In 1983, Michel Foucault invited a few friends and colleagues to have a rather surprising discourse on the subject of Immanuel Kant’s treatise on the question “What is Enlightenment?”.
In his essay titled, “What is Enlightenment”, Foucault gives his own take on the question asked in the December 1784 publication of the Berlinische Monatsschrift.
Immanuel Kant, in his response to the question “What is Enlightenment”, defined Enlightenment as “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” and the “courage to use your own reason”. Kant believed that “laziness and cowardice” were the prime reasons why many men remained un-enlightened. Kant asserted that people refused to throw off the yoke of “self-imposed tutelage” because it was easier to pay people to think for them and run their lives. As Kant put it a person could pay to buy a book to serve as understanding, a pastor to serve as a conscience and a physician to determine a diet. here was no real need for an individual to exert their own will or their own reason since these “benevolent guardians” would take over an individual’s life for them. The act of enlightenment, therefore, was the act of rejecting this easy form of life and asserting the primacy of your individual reason to reject the conventions of the social guardians who Kant asserted herded society like docile, dumb livestock.” (Source: williampax.com)
According to Geoffrey Harpham, “Foucault sought not just to rehabilitate the chronically “incomplete project” of the Enlightenment as a subject of contemporary discussion but also to establish some positive relation of his own to that fissile and complex movement by reopening the question to which Kant had provided “an answer”, almost two centuries ago.” Thus, Foucault analysis Kant’s take on Enlightenment as well as provided his own interpretation of the philosophy.
However, due to Foucault’s unfortunate death, the seminar never took place and this essay was then published in 1984.
Foucault starts off by scrupulously delineating Kant’s claim of Enlightenment as a process that has the power to release people from the state of “immaturity”. Thus, Foucault defines Enlightenment in Kantian terms as a “modification of the preexisting relation linking will, authority and the use of reason.” The motto is “Dare to know”, which is seen in the light of both as a “collective process and an individual act. However, Foucault here finds problematic ambiguities here and begins his critique by commenting on the further problems in Kant’s essay.
Foucault acknowledges Kant for posing the question of his present, and eulogises him for “closely and from the inside” by reflecting on history and giving an analysis of the specific moment at which he’s writing and because of which he’s writing.”
Differing from Kant, Foucault also seems to treat the question in genealogical terms, that is the structural genealogy of western reason.
According to Christopher Norris, Foucault rejects any version of the strong universalist premise that attaches value to culture to the philosophical discourse of modernity. Thus, for Foucault, Enlightenment project is “an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.” Norris also points out the conspicuous critique of Kant’s distinction between the public and the private: “criticism is no longer going to be practiced in the search for formal structures with universal value, but rather as a historical investigation…criticism is not transcendental…it’s genealogical in it’s design and archaeological in its methods.”
Foucault takes a dig at the distinction between the realm of obedience and the realm of reason. He calls Kant’s attribution to Fredrick II as the “play of power and truth”.
Post this commentary, Foucault to delineate his own understanding of Enlightenment, as the attitude of modernity, rather than as an epoch, exemplified by Baudelaire and his consciousness of discontinuity of time. In Norris’ words, Foucault reads Kant with Baudelaire “in order to facilitate the otherwise dubious move that redefines modernity, enlightenment and critique on his own term.” Foucault emphasizes on dandyism as form of asceticism and way of self-invention, equating modernity and continuous self transformation and invention, the “feeling of novelty, of vertigo in the face of the passing moment.” According to Foucault, the attitude of modernity makes it possible to “grasp the heroic aspect of the present moment, it’s the will to heroize the present. Drawing again to Baudelaire, Foucault affirms that modernity is a form of relationship one has to establish with ones”
Foucault tries to avoid coming under the influence of “Enlightenment Blackmail” which is defined by Ralph Hummel as the Hobson’s choice to “come out for reason and enlightenment, then be called insensitive to it’s catastrophic collapse or object the Enlightenment and be called irrational.” To escape this, he proposed a third way- “to transform the critique conducted in the form of possible transgression.”
Foucault also makes a deliberate attempt to free the notion of Enlightenment from humanist motifs, which are simply moral and value judgements.
Foucault offers a positive characterization of this ethos, the philosophical ethos which is an ethos of transgression, strongly opposed to the stultifying bourgeois standards of knowledge and morality. However, Foucault only sticks to the reappraisal of the concept of critique. Criticism and possibility of moving beyond those limits of reason is to be seen as a challenge, according to Foucault.