Rethinking Enlightenment

In Foucault’s work titled “What is Enlightenment”, he imagines that Kant’s famous question, What is Enlightenment?, is posed to him two centuries later. In his interpretation of Kant’s text , Foucault gives special attention to Kant’s manner of defining enlightenment by the term Ausgang, a way out or an exit, which Foucault sees as presenting the birth of the modern subject. Kant indicates that the way out characteristic of Kant’s enlightenment is a process that releases us from a state of tutelage or immaturity. By tutelage he means a state of mind that makes us accept someone else’s authority. According to Kant, individuals usually remain in tutelage because they are idle and suffer from a lack of courage. With these critical notions in mind, Kant formulates his famous definition of Enlightenment. For Kant it is only through the legitimate use of reason that the individual’s autonomy can be assured. In this sense, as Foucault claims, the Enlightenment is the age of the critique. With this idea in mind, he retains from Enlightenment thinking exactly the notion of the subject’s rational autonomy. Just like Kant, he considers this notion essential to the individual’s ability to exercise critical judgment, free from dominant beliefs, norms and desires. And yet Foucault’s position also differs in some important respects from that of Kant. First, he emphasizes that the criticism inherent in this critical work is no longer to be used in the search for formal (Kantian) structures with a universal value. Instead he considered the task of Enlightenment thinking to be to make an historical investigation into those particular events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are thinking, doing and saying. Moreover, unlike Kant, who sees the Enlightenment as the exit of the man’s self-imposed tutelage , Foucault stresses that we must acknowledge that the process of enlightenment is and always was just one more discursive paradigm, or one of those shifting orders of language or representation that make up the structural genealogy of Western reason. Therefore, his own work does not orient the process of analysis toward “the essential kernel of rationality” that is assumed to be found during the process of enlightenment. On the contrary, critical thinking, in Foucault’s view, must be directed toward the “contemporary limits of the necessary” that is, toward what is not or is no longer dispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects (Foucault 43).
In Foucault’s version of Enlightenment, the individual subject’s rational autonomy is not bound up with the idea of the unified rational subject. Far from it, as he saw it, there exists multiple and historically specific forms of rationality, due to which reason can never discover its essence or founding act, and he further clarifies in his interview conducted by Gerard Raulet and later printed as ‘Structuralism and Post-Structuralism’ it can only be seen as “different modifications, in which rationalities engender one another, oppose and pursue one another (29). This plurality of reasons does not necessarily mean that individuals may not use their reason to criticize other rational practices in public . In other words, by pluralizing reason Foucault is not arguing that anything goes. For him, the pluralization of reason and critique is rather a necessary moment in the formation of individual autonomy, but such critique can not be grounded on universal common reason because this would ignore individual differences as well as the elements of rational disintegration within the subject itself and within reason. So conceived, the main problem of Enlightenment thought for Foucault is not so much in preserving the primacy of reason or in the domination of nature, but rather in the attempt to react to one’s historical situation in a critical and creative manner. This critical “ontology of the present” as Foucault also terms it , has two separate and but related components: it demands work on oneself (ontology of ourselves) and responding critically to one’s time and surroundings (ontology of the present time) .
In his idea of the ontology of the present , Foucault mentions there axes, the specifity of and interconnections among which have to be analyzed if we are to grasp something of the questions “Who are we?” and “What is our own era ?” These are the axis of knowledge, the axis of power,and the axis of ethics. According to Foucault, the historical ontology of ourselves has to provide answers to an open series of questions. It has to make an indefinite number of inquires, which might be specified and multiplied but, which will all in one way or another address the following important issues: How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise and submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions? (48-49). He describes this sort of question as a diagnosis of ‘what today is?’ This diagnosis does not consist in some simple characterization of what we are. Foucault demands that all critical thinking analyze freedom as concretely and historically limited, that is, as a site of concretely possible transformation. This work could also be described as the microphysics of power , because it represents attempts to clarify what forms of rationality are involved in the process of domination and how knowledge is used as a technique of power. For Kant, the Enlightenment and autonomy consisted at least in part in one’s mature use of reason defined as the moment when humanity will “put its own reason to use, without subjecting itself to any authority”, as Foucault claims (38). Similarly for Foucault, the notion of the mature, autonomous use of reason is used as the basis of critique that is directed towards an investigation of the self, which he nevertheless takes as a historical and practical entity rather than as ontologically and transcendentally given.
However, the aim of Foucaultian autonomy is not to achieve a state of impersonal moral transcendence but rather to refuse to submit to the “government of individualization” by constantly questioning what seems to be natural and inevitable in one’s own identity: an interrogation of the “contemporary limits of the necessary” (43). For Foucault, the subject is autonomous in the sense that it is capable of critique, but this critique has no purely transcendental or ahistorical value because it is always historically situated and contextual. Therefore, as Foucault states, “the historical ontology of ourselves must turn away from all projects that claim to be global or radical” for we know from experience that “the claim to escape from the system of contemporary reality so as to produce the overall programs of another society, of another way of thinking, another culture, another vision of the world, has led only to the return of the most dangerous traditions” (46). Thus conceived, the aim of Enlightenment is not faithfulness to doctrinal elements but rather “ the permanent reactivation of an attitude-that is of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era” (42).