"What is Enlightenment" or in German "Was ist Aufklarung" has been an important question in philosophy as well as in politics since 18th century. Like Michel Foucault mentions in his article "What is Enlightenment", many of the modern philosophers including Hegel, Nietzsche, Max Weber, Horkheimer and Habermas tried to answer this question from their point of view. In this assignment, I will try to explain Foucault's critic of famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant's ideas on Enlightenment. I will also mention about Foucault's method of criticism and his conceptualization of the present.
Foucault begins to his article by explaining three different ways used by philosophers to represent the present. The first way is to represent the present as belonging to a certain era of the world very different from the other because of its characteristics. The second way is to represent the present’s events, realities as the signs of an upcoming important event, new era. The third way is about representing the present as the dawning of a new world. Foucault claims that neither of these methods is available in Kant's perception of Enlightenment. "Now the way Kant poses the question of Aufklarung is entirely different: it is neither a world era to which one belongs, nor an event whose signs are perceived, nor the dawning of an accomplishment" (Foucault, p.34). In Kant's view, Enlightenment is nothing but an exit, a way out and he deals with the contemporary reality alone. Kant thinks that Enlightenment is the escape of mankind from immaturity, from the tutelage of the authority. In his idea, immaturity refers to the state in which men do not use their reason and just obey the orders of authorities. There is also an ambiguity in Kant's explanation of Enlightenment. Kant believes that Enlightenment is both a historical phenomenon, process that started to take place and a task that each man has to pass himself. According to Kant, man is responsible of his immature status thus, he needs to change himself. He needs to have the courage to change him. Foucault talks about the idiom "aude sapere (dare to know)" to clarify Kant's views. In the light of these views, Foucault asserts that for Kant Enlightenment was both a collective process and a courageous personal act.
Foucault then passes on to analyze Kant's use of the word "menschheit (mankind)". Foucault questions whether Kant uses the word as the entire human race reaching the level of Enlightenment or not. Michel Foucault later focuses on Kant's distinction between public and private use of reason. Kant says that the public use of the reason must be free whereas private use should be submissive, restrictive. Kant in his article "What is Enlightenment" gives the example of a priest to clarify this distinction. He thinks that this man as a scholar or an ordinary man in the street has the right to criticize the Pope and the deeds of the Roman Catholic Church. However, as a priest he could not make such claims because of the responsibility of the office he holds, he must obey the orders of his superiors. In other words, men have to obey the rules when they have a role, job to do in society whose rules are pre-determined by superior authorities. "The use, therefore, which an appointed teacher makes of his reason before his congregation is merely private, because this congregation is only a domestic one; with respect to it, as a priest, he is not free, nor can he be free, because he carries out the orders of another" (Kant, p. 266). Thus, Kant's Enlightenment is away from complete freedom of men to use their reason but more like "Obey, and you will be able to reason as much as you like". Kant gives the example of a man paying his taxes regularly while at the same time arguing about the injustice of taxation system.
Foucault later begins to put forward his own ideas about the Enlightenment. He thinks that Enlightenment is the age of using reason but also the age of separating the legitimate and illegitimate uses of reason by critique. He further says that we must escape from being for or against the Enlightenment. "In any case, I think that, just as we must free ourselves from the intellectual blackmail of being for or against the Enlightenment, we must escape from the historical and moral confusionism that mixes the theme of humanism with the question of the Enlightenment" (Foucault, p. 45).
In this paragraph, I want to focus on Foucault's method of criticism and his conceptualization of the present. Michel Foucault like in all of his articles, books, focuses on the different words used by Kant to better understand his concept on Enlightenment. Words like "Aufklarung", "Ausgang", "Menschheit" etc. are analyzed by Foucault carefully to determine the boundaries of Kant's theory. This method of criticism, also used by Noam Chomsky, is a linguist approach which helps readers to question the accuracy of what they understand from Kant's ideas. Foucault also finds the roots of his own ideas in Kant's theory of the Enlightenment. "Obey, and you will be able to reason as much as you like" is the very short summary of Kant's ideas about the distinction between private and public use of reason and Foucault uses it in a particular way to strengthen his own ideas about the control of states over citizens' bodies and minds in today's world. Foucault also tries to explain Kant by showing what he does not say as well as what he does say. So, the clarification he made about the representation of the present by philosophers is a very significant example for Foucault's approach. Foucault's conceptualization of the present is much like the continuation of an epoch started in Kant's period which still goes on. Foucault is not clear about whether this process called Enlightenment will succeed and will be accomplished one day and he tries to stay away from dogmas, sharp ideas.