Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Enlightenment as Idealist Feeding Frenzy

Commenting on the most persistent of the Enlightenment Underground’s thematic questions, Orla Schantz recently had this to say,

“The easy answer to “Why do people desire their own repression?” is, of course Kant's own in his essay: that it is the laziness of not being mature that seems appealing, letting others read the books and tell you what to believe, letting the doctors determine what your diet should be, etc.

But it is also appealing to us today to go all Freudian and/or schizoanalytical in our attempts to answer the question - which I don't really find that interesting.”

Orla’s comment refers primarily to these two passages from Kant’s essay, Was ist Aufklarung?

“Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.”


“Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a portion of mankind, after nature has long since discharged them from external direction ( naturaliter maioernnes), nevertheless remains under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so easy not to be of age. If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if I can only pay—others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.”

It is clear that Orla correctly reported how Kant explains why people do not seek release from their self-incurred tutelage. As I am inclined to agree with Orla that what Kant was talking about when he spoke of “self-incurred tutelage” and what Wilhelm Reich was talking about when he spoke of “desiring one’s own repression,” is very similar, if not exactly identical, I am willing to accept that Kant’s answer might be entertained as an answer to Reich’s. What I want to probe further is whether this is a very good answer to Reich’s question, whether it exhausts the matter at hand, and whether we can use Kant's answer in any way to penetrate the political and social problems we face today.

Kant’s simple few words reflect the sea change – the revolutionary change—in the way that Enlightenment men (and yes, that is “men”…Let’s be clear about that—very few Enlightenment thinkers were addressing themselves to women, and I don’t think there’s much doubt that Kant wasn't,) view themselves, their relationship to society and to the cosmos, and frame what is important to them, and even how they will go about what’s important. I want to examine is what Kant is assuming here—what he is taking for granted, so to speak, and whether we do well, or poorly, ( or otherwise,) to follow suit. I then want to look again at the question of “ why people desire their own repression,” to see how much, if anything, we can learn about the constraints of the question itself.

The first and the most violent note I want to draw attention to in these words is their emphasis upon the individual and the individual’s responsibility for his own condition. Men are responsible for not making use of their own understanding – as they say, “ they’ve ( the "men" of Kant's time) got no one to blame but themselves.” There is no external oppression or force placed upon Kant’s contemporaries, he thinks, holding them down and keeping them from realizing this possibility that they have of thinking for themselves. They are released from the direction of nature, ( they have been “long since discharged from external direction ( naturaliter maioernnes )); even though Kant recognizes that there are some people who set themselves up as ‘guardians’ for others, Kant does not think that this ‘guardianship’ and whatever it entails are sufficiently befuddling or forcefully-oppressing to such an extent as to provide an excuse for one to “ not to be of age.” The onus is on the individual for that—failure and shame rightfully belong to those who have not successfully cultivated an ability to make use of understanding without direction from another.

Please note also that whoever it is that Kant is thinking of when he says “ man’s release” or “man’s inability” or “mankind” ( and as I’ve said, it definitely isn’t women he’s thinking of so much,) he feels no need to specify. He may really be thinking of European Caucasian males who own property and have received an education, but he speaks in the generic, as if he COULD BE addressing European “people of color” ( they did exist in Kant’s time,) rural or urban peasantry, the dispossessed, the disabled, or really anybody. Kant is speaking as if he is saying that ANYONE who has not achieved the ability to use their own understanding without external direction is responsible for this being the case. My opinion is that Kant is thinking in terms of some “universal” condition where no such “universal” condition is appertaining.

I don’t want to go into great detail about this, but what Kant is overlooking seems staggering to consider. Europe in 1784 ( the year Kant wrote his essay,) was a place of great upheaval and deprivation, a place of violence and exploitation. In many ways, conditions were not much better for many masses of people than they had been during the middle ages. There was great poverty -- many people didn’t have enough bread… And I mean “bread” – the stuff you bake in an oven—to sustain themselves. Certainly people in this condition can’t have been concerning themselves overmuch with whether they were thinking for themselves or not – or even if they were, how realistic would it have been for Kant to believe that they could achieve that goal on their own? Kant really proceeds to think as if these people – probably the vast majority of people alive at that time—don’t count. It is almost as if they don’t exist.

Even though I am trying to restrict myself to two small passages from one short essay, I cannot comment completely in one post. I am sorry – I guess there will need to be several of these.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yusef – you have taken a very productive way ahead by turning back to Kant’s essay which should be our focus for many months to come. This could be immensely rewarding. Let’s stay with that!

When you write:

The onus is on the individual for that — failure and shame rightfully belong to those who have not successfully cultivated an ability to make use of understanding without direction from another.

I don’t think you are being quite fair to Kant. It is true that he has a universal or generalized idea of “man” (or Menschheit), but he is also sympathetic to the plight of the down-trodden, as in this passage,

Thus it is difficult for each separate individual to work his way out of the immaturity which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown fond of it and is really incapable for the time being of using his own understanding, because he was never allowed to make the attempt. Dogmas and formulas, those mechanical instruments for rational use (or rather misuse) of his natural endowments, are the ball and chain of his permanent immaturity. And if anyone did throw them off, he would still be uncertain about jumping over even the narrowest of trenches, for he would be unaccustomed to free movement of this kind. Thus only a few, by cultivating their own minds, have succeeded in freeing themselves from immaturity and in continuing boldly on their way.

