What is Enlightenment?

By Cassandra Smith

(May 2012)

In addressing this daunting question that has already been answered by such influential thinkers as Immanuel Kant and Michel Foucault, I attempt not to refute their theories on enlightenment, but to merely attempt what they have suggested. I will use the public use of reason as an autonomous rational agent to make a historical inquiry addressing the merit of the two arguments, to make a practical critique that results in a possible transgression (Kant 1784, Foucault 1984).

To me, the term enlightenment is starting to be used in the same way Michel Foucault explains that ‘humanism’ is used (1984). Foucault claimed the term humanism has been applied to too many different theoretical perspectives to have any sort of clear, agreed upon meaning (1984). Similarly, ‘enlightenment’ is currently used to describe a period of time, a genre of art, a theoretical attitude and a spiritual state of being. So, to begin, I will address what Kant and Foucault are talking about when they use the term enlightenment. I will then compare that to older and newer ideas on the subject and address how the integration of these ideas may provide new understanding of enlightenment.

Kant’s answer came from 18th century Germany. He explains, “Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without the guidance of another” (Kant 1784:58). Kant suggests that in modern society, others make many decisions for us and we have been convinced to “obey” (1784:59). He believes that for us to become mature, enlightened beings, “nothing more is required than freedom, and indeed, the most harmless form of all the things that may be called freedom: namely, the freedom to make public use of one’s own reason in all matters” (1784:59). By public use, Kant basically means reasoning in a public way, free from fear of negative consequence for doing so (the way a scholar does) (1784). Private use of reason, by contrast, is reason carried out within the duties of one’s personal life; Kant gives the example of a pastor using reason in his sermon (1784).  He believes societies can reach a state of enlightenment gradually (1784).

Foucault’s answer came 200 years later from France. Foucault was not as certain as Kant that philosophical debate alludes to the truth (Reed 2012). Foucault also challenged Kant and many others on the notion that something can be said about a universal path for all humans, and instead claimed we must always think historically (1984). Foucault believes when answering the question of enlightenment, we should first analyze ourselves as conditioned by “the Enlightenment,” the modern epoch that Kant was writing from (1984). From my reading, Foucault argues when it comes to making enlightened decisions, recognizing ourselves as always historically-bound is a more full type of enlightened thinking than exercising the public use of reason. Because, he believes, being free to argue rationally without fear is an idea that contains historical context, while recognizing our history in relation to our present is an idea that will always be relevant.

Foucault’s enlightenment is a mode of inquiry or attitude. He says we need to study the “forms of rationality that organize [people’s] way of doing things (this might be called the technological aspect) and the freedom with which they act in these practical systems, reacting to what others do . . .”  (1984:15). Kant’s enlightenment is more of a practical way of being and an outline for how an enlightened society would function.

I think they are both right. However, I believe their arguments are both pieces of a puzzle that hints at what enlightenment might be. I think Kant is talking about taking personal responsibility over your own education and self-development in a very direct and spiritual way. If everyone did that and reasoned with each other publically afterword, society would be enlightened. Foucault is explaining the importance of discriminative capabilities when it comes to causality. If we can explain how everything happening now is related to everything else, society is enlightened. These are overgeneralizations of extremely complex pieces, but I make them to illustrate the point that these ideas may not be as contemporary as we make them out to be.

Eastern philosophers proposed these notions as long as 3,000 years ago. Understanding causality and taking self-motivated ownership over one’s educational and spiritual development are concepts contained within the basic tenets of Buddhism (Siderits 2007). Here is what is taken to be a direct quote of Buddha (Buddha n.d.):

Do not believe in something because it is reported. Do not believe in something because it has been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture. Do not believe in something because a scripture says it is so . . . Do not believe in hearsay, rumor, speculative opinion, public opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone. Help yourself, accept as completely true only that which is praised by the wise and which you test for yourself and know to be good for yourself and others.

I see Buddha’s statement as having a direct correlation to what Kant calls the motto of enlightenment: “Have the courage to use your own understanding!” (1784:58). Kant fiercely opposes the modern attitude that feels, “If I have a book that has understanding for me, a pastor who has a conscious for me, a doctor who judges my diet for me and so forth, surely I do not need to trouble myself” (1784:58). Kant is here restating the imperative given by the Buddha about the importance of becoming an active agent in the use of reason for proper spiritual development, and adds how this should function in a modern social context.

