment were lost to the rise of the modern nation state. As Wokler puts it:
Not only individuals but whole peoples which comprise nations without states have found themselves comprehensively shorn of their rights. At the heart of the Enlightenment Project, which its advocates perceived as putting an end to the age of privilege, was their recognition of the common humanity of all persons. For Kant, who in Königsberg came from practically nowhere and went nowhere else at all, to be enlightened meant to be intolerant of injustice everywhere, to pay indiscriminate respect to each individual, to be committed to universal justice, to be morally indifferent to difference. But in the age of the nation-state, it is otherwise. Thanks ultimately to the father of modernity [the abbé Sieyès] , ours is the age of the passport, the permit, the right of entry to each state or right of exit from it which is enjoyed by citizens that bear its nationality alone.
The fact is, of course, that far from being advocates of the kind of cosmopolitan universalism championed by Kant, most of the “decent” left are actually advocates of or apologists for some form of 19th-century ethnic nationalism. Of course, the case for and against such nationalism has to be argued on its merits, but there is something radically inconsistent in simultaneously banging on about the Enlightement and endorsing nationalisms antithetical to the ideals of thinkers like Kant and Voltaire. (The Wokler piece, by the way, appears in The Enlightenment and Modernity edited by Robert Wokler and Norman Geras.)
UPDATE: Stop reading here and go over to The Virtual Stoa for some sensible reflections on the whole business of defining the Enlightenment.