Essay on The Enlightenment and the American Revolution
Short essays on the Enlightenment - H-Net
Characteristically, Foucault concentrates on something that would probably escape most readers of Kant, preoccupied as they are with the latter’s three critiques of reason. For Foucault in his own essay on Enlightenment, by contrast, what is most striking and instructive about Kant’s work is the fact that he questioned the standing of philosophy in his own time, compared to the way it had been done before the 18th century (which was very different from Plato through Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes and Spinoza). Foucault takes his cue from Kant on this issue of the contemporary status of philosophy: what makes philosophy distinctive today?
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Kant’s historical circumstances as a university teacher subject to the censorship regime of late eighteenth-century Prussia made it difficult for him to offer blunt political critique in any case. From his early essay on enlightenment through his later political essays, Kant tends to approach his targets obliquely, allowing his readers to draw analogies between, for example, his criticism of paternalism in church governance and an implied general critique of domination. If Kant’s own reticence has made it hard to discover his powerful critical political thought, superficial interpretations of his moral theory have compounded that difficulty. The relationship between Kant’s ethics and his politics is complex and interesting (and the subject of much discussion in this volume), but it is by no means as straightforward as scholars used to presume. The soaring precepts of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals govern all human beings, according to Kant. Yet these same principles cannot simply be applied to political life directly. As Kant argues in the introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals, a system of political right is necessarily empirical and therefore always incomplete (6:205). Kant cannot provide a set of answers that will be right for every historically embedded political circumstance. Instead, he consistently asks about the conditions that might enable human freedom.