Our Complex, Difficult & Fragile Enlightenments

KaterinadeligiorgiRichard Marshall interviews Katerina Deligiorgi in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: You argue that the Enlightenment is still a live issue. You cite Foucault who claimed, rather like yourself, that the ‘event that is called Aufklarung… has determined, at least in part, what we are, what we think, and what we do today?’ You call the Enlightenment ‘Janus faced.’ And you want to engage with the Enlightenment without being in historical bad faith. So can you tell us about these issues and how you approach them?

KD: This question is about the Enlightenment, as opposed to enlightenment, that is, about a period in European history in which the concept of enlightenment became current and its meaning intensely debated, at least in the German intellectual scene. Out of this debate emerges the concept I set out briefly in the previous answer. As I try to show in the book this does not boil down to have a critical attitude, which is what I think Foucault advises in his own writings. In fact, my take on enlightenment goes against this subjectivisation or perhaps better, privatisation of enlightenment.

The Janus face metaphor is intended to convey that the concept is forward looking since it describes a project and a goal, but it also has a past, a history of debate, of right and wrong turns, that must inform our current views of it.

3:AM: So according to your approach, Kant sets up a tribunal of enlightenment to put enlightenment on trial? Can you say what you mean by this?

KD: In the German debate about the meaning of the enlightenment, there was a lot of what I called earlier sloganising, including unsupported claims about the good things that would come out of this project, movement, cast of mind (it was different things to different people). There was also a lot of anxiety about its corrosive aspects. Often Kant comes to debates that are polarised and changes them by altering the way in which the problem is set. In this case, there is a ‘rationalist’ sense in which enlightenment means reason’s shining forth to illuminate all our practices and to guarantee progress; conservative critics pointed out that this shining forth is an intellectualist fantasy that has nothing to do with the condition in which most people find themselves and is likely to destroy values embedded in traditions. There is also an ‘empiricist’ sense that sees open discussion as best means for advancing our affairs, to which the counter-argument is that the cost benefit analysis here is rigged.

So enlightenment appears on the tribunal in pretty bad shape, accused of both dogmatism and scepticism. Kant rescues it by identifying its legitimacy as residing in the critical employment of our reason and this last as expressing a value of autonomy.