Saturday, February 28, 2009

What Is Enlightenment?

(Was ist Aufklärung?)

Michel Foucault, 1978
translation by Mathew Henson, 1992

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 MonatschriftWas ist Aufklärung? 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:

Continue reading...

No comments: