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).

Outcome of Genealogy

Foucault in Power/Knowledge, through his “Two Lectures” proposes the idea that individuals are not separate from power nor can they stand objectively in relation to it; instead they are the effects of power. The individual as an effect of power is to be seen as a symptom of a type of power that is power relations that that intersect and embed within the individual morally and bodily. Foucault essentially speaks of a form of power ontology which is to an extent distinct from the one presented by Nietzsche in “On The Genealogy of Morals”.
However, in Foucault’s “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”, genealogy creates an interesting outcome. In genealogy there are three uses of what Nietzsche refers to as the ‘historical sense’ that create what Foucault would categorize as an alternative-memory. The alternative-memory here would mean a division from any anthropological and metaphysical modals of history and hence break with traditional history or the dialectic. This divorce from dialectic then opens up a new conception of time that can account for what the dialectic can not account for concerning history and time and taking away pretend objectivities and the superstitions of truth which could hinder or pose a threat to humanity. In the last section of the essay, Foucault asserts that there are three uses that historical sense gives rise to , which all correlate with and opposes the modalities of history suggested by Platonism. The first use is what is called the parodic and refers to the use of history in which the historian offers people the prospect of changing their identities by presenting them individual historical figures as alternatives. This venerates past identities and past events but never gives a new interpretation or an honest sense of transformation concerning someone’s identity. In contrast to this, Foucault mentions that the genealogist will know that this method is only a disguise that points to our unreality as a symptom does to a disease. The genealogist’s response to the historian’s charade will be to push the masquerade of identities to the breaking point and “prepare the great carnival of time where masks are constantly reappearing” (Foucault 94). This push by the genealogist will supposedly create dissociation with the identities of the past in regards to our own fragile identity and create an ‘unrealization’ through the myriad choices of possible identities from the past.(94) By taking up these masks we are giving new life to the ridiculousness of history and possibly finding a new realm of originality by parodying history by a force interpreting an old mask. This is in contrast to veneration-this is parody. Foucault points out that Nietzsche in his Untimely Meditations called this parodying “monumental history” in which so called high points in historical development were to be reestablished (94). This reestablishing of historical high points was later criticized by Nietzsche as restricting access to the actual creation of life and its intensities. Thus we now have Nietzsche parodying the monumental.
The second use of historical sense is to systematically dissociate and destabilize identity. This second use opposes itself to any ideas of a stable identity or the rediscovery of a forgotten identity by analyzing history, and is against what Nietzsche would call “antiquarian history” which tries to create continuities with the past rooting our present to it or as Nietzsche says “it tries to conserve for posterity the conditions under which we are born” (95). Nietzsche criticizes this form of history for restricting creativity and instead supporting laws of loyalty to the continuity of the past and present. In response to this form of history, genealogy makes us question our so called native language, native land and what governs us , to expose the heterogeneous systems that intersect us and inhibit any formation of an identity, though all the while masked by what we phenomenologically experience as the self.
The third use of the historical sense is in regards to the sacrifice of the subject of knowledge. When Foucault looks at this particular part he mostly goes over Nietzsche’s warning of the will to knowledge which also wills a fuel to truth. The will to knowledge functions as historically and psychologically to require a sacrifice , a sacrifice that has mutated from a religious sacrifice of bodies to that of knowledge which requires the subject and humanity at large. Nietzsche’s warning of the will to knowledge and the will to truth are seen all over his texts, and indicate that this will to knowledge knows no limits and no sacrifice is too great, save for its own death. As we can already see the will to knowledge spawns a will to truth which indicates a point of end or limit, though in how it functions breaks apart all limits such as superstitions, and illusions. The way in which the will to knowledge functions then exposes a contradiction within its functionality and structure and re-installs new superstitions and illusions such as a truth or objectivity. I think that this could also reveal a self-deluding pathology within the seekers of knowledge and truth. We then have Foucault saying about the will to knowledge that “it creates a progressive enslavement to its instinctive violence” (96).

Understanding the Idols

In writing the New Organon, Bacon Plans to improve upon Aristotle’s Organon by offering a mechanism for rational thinking for the modern age. Initially, Bacon’s aphorisms offer a definition for Man’s relationship with nature and examine the problems with the current methods of investigating nature. Bacon argues that hoping for absolute power over nature is futile and we can only grasp and consider how it functions. He describes the relationship between investigator and subject as problematic, since the methods lack imagination and do not follow any form of rigorous methodology. (1-10) Moreover, he continues and introduces his first real discussion of logic. Bacon contrasts the Aristotelian syllogism with inductive reasoning. The main issue with such a syllogism is that it proceeds straight to general axioms from the things that already exist in nature while supplying the steps in between afterwards. However, induction questions and examines the things for itself and then only proceeds to general statements in a methodical manner. He creates the argument that the link between syllogisms and argument is incorrect. According to Bacon the philosophical tradition of dialectic is tedious and leads to very little progress. The only value of philosophical argument is in suggesting new areas to consider. (11-20) Bacon uses the term “anticipation” (26) to describe the operation of syllogisms, because they move ahead or ‘anticipate’ from concrete things to general propositions. “Anticipation” essentially imposes a meaning on nature by missing out several key stages in the process of interpretation. Anticipations can be useful if you are more concerned with winning an argument than finding the truth, and on the basis of such a criteria Bacon would find Aristotle particularly guilty.(21-31)