Foucault, I believe, is indirectly addressing the Buddhist concept of dependent origination (Siderits 2007). I realize Foucault would probably raise many objections to Buddhist theory as a whole, however, I believe that Foucault and Buddha might reach minor agreement about the importance of causality. One of Buddha’s most famous teachings on causality states that everything is dependently originated, meaning “whenever this occurs, that occurs; in the absence of this, there is the absence of that” (Siderits 2007:171). This is a way of explaining reality in which “everything arises in dependence with causes and conditions;” each phenomenon is explainable by reference to the series of causes and effects leading up to it (Siderits 2007:191). Foucault’s enlightened “philosophical ethos” takes a similar stance (1984:12). Foucault claims that for enlightened thinking to occur, we must always “make a historical investigation into the events that have lead us to constitute ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking and saying” (1984:13). I think both Foucault and Buddha would agree that realizing the fact that we exist within a historically dependent chain of cause and effect, leads to a more profound understanding of the present.

The fact that Kant and Foucault both alluded to ancient Buddhist ideas in their reflections on enlightenment does not take away from the originality of their arguments, for these men placed the ideas within a social framework much more relatable and relevant to their readers than dense Buddhist texts. It also suggests that these men might actually be close to the truth about what enlightenment is, if the same answers have been given across multiple time periods. However, I believe what Kant and Foucault are missing is the full picture.

I do not think Buddhism is the full picture either, but I believe it is important to recognize that these ancient eastern concepts were relevant to the modern west and remain relevant in today’s contemporary global society. Today, I believe we accept that enlightenment is more than writing academic papers or reading history books. In the contemporary social context, enlightenment has a much more widely accepted connection to the spiritual. Integral theorists Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen accept this connection, and have put forth the idea of “Evolutionary Enlightenment” (Cohen 2011). Wilber has explained Evolutionary Enlightenment to mean “the realization of oneness with all states and all stages that have evolved so far and that are in existence at any given time” (“Evolutionary Enlightenment” 2012) I think the type of enlightenment Wilber is talking about requires both Kant’s autonomy and Foucault’s understanding of causality. However, Cohen believes their theories fall short because they operate on a “horizontal path, where we are modifying and improving, often in positive and important ways, the self that we already are” (2011:182). Evolutionary Enlightenment is instead a vertical path in which “we engage with the spiritual process in such a way that the result is some quality, ability or capacity that was not there before” (Cohen 2011:182).

Cohen and Wilber suggest that what was missing from Kant and Foucault’s versions of enlightenment, was the key factor of spiritual transformation and growth. Buddha’s teachings emphasized spirituality development, but were missing the relevant social and historical context, as well as the discoveries of modern day science. By placing both perspectives within the larger theoretical framework of Evolutionary Enlightenment, we can see the need for transgression. Ken Wilber explains arguments like Kant and Foucault’s inhibit an integral evolution (“Evolutionary Enlightenment” 2012):

They did wonderfully up to their stage and they were very important in overcoming some of the problems with traditional values and scientific materialism. All of those were handled beautifully by the pluralistic post-modern stage. But now we’re ready for the next stage, we’re fighting for an integral awareness to blossom . . . in the form of an evolutionary enlightenment.

Evolutionary Enlightenment includes philosophical, social, historical and spiritual ideas about enlightenment, within a scientific framework. I believe this type of enlightenment therefore reaches much closer to truth than Kant, Foucault or Buddha’s do when by themselves. By combining their perspectives within an integral framework, enlightenment can be seen as something that transcends categories like modern, ancient and contemporary. And here is where I disagree with Foucault on the notion that “all a prioris of thought are historically contingent” (Reed 2012).

I believe enlightenment is a universal concept, which is realized as a gradual process of increased self-awareness in both individuals and societies. Enlightenment is simply the quest of evolution, and our task as humans is to take the challenge head on.


Works Cited

Cohen, Andrew. 2011. Evolutionary Enlightenment: A New Path to Spiritual Awakening. New York: Select Books Inc.

“Evolutionary Enlightenment.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_Enlightenment&gt;.

Foucault, Michel. 1984. “What Is Enlightenment?” CULearn. Blackboard Learning System. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.

Kant, Immanuel. 1784. “What Is Enlightenment?” CULearn. Blackboard Learning System. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.

Reed, Isaac. 2012. Unpublished lecture material. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado.

Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. Print.

The Buddha, The Kalama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 3.65, Sutta Pitaka, Pali Canon.