I must admit that I was initially overwhelmed by the amount of questions I had to answer and the number of ideas I had to tie together to complete this assignment. I couldn’t help but feel as if I was missing the point of it all: by weaving together all of these philosophies (which were created by other enlightenment thinkers) to create my own understanding, I felt as if I was betraying what I believe to be the most important idea of the enlightenment – to think for one’s self. And yes, it is frustrating to me that this is exactly what Immanuel Kant states in his essay “What is Enlightenment?”:
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the ability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance,” (Kant).
But just because I didn’t think of this idea myself, is it wrong to agree with it? I’m sure Kant wouldn’t mind. I can’t get Kant’s definition out of my head and I do genuinely agree that it’s the most useful characterization of enlightenment.
I think enlightenment is a personal thing that is often, and albeit unfortunately, influenced by outside, sociopolitical forces. Can human beings achieve enlightenment, you ask? Perhaps my inability to disagree with Kant’s understanding of enlightenment ultimately answers that question. But for the sake of supporting my own definition, I do believe that humans can achieve enlightenment and often do achieve it many times throughout their lives. Perhaps enlightenment doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with a ground-breaking philosophy. But to me, having the courage to challenge one’s own pre-conceptions is noble enough. And if it’s any consolation, this assignment made me realize my own inclination to others’—especially Kant’s—way of thinking. According to my definition, this personal realization is a step toward enlightenment. Phew!
To clarify, I define enlightenment as a tendency of thought characterized by the undermining of personal prejudices or, in other words, the dramatic shift in personal viewpoints. The best method for this is the use of self-reflective, human reason. I see enlightenment being achieved through the use of what you have (i.e. others’ ideas or corporeal functions) to reevaluate and re-position yourself—as you personally find necessary—within the frames through which you view the world. We see René Descartes doing this by discarding everything he once believed as certain and entering into a self-reflective discourse to re-build his conceptions of existence:
“But these things that I suppose to be nothing because they are unknown to me—might they not in fact be identical with the I of which I am aware? I don’t know; and just now I shan’t discuss the matter, because I can form opinions only about things that I know. I know that I exist, and I am asking: what is this I that I know? My knowledge of it can’t depend on things of whose existence I am still unaware; so it can’t depend on anything that I invent in my imagination,” (Descartes, 5).
Here he enters into a discourse with himself in order to challenge and re-determine a new understanding of his own existence as an “I”, or an individual. I may disagree with what Descartes determines as absolute certainty (i.e. the existence of a divine and perfect creator), but I agree with the way in which decides: internal discourse. What better way to discard imposed pre-conceptions than by having a discourse with the most personal and relatively certain part of your own existence… yourself. However, through Descartes’ extremely personal and internal discourse we see the natural human inclination to identify one’s self as a “Cartesian self”: a self-contained identity that exists within a world of “others”. This is not always beneficial to the enlightenment of the collective.
In their essay, “Racial Formation in the United States,” Omi and Winant suggest the negative societal consequences that occur when individuals believe in the idea of a coherent identity. They also describe, unlike Descartes, the sociopolitical influences on personal enlightenment.
“Can we not ‘do without’ race, at least in the ‘enlightened’ present? This question has been posed often, and with greater frequency in recent years. An affirmative answer would of course present obvious practical difficulties: it is rather difficult to jettison widely held beliefs, beliefs which moreover are central to everyone’s identity and understanding of the social world. So the attempt to banish the concept as an archaism is at best counterintuitive,” (Omi and Winant, 55).
The desire to classify one’s self within a specific social structure (i.e. race, gender, etc.) is something that most humans possess. This essay recognizes it in a reflexive way. Omi and Winant describe how “doing without” the concept of race would be counterintuitive to the way in which humans think and understand themselves as individuals. It’s common for people to understand themselves through ideological assumptions that are imposed upon them as a result of their integration into a societal collective. Thus, individual actions shape and perpetuate those of the collective and vice versa.
The fact that our past and present racial understandings are a result of our personal and collective sociopolitical frameworks suggests that the concept of enlightenment, which is also influenced by sociopolitical forces, is a fluid and ever-changing process. Enlightenment is something that can change and be achieved many times throughout life. For instance, I’m sure many of us are aware that personal opinions and viewpoints change as a result of gained experience and “knowledge”. But what I find interesting here is that the biological idea of the “body” has not only been influential in the way that we view racial differences, but also in the way we view the soul.
We see that Descartes seemed to view the soul and the body as separate entities, giving less emphasis on the senses when perceiving reality. Perhaps because sensual experiences are important to me and influence the way I perceive things, I agree with Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s more materialistic standpoint: he asserts that the body and the soul are connected. While I don’t feel confident enough in my knowledge of the physiological processes of the body to decide for certain whether or not the body and the soul are truly connected, I do have enough experience to know that I appreciate the influence that the corporeal has on my psychological well being. In fact, I think it’s this aspect that makes the human experience most amazing. And so does La Mettrie, it seems. He writes “No, there’s nothing low about matter—only crude eyes see its most brilliant productions and don’t recognize that it’s matter that is at work in them; and those productions are indeed brilliant, for nature is not a worker of limited ability,” (Man—Machine, 32).
Although I’m no physician, it seems as if the nerve endings and synapses within our brain have a lot to do with the way that we, as humans, think. Maybe we can see these synapses as a “mechanism,” but what’s most amazing are the subjective results that this “machine” produces. Everyone’s thought-process is different. It’s how we use this distinctly human thought process—which results from our inner mechanistic functions—to draw conclusions and re-evaluate them that is most amazing and especially important in terms of enlightenment. Although the human physiological process may be collectively similar, it’s amazing that this process often produces extremely unique psychological results. Thus, it’s hard to discount the influence that the material has over the psychological.
Through this subjectivity, we are given the possibility to throw-off the “chains of our prejudices” (La Mettrie, 32) and think for ourselves. So even though I didn’t come up with these philosophical ideas on my own, I believe this blog post conveys that I understand them and more importantly, is evidence that I’m on my way to achieving my own definition of enlightenment.