Bacon’s relationship with the ancient skeptics becomes apparent again. Since the skeptic position of doubt is often based upon uncertainty over whether our senses can give a true picture of reality or allow us to know things, Bacon attacks them for undermining the importance of the senses. Bacon’s own position is that the senses can give an accurate picture of reality, but only if they are used and supported in the proper manner. Due to this reason Bacon can be seen as adhering to a weaker form of skepticism , which is less pessimistic about the possibility for knowledge. (37) Bacon then introduces the concept of the four idols or illusions, which represent the psychological, linguistic and philosophical barriers to progress in scientific investigation. Together they comprise a barrier that must be broken down before any meaningful progress can be established. First, he argues that the ‘idols of the tribe’ are shared by all people and are what may be termed as common psychological faults. The stem from the way the human mind operates and processes information from the senses and the manner in which the senses provide that information. The human mind has a tendency of imposing an order on things, developing fixed ideas and is heavily influenced by emotion. Therefore, Bacon draws on a long tradition of opposing the emotions and passions in favor of reason and the mind. Reason, even when controlled is adversely affected by emotion. According to Bacon, theses mental obstacles may not have a solution. However, since they are an integral part of human understanding, all that can be done is to recognize them and compensate for their effects. (41) He then goes on to offer that there is a greater chance of resolving the problems caused by the ‘idols of the cave’ because they affect the way an individual thinks. Men fall in love with different facts or ideas and become enslaved to them-Aristotle’s reliance on logic can be offered as an example.  Different minds work in different ways due to their unique experiences. To avoid the effects of the ‘idols of the cave’, such as a tendency to draw complicated distinctions or rely excessively on experience, an awareness of one’s own thought processes and a great deal of rigor are necessary. (42)

The phrase ‘idols of the marketplace’ is a translation of the Latin idola agorae, with the agora in ancient Greece being the public forum where citizens talked politics and traded. Problems of language and discussion are therefore central to this particular idol. Bacon has a keen awareness of the complex nature of words; they act as symbols of concrete things and abstract ideas but they can deceive us if we do not understand the relationship between the symbol and object or idea. It is necessary to look at particular instances and their order to form notions and axioms. Two types of illusion are imposed on the understanding by words: names of things that do not exist and names that are badly defined.   Carefully defining all the words used in an investigation does not always work. We need to think deeply about the way such definitions are formulated. Illusions of the first kind can be easily rejected however, it is the second kind which is more complex and caused by unskillful abstraction. The idea that knowledge and our ability to produce it depend on terminology is very important to Bacon. (42) Furthermore, he then spends more effort dissecting the ‘idols of the theater’, because they form the foundations of the authority that he wants to demolish. The ‘idols of the theatre’ are the most dangerous but also arguably the easiest to combat. They are false philosophies, and are therefore written by men rather than written into human nature. The three kinds of false philosophy that Bacon identifies (sophistic, empirical and superstitious) are equally bad. The key problem with each is their founding principle: sophistic philosophy is found on argument, empirical philosophy on limited experience, and superstitious philosophy on superstition.(46) Bacon argues that philosophy should be founded on sound method and on nature. He makes an interesting point about religion here; although he situates his philosophy within a generally Christian framework, bacon does not want to use Scripture as a foundation for Science. The Bible is, after all, another kind of authority that should be challenged and proper investigation looks only at Nature as God created it. Hence, Bacon’s categorization of errors explores and explains that scientific investigation has failed to progress because it has not recognized the true role of natural philosophy.


