What is Enlightenment?

— Foucault, Michel. What is Enlightenment?” In The Foucault Reader, by P. Rabinow, 32-50. Pantheon Books, 1984.

Today when a pe­ri­od­i­cal asks its read­ers a ques­tion, it does so in or­der to col­lect opin­ions on some sub­ject about which every­one has an opin­ion al­ready; there is not much like­li­hood of learn­ing any­thing new. In the eigh­teenth cen­tury, ed­i­tors pre­ferred to ques­tion the pub­lic on prob­lems that did not yet have so­lu­tions. I don’t know whether or not that prac­tice was more ef­fec­tive; it was un­ques­tion­ably more en­ter­tain­ing.

In any event, in line with this cus­tom, in November 1784 a German pe­ri­od­i­cal, Berlinische Monatschrift pub­lished a re­sponse to the ques­tion: Was ist Aufklärung? And the re­spon­dent was Kant.

A mi­nor text, per­haps. But it seems to me that it marks the dis­creet en­trance into the his­tory of thought of a ques­tion that mod­ern phi­los­o­phy has not been ca­pa­ble of an­swer­ing, but that it has never man­aged to get rid of, ei­ther. And one that has been re­peated in var­i­ous forms for two cen­turies now. From Hegel through Nietzsche or Max Weber to Horkheimer or Habermas, hardly any phi­los­o­phy has failed to con­front this same ques­tion, di­rectly or in­di­rectly. What, then, is this event that is called the Aufklärung and that has de­ter­mined, at least in part, what we are, what we think, and what we do to­day? Let us imag­ine that the Berlinische Monatschrift still ex­ists and that it is ask­ing its read­ers the ques­tion: What is mod­ern phi­los­o­phy? Perhaps we could re­spond with an echo: mod­ern phi­los­o­phy is the phi­los­o­phy that is at­tempt­ing to an­swer the ques­tion raised so im­pru­dently two cen­turies ago: Was ist Aufklärung?

Let us linger a few mo­ments over Kant’s text. It mer­its at­ten­tion for sev­eral rea­sons.

1. To this same ques­tion, Moses Mendelssohn had also replied in the same jour­nal, just two months ear­lier. But Kant had not seen Mendelssohn’s text when he wrote his. To be sure, the en­counter of the German philo­soph­i­cal move­ment with the new de­vel­op­ment of Jewish cul­ture does not date from this pre­cise mo­ment. Mendelssohn had been at that cross­roads for thirty years or so, in com­pany with Lessing. But up to this point it had been a mat­ter of mak­ing a place for Jewish cul­ture within German thought — which Lessing had tried to do in Die Juden — or else of iden­ti­fy­ing prob­lems com­mon to Jewish thought and to German phi­los­o­phy; this is what Mendelssohn had done in his Phadon; oder, Über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele. With the two texts pub­lished in the Berlinische Monatschrift the German Aufklärung and the Jewish Haskala rec­og­nize that they be­long to the same his­tory; they are seek­ing to iden­tify the com­mon processes from which they stem. And it is per­haps a way of an­nounc­ing the ac­cep­tance of a com­mon des­tiny — we now know to what drama that was to lead.

2. But there is more. In it­self and within the Christian tra­di­tion, Kant’s text poses a new prob­lem.

It was cer­tainly not the first time that philo­soph­i­cal thought had sought to re­flect on its own pre­sent. But, speak­ing schemat­i­cally, we may say that this re­flec­tion had un­til then taken three main forms.

— The pre­sent may be rep­re­sented as be­long­ing to a cer­tain era of the world, dis­tinct from the oth­ers through some in­her­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics, or sep­a­rated from the oth­ers by some dra­matic event. Thus, in Plato’s Statesman the in­ter­locu­tors rec­og­nize that they be­long to one of those rev­o­lu­tions of the world in which the world is turn­ing back­wards, with all the neg­a­tive con­se­quences that may en­sue.

— The pre­sent may be in­ter­ro­gated in an at­tempt to de­ci­pher in it the herald­ing signs of a forth­com­ing event. Here we have the prin­ci­ple of a kind of his­tor­i­cal hermeneu­tics of which Augustine might pro­vide an ex­am­ple.

— The pre­sent may also be an­a­lyzed as a point of tran­si­tion to­ward the dawn­ing of a new world. That is what Vico de­scribes in the last chap­ter of La Scienza Nuova; what he sees today” is a com­plete hu­man­ity … spread abroad through all na­tions, for a few great mon­archs rule over this world of peo­ples”; it is also Europe … ra­di­ant with such hu­man­ity that it abounds in all the good things that make for the hap­pi­ness of hu­man life.” [1]

Now the way Kant poses the ques­tion of Aufklärung is en­tirely dif­fer­ent: it is nei­ther a world era to which one be­longs, nor an event whose signs are per­ceived, nor the dawn­ing of an ac­com­plish­ment. Kant de­fines Aufklärung in an al­most en­tirely neg­a­tive way, as an Ausgang, an exit,” a way out.” In his other texts on his­tory, Kant oc­ca­sion­ally raises ques­tions of ori­gin or de­fines the in­ter­nal tele­ol­ogy of a his­tor­i­cal process. In the text on Aufklärung, he deals with the ques­tion of con­tem­po­rary re­al­ity alone. He is not seek­ing to un­der­stand the pre­sent on the ba­sis of a to­tal­ity or of a fu­ture achieve­ment. He is look­ing for a dif­fer­ence: What dif­fer­ence does to­day in­tro­duce with re­spect to yes­ter­day?

