10/13: How to achieve Enlightenment?

For the assignment, we want it to be due on Sunday, Oct. 13, and it is as follows:  “After reading both Decartes and la Mettrie, decide for yourself whether or not human beings can actually achieve enlightenment, and if they can, what the best method is for reaching that enlightened state.”

To receive an ‘S’ for the week, you also need to complete the Underwood discussion sheet.

Further guidelines from the instructor: Write a 500-750 contribution to the blog discussing the issue above. For this assignment, you must cite both Descartes and La Mettrie, as well as at least 2-3 of the other essays we’ve read so far. Your response must explain how each essay cited contributes to your understanding of the concept of enlightenment, and you must explain where you agree or disagree with their arguments. Your response must also identify points of disagreement, where the cited authors seem to advance differing ideas about the problem.

In order to answer this question, you’ll have to decide for yourself what you think the most useful definition of enlightenment is: Does it mean thinking for yourself? Becoming educated? Knowing the truth? Is it a scientific/philosophical concept, or is it best understood as a spiritual idea? Is enlightenment a personal thing that individuals hold, or is it a political problem involving how people and information move through society? What might Milton or Equiano say? Explain how your definition is similar to or different from others’.

As for what’s the best “method,” you’ll want to look closely at how Descartes describes his own relationship to the sciences of his day. He charts out what seems, on the surface, to be a highly individualistic definition of personal self-fulfillment, but as we’ve seen in our other readings, many writers emphasized the necessity of social / institutional supports in the form of education, political freedom, intellectual property, racial formation, and so on. Do you understand “method” as an individual problem or a sociopolitical one? Again, explain how your ideas are similar to or different from others’. Explain where the authors we’ve studied seem to agree or disagree.

One of the interesting threads of this course so far has been the question of “determinism.” Kant argued that certain political conditions rendered enlightenment inevitable. Locke believed that certain forms of education were crucial to promote properly enlightened individuals. Omi and Winant looked at large “racial formations” which structure our thought at a deeply subconscious level, even as they are used to support institutional needs (i.e., colonialism and slavery). Finally, la Mettrie has arged that what we perceive as our minds is really the mechanical operation of the body. If we’re all just machines, can we be enlightened? — What all of these readings have in common is a certain tension between individual self-cultivation and larger impersonal forces. What counts as the “method” for achieving enlightenment will depend on how you understand this process to work.

For students who contracted for the A, this assignment will be a great practice for the midterm, by the way.

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