Kant’s Enlightenment

“Self incurred immaturity” is the reason for the need of Enlightenment and it is just this immaturity which is “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without the direction of another”. Kant argues that it is not because man lacks reason but because of a “lack of resolution and courage to use it without the direction from another”. Therefore man brings guardianship upon himself and hands his authority and instruction on someone else to decide for him. It is from this logic that Kant declares: “have courage to use your own understanding!” and establishes it as the definition of Enlightenment.
The nature of self incurred immaturity is highly complex and in order to free himself from it one has to take an uncertain leap, in order to understand what would necessitate such an action on an individual level. Initially, Kant acknowledges that for any individual to extract himself from this life of immaturity would be very difficult because it is just this ‘immaturity’ which has become “almost second nature” to him. As a result the individual becomes fond of such a state, and in this position Kant believes that mankind is “really incapable for the time being for using his own understanding”. Since “never [having been] allowed to make the attempt” of using his reason, the individual is bound in a perpetual state of immaturity. Moreover, what is further problematic for mankind’s situation is what Kant observes as the “ball and chain of permanent immaturity”. These fetters are presented to man under the false illusion of contributing to his enlightenment but in actuality they are “mechanical instruments for his rational (misuse) of his natural endowments”. This means that mankind is kept from his release from the self-inflicted immaturity by false preoccupations, fooling him in believing that he has engaged his natural gifts in the right things. As a consequence his state of immaturity becomes permanent. Hence, Kant believes that the ball and chain appear in the form of “dogmas and formulas, those mechanical instruments for rational use”.
Kant then argues that anyone who does manage to rid himself of these shackles is still in self-defeating position as “he would still be uncertain about jumping over even the narrowest of trenches , for he would be unaccustomed to free movement of this kind”. The only solution to this dilemma according to Kant is to cultivate one’s mind. However, then what would be the instances which would indicate such a cultivation? The answer would be to become free from ‘immaturity’ which can also mean to be separated from incompetency and then secondly to continue on this journey of cultivation at a regulated pace.
Interestingly, there is then a shift in the manuscript and Kant guides his argument from the enlightenment of the individual to the enlightenment of the public. It is significant to note that perhaps Kant has an agenda in beginning his argument with the enlightenment of the individual. Only an enlightened individual can play a key role in helping the public be enlightened. In essence, there would not be an enlightened public without an enlightened individual. The enlightenment of the individual and the public both of which are still in process, that is during the period of Kant’s writing, define the Age of Enlightenment. According to Kant, we are not yet in the Enlightened Age, since the process is still unfolding.
Therefore “freedom” is the prerequisite for the public to be enlightened. Kant claims that if freedom is granted enlightenment is sure to follow. Having such freedoms would then create an environment in which independent thinkers may exist. Ironically, Kant also mentions that such independent thinkers may also be found “among those appointed as guardians of the common mass”. But these guardians can become independent thinkers after “they have themselves thrown off the yoke of immaturity”. They will be able to “disseminate the spirit of rational respect for personal value and for the duty of all men to think for themselves”.
What follows is a twist in Kant’s argument, which is that the guardians who are keeping the great masses of the people under this ‘immaturity’ are themselves also bound with a similar ‘immaturity’. As a result they are unable to appreciate their own worth in their assumed role as guardians. By being able to appreciate their own worth, they allow every man to think for himself and thus when everyone thinks for themselves, no one will be the guardian of the other. So to keep other people in this Immature state means to bring and keep this state upon oneself. As a result you do not appreciate yourself either. Kant would then claim that an oppressor causes oppression to himself as well.
However, there are some guardians who are capable of some enlightenment but unfortunately these guardians are forced by the public to remain bound. And yet the public is not doing this out of its own volition, but is incited to do so by some guardians. These guardians should realize that “it is very harmful to propagate prejudices because they finally avenge themselves on the very people who first encouraged them (or whose predecessors did so)”. It is important to remember that it was the public that was first brought under this yoke by the guardians. Then, in turn the guardians are brought under this yoke by the public through the incitement of the felloe guardians. This results in a complex web of contention between the guardians and those under them. It is because of these contentions that “a public can only achieve enlightenment slowly”. However, Kant warns that a revolution ca not ensure “ a true form in ways of thinking”. The revolution is limited as it can only ensure the “end to autocratic despotism and to rapacious or power seeking oppression”. This is because, according to Kant, the ways of thinking are never reformed via a revolution, the new “prejudices, like the ones they replaced, will serve as a leash to control the great unthinking mass”. Enlightenment is therefore more than the physical space of freedom. It directly relates to mental freedom –that is the rational appreciation of one’s own worth whether as an individual or as the collective public.
So only when society is experiencing freedom can enlightenment truly take place. However, the environment of freedom, which is to the benefit of the public, is defined by Kant as the “freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters”. By this definition, reason does not know any rest and can not exist in a state where it is not reasoning. For Kant, freedom and reasoning go together, however he himself offers the hindrance to such a utopian idea as there are “restrictions on freedom everywhere”.
Therefore for Kant, the two notions of the Age of Enlightenment and the Enlightened Age are contrary. According to him the society of his time is still undergoing the Age of Enlightenment and the majority of the individuals and the public have not yet reached the Enlightened Age, since they are still under the influence of a self-imposed “ immaturity”.