In his essay on What is Enlightenment, Kant explains that man is embedded in a self-incurred minority. Kant insists that this minority is the incapacity of one’s to think and make use of their reason in face the “authorities” that have traditionally submitted humankind to restrictions in manners of religion and politics (Kant 2001, 135). He claims that, “such minority is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack of self-determination” (Kant 2001, 135). Enlightenment, for Kant, is therefore, the courage to use your own intelligence – Sapere Aude! Dare to think – nothing less than achieving maturity (Kant 2001, 135).
In What is Enlightenment, Kant also states that the basic point of Enlightenment is connected with the fact that man tries to release from his self-incurred minority (Kant 2001, 141). It primarily happens in matters of religion. In such case, the Enlightenment could be considered as a negative act because the individual lacks of the space for the searching of the sense of life. The modern in general and Enlightenment in particular was the process of opposition against the traditional Christian values. In the process of destruction of these values, man could find himself in the pure cosmos of nihilism. This event happened in the 19th century with the “Death of God”. Thus, it could be stated that with the help of this thoughts, Kant tries to demonstrate that the Enlightenment is the escape from traditional values, especially religious feelings. However, the negation of religion and God would lead to the world without values and without individual.
Michael Foucault stated that the Kantian understanding of modernity was a mistake in accordance with the studies of social and political scientists. However, Foucault believed that Kant was philosophically right at some points. There is no doubt that Kant has forecasted the appearance of the post-modern philosophy and postmodern world without religion. In this world, people are really trying to escape from themselves in social interaction. However, the modern society could not be characterized as atheistic. Thus, Kantian ideas were only partly true.
Interestingly, Kant distinguishes between the public and the private uses of reason – “All that is required for this enlightenment is freedom […] the freedom for man to make public use of his reason in all matters” (Kant 2001, 136). Surprisingly, the public use of reason is classified as with more freedom than its private use. For him, private use of reason is when a citizen has its duties and role to play in society independent of what he thinks, as an example, pay the taxes imposed upon him (Kant 2001, 137). By contrast, the public use of reason is when one thinks as a member of a reasonable humanity, what Foucault describes as the universal use of reason, for example, the same man that pay his taxes can argue about the injustice of the taxation system (Foucault 1984, 67). Therefore, for Kant, the raise of reason gradually acts on the mind of people freeing their thoughts, and they gradually become more capable of acting in freedom, which will eventually replace the traditional authorities with the authority of the individual, human reason (Kant 2001, 141).
Importantly, Kant describes Enlightenment as the moment when humanity it is going to start using its own reason, without being submissive to any kind of authority (Foucault 1984, 68). In Foucault’s view, this passage that humanity goes from immaturity to maturity, exemplifies the contemporary reality of the overall movement and its basic directions (Foucault 1984, 64). He tries to underline the relation between Kant and his analysis to Enlightenment, in Foucault’s understanding; Kant gave a human character to history when he spoke about immaturity (Foucault 1984, 64). For this reason, Foucault outline the time period of the Enlightenment calling it as an “attitude of modernity” (Foucault 1984, 68).
Therefore, in order to characterize this attitude of modernity he uses Baudelaire as an example. For Baudelaire modernity “lies in adopting a certain attitude […] and this deliberate, difficult attitude consists in recapturing something eternal that is not beyond the present instant, nor behind it, but within it” (Foucault 1984, 69). Thus, for the attitude of modernity, the value of the present is to transform it not by destroying it, it is also creating a relationship with oneself (Foucault 1984, 70). For Baudelaire, the modern man is the one that reinvent himself. Which for Baudelaire is described as an ironic present, because he does not see this play of freedom with reality, and this austere self-discipline, having any place in society itself, and he claims that it can only happen in a different place, which he calls art (Foucault 1984, 71).
In conclusion, according to Foucault’s interpretation of Baudelaire, the attitude of modernity is a transformation, and this transformation can only be performed in the arts, and not in the society. Thus, taking this point of view as a direction, representing modernity as an escape it would not be a good description, because this transformation is exposed as a self-invention, in other words, man is not escaping from himself, but remodeling his attitudes (Foucault 1984, 71).
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Kant, Immanuel. 2001. “On The Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’ ” In Basic
Writings of Kant, edited by Allen W. Wood. New York: Modern Library. 135-41.
Foucault, Michel. 1984. “What is Enlightenment?” In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul
Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books. 32-50.