3. I shall not go into de­tail here con­cern­ing this text, which is not al­ways very clear de­spite its brevity. I should sim­ply like to point out three or four fea­tures that seem to me im­por­tant if we are to un­der­stand how Kant raised the philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion of the pre­sent day.

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.

Kant de­fines two es­sen­tial con­di­tions un­der which mankind can es­cape from its im­ma­tu­rity. And these two con­di­tions are at once spir­i­tual and in­sti­tu­tional, eth­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal.

The first of these con­di­tions is that the realm of obe­di­ence and the realm of the use of rea­son be clearly dis­tin­guished. Briefly char­ac­ter­iz­ing the im­ma­ture sta­tus, Kant in­vokes the fa­mil­iar ex­pres­sion: Don’t think, just fol­low or­ders”; such is, ac­cord­ing to him, the form in which mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline, po­lit­i­cal power, and re­li­gious au­thor­ity are usu­ally ex­er­cised. Humanity will reach ma­tu­rity when it is no longer re­quired to obey, but when men are told: Obey, and you will be able to rea­son as much as you like.” We must note that the German word used here is räsonieren; this word, which is also used in the Critiques does not re­fer to just any use of rea­son, but to a use of rea­son in which rea­son has no other end but it­self: räsonieren is to rea­son for rea­son­ing’s sake. And Kant gives ex­am­ples, these too be­ing per­fectly triv­ial in ap­pear­ance: pay­ing one’s taxes, while be­ing able to ar­gue as much as one likes about the sys­tem of tax­a­tion, would be char­ac­ter­is­tic of the ma­ture state; or again, tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for parish ser­vice, if one is a pas­tor, while rea­son­ing freely about re­li­gious dog­mas.

We might think that there is noth­ing very dif­fer­ent here from what has been meant, since the six­teenth cen­tury, by free­dom of con­science: the right to think as one pleases so long as one obeys as one must. Yet it is here that Kant brings into play an­other dis­tinc­tion, and in a rather sur­pris­ing way. The dis­tinc­tion he in­tro­duces is be­tween the pri­vate and pub­lic uses of rea­son. But he adds at once that rea­son must be free in its pub­lic use, and must be sub­mis­sive in its pri­vate use. Which is, term for term, the op­po­site of what is or­di­nar­ily called free­dom of con­science.

But we must be some­what more pre­cise. What con­sti­tutes, for Kant, this pri­vate use of rea­son? In what area is it ex­er­cised? Man, Kant says, makes a pri­vate use of rea­son when he is a cog in a ma­chine”; that is, when he has a role to play in so­ci­ety and jobs to do: to be a sol­dier, to have taxes to pay, to be in charge of a parish, to be a civil ser­vant, all this makes the hu­man be­ing a par­tic­u­lar seg­ment of so­ci­ety; he finds him­self thereby placed in a cir­cum­scribed po­si­tion, where he has to ap­ply par­tic­u­lar rules and pur­sue par­tic­u­lar ends. Kant does not ask that peo­ple prac­tice a blind and fool­ish obe­di­ence, but that they adapt the use they make of their rea­son to these de­ter­mined cir­cum­stances; and rea­son must then be sub­jected to the par­tic­u­lar ends in view. Thus there can­not be, here, any free use of rea­son.

On the other hand, when one is rea­son­ing only in or­der to use one’s rea­son, when one is rea­son­ing as a rea­son­able be­ing (and not as a cog in a ma­chine), when one is rea­son­ing as a mem­ber of rea­son­able hu­man­ity, then the use of rea­son must be free and pub­lic. Enlightenment is thus not merely the process by which in­di­vid­u­als would see their own per­sonal free­dom of thought guar­an­teed. There is Enlightenment when the uni­ver­sal, the free, and the pub­lic uses of rea­son are su­per­im­posed on one an­other.

Now this leads us to a fourth ques­tion that must be put to Kant’s text. We can read­ily see how the uni­ver­sal use of rea­son (apart from any pri­vate end) is the busi­ness of the sub­ject him­self as an in­di­vid­ual; we can read­ily see, too, how the free­dom of this use may be as­sured in a purely neg­a­tive man­ner through the ab­sence of any chal­lenge to it; but how is a pub­lic use of that rea­son to be as­sured? Enlightenment, as we see, must not be con­ceived sim­ply as a gen­eral process af­fect­ing all hu­man­ity; it must not be con­ceived only as an oblig­a­tion pre­scribed to in­di­vid­u­als: it now ap­pears as a po­lit­i­cal prob­lem. The ques­tion, in any event, is that of know­ing how the use of rea­son can take the pub­lic form that it re­quires, how the au­dac­ity to know can be ex­er­cised in broad day­light, while in­di­vid­u­als are obey­ing as scrupu­lously as pos­si­ble. And Kant, in con­clu­sion, pro­poses to Frederick II, in scarcely veiled terms, a sort of con­tract — what might be called the con­tract of ra­tio­nal despo­tism with free rea­son: the pub­lic and free use of au­tonomous rea­son will be the best guar­an­tee of obe­di­ence, on con­di­tion, how­ever, that the po­lit­i­cal prin­ci­ple that must be obeyed it­self be in con­for­mity with uni­ver­sal rea­son.

