Michel Foucault: What Is Enlightenment?
By Way of introduction
I would like to highlight some interesting features of Foucault's thinking by drawing your attention to his slim essay, What Is Enlightenment?
The essay was one of the last Foucault wrote before his death in 1984 and is a rather discursive, complex, and subtle piece of writing. Essentially, it is divided into two parts.
The first refers to ways in which the subject and its subjectivity have been constructed by the Enlightenment's project whilst the second deals with possible avenues of research after his death. This post will deal with the first section.
All references to Foucault's essay are given with a P which is the page number found in The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow for Penguin books.
The Age of Enlightenment
The age of Enlightenment was the period when certain European individuals held faith in the power of reason and scientific research. Mysterious and dark superstitions once maintained within the power systems of law and politics were critically rejected and the laws of Nature once 'suspended for the benefit of the Church
' (Edward Gibbon) were reinstated.
The father of intellectual Enlightenment was probably John Locke, and the two greatest Enlightenment thinkers, Hume and Kant. Foucault believes that we are still haunted by the Enlightenment's legacy whose influence can be witnessed in the works of Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Habermas (p32) and contemporary critical theorists in which Foucault must firmly place himself.
Foucault observes that the Age of Enlightenment broke with tradition and adopted a critical stance with respect to contemporary reality, an attitude rather than an any exact discipline. The Enlightenment criticised and questioned the assumptions of its social and political heritage and Foucault believes that Kant was the first philosopher to initiate this 'point of departure: the outline of what one might call the attitude of modernity
Here, Foucault is suggesting that although an historical event, an epoch in history, it is equally fruitful to envisage the Age of Enlightenment as an attitude (p39), a certain disposition adopted by certain individuals, and with this assertion, Foucault shifts our focus from a passive Hegelian or Marxian interpretation of history as an inevitable progression filled with its distinctions and slumps to which we are all subject to no matter how we think, to one of an active, self-imposed disposition
This, for Foucault, is the shift to modernity, an attitude as opposed to a given moment in time in which we all are imbued and trapped within.
Kant's What is Enlightenment?
With these feature in mind, we can now turn to the French philosopher's interpretation of Kant's own essay, What is Enlightenment?
I think the reason Foucault is approaching this particular text is because it is rather a minor text in philosophy and Foucault enjoys looking at these types of obscure, minor texts, precisely because they enable him to demonstrate modes of his own way of thinking.
There a three main concerns that Foucault wishes to identify:
- Firstly, Kant's notion of Enlightenment as a solution and as a process from human immaturity.
- Secondly, within the 'distinctive feature' (p35) of modernity itself whose motto and consequence is encapsulated in the statement Aude sapere, revolves an ambiguous relationship between working on one's self and an event or act in which the European participates collectively.
- Finally, the illuminating definition Kant gives to reason and the public and private use of that reason.
The First Concern
According to Foucault, Kant's process of Enlightenment offers a solution or promise to the individual's state of immaturity, the condition whereby we obey someone else's authority and reason when we should be using our own.
Foucault explains that Kant's 'register is easy to recognise
' (p34), it is the 'pre-existing relation linking will, authority, and the use of reason
' (p35), and Foucault suggests that in this Kantian world of immaturity, there is a solution and release so long as one is able to modify and work upon their own and other people's will, authority and reason.
The Second Concern
Foucault argues that Kant's process is offered as an obligation (p35), a normative value, a morality, whereby the individual becomes responsible for their own state of immaturity. The Kantian method of release is to work upon one's self, adjusting one's will to the 'instruction that one gives oneself and proposes to others,' the instruction being in this case, a feature, sign, motto, or badge, through which 'one can be recognised
' and in turn discriminate between others, namely, Aude sapere - having the courage to know (Ibid).
In this light, Kant's essay is turning out to be a discourse on a particular self-imposed normative system in which the individual may come to judge themselves and others on an ambiguously defined, not to say, emotive term which is equated with certain standards of behaviour and order. The subtle discourse of a social project of discipline which claims to be universal, 'a process in which men participate collectively and as an act of courage to be accomplished personally
And we could ask ourselves are not similar discourses within religious, economic and political dicourses also presented in this fashion, as other brands of enlightenment
? Foucault asks himself, what exactly does Kant mean by mankind in this context? And we may add, does Kant want the whole world to join his crusade and what would happen to those who happen to be classed as immature or non-enlightened? Should they be excluded, mocked, think that the enlightened are so much more special and worthy? And if this were so, what implications would this have on the political and social existence of people? How would it affect their relations with others?
Again, Foucault wonders if Kant's program of release is wishing to affect that which 'constitutes the humanity of human beings
' (Ibid), and if this were so, how are we going to note when this change arises and by whose standards?
The Third Concern
We now arrive to the third and final critique Foucault wishes to draw from Kant's essay, namely, the conditions set out to release the individual from the state of immaturity and herein, Foucault identities two essential features.
