Still bearing fruit, Enlightenment continues along the course of philosophical thinking

By Cheng Yi / 02-27-2014 / Chinese Social Sciences Today


Michel Foucault, together with the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, reading a manifesto



In December 1784, Immanuel Kant published the article “Answering the question: What is Enlightenment?” in Berlinische Monatsschrift. An enduring source of discussion and debate among continental philosophers well into the 20th century, the prompt of the article particularly attracted Michel Foucault, who called it “a question that modern philosophy has not been capable of answering.” Nearly two centuries after its publication, Foucault gave a lecture on “Enlightenment” on January 5, 1983, at College de France, reflecting on the project of the Enlightenment to date in Europe. The following year—the year of Foucault’s death—the seminal French philosopher published an essay based on his lecture in a special edition of Le Magazine Littéraire on Kant and modernity. Titled “What is Enlightenment?” (“Qu'est-ce que les Lumières?”) after Kant’s article, the essay was included in the collection The Foucault Reader, compiled later that year in honor of Foucault’s death.


Unmoved by the voluminous discussion of the Enlightenment in continental philosophy since Kant, Foucault took an interest only in Kant’s early exposition on the subject. It is not Kant’s examination of the public sphere and the convergence of Christian Europe’s public sphere and Judaism’s Enlightenment that captures Foucault’s attention, nor is it the application of teleonomy and teleology to history, frequent themes in Kant’s writing that are nonetheless absent from the article. Rather, Foucault is intrigued by a new question Kant raises: what is the “present” outside of which we cannot exist? Kant and “modernity” are closely integrated, reflecting Kant’s “present”. For Foucault, the “present” is the so-called “post-modern era”, and the style of questions he poses are in a sense entirely different from those raised by preceding philosophical discourse: it is neither a world era to which one belongs, nor an event whose signs are perceived, nor the dawning of an accomplishment. Kant defines Enlightenment in an almost entirely negative way. He is looking for a difference: What difference does today introduce with respect to yesterday?”


For Foucault, the Enlightenment is both a special event that initiates European modernity and an ongoing process of rationalization. Therefore, he refuses to be “for” or “against” the Enlightenment. “Enlightenment is the philosophical question born in our mind since the 18th century,” he writes. “We, with deep devoutness, hope that something could be preserved with the vitality and completion of the Enlightenment legacy. Such devoutness touches the most moving part of human thought—criticism. What is important is not protection of the residuals of the Enlightenment but such events and their significance (a historical question of global thinking). As something worth pondering, it must be protected and preserved spiritually.”


Foucault’s philosophical attitude here betrays deep contradictions. On one hand, he observes that perspectives on the Enlightenment since Kant have determined people’s thought, words, behaviors, and moral judgment down to the present, laying the theoretical foundation for modern political, economic, social, institutional and cultural development. The ideological heritage of the Enlightenment, up to now, has undergone a long period of crystallization toward rationality. At the same time, however, he argues that the Enlightenment has gradually been imprisoned, with its ultimate value—the ability to liberate man from the fetter’s of Kant’s state of “immaturity”—lost. It is in this sense that Foucault criticizes the Enlightenment. On the other hand, Foucault constantly mentions “Enlightenment”, emphasizing that it should be interpreted in connection with Kant’s three Critiques, Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Judgment and Critique of Practical Reason.


Kant describes the Enlightenment as the point at which humanity begins to utilize its intellect and reason. Agreeing completely with this, Foucault stresses that it is important not to envisage the “modernity” during which Kant wrote “Enlightenment” as a period of history or seek to distinguish it from the “pre-modern” or “postmodern,” but, by retracing the conflict between the attitudes of “modernity" and "counter-modernity", outline its genealogy, thereby revealing how the enlightenment determines present day thought, speech, actions and sense of self, others, and the world and the relationship between them. The Enlightenment, as the attitude of modernity, is like an eternal electrical current that decides the existential status and historical fate of Europeans. It is through the Enlightenment that all Europeans share a common destiny. “And by 'attitude,' I mean a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what the Greeks called an ethos,” writes Foucault.


Foucault could not agree more with Charles Pierre Baudelaire’s perception of the modern individual. “Modern man, for Baudelaire, is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself. This modernity does not 'liberate man in his own being'; it compels him to face the task of producing himself.”


If we say Kant’s criticism is a Priori, in that it aims to establish metaphysical system of universal necessity, then Foucault’s criticism is archeological and genealogical. His philosophical pursuit embarks from a dedication to probing the archival traces that narrate human thought, discourse, action, and moral judgment. Churning over these materials, he strives to piece together the likely futures of humanity.


Some of Foucault’s critics are fond of labeling the late philosopher as “anti-rationality”, even accusing him of exalting the non-rational. This is a misreading of Foucault. More than once, Foucault states that his aim is not to marshal diverse concrete facts as a counter to systematic abstract theory, and is absolutely not to oppose building a monument of scientific knowledge by belittling intellectual speculation. His objection is to stale, institutionalized reason. However, the Enlightenment’s “attitude of modernity”—the forever critical attitude toward the era to which we belong—Foucault hails, asserting, moreover, that Western society ought to reinvigorate this attitude, again and again. Since a mature and satisfactory Europe has not yet come into being and the cause of the Enlightenment has not yet succeeded, the Enlightenment, like criticism, is bound to continue bearing fruit and reappearing along the course of human philosophical thinking.


Cheng Yi is from the Institute of Philosophy of the School of Public Administration at South China Normal University.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 546, December 23, 2013 


Translated by Bai Le

Revised by Charles Horne