Let us leave Kant’s text here. I do not by any means pro­pose to con­sider it as ca­pa­ble of con­sti­tut­ing an ad­e­quate de­scrip­tion of Enlightenment; and no his­to­rian, I think, could be sat­is­fied with it for an analy­sis of the so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, and cul­tural trans­for­ma­tions that oc­curred at the end of the eigh­teenth cen­tury.

Nevertheless, notwith­stand­ing its cir­cum­stan­tial na­ture, and with­out in­tend­ing to give it an ex­ag­ger­ated place in Kant’s work, I be­lieve that it is nec­es­sary to stress the con­nec­tion that ex­ists be­tween this brief ar­ti­cle and the three Critiques. Kant in fact de­scribes Enlightenment as the mo­ment when hu­man­ity is go­ing to put its own rea­son to use, with­out sub­ject­ing it­self to any au­thor­ity; now it is pre­cisely at this mo­ment that the cri­tique is nec­es­sary, since its role is that of defin­ing the con­di­tions un­der which the use of rea­son is le­git­i­mate in or­der to de­ter­mine what can be known, what must be done, and what may be hoped. Illegitimate uses of rea­son are what give rise to dog­ma­tism and het­eron­omy, along with il­lu­sion; on the other hand, it is when the le­git­i­mate use of rea­son has been clearly de­fined in its prin­ci­ples that its au­ton­omy can be as­sured. The cri­tique is, in a sense, the hand­book of rea­son that has grown up in Enlightenment; and, con­versely, the Enlightenment is the age of the cri­tique.

It is also nec­es­sary, I think, to un­der­line the re­la­tion be­tween this text of Kant’s and the other texts he de­voted to his­tory. These lat­ter, for the most part, seek to de­fine the in­ter­nal tele­ol­ogy of time and the point to­ward which his­tory of hu­man­ity is mov­ing. Now the analy­sis of Enlightenment, defin­ing this his­tory as hu­man­i­ty’s pas­sage to its adult sta­tus, sit­u­ates con­tem­po­rary re­al­ity with re­spect to the over­all move­ment and its ba­sic di­rec­tions. But at the same time, it shows how, at this very mo­ment, each in­di­vid­ual is re­spon­si­ble in a cer­tain way for that over­all process.

The hy­poth­e­sis I should like to pro­pose is that this lit­tle text is lo­cated in a sense at the cross­roads of crit­i­cal re­flec­tion and re­flec­tion on his­tory. It is a re­flec­tion by Kant on the con­tem­po­rary sta­tus of his own en­ter­prise. No doubt it is not the first time that a philoso­pher has given his rea­sons for un­der­tak­ing his work at a par­tic­u­lar mo­ment. But it seems to me that it is the first time that a philoso­pher has con­nected in this way, closely and from the in­side, the sig­nif­i­cance of his work with re­spect to knowl­edge, a re­flec­tion on his­tory and a par­tic­u­lar analy­sis of the spe­cific mo­ment at which he is writ­ing and be­cause of which he is writ­ing. It is in the re­flec­tion on today” as dif­fer­ence in his­tory and as mo­tive for a par­tic­u­lar philo­soph­i­cal task that the nov­elty of this text ap­pears to me to lie.

And, by look­ing at it in this way, it seems to me we may rec­og­nize a point of de­par­ture: the out­line of what one might call the at­ti­tude of moder­nity.

I know that moder­nity is of­ten spo­ken of as an epoch, or at least as a set of fea­tures char­ac­ter­is­tic of an epoch; sit­u­ated on a cal­en­dar, it would be pre­ceded by a more or less naive or ar­chaic pre­moder­nity, and fol­lowed by an enig­matic and trou­bling postmodernity.” And then we find our­selves ask­ing whether moder­nity con­sti­tutes the se­quel to the Enlightenment and its de­vel­op­ment, or whether we are to see it as a rup­ture or a de­vi­a­tion with re­spect to the ba­sic prin­ci­ples of the 18th cen­tury.

Thinking back on Kant’s text, I won­der whether we may not en­vis­age moder­nity rather as an at­ti­tude than as a pe­riod of his­tory. And by attitude,” I mean a mode of re­lat­ing to con­tem­po­rary re­al­ity; a vol­un­tary choice made by cer­tain peo­ple; 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. A bit, no doubt, like what the Greeks called an ethos. And con­se­quently, rather than seek­ing to dis­tin­guish the modern era” from the premodern” or postmodern,” I think it would be more use­ful to try to find out how the at­ti­tude of moder­nity, ever since its for­ma­tion, has found it­self strug­gling with at­ti­tudes of countermodernity.”

To char­ac­ter­ize briefly this at­ti­tude of moder­nity, I shall take an al­most in­dis­pens­able ex­am­ple, namely, Baudelaire; for his con­scious­ness of moder­nity is widely rec­og­nized as one of the most acute in the nine­teenth cen­tury.