- One. Kant's definition given to reason itself, and
- Two. The distinction between the private and public use of reason
According to Foucault, Kants article draws upon ideas that will affect the 'spiritual and institutional, ethical and political
' (p35). The spiritual is referring to the cares and concerns of the individual, the institutional to societal constraints and possibilities developed around hierarchical structures, rules and orders, and the ethical and political pertaining to value itself. These four qualities are normative distinctions, beliefs about how individuals and individuals collectively think about their life, actuate the carrying out of that life and how society in general should function. Here we can see the influence of Heidegger on Foucault who in turn considers Kant's text touching upon all these aspects.
First Feature: Kant's Reason
As Foucault notes, Kant's conception of immaturity amounts to the idea of 'don't think, just follow orders
' (p36). A form of discipline that Kant argues is predominately found in the military, political and religious spheres of life. It follows that maturity will happen only when the individual follows the dictates of their own reason and not merely obeying that of others.
This is fine sounding stuff and Kant seems to be onto a good thing, but Foucault is honing in on that word reason
and discovers that Kant is using it in a very particular way. Foucault argues that Kant's reason means the 'use of reason in which reason has no other end but itself, to reason for the sake of reasoning
' (Ibid) and that in a state of Kantian maturity one has the 'right to think as one pleases so long as one obeys as one must
.' As Kant placed it, we first pay our taxes and then afterwards we can complain as much we wish about the system.
Second Feature: Public and Private Reason
The second aspect of reason Foucault wishes to focus upon, is Kant's distinction between the private and public use of that reason. For private reason we understand the term from Kant himself, as when we act as 'a cog in a machine, when [one] has a role to play in society and jobs to do
' (Ibid). In other words, when the 'human [is] a particular segment of society
On the other hand, when one is not a cog in a machine, not a member of society with a role to carry out, then, and only then, is one reasoning for the sake of reasoning and this type of reasoning is free and public. Foucault assures us that this Kantian distinction 'term for term [is] the opposite of what is ordinarily called freedom of conscience
' (Ibid). Inadvertently, a form of tyranny can be tweaked from the roots of Kant's Enlightenment project.
The Principle of Rational Despotism
Consequently, for the French philosopher, Kant's program of Enlightenment is arguing for the adoption of the principle of rational despotism
(p37) which we can formulate in the following way.
Reason, as constructed in an Enlightened manner, requires that the state, institution, economic and political system, or what have you, shall apply particular rules which pursue particular ends, which in turn, will adapt the individual's reason to those determined circumstances without appearing as overtly oppressive. Hence, the subjects come to believe that they are reasoning freely, although this reasoning occurs within the constraints of the given goals, rules and ends fabricated by the given authority.
That only when there is no end, no objective, no goal offered, no role to fulfil in society, is one free to reason for the sake of reasoning; and from this particular feature we may draw the inference that allowing freedom of reason (reasoning for reasoning sake) without direction is a sure way of not challenging the individual's reason.
Therefore, in either case, guaranteed obedience occurs within a state of maturity when the value systems of a given state, institution, or authority, is in conformity with the individual's reason itself and Enlightenment occurs when the private and public use of that reason are 'superimposed on one another
Internalisation of the System's Value
This is an extremely subtle insight and the result is very similar to the one offered by Chomsky a little later by a distinct manner of analysis. This phenomenon formulated by Foucault is often referred to today as the internalisation of the system's value, or simpler still, self-censoring.
Kant's Little Text
For Foucault, Kant's essay on Enlightenment is to be understood as 'defining the conditions
' of the legitimate use of reason that has developed within the Enlightenment (p38) and that Kant's article itself, by reflecting upon the possible passage from immaturity to enlightenment as a distinct movement in humanity's history, ensures that his 'little text is located at the crossroads of critical reflection, the attitude of modernit
y' (p38) itself, 'a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era
The Attitude of Modernity - An Ethos
Within the project of modernity (enlightenment), its structures of discourses, rules, objectives, roles and goals which frame much of the subject's subjectivity and 'what we think, say and do
' and which 'has made us what we are [and] the possibility of no longer being
' (p47), the individual encounters self and one's relation to reality.
Herein, largely determined by structure and system, the subject does not find the self but tries to go about inventing the self
(p41), and for Foucault this attitude is a clear expression of modernity, a mode of relating to contemporary reality, a way of being, thinking, feeling, acting and behaving. An ethos
Foucault calls it: the spirit of the modern individual.
Heroizing the Present
Foucault argues that this attitude is the attitude of modernity as exhibited by Kant himself. The breaking with tradition, maintaining a feeling of novelty or uniqueness, adopting a critical attitude with respect to the movement of contemporary reality and 'to heroize the present
' (p40), that is, imagining the present otherwise than it is and to go about transforming it and bringing about change.
