The Possibilities of Enlightenment

“Enlightenment”, Kant begins, “is man’s emergence from his self incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.”

Kant’s essay An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? sets the mood for my current class, The Possibilities of Enlightenment. According to the main text with which we have been engaging so far, the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Enlightenment in the widest sense is “the advance of thought, [and] has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters.” (p. 1)

Our tutor warned us in the first class, by no means expect to be enlightened at the end of this class. Enlightenment is explored, not guaranteed. Indeed, so far in the class we have asked more questions than we have answered. This is true in most Quest classes, and is also true in the world at large. However, it is not ambiguity, but complexity that is at the core of this phenomena. And as we try to grasp this complexity, we can have rather passionate, violent responses. Take, for instance, an excerpt from my most recent journal in this class:

“Specifically, I take most issue with the ideas about how reason springs from fears and psychology. For example, on page 23, the authors write that

“The exclusivity of logical laws stems from this obdurate adherence to function and ultimately from the compulsive character of self-preservation. The latter is constantly magnified into the choice between survival and doom, a choice which is reflected even in the principle that, of two contradictory propositions, only one can be true and the other false.” (p. 23)

This is probably the section with which I take most issue. Although they make these fantastical claims, they do so without what I believe is sufficient evidence. Honestly, to me it seems like a bunch of hack psychology strung together to make interesting arguments, but arguments with no substance. I am, of course, reacting passionately to the attack on the principles of reason, but, different from what they would probably think, it is not only passion, but also critical thought that I use to react. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle calls those who deny the principle of non-contradiction plants, for they are unable to actually form an argument or even speak coherently as soon as they deny this principle, and thus they sit there, dumbly. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, I seem to have found an interesting breed of plant, one that can spout seemingly coherent words, but words that ultimately defeat themselves. In asserting that the principle of non-contradiction stems from a psychological dichotomy of survival and doom, they seem to be denying the objective meaning of the principle. This is, of course, self defeating. As soon as they assert that the principle of non-contradiction is not a real principle, then both that assertion and its negation become true, and the principle of non-contradiction is once again true.”

As you can probably see, this class has got me riled up. The tutor read my journal, and we had a discussion about it today in class. We discovered that the authors were not, in fact, relativists, but are simply trying to be extraordinarily careful to not misuse reason. This is a central theme throughout the book, and throughout the class.

I hope that this has given you a small snapshot into this class, and into how much I (and the other students) and engaging with it. I will leave you with what my favourite philosopher, Immanuel Kant,  takes to be the motto of Enlightenment:

“Sapere aude!”

Use your own reason!

Dialectic of Enlightenment

Leave a Reply