1. Modernity is of­ten char­ac­ter­ized in terms of con­scious­ness of the dis­con­ti­nu­ity of time: a break with tra­di­tion, a feel­ing of nov­elty, of ver­tigo in the face of the pass­ing mo­ment. And this is in­deed what Baudelaire seems to be say­ing when he de­fines moder­nity as the ephemeral, the fleet­ing, the con­tin­gent.” [2] But, for him, be­ing mod­ern does not lie in rec­og­niz­ing and ac­cept­ing this per­pet­ual move­ment; on the con­trary, it lies in adopt­ing a cer­tain at­ti­tude with re­spect to this move­ment; and this de­lib­er­ate, dif­fi­cult at­ti­tude con­sists in re­cap­tur­ing some­thing eter­nal that is not be­yond the pre­sent in­stant, nor be­hind it, but within it. Modernity is dis­tinct from fash­ion, which does no more than call into ques­tion the course of time; moder­nity is the at­ti­tude that makes it pos­si­ble to grasp the heroic” as­pect of the pre­sent mo­ment. Modernity is not a phe­nom­e­non of sen­si­tiv­ity to the fleet­ing pre­sent; it is the will to heroize” the pre­sent.

I shall re­strict my­self to what Baudelaire says about the paint­ing of his con­tem­po­raries. Baudelaire makes fun of those painters who, find­ing nine­teenth-cen­tury dress ex­ces­sively ugly, want to de­pict noth­ing but an­cient to­gas. But moder­nity in paint­ing does not con­sist, for Baudelaire, in in­tro­duc­ing black cloth­ing onto the can­vas. The mod­ern painter is the one who can show the dark frock-coat as the nec­es­sary cos­tume of our time,” the one who knows how to make man­i­fest, in the fash­ion of the day, the es­sen­tial, per­ma­nent, ob­ses­sive re­la­tion that our age en­ter­tains with death. The dress-coat and frock-coat not only pos­sess their po­lit­i­cal beauty, which is an ex­pres­sion of uni­ver­sal equal­ity, but also their po­etic beauty, which is an ex­pres­sion of the pub­lic soul — an im­mense cortège of un­der­tak­er’s mutes (mutes in love, po­lit­i­cal mutes, bour­geois mutes…). We are each of us cel­e­brat­ing some fu­neral.” [3]To des­ig­nate this at­ti­tude of moder­nity, Baudelaire some­times em­ploys a litotes that is highly sig­nif­i­cant be­cause it is pre­sented in the form of a pre­cept: You have no right to de­spise the pre­sent.”

2. This hero­iza­tion is iron­i­cal, need­less to say. The at­ti­tude of moder­nity does not treat the pass­ing mo­ment as sa­cred in or­der to try to main­tain or per­pet­u­ate it. It cer­tainly does not in­volve har­vest­ing it as a fleet­ing and in­ter­est­ing cu­rios­ity. That would be what Baudelaire would call the spec­ta­tor’s pos­ture. The flâneur, the idle, strolling spec­ta­tor, is sat­is­fied to keep his eyes open, to pay at­ten­tion and to build up a store­house of mem­o­ries. In op­po­si­tion to the flâneur, Baudelaire de­scribes the man of moder­nity: Away he goes, hur­ry­ing, search­ing …. Be very sure that this man … — this soli­tary, gifted with an ac­tive imag­i­na­tion, cease­lessly jour­ney­ing across the great hu­man desert — has an aim loftier than that of a mere flâneur, an aim more gen­eral, some­thing other than the fugi­tive plea­sure of cir­cum­stance. He is look­ing for that qual­ity which you must al­low me to call modernity.” … He makes it his busi­ness to ex­tract from fash­ion what­ever el­e­ment it may con­tain of po­etry within his­tory. As an ex­am­ple of moder­nity, Baudelaire cites the artist Constantin Guys. In ap­pear­ance a spec­ta­tor, a col­lec­tor of cu­riosi­ties, he re­mains the last to linger wher­ever there can be a glow of light, an echo of po­etry, a quiver of life or a chord of mu­sic; wher­ever a pas­sion can pose be­fore him, wher­ever nat­ural man and con­ven­tional man dis­play them­selves in a strange beauty, wher­ever the sun lights up the swift joys of the de­praved an­i­mal.” [4]

But let us make no mis­take. Constantin Guys is not a flâneur; what makes him the mod­ern painter par ex­cel­lence in Baudelaire’s eyes is that, just when the whole world is falling asleep, he be­gins to work, and he trans­fig­ures that world. His trans­fig­u­ra­tion does not en­tail an an­nulling of re­al­ity, but a dif­fi­cult in­ter­play be­tween the truth of what is real and the ex­er­cise of free­dom; natural” things be­come more than nat­ural,” beautiful” things be­come more than beau­ti­ful,” and in­di­vid­ual ob­jects ap­pear endowed with an im­pul­sive life like the soul of their cre­ator.” [5] For the at­ti­tude of moder­nity, the high value of the pre­sent is in­dis­so­cia­ble from a des­per­ate ea­ger­ness to imag­ine it, to imag­ine it oth­er­wise than it is, and to trans­form it not by de­stroy­ing it but by grasp­ing it in what it is. Baudelairean moder­nity is an ex­er­cise in which ex­treme at­ten­tion to what is real is con­fronted with the prac­tice of a lib­erty that si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­spects this re­al­ity and vi­o­lates it.

