The enlightenment, for me, is about improving the self and reaching the highest potential of knowledge and understanding. These are ideas that come just prior to the transcendental movement, in which the self is wholly exemplified and revered. But, since the enlightenment may be a precursor to this train of thought, there is a sense of exploration and experimentation when it comes to achieving understanding. I believe that people may achieve enlightenment in some personal sense, though it would be folly to suggest that they actually know that they are enlightened. What I mean by this is that enlightenment is different for everyone, but real understanding and knowledge comes when people view the self in tandem with the world and society. I like Kant’s definition of enlightenment: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability 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. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment” (Kant). Kant here is emphasizing the importance of knowledge and understanding in a personal sense. Going further, I believe that this understanding has to come from the senses and personal indulgence. This is to say, that in order to achieve enlightenment, experience with the world is needed.
Descartes suggests that understanding comes not from the senses. He states in his first meditation that “whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses. But occasionally I have found that they have deceived me, and it is unwise to trust completely those who have deceived us even once” (Descartes, 1). He is not willing to accept that all understanding comes through the senses and strives to find some other way to achieve his enlightenment. La Mettrie holds the complete opposite viewpoint. He states that “Man is a machine—such a complex machine that it’s initially impossible to get a clear idea of it or (therefore) to deﬁne it. That is why all the research that the greatest philosophers have conducted a priori—trying to use the wings of the mind, so to speak—have led nowhere. Our only way to discover the true nature of man is a posteriori, i.e. on the basis of empirical evidence, trying isolate the soul, as it were disentangling it from the body’s organs. When I speak of what we can ‘discover’, I don’t mean discover with certainty but merely reach the highest possible level of probability” (La Mettrie, 3). La Mettrie is suggesting that humankind can achieve enlightenment based on empirical evidence and not fantastical musings of the mind.
I tend to gravitate towards La Mettrie’s views, I think they have much more grounded in reality. I think, though indirectly, that Locke would agree with La Mettrie. Almost certainly the two would have disagreed on most things and Locke would have found La Mettrie’s overindulgence sickening, but Locke shows a certain emphasis on learning and the senses that meshes well with La Mettrie’s standpoint. Locke says, when talking about raising children, that “they are never one jot better’d by such occasional lectures. They at other times should be shewn what to do, and by reiterated actions be fashion’d beforehand into the practice of what is fit and becoming, and not told and talk’d to do upon the spot, of what they have never been accustom’d nor know how to do as they should” (Locke). Locke’s statement is emphasizing the idea that experience is necessary for understanding and ultimately enlightenment.