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Championing 21st Century Enlightenment

RSA ANIMATE: 21st Century Enlightenment

The following article is derived from the accompanying video. It is provided as an additional resource for your reading convenience.


The RSA’s Chief Executive Matthew Taylor looks into what is behind the RSA’s strapline ’21st Century Enlightenment’ and how organizations such as the RSA can meet the challenges the world faces today.

 Championing 21st Century Enlightenment

“We are delving into what has shaped the collective consciousness of modern people. We can now bring to bear powerful new insights into human nature which have emerged from a variety of scientific disciplines and social sciences”, the RSA’s Matthew Taylor says.

Taylor explains that “Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton helped to lay the groundwork for the enlightenment by revealing that the laws of nature failed to conform to religious doctrine but also intuition. The Pope may have said the sun goes around the earth, it might have felt that the sun went around the Earth, but science showed otherwise.”


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He relates that “Most of our behavior including social interaction is us responding automatically to the world around us rather than the outcome of conscience decision making. It’s more realistic to see ourselves as integrally connected to the social and natural world rather than a separate wholly autonomous entity.”

Taylor talks about how “Research is clear if you want to be a happier person, don’t read self-help books, just have happier friends. We are not very good at making long term decisions. We are much better at understanding relative rather than absolute values. We are very bad at predicting what will make us happy, and we are even bad at describing what made us happy in the past.”


“21st Century Enlightenment should champion a more self-aware socially embedded model of autonomy that recognizes our frailties and limitations.” Taylor says.

“It does not repudiate the rights of the individual, it does not underestimate our ability to shape our destiny. Indeed it is only by understanding that conscious thought is only part of what drives our behaviour that we become better to exercise our self control and distinguish our needs from our appetites and our amazing human potential from the hubris of individualism. It’s the basis of self aware autonomy.”


Taylor continues by saying that developmental psychologist Robert Kegan argued that “successfully functioning in society with its diverse values, traditions, and lifestyles, requires us to have a relationship to our own reactions rather than be captive to them. To resist our tendencies to make right or true that which is merely familiar and wrong and false that which is only strange.”

“The good news and it is really good news is that there is reason to believe we can expand empathy’s reach, despite major departures from the trend, especially in the 20th Century. A failure of policy makers to balance the imperatives of Globalisation in the ideal of Universalism with the empathic capacity of the communities most affected by change”, Taylor explains.

He shares that “The stock of global empathy has to grow if we are to reach agreements which put the long term needs of the whole planet and all its people ahead of national concerns. The idea that progress should be designed to increase human happiness has turned into the assumption that pursuing progress is the same as improving human welfare. “


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“Our society is dominated by Three Logics.

  • The Logic of Science and Technological Progress
  • The Logic of Markets
  • The Logic of Bureaucracy

The limits lie in their indifference to a substantive concern for the general good.

What we aim for can be as important to our well being as what we achieve. It has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment of possible going beyond them.” Taylor says.

“To be responsible, to create a big society, to live sustainably, this is not simply a matter of will.  21st Century Enlightenment requires us to see past simplistic and inadequate ideas of freedom, of justice and of progress. Perhaps it’s time to reconnect a concrete understanding of who we are as human beings, have political debates about who we need to be, and philosophical and spiritual debates of who we might aspire to be.”


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 Taylor closes his comments by saying, “Margaret Mead said simply this, “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


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Matthew Taylor

Matthew Taylor has been Chief Executive of the RSA since 2006. He opines on topics that range from politics, public service reform, policy,  cultural theories as well as the RSA itself. The RSA is a charity whose goal is it to understand and enhance human capability to close the gap between the reality of today and our hopes for a better world.


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