3. However, moder­nity for Baudelaire is not sim­ply a form of re­la­tion­ship to the pre­sent; it is also a mode of re­la­tion­ship that has to be es­tab­lished with one­self. The de­lib­er­ate at­ti­tude of moder­nity is tied to an in­dis­pens­able as­ceti­cism. To be mod­ern is not to ac­cept one­self as one is in the flux of the pass­ing mo­ments; it is to take one­self as ob­ject of a com­plex and dif­fi­cult elab­o­ra­tion: what Baudelaire, in the vo­cab­u­lary of his day, calls dandysme. Here I shall not re­call in de­tail the well-known pas­sages on vulgar, earthy, vile na­ture”; on man’s in­dis­pens­able re­volt against him­self; on the doctrine of el­e­gance” which im­poses upon its am­bi­tious and hum­ble dis­ci­ples” a dis­ci­pline more despotic than the most ter­ri­ble re­li­gions; the pages, fi­nally, on the as­ceti­cism of the dandy who makes of his body, his be­hav­ior, his feel­ings and pas­sions, his very ex­is­tence, a work of art. Modern man, for Baudelaire, is not the man who goes off to dis­cover him­self, his se­crets and his hid­den truth; he is the man who tries to in­vent him­self. This moder­nity does not liberate man in his own be­ing”; it com­pels him to face the task of pro­duc­ing him­self.

4. Let me add just one fi­nal word. This ironic hero­iza­tion of the pre­sent, this trans­fig­ur­ing play of free­dom with re­al­ity, this as­cetic elab­o­ra­tion of the self — Baudelaire does not imag­ine that these have any place in so­ci­ety it­self, or in the body politic. They can only be pro­duced in an­other, a dif­fer­ent place, which Baudelaire calls art.

I do not pre­tend to be sum­ma­riz­ing in these few lines ei­ther the com­plex his­tor­i­cal event that was the Enlightenment, at the end of the eigh­teenth cen­tury, or the at­ti­tude of moder­nity in the var­i­ous guises it may have taken on dur­ing the last two cen­turies.

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. I should like to char­ac­ter­ize this ethos very briefly.

A. Negatively

1. This êthos im­plies, first, the re­fusal of what I like to call the blackmail” of the Enlightenment. I think that the Enlightenment, as a set of po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, so­cial, in­sti­tu­tional, and cul­tural events on which we still de­pend in large part, con­sti­tutes a priv­i­leged do­main for analy­sis. I also think that as an en­ter­prise for link­ing the progress of truth and the his­tory of lib­erty in a bond of di­rect re­la­tion, it for­mu­lated a philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion that re­mains for us to con­sider. I think, fi­nally, as I have tried to show with ref­er­ence to Kant’s text, that it de­fined a cer­tain man­ner of phi­los­o­phiz­ing.

But that does not mean that one has to be for” or against” the Enlightenment. It even means pre­cisely that one has to refuse every­thing that might pre­sent it­self in the form of a sim­plis­tic and au­thor­i­tar­ian al­ter­na­tive: you ei­ther ac­cept the Enlightenment and re­main within the tra­di­tion of its ra­tio­nal­ism (this is con­sid­ered a pos­i­tive term by some and used by oth­ers, on the con­trary, as a re­proach); or else you crit­i­cize the Enlightenment and then try to es­cape from its prin­ci­ples of ra­tio­nal­ity (which may be seen once again as good or bad). And w e do not break free of this black­mail by in­tro­duc­ing dialectical” nu­ances while seek­ing to de­ter­mine what good and bad el­e­ments there may have been in the Enlightenment.

We must try to pro­ceed with the analy­sis of our­selves as be­ings who are his­tor­i­cally de­ter­mined, to a cer­tain ex­tent, by the Enlightenment. Such an analy­sis im­plies a se­ries of his­tor­i­cal in­quiries that are as pre­cise as pos­si­ble; and these in­quiries will not be ori­ented ret­ro­spec­tively to­ward the essential ker­nel of ra­tio­nal­ity” that can be found in the Enlightenment and that would have to be pre­served in any event; they will be ori­ented to­ward the contemporary lim­its of the nec­es­sary,” that is, to­ward what is not or is no longer in­dis­pens­able for the con­sti­tu­tion of our­selves as au­tonomous sub­jects.

2. This per­ma­nent cri­tique of our­selves has to avoid the al­ways too facile con­fu­sions be­tween hu­man­ism and Enlightenment. We must never for­get that the Enlightenment is an event, or a set of events and com­plex his­tor­i­cal processes, that is lo­cated at a cer­tain point in the de­vel­op­ment of European so­ci­eties. As such, it in­cludes el­e­ments of so­cial trans­for­ma­tion, types of po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tion, forms of knowl­edge, pro­jects of ra­tio­nal­iza­tion of knowl­edge and prac­tices, tech­no­log­i­cal mu­ta­tions that are very dif­fi­cult to sum up in a word, even if many of these phe­nom­ena re­main im­por­tant to­day. The one I have pointed out and that seems to me to have been at the ba­sis of an en­tire form of philo­soph­i­cal re­flec­tion con­cerns only the mode of re­flec­tive re­la­tion to the pre­sent.

Humanism is some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent. It is a theme or rather a set of themes that have reap­peared on sev­eral oc­ca­sions over time in European so­ci­eties; these themes al­ways tied to value judg­ments have ob­vi­ously var­ied greatly in their con­tent as well as in the val­ues they have pre­served. Furthermore they have served as a crit­i­cal prin­ci­ple of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. In the sev­en­teenth cen­tury there was a hu­man­ism that pre­sented it­self as a cri­tique of Christianity or of re­li­gion in gen­eral; there was a Christian hu­man­ism op­posed to an as­cetic and much more theo­cen­tric hu­man­ism. In the nine­teenth cen­tury there was a sus­pi­cious hu­man­ism hos­tile and crit­i­cal to­ward sci­ence and an­other that to the con­trary placed its hope in that same sci­ence. Marxism has been a hu­man­ism; so have ex­is­ten­tial­ism and per­son­al­ism; there was a time when peo­ple sup­ported the hu­man­is­tic val­ues rep­re­sented by National Socialism and when the Stalinists them­selves said they were hu­man­ists.