Once again, we witness Foucault's intuitive distaste for dividing humanity's past into epochs, historising human events into the modern, pre-modern, post-modern eras, or what have you. Modernity, for Foucault, is not a sequel to some event, but an attitude that need not necessarily include all individuals and could have equally occurred, although not documented, in the time of pre-historic man as it could have occurred in the Middle Ages, as it may occur tomorrow.
Baudelaire's Flaneur and Dandy
With the intention of demonstrating how one might go about 'heroizing the now
', Foucault draws our attention to Baudelaire's concepts of the Flaneur and the Dandy. As Foucault puts it, the Flaneur is 'the idle, strolling spectator
' (Ibid), the individual who is 'satisfied to keep his eyes open, to pay attention and to build up a storehouse of memories
' (p41). While the Dandy works into oneself 'an indispensable asceticism
' that 'take[s] oneself as object of a complex and difficult elaboration
If, for Foucault, 'modernity does not liberate man in his own being'
but 'compels him to face the task of producing himself
' (p41-p42). The difference between the Flaneur and the Dandy is the difference between the spectator and the player, between one who passively experiences life and follows the orders and fashions of society and one who accepts the challenge of trying to create a life that is governed by the dictates of their own creative nature.
To Create One's Own System
This attitude of modernity is clearly Foucault's own conception of Romanticism, upholding the view of a life as self-created and self-generated. 'I must create my own system' wrote Blake, 'or become enslaved by another man's' and this sentiment could have equally been written by Foucault himself and clearly demonstrates the influence of Nietzsche on the French thinker.
Hence, modernity and modernism does not exist beyond the individual's self, it is not an era, not an event in history, nor is it an epoch, it is the individual who goes about making 'his body, his behaviour, his feelings and passions, his very existence, a work of art
Clearly, modernity on Foucaultian terms is a relationship between a) one's contemporary reality, b) oneself and c) the task of producing oneself (p41) and this raises the issue of our relation to the present, our historical mode of being and the constitution of our self as a subject.
Confronting Enlightenment's Blackmail
Foucault imagines this three-fold occurrence as the problematisation of the individual
and that this condition 'is rooted in the Enlightenment
' (42) and hence, what connects the individual of today to the Enlightenment of Kant's time, for example, is this condition, or as Foucault wishes to call it, this ethos.
In the attempt to define the notion of ethos, Foucault draws our attention to the following considerations. To actuate the modern ethos, one must refuse Enlightenment's blackmail (Ibid) by repudiating the idea that one either accepts the program of Enlightenment (rationalism/scienceism) or else one is against it.
Foucault reasons that this blackmail has occurred because humans fail to understand that they are 'historically determined
' (p43) and that the program of framing the absolute conditions in which reason may and may not be used, intending to ensnare the 'essential kernel of rationality
' (Ibid) and dictating these conditions to others, simply exhibits one's imposing disposition and the desire to enforce some form of rational despotism onto others. Moreover, intellectual blackmail has arisen from the human's absurd tendency in segregating a particular mode of rationality and then proceeding to claim that this mode of rationality is Reason itself.
If the modern self is self-created by exercising its freedom through the structures and constraints imposed upon it, then by inference, so too reason. In other words, just as there is not a thing we can point to and say, that is self, likewise with reason.
Questioning the projects of Humanism
From this persuasive insight, Foucault asserts that if we are going to adopt the modern ethos, then we must also question the projects of humanism identified in Religion, Marxism, Existentialism, National Socialism, Stalinism, and any scientific, economic and political discourses that announce a defining feature, essence, spirit, soul or nature to man and woman. It is in this light that Foucault's intuitive distrust of universals becomes apparent and his subtle approval of Kant's Enlightenment project as the 'permanent critique
Bringing this essay to an end, we can now make the following observations that I believe Foucault would wish us to draw from the first part of his essay.
Firstly, the idea that reason and discovering truth is opposed to creating systems of power or despotism must be rejected and hence, the use of reason is not necessarily a principle of freedom.
Secondly, that claiming a certain form of rationality or investigation is the correct form of rationality or investigation to be utilised by all individuals or society cannot be distinguished from a given normative attitude.
Thirdly, that no theory, no matter how well meaning, offers a defence against power constraints that impose upon the individual's agency. Certainly those theories may offer ways to dismantle certain contemporary power structures and constraints, but will inevitably erect their own for future generations to deal with. In this way, there is no answer to the question, '[ho]w can the growth of capabilities be disconnected from the intensification of power relations?
', for it is a question that each generation must ask themselves anew.
We can also observe that for Foucault, Enlightenment is not a doctrine, epoch or historical event, but an attitude, 'a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era
' (p42). This, for the French thinker, is the attitude of modernity, of modernism itself.
So, for now, this attitude is what Foucault believes ought to be our self-imposed condition as willed by the Enlightenment and Kant himself. That of transcending the individual we have been into something new, always spiritually and intellectually demanding, yet understanding that to be most human is to create a life from the demands of our own unique nature.