Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Enlightenment as Hypocrites' Hogs Wallow

Maybe I would be happier if rather than asking, “What is Enlightenment?” we had begun our inquiry by asking “Is Enlightenment?” (or to put it a little more explicitly: “ Is there such a thing as Enlightenment?”)

I want to know that Enlightenment exists before I begin to ask what Enlightenment is. We have jumped the gun by assuming we can ask "what" before we ask "is."

In asking the question of whether the Enlightenment is or not , I am not attempting to deny that men may consider themselves enlightened, and have happily called themselves enlightened ( or, more modestly, considered themselves on the way to enlightenment; or, more grandly, to be living in an “AGE ” of Enlightenment.) Certainly it delights men to think that they and their age are enlightened, and men will do what delights them, but thinking it so can’t MAKE it so, can it?

The question which I think needs to be asked is whether what we are looking at, both in the question of the Enlightenment, (and more broadly in the very question of philosophy itself,) is whether some quantitative elevation of thinking and human capability takes place, or whether all this STUFF/JUNK is an exercise in self-flattery… Do we do more than please ourselves when we believe that we “think for ourselves”, or do we indeed really think for ourselves? Do we even think? ( Thinking being considered as somehow “productive” – we can think that we think and therefore think and be thinking—but the thinking of infinite regress is not the kind of thinking—is not thinking in the productive or liberating sense Kant or Foucault presuppose in either’s questioning of Enlightenment.)

Do we really believe that there have been quantitative or qualitative increases, in some positive sense, in human capacities or potentialities, of an opening up of some sort of arena of reality, based on “human” activities of thinking or understanding, and that one of the biggest such increases happened around the time of Immanuel Kant’s lifetime in the eighteenth century?

The question of the Enlightenment can be taken as a question of the potential of philosophy. Did these men of the Enlightenment learn to use their own understanding? Did Immanuel Kant? Did the change in the organization of society at this time, reflected most importantly in the overthrow of the Church and the clerics’ hold on the range available for intellect and imagination, have anything to do with what Kant calls “a true reform in ways of thinking”? Things were changing, and changing rapidly, but was “thinking” truly to be said to have a part in that, as either cause or effect? I don’t think the answer is obvious one way or the other.

For reasons I hope I will be able to elaborate later on I want to continue to pursue these questions using the broad and nebulous gerund, “thinking.” What I will not do, however, is mix up the more limited but perhaps just as nebulous term “rationality” with “thinking” and treat them as synonyms in the way Kant appears to consistently do.

Kant says this,

"The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men.”

About what Kant understands as the public use of one’s reason, Kant says this,

“By the public use of one’s reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public.”

Ah, yes... Kant's scholar ( or someone acting as scholar,) will have privileged access and discourse in public use of reason. This being so, it is the "scholar" who is the one who MUST ALWAYS BE FREE. And remind me: what was Kant? Ah, yes… He was a scholar. So maybe the only thing Kant is engaging in is self-pleading for privileges for himself and his own kind -- not " thinking"? This has not been well-cognized… perhaps because for us it would seem a natural privilege that “scholarship” informs the political realm. ( Just as for us it seems natural that "knowledge" and "information" are above all else valuable.) But what I wonder is how it can be that something can seem so natural and yet upon the slightest examination of what actually is be so rarely found--scholarship doesn't inform the public or the political very often or very well.

The relationship of scholarship to political action is so problematic that it seems fantastic that anyone, especially a philosopher, could have believed, except as a wishing for privilege, that it could be efficacious, exemplary. I don’t think it was, or will be, or should be. I don't think that the scholar deserves any political privilege of any type.


Blogger Orla Schantz said...

Dear Yusef,

You certainly have a point when you write,

Do we do more than please ourselves when we believe that we “think for ourselves”, or do we indeed really think for ourselves? Do we even think?

There is an embarrassing elitism in all of this that we should be aware of. But there is also the danger of self-flagellation.

We philosophize. On this blog. We think about thinking. A lot of people don't. That's OK.

But isn't it - more than ever - in our time necessary to create concepts (i.e. to think - preferably outside the proverbial BOX) in our age of immaterial production?

The problem is that thinking is too often associated with moralism. That the scholar "deserves any political privilege of any type" (as you put it).

I think (!) that philosophy is not only vital but also practical. The problem is that it is too unsettling to most people. And that hasn't changed since Kant wrote his essay in 1784.

Maybe it's time for "soothing philosophy" = deterritorializing people's concepts without disrupting them unduly.

All the best,


8:35 PM  
Anonymous J. River Martin said...

"We philosophize. On this blog. We think about thinking. A lot of people don't. That's OK.

But is it? How many of "a lot of people" don't think about thinking? And how many of these are engaged in the socio-political realm?

A democratic society requires that a certain percentage of people are thoughful about their thinking, I'd say. For if I do not think about my thinking I'm probably not really thinking at all. I'm unthinkingly going along with stuff ... thoughtlessly. This unthinking going-along-with may not result in the erosion to disappearance of formal democracy; people would still vote (etc.); but the people of a democracy could vote (etc.) against their own best interests, and the interests of their community (which is the community of all life).

Exactly this is what seems, to me, to be occuring here in the USA. And, to me, this shows that mere formal democracy is, at best, a necessary component of a functional democracy--i.e., a democracy which meets the real needs of its community members.

1:11 PM  
Anonymous JRM said...

(Oops! I mistakenly posted this comment in the wrong space! Here goes again.)

Dear Yusef,

I'd like to call your attention to my question in the comments following the blog entry dated
Wednesday, February 28, 2007 and titled "Enlightenment Ambivalence". Thank you.

1:19 PM  

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