From this we must not con­clude that every­thing that has ever been linked with hu­man­ism is to be re­jected but that the hu­man­is­tic the­matic is in it­self too sup­ple too di­verse too in­con­sis­tent to serve as an axis for re­flec­tion. And it is a fact that at least since the sev­en­teenth cen­tury what is called hu­man­ism has al­ways been obliged to lean on cer­tain con­cep­tions of man bor­rowed from re­li­gion sci­ence or pol­i­tics. Humanism serves to color and to jus­tify the con­cep­tions of man to which it is af­ter all obliged to take re­course.

Now in this con­nec­tion I be­lieve that this the­matic which so of­ten re­curs and which al­ways de­pends on hu­man­ism can be op­posed by the prin­ci­ple of a cri­tique and a per­ma­nent cre­ation of our­selves in our au­ton­omy: that is a prin­ci­ple that is at the heart of the his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness that the Enlightenment has of it­self. From this stand­point I am in­clined to see Enlightenment and hu­man­ism in a state of ten­sion rather than iden­tity.

In any case it seems to me dan­ger­ous to con­fuse them; and fur­ther it seems his­tor­i­cally in­ac­cu­rate. If the ques­tion of man of the hu­man species of the hu­man­ist was im­por­tant through­out the eigh­teenth cen­tury this is very rarely I be­lieve be­cause the Enlightenment con­sid­ered it­self a hu­man­ism. It is worth­while too to note that through­out the nine­teenth cen­tury the his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of six­teenth-cen­tury hu­man­ism which was so im­por­tant for peo­ple like Saint-Beuve or Burckhardt was al­ways dis­tinct from and some­times ex­plic­itly op­posed to the Enlightenment and the eigh­teenth cen­tury. The nine­teenth cen­tury had a ten­dency to op­pose the two at least as much as to con­fuse them.

In any case, I think that just as we must free our­selves from the in­tel­lec­tual black­mail of be­ing for or against the Enlightenment we must es­cape from the his­tor­i­cal and moral con­fu­sion­ism that mixes the theme of hu­man­ism with the ques­tion of the Enlightenment. An analy­sis of their com­plex re­la­tions in the course of the last two cen­turies would be a worth­while pro­ject an im­por­tant one if we are to bring some mea­sure of clar­ity to the con­scious­ness that we have of our­selves and of our past.

B. Positively

Yet while tak­ing these pre­cau­tions into ac­count we must ob­vi­ously give a more pos­i­tive con­tent to what may be a philo­soph­i­cal êthos con­sist­ing in a cri­tique of what we are say­ing think­ing and do­ing through a his­tor­i­cal on­tol­ogy of our­selves.

1. This philo­soph­i­cal ethos may be char­ac­ter­ized as a limit-at­ti­tude. We are not talk­ing about a ges­ture of re­jec­tion. We have to move be­yond the out­side-in­side al­ter­na­tive; we have to be at the fron­tiers. Criticism in­deed con­sists of an­a­lyz­ing and re­flect­ing upon lim­its. But if the Kantian ques­tion was that of know­ing what lim­its knowl­edge has to re­nounce trans­gress­ing, it seems to me that the crit­i­cal ques­tion to­day has to be turned back into a pos­i­tive one: in what is given lo us as uni­ver­sal nec­es­sary oblig­a­tory what place is oc­cu­pied by what­ever is sin­gu­lar con­tin­gent and the prod­uct of ar­bi­trary con­straints? The point in brief is to trans­form the cri­tique con­ducted in the form of nec­es­sary lim­i­ta­tion into a prac­ti­cal cri­tique that lakes the form of a pos­si­ble trans­gres­sion.

This en­tails an ob­vi­ous con­se­quence: that crit­i­cism is no longer go­ing to be prac­ticed in the search for for­mal struc­tures with uni­ver­sal value, but rather as a his­tor­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the events that have led us to con­sti­tute our­selves and to rec­og­nize our­selves as sub­jects of what we are do­ing, think­ing, say­ing. In that sense, this crit­i­cism is not tran­scen­den­tal, and its goal is not that of mak­ing a meta­physics pos­si­ble: it is ge­nealog­i­cal in its de­sign and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in its method. Archaeological — and not tran­scen­den­tal — in the sense that it will not seek to iden­tify the uni­ver­sal struc­tures of all knowl­edge or of all pos­si­ble moral ac­tion, but will seek to treat the in­stances of dis­course that ar­tic­u­late what we think, say, and do as so many his­tor­i­cal events. And this cri­tique will be ge­nealog­i­cal in the sense that it will not de­duce from the form of what we are what it is im­pos­si­ble for us to do and to know; but it will sep­a­rate out, from the con­tin­gency that has made us what we are, the pos­si­bil­ity of no longer be­ing, do­ing, or think­ing what we are, do, or think. It is not seek­ing to make pos­si­ble a meta­physics that has fi­nally be­come a sci­ence; it is seek­ing to give new im­pe­tus, as far and wide as pos­si­ble, to the un­de­fined work of free­dom.

