Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What is enlightenment?

The question has sometimes been asked (and answered) in philosophy, whether the historical Enlightenment has been sustained. Adorno and Horkheimer, for instance – in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) – claimed that the historical Enlightenment had dialectically been transformed into the subjection to, if not enslavement by, technical rationality and an impersonal system of administration. Willi Oelmüller claimed that the historical Enlightenment was as yet “unsatisfied” (“unbefriedigt”); that is, that there is much to be done to realise the historical (mainly 18th and 19th century) optimism and promise of human emancipation from superstition, unfreedom and rational immaturity.

It is Michel Foucault, however, who more recently has come up with one of the most original responses to the question, “What is enlightenment?” (as a state of being, instead of a historical movement) – a question to which Immanuel Kant had also provided an answer in a famous essay by this title. It is the differences between Kant and Foucault that are illuminating, especially concerning the question, what would count as an enlightened stance today, in contrast to what it was for Kant in the 18th century.

It is well-known to philosophers that Kant gave philosophy its character as an independent theoretical discipline which, with its own distinctive methods, is in a position to pronounce what would count as rational-experiential knowledge of the world (namely, knowledge inscribed within certain “phenomenal” boundaries the transgression of which would be illegitimate). Importantly, Kant regarded rational-experiential knowledge of things in the world (eg Newton’s mechanics) as having universal validity, given that all humans share the same rational faculties (forms of intuition, namely space and time, and categories of understanding such as causality).

In his essay on Enlightenment (which, one should recall, was the historical manifestation of modernity), Kant insists that it amounts to a certain liberating use of reason in the face of the “authorities” that have traditionally subjected humankind to all manner of restrictions and constraints, especially of a religious and political nature — but even intellectually, regarding what one was “allowed” to think, let alone acting in accordance with one’s thoughts. Enlightenment, for Kant, is therefore nothing less than achieving “maturity” at last, and accordingly the motto of enlightenment is, for Kant, “Aude sapere” — “Dare to think” (or: “Have the courage to think for yourself”)!

Just how radical this exhortation on the part of the philosopher from Königsberg is, few people seem to realise even today – all around one on a daily basis, one witnesses people unthinkingly and uncritically clinging to convention, following the latest fads and “obeying” so-called authorities (with little or no qualification for being authorities of any kind), without thinking (and acting) in a comparatively autonomous manner.

Interestingly, Kant distinguishes between the private and public uses of reason, where it may come as a surprise that he accords the public use of reason more freedom than its private use, as far as obedience to authority is concerned, because in the private domain one is like a “cog in a machine” who has to do one’s duty regardless of what one thinks. In the public domain, by contrast, everyone is entitled to participating in a rational debate on anything of public interest, and – even more radically – Foucault points to Kant daring to suggest (to Frederick the Great) that citizens are obliged to obey a ruler on condition that the latter, too, rules in a way compatible with reason. Needless to say, this implicitly justifies rebellion when rulers – or today, ruling parties – engage in unreasonable actions.

Importantly, then, reason may only be used within certain rational-experiential limits, in politics as well as in science, where phenomena in space and time are concerned, or where reason enables one to address questions of morality and freedom of the will, which all humans have access to. Questions concerning the immortality of the soul, for example, fall outside the legitimate domain of human reason, for Kant.

Characteristically, Foucault concentrates on something that would probably escape most readers of Kant, preoccupied as they are with the latter’s three critiques of reason. For Foucault in his own essay on Enlightenment, by contrast, what is most striking and instructive about Kant’s work is the fact that he questioned the standing of philosophy in his own time, compared to the way it had been done before the 18th century (which was very different from Plato through Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes and Spinoza). Foucault takes his cue from Kant on this issue of the contemporary status of philosophy: what makes philosophy distinctive today?

Foucault’s answer is indebted, as he indicates, to French 19th century literary figure Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s reflections on modernity (which is virtually synonymous with Enlightenment). This is a significant move, in so far as Baudelaire’s aesthetic concerns are themselves a manifestation of a fundamental historical shift away from Kant’s own focus on moral and political preoccupations in the essay referred to. In a nutshell, what Foucault finds in Baudelaire, is a curious – and I am tempted to say proto-poststructuralist – interest in interbraiding the particular and the universal, or the fleeting moment of “becoming” and the lasting, enduring moment of “being”. The importance of this for our own understanding of, and acting in relation to, the present (our present) should not be underestimated.

Foucault does not believe that we can still, today, subscribe to Kant’s belief that we are able, on transcendental (conditional) grounds, to arrive at universal truths, valid for all time. He points out that we can learn from Baudelaire to discover something of permanent (“eternal”) value in the fleeting moment of the present, as long as we attempt to understand, grasp or intuit “what” this contingent moment is. (Baudelaire gives the example of contemporary painting, which captures something essential, if fleeting, in the predominantly black clothing of people, reflecting a 19th century preoccupation with death.)

In the process of acknowledging its utter singularity in our gaining a purchase on an event, (artistic or intellectual) according to Foucault’s interpretation of Baudelaire, we transform it. We have here a paradoxical acknowledgement of the (becoming-) reality of the ephemeral moment, and a simultaneous “violation” of it – albeit a salutary one – by bestowing a certain permanent value on it even as we come to terms with its ontological particularity. In a word, this paradoxical, difficult elaboration on the present-in-flux amounts to a kind of invention, which, in Foucault’s understanding of Baudelaire, is especially the case for the modern individual, who – instead of “discovering” what she or he really is, “invent” themselves.

In characteristic fashion, however, Foucault does not leave it at this. While he is in agreement with both Kant and Baudelaire about an enlightened modernity’s critical stance towards itself, he introduces an original twist, which bears on Baudelaire’s identification of the permanent in the ephemeral as well as on Kant’s epistemic valorisation of universality. In his words (What is Enlightenment, in The Foucault Reader, ed. P. Rabinow, pp. 45-46):

“The critical question today has to be turned back into a positive one: in what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints? The point … is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible transgression … it will separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think … to give new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work of freedom.”

Can we be “enlightened” in this sense today? Can we conceive of philosophy today, in these simultaneously “ancient” (Greek) and “novel” terms (which ascribe an undeniably practical-ethical function to philosophy instead of a merely academic one)? Can we free ourselves transgressively from the merely contingent, but ostensibly “necessary”, exploitative economic system that clings to (and dominates) all sectors of society and to the biosystems of the planet like a tumour, threatening to suffocate them? Can we dare to be different in a manner that would be therapeutic for the human race as well as for Mother Earth? Our lives may depend on it.

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