Descartes and such.

Achieving enlightenment is something I find to be very interesting.  Enlightenment, to me, is something that is a cross between a spiritual and philosophical way of looking at life based on the trials you go through mixed with the things you watch everyone else around you go through.  I believe enlightenment to be something personal on a “when you know you know” type of level, achieving enlightenment I believe is a possible thing; I in no way consider myself to have achieved enlightenment because of how young and unexperienced in life I am, however I believe this to be a tangible thing in one’s life. Enlightenment, is the way in which you understand things based on what you know about reason and what you have learned from the world in a philosophical (possibly opinionated) and spiritual sense of understanding.

Mettrie talks about enlightenment in a way that talks about it as something that deals with reason.  She says, “What makes reason excellent is not its being immaterial but its force, its scope or its acuteness”, she talks about reason as something that is what it takes to make up one’s own understanding of everything. I agree with this to an extent because of the way in which enlightenment, or this idea of understanding goes along with just that, you can’t argue with certain types of reason, the pen is blue because there is a definite idea of what blue is and you cannot change that, so reason is important when trying to become enlightened.

Descartes famous for his “I think therefore I am” theory is someone who I can agree with.  In his two meditations he goes through what he understands in both of the senses I am talking about in my idea of enlightenment.  He starts by saying in his first meditation, “Whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses”, which I agree with because it goes back to what Mettrie was talking about with reason but on a more personal level, like saying, “this pan is hot, I know because I touched it and it burned me”.  In his fourth meditation Descartes says, “I previously accepted as perfectly certain and evident many things that I afterwards realized were doubtful”, in reference to thinking about understanding in a spiritual sense, using things like your perception and imagination.  I also agree with this but less than I agree with his senses theory a little bit more because of the tangible evidence senses provide, which is not to say that your perception of a color or thing changes your feeling, it does and can, but the concreteness that goes along with the theory in his first meditation is more appealing to me