2. But if we are not to set­tle for the af­fir­ma­tion or the empty dream of free­dom, it seems to me that this his­torico-crit­i­cal at­ti­tude must also be an ex­per­i­men­tal one. I mean that this work done at the lim­its of our­selves must, on the one hand, open up a realm of his­tor­i­cal in­quiry and, on the other, put it­self to the test of re­al­ity, of con­tem­po­rary re­al­ity, both to grasp the points where change is pos­si­ble and de­sir­able, and to de­ter­mine the pre­cise form this change should take. This means that the his­tor­i­cal on­tol­ogy of our­selves must turn away from all pro­jects that claim to be global or rad­i­cal. In fact we know from ex­pe­ri­ence that the claim to es­cape from the sys­tem of con­tem­po­rary re­al­ity so as to pro­duce the over­all pro­grams of an­other so­ci­ety, of an­other way of think­ing, an­other cul­ture, an­other vi­sion of the world, has led only to the re­turn of the most dan­ger­ous tra­di­tions.

I pre­fer the very spe­cific trans­for­ma­tions that have proved to be pos­si­ble in the last twenty years in a cer­tain num­ber of ar­eas that con­cern our ways of be­ing and think­ing, re­la­tions to au­thor­ity, re­la­tions be­tween the sexes, the way in which we per­ceive in­san­ity or ill­ness; I pre­fer even these par­tial trans­for­ma­tions that have been made in the cor­re­la­tion of his­tor­i­cal analy­sis and the prac­ti­cal at­ti­tude, to the pro­grams for a new man that the worst po­lit­i­cal sys­tems have re­peated through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.

I shall thus char­ac­ter­ize the philo­soph­i­cal ethos ap­pro­pri­ate to the crit­i­cal on­tol­ogy of our­selves as a his­torico-prac­ti­cal test of the lim­its that we may go be­yond, and thus as work car­ried out by our­selves upon our­selves as free be­ings.

3. Still, the fol­low­ing ob­jec­tion would no doubt be en­tirely le­git­i­mate: if we limit our­selves to this type of al­ways par­tial and lo­cal in­quiry or test, do we not run the risk of let­ting our­selves be de­ter­mined by more gen­eral struc­tures of which we may well not be con­scious, and over which we may have no con­trol?

To this, two re­sponses. It is true that we have to give up hope of ever ac­ced­ing to a point of view that could give us ac­cess to any com­plete and de­fin­i­tive knowl­edge of what may con­sti­tute our his­tor­i­cal lim­its. And from this point of view the the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence that we have of our lim­its and of the pos­si­bil­ity of mov­ing be­yond them is al­ways lim­ited and de­ter­mined; thus we are al­ways in the po­si­tion of be­gin­ning again .

But that does not mean that no work can be done ex­cept in dis­or­der and con­tin­gency. The work in ques­tion has its gen­er­al­ity, its sys­tem­atic­ity, its ho­mo­gene­ity, and its stakes.

(a) Its Stakes

These are in­di­cated by what might be called the para­dox of the re­la­tions of ca­pac­ity and power.” We know that the great promise or the great hope of the eigh­teenth cen­tury, or a part of the eigh­teenth cen­tury, lay in the si­mul­ta­ne­ous and pro­por­tional growth of in­di­vid­u­als with re­spect to one an­other. And, more­over, we can see that through­out the en­tire his­tory of Western so­ci­eties (it is per­haps here that the root of their sin­gu­lar his­tor­i­cal des­tiny is lo­cated — such a pe­cu­liar des­tiny, so dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers in its tra­jec­tory and so uni­ver­sal­iz­ing, so dom­i­nant with re­spect to the oth­ers), the ac­qui­si­tion of ca­pa­bil­i­ties and the strug­gle for free­dom have con­sti­tuted per­ma­nent el­e­ments. Now the re­la­tions be­tween the growth of ca­pa­bil­i­ties and the growth of au­ton­omy are not as sim­ple as the eigh­teenth cen­tury may have be­lieved. And we have been able to see what forms of power re­la­tion were con­veyed by var­i­ous tech­nolo­gies (whether we are speak­ing of pro­duc­tions with eco­nomic aims, or in­sti­tu­tions whose goal is so­cial reg­u­la­tion, or of tech­niques of com­mu­ni­ca­tion): dis­ci­plines, both col­lec­tive and in­di­vid­ual, pro­ce­dures of nor­mal­iza­tion ex­er­cised in the name of the power of the state, de­mands of so­ci­ety or of pop­u­la­tion zones, are ex­am­ples. What is at stake, then, is this: How can the growth of ca­pa­bil­i­ties be dis­con­nected from the in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of power re­la­tions?

(b) Homogeneity

This leads to the study of what could be called practical sys­tems.” Here we are tak­ing as a ho­mo­ge­neous do­main of ref­er­ence not the rep­re­sen­ta­tions that men give of them­selves, not the con­di­tions that de­ter­mine them with­out their knowl­edge, but rather what they do and the way they do it. That is, the forms of ra­tio­nal­ity that or­ga­nize their ways of do­ing things (this might be called the tech­no­log­i­cal as­pect) and the free­dom with which they act within these prac­ti­cal sys­tems, re­act­ing to what oth­ers do, mod­i­fy­ing the rules of the game, up to a cer­tain point (this might be called the strate­gic side of these prac­tices). The ho­mo­gene­ity of these his­torico-crit­i­cal analy­ses is thus en­sured by this realm of prac­tices, with their tech­no­log­i­cal side and their strate­gic side.

