Just a little over a year ago, on February 16, 2006, Dr. Spinoza proposed the following initiatory questions :
-what was the Enlightenment?
-what was the Counter-Enlightenment?
-what is “the dialectic of Enlightenment”?
-why is the Enlightenment currently under attack?
-why did the Left abandon its traditional defense of Enlightenment principles and ideals?
Except for a very few, brief, almost furtive attempts made during the first month of the blog, these questions have received no attention – they’ve been abandoned.
I wonder why this is.
Do we need to give some account of the Enlightenment, how we view it, and how we situate ourselves with regard to it, as citizens of a western democracy and as bloggers writing under the banner of “The Enlightenment Underground,”
or are we excused from taking it seriously – are we excused from this tradition?
I think that we must provide a better idea of why we wanted to take up this theme of Enlightenment – even if our account of that is never very fulfilling or far reaching…. We need to say why we thought the Enlightenment theme was important in the first place.
I want to re-initiate work on these initiatory questions of Dr. Spinoza.
Of the five questions, the last three seem to be secondary…to have derived from the first two, but not in some straightforward or unbiased way. It seems to me that they only come up if the first two questions are answered in a certain way, but not the way I would answer those first two questions. Therefore, I am going to bracket these last three questions and hold off yet further on them. Maybe I will come back to them… It will depend on the direction our discussion of the first two questions takes us.
Even though I plan to give a short answer to the second question, it bothers me for reasons I explained a little bit last week.
Which brings me to the first question: “what was the Enlightenment?”
I want to point out something I’ve noticed about the form Dr. Spinoza has given this question: he has placed it in the past tense. He has not asked: “what is the Enlightenment?”, but “what was the Enlightenment?” This is important, I think. Both Kant, in his essay “Was ist Aufklarung?”
, and Foucault, in his essay “What is Enlightenment
?”,( which is an essay in part about Kant’s essay), use the present tense—they are asking a question about the present – their present.
I think we need to do the same.
We need to be asking: what is the Enlightenment?
If we cannot ask it this way, we need to find out how it is that the Enlightenment is no longer a part of the present. We need to get a better grip on how it is that Kant and Foucault include the Enlightenment in, as Foucault says, “the question of [their] own present,” a writing of “the ontology of the present, an ontology of ourselves,” but our time is now so much different that we do not so include it – and what this difference is.
I very much love the succinct way Foucault summarized the extraordinarily potent themes of the Enlightenment which he felt were, or needed to be, active and activated in his time, ( our recent past.) I quoted Foucault's summary in last week’s post, but I give it again:
“I have been seeking, on the one hand, to emphasize the extent to which a type of philosophical interrogation—one that simultaneously problematizes man’s relation to the present, man’s historical mode of being, and the constitution of the self as an autonomous subject—is rooted in the Enlightenment. On the other hand, I have been seeking to stress that the thread that may connect us with the Enlightenment is not faithfulness to doctrinal elements, but rather the permanent reactivation of an attitude—that is, of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era.”- M. Foucault, essay: What is Enlightenment?
To highlight their thematic importance for my own questioning of my present, I will enumerate these three Enlightenment elements I identify in Foucault’s words:
1. To problematize man’s relation to the present;
2. To problematize man’s historical mode of being;
3. The constitution of the self as an autonomous subject.
Of these, I find the last to be of the most ringing importance.
I am answering the present tense question of “What is Enlightenment” by reactivating the philosophical ethos which contributes in our time to the constitution of the self as an autonomous subject.
The second question, “What was the Counter-Enlightenment?” (vis, “ what is the Counter-Enlightenment?”) I thus would answer: the Counter-Enlightenment is that which works to prevent the constitution of a self as an autonomous subject. However, please note – I do not believe that there exist Counter-Enlightenment projects, conspiracies, or groups, per se.
We can rephrase the other thematic question Dr. Spinoza posed a year ago, “Why do people desire their own repression?” by putting it this way: “Why don't people direct their efforts and desire toward the constitution of a self as an autonomous subject, but choose instead one that is non-autonomous?”
If I’ve been followed in all this, I think it is obvious that I’m putting enormous stress on the concept of “autonomy.” And that’s dangerous, I think, because I’m not even sure that “autonomy” exists, or if it does, that it has the desirability I’m now giving it. I want to study “autonomy” in much greater detail. In particular, I want to show what "autonomy" looks like within that thinking which is "a pragmatics of the multiple."