It would also be interesting to study Foucault’s reading of Kant two hundred years later in 1978 where he deftly points out the ambiguities:

Kant indicates right away that the 'way out' that characterizes Enlightenment is a process that releases us from the status of 'immaturity.' And by 'immaturity,' he means a certain state of our will that makes us accept someone else's authority to lead us in areas where the use of reason is called for. Kant gives three examples: we are in a state of 'immaturity' when a book takes the place of our understanding, when a spiritual director takes the place of our conscience, when a doctor decides for us what our diet is to be. (Let us note in passing that the register of these three critiques is easy to recognize, even though the text does not make it explicit.)

In any case, Enlightenment is defined by a modification of the preexisting relation linking will, authority, and the use of reason.
We must also note that this way out is presented by Kant in a rather ambiguous manner. He characterizes it as a phenomenon, an ongoing process; but he also presents it as a task and an obligation. From the very first paragraph, he notes that man himself is responsible for his immature status.

Thus it has to be supposed that he will be able to escape from it only by a change that he himself will bring about in himself. Significantly, Kant says that this Enlightenment has a Wahlspruch: now a Wahlspruch is a heraldic device, that is, a distinctive feature by which one can be recognized, and it is also a motto, an instruction that one gives oneself and proposes to others. What, then, is this instruction? Aude sapere: 'dare to know,' 'have the courage, the audacity, to know.'

Thus Enlightenment must be considered both as a process in which men participate collectively and as an act of courage to be accomplished personally. Men are at once elements and agents of a single process. They may be actors in the process to the extent that they participate in it; and the process occurs to the extent that men decide to be its voluntary actors.

A third difficulty appears here in Kant's text in his use of the word 'mankind,' Menschheit. The importance of this word in the Kantian conception of history is well known. Are we to understand that the entire human race is caught up in the process of Enlightenment? In that case, we must imagine Enlightenment as a historical change that affects the political and social existence of all people on the face of the earth. Or are we to understand that it involves a change affecting what constitutes the humanity of human beings? But the question then arises of knowing what this change is. Here again, Kant's answer is not without a certain ambiguity. In any case, beneath its appearance of simplicity, it is rather complex.

Michel Foucault, 1978 What Is Enlightenment?

Looking forward to productive discussions,

Orla Schantz

3:12 PM  
Blogger Cal Sachs said...

On the one hand, I agree with Orla that Kant's essay on Enlightenment insists that Enlightenment is a social process, not an individual one. More precisely, Kant holds that individual enlightenment is extremely difficult and rare, but social enlightenment -- enlightenment through social means -- is inevitable, if it is permitted. (There's an anticipation of the Hegelian "sociality of reason" here.) So I don't read it as "blaming the victim."

On the other hand, Yusef is right to point out that Kant is not explicitly concerned with the materiality of enlightenment -- poverty, hunger, lack of meaningful employment or employment at all, lack of education, high mortality due to war or disease.

In short, sociality and materiality are both conditions of enlightenment, and Kant is implicitly attuned to the former but not at all to the latter.

One thing I do appreciate about Kant is his recognition that it will be very difficult to get people to think for themselves if they are unused to doing so. The essay "What is Enlightenment?" is basically a justification for benevolent despotism.

12:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Cal, for a thoughtful comment. It's much appreciated.

It is true that Kant was not much concerned with the materiality of the Enlightenment. It is also true, as Yusef points out that he wasn't concerned with the plight of the poor and hungry.

But why should he be? And is that a valid point?

To me it seems an unfair confusion of contexts to blame Kant - the philosopher - for not being the social reformer, the critical sociologist or the political activist.

Let's return to what he wrote,

If it is now asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment. As things are at present, we still have a long way to go before men as a whole can be in a position (or can ever be put into a position) of using their own understanding confidently and well in religious matters, without outside guidance.

But we do have distinct
indications that the way is now being cleared for them to work freely in this direction, and that the obstacles to universal enlightenment, to man's emergence
from his self-incurred immaturity, are gradually becoming fewer. In this respect our age is the age of enlightenment, the century of Frederick.

Kant was lucky to live during the reign of Frederick who patronized writers and philosophers. He modernized the Prussian bureaucracy and civil service and promoted religious toleration throughout his realm.

When you write, Cal, that,

The essay "What is Enlightenment?" is basically a justification for benevolent despotism.

I think you are right, but fail to see the explosive paradigm-shift the reign of Frederick the Great really provided for philosophers as Kant.

We wouldn't have Kant's seminal essay if not for the benevolence of Frederick the Great.

It's just not fair to apply the standards of 2007 to Königsberg in 1784.

All the best,

Orla Schantz

6:58 PM  
Blogger Carl Sachs said...

It's just not fair to apply the standards of 2007 to Königsberg in 1784.

It's not? Well, why not?

Of course I agree . . . but only in that Kant was a child of his time, as we are all.

Nevertheless, I reserve the right to judge the Konigsberg of 1784 by the standards of North America of 2007 -- without that right, the very notion of moral progress loses its meaning.

Perhaps you are willing to dispense with such a notion. I am not. And if that is the root of our disagreement in this particular, it would be good to bring it out into the open.

11:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Cal,

Thanks for your response.

I guess we are in disagreement about judging Kant by our present day standards although he himself is pretty absolutist in his moral imperative which is clearly meant to be universal.

I read (an enjoy) "What Is Enlightenment?" as an idealistic analysis of emancipation and as a statement of an utopian hope.

But also as a (resigned) description of man's unwillingness to become mature and autonomous (without being led by another).

That still seems true today.


Orla Schantz

2:42 PM  

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