(c) Systematicity

These prac­ti­cal sys­tems stem from three broad ar­eas: re­la­tions of con­trol over things, re­la­tions of ac­tion upon oth­ers, re­la­tions with one­self. This does not mean that each of these three ar­eas is com­pletely for­eign to the oth­ers. It is well known that con­trol over things is me­di­ated by re­la­tions with oth­ers; and re­la­tions with oth­ers in turn al­ways en­tail re­la­tions with one­self, and vice versa. But we have three axes whose speci­ficity and whose in­ter­con­nec­tions have to be an­a­lyzed: the axis of knowl­edge, the axis of power, the axis of ethics. In other terms, the his­tor­i­cal on­tol­ogy of our­selves has to an­swer an open se­ries of ques­tions; it has to make an in­def­i­nite num­ber of in­quiries which may be mul­ti­plied and spec­i­fied as much as we like, but which will all ad­dress the ques­tions sys­tem­atized as fol­lows: How are we con­sti­tuted as sub­jects of our own knowl­edge? How are we con­sti­tuted as sub­jects who ex­er­cise or sub­mit to power re­la­tions? How are we con­sti­tuted as moral sub­jects of our own ac­tions?

(d) Generality

Finally, these his­torico-crit­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tions are quite spe­cific in the sense that they al­ways bear upon a ma­te­r­ial, an epoch, a body of de­ter­mined prac­tices and dis­courses. And yet, at least at the level of the Western so­ci­eties from which we de­rive, they have their gen­er­al­ity, in the sense that they have con­tin­ued to re­cur up to our time: for ex­am­ple, the prob­lem of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween san­ity and in­san­ity, or sick­ness and health, or crime and the law; the prob­lem of the role of sex­ual re­la­tions; and so on.

But by evok­ing this gen­er­al­ity, I do not mean to sug­gest that it has to be re­traced in its metahis­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity over time, nor that its vari­a­tions have to be pur­sued. What must be grasped is the ex­tent to which what we know of it, the forms of power that are ex­er­cised in it, and the ex­pe­ri­ence that we have in it of our­selves con­sti­tute noth­ing but de­ter­mined his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, through a cer­tain form of prob­lema­ti­za­tion that de­fines ob­jects, rules of ac­tion, modes of re­la­tion to one­self. The study of modes of prob­lema­ti­za­tion (that is, of what is nei­ther an an­thro­po­log­i­cal con­stant nor a chrono­log­i­cal vari­a­tion) is thus the way to an­a­lyze ques­tions of gen­eral im­port in their his­tor­i­cally unique form.

A brief sum­mary, to con­clude and to come back to Kant.

I do not know whether we will ever reach ma­ture adult­hood. Many things in our ex­pe­ri­ence con­vince us that the his­tor­i­cal event of the Enlightenment did not make us ma­ture adults, and we have not reached that stage yet. However, it seems to me that a mean­ing can be at­trib­uted to that crit­i­cal in­ter­ro­ga­tion on the pre­sent and on our­selves which Kant for­mu­lated by re­flect­ing on the Enlightenment. It seems to me that Kant’s re­flec­tion is even a way of phi­los­o­phiz­ing that has not been with­out its im­por­tance or ef­fec­tive­ness dur­ing the last two cen­turies. The crit­i­cal on­tol­ogy of our­selves has to be con­sid­ered not, cer­tainly, as a the­ory, a doc­trine, nor even as a per­ma­nent body of knowl­edge that is ac­cu­mu­lat­ing; it has to be con­ceived as an at­ti­tude, 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.

This philo­soph­i­cal at­ti­tude has to be trans­lated into the la­bor of di­verse in­quiries. These in­quiries have their method­olog­i­cal co­her­ence in the at once ar­chae­o­log­i­cal and ge­nealog­i­cal study of prac­tices en­vis­aged si­mul­ta­ne­ously as a tech­no­log­i­cal type of ra­tio­nal­ity and as strate­gic games of lib­er­ties; they have their the­o­ret­i­cal co­her­ence in the de­f­i­n­i­tion of the his­tor­i­cally unique forms in which the gen­er­al­i­ties of our re­la­tions to things, to oth­ers, to our­selves, have been prob­lema­tized. They have their prac­ti­cal co­her­ence in the care brought to the process of putting his­torico-crit­i­cal re­flec­tion to the test of con­crete prac­tices. I do not know whether it must be said to­day that the crit­i­cal task still en­tails faith in Enlightenment; I con­tinue to think that this task re­quires work on our lim­its, that is, a pa­tient la­bor giv­ing form to our im­pa­tience for lib­erty.


[1] Giambattista Vico, The New Science, 3rd ed., (1744), abridged trans. T. G. Bergin and M. H. Fisch (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1970), pp. 370, 372.
[2] Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1964), p. 13.
[3] Charles Baudelaire, On the Heroism of Modern Life,” in The Mirror of Art, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1955), p. 127.
[4] Baudelaire, Painter, pp. 12, Il.
[5] Ibid., p. 12.