Michel Foucault’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” taken from the reader which bears the author’s name, is both a deep piece as well as a shockingly simple one. Deep in the ramifications offered by the author (how Enlightenment, Modernity, and postmodernity intersect), and simple in its prose: though not exactly “light reading” the piece gets to the heart of the matter (the question concerning Enlightenment) without undue density a la Derrida. Even so, the reader of this reader’s reader would be well to take notice of some of the more acute aspects of the essay.
The Focus of Foucault’s efforts is the question concerning what exactly is the Enlightenment. To this end he employs an article written by Kant. Utilizing the archaeological method as well as genealogy he is able to deliver a new kind of critique against Enlightenment thinking.
The essay starts with an examination of Kant’s philosophies. This isn’t a wide examination but rather a narrowed-in one. Foucault lists a concise understanding of Kant’s Christian oriented outlook: the present is a distinct era, the present may be interrogated in an attempt to derive understanding, and this present may be seen as a point of transition. This, of course, stand in sharp contrast to how Kant perceives Enlightenment since his definition is, as read by Foucault, a negative one centered on escape, or a way out. This is meant in a historical manner: an escape as in a release from what he calls “immaturity”; when we let the outside world dictate our will. Therefore, the escape is dependent on spiritual and institutional, on becoming mature in each department.
This (so far) seemingly simple line of thought is augmented once more with the inclusion of public and private reasoning. A distinction is introduced: “but he adds at once that reason must be free in its public use and submissive in its private use. (44)” Boiling this down to an edible chunk then, we can say that private use is the employment of reason which will not interfere in a given job (such as foot solider, desk clerk, etc.) so as to ensure the continued stability of societal development; public use, on the other-hand, is essentially when you employ reason when engaged in “free time” extrapolations with other reasoned persons. This fact is important as, to Kant, illegitimate uses of reason result in dogmatism and other vices. Foucault seizes on this assertion and begins his own critique.
To Kant, therefore, the Enlightenment was a point of transition which would lead humanity to a mature, adult stage of reasoning. The problem is that the so-called “mature stage” turned out to be modernity. Modernism as an epoch, therefore, is not very much enlightened, not any more than it showed a humanity reasoned. This is what led Foucault to describe modernism not as a definite historical epoch, an age easily defined by gazing at certain events and actions, but as a feeling, or sensation comprised of a kind of conscience. This is then related to the concept of “attitude limit.” Close to what the Greeks defined as an ethos, Foucault describes this limit attitude as “in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. (45)” as well as “Criticism… of analyzing and reflecting upon limit. (49)” Ergo, the constitution of an autonomous subject must reject the negativity of black and white decisions, most specifically the opaque reflection of numerous humanisms serving as totalizing agents; rather, as Foucault argues, “the point, in brief, is to the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible transgression.” This transgression is what he calls archaeological in its method by virtue of rejecting transcendental structures, meaning, of proving universals truths; likewise, it is genealogical it seeks to “give new impetus… to the undefined work of freedom. (50)” Understanding this is why the work of undoing power-relations in practical systems (how humanity is represented without their consent) is directly related to a diverse stream of systematicity, or how I, you, and We relate each to the other; that the order of any critical historical investigation cannot be a monolithic one rooted in modernity, in a binary opposition ruled by a single point of departure (what other postmodernists have called “grand narrative”). No, to Foucault this means that before humanity can reach a mature plain, a form of problematizing recurrent issues without evoking immaterial content as opposed to concrete liberty based on knowing the limits. This stressing of the limits therefore sets up postmodernism itself as the more mature outgrowth of the Enlightenment project.
So you, the reader, will understand the complexities at work in Foucault’s essay. In the end it is simple: he is stressing that certain historical processes which run parallel to questions of modernity and what Enlightenment entails, are the same process which need be questioned from a variety of perspective sin order to (hopefully) reach a mature understanding of humanity itself, in whatever it’s racial, sexual, or national form. To take this concept further would require great mental toil. Even so in viewing the possibilities for this proscribed density, the core concept remains visible- a postmodern enlightenment etched from the ashes of the modern conscience lighting the way to progression.