Is enlightenment achievable? That’s a difficult question. We have looked at a variety of texts over the course of this class, all of them defining enlightenment in their own ways. For this article post I looked at four articles. Of course, I looked at the assigned articles by Descartes and La Mettrie. Additionally, I used Kant and Locke to come to my final decision on the question of achieving enlightenment. Given my findings, I cannot in good conscience say that true enlightenment is attainable.
I will begin by discussing how my decision relates to La Mettrie. “I’m not going to make any guesses and will treat anything that my senses don’t perceive as though it were an impenetrable mystery,” he says. To him, enlightenment is making decisions and forming opinions on the things that he fully understands, withholding judgement when information is incomplete or not fully understood. While in theory this is possible, in practice, it is completely impossible. In many daily instances, humans must make decisions based on incomplete information. They must make “educated guesses” on a regular basis, never truly and fully understanding any situation. This incapability of instituting a practical enlightenment was one of the main reasons that I entirely doubt its possibility.
Descartes had a view of enlightenment similar to that of La Mettrie, albeit with a more religious spin. He thought that enlightenment—and thus avoidance of sin—is possible through withholding judgement when presented with a lack of information. This imbalance between the will and the intellect “is the source of [his] error and sin” (Descartes). Once the scope of the will is equally matched to the intellect, one has attained enlightenment and no longer needs to withhold judgement. The same problem with La Mettrie rears it ugly head in Descartes: Withholding judgement in life is easier said than done. Situations are not always as clear as we want them to be, and sometimes we cannot afford not to make a decision.
Kant presents an interesting digression from the others I have discussed. Descartes and La Mettrie focus on enlightenment as a choice of information. Contrastingly, Kant focuses on the source of this information as the definition of enlightenment. To Kant, enlightenment is “man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage,” a more socially focused view of enlightenment. Enlightenment is reliance on oneself, rather than others, to make proper choices. Once man learns to think independently, he has entered a state of enlightenment.
Kant’s independent thinker version of enlightenment, in practical terms, is easily attainable given the proper environment. However, I disagree that enlightenment is solely focused on independence. I think that he focuses too much on independence and not enough on the information being chosen. As far as defining enlightenment goes, I agree more with Descartes’ and La Mettrie’s information-focused definition—ignoring the fact that these forms of enlightenment are entirely impossible.
Finally, I examined Locke. His definition was entirely focused on the social aspect of enlightenment. Locke’s enlightenment was an adherence to societal norms and rules of propriety. “Virtue. . . is the hard and valuable part to be aim’d at in education,” Locke says. I couldn’t see this enlightenment as something that supposedly ends in a cultivation of the intellect. Locke’s enlightenment relies too heavily on social values.
Each of these works contributed to my idea of enlightenment, also showing the inherent problems with attaining enlightenment. I see enlightenment as the use of all available information to properly make decisions, as asserted by Descartes and La Mettrie. It is the withholding of judgement when sufficient information isn’t available—a disparity between the will and the intellect, to use Descartes’ word choice. It is also an independence of the thought processes, drawing from Kant. Locke showed me the problems with an entirely socially focused definition of enlightenment. No two authors were in complete agreement. Descartes and La Mettrie were at odds on whether religion should play a role in our perception of the intellect and the will. Locke and Kant were at opposite ends of the spectrum in definition: Kant believed in complete independence; Locke believed in complete social assimilation. Descartes and La Mettrie represent the information-based approach to enlightenment while Locke and Kant look at a socially focused definition.
Unfortunately, my interpretation of enlightenment is completely unattainable. Enlightenment is an ideal to strive toward, but I don’t think that it is a realistic goal. It drives us, but we shouldn’t expect to reach it. It is this goal, however, that propels us toward progress.
Descartes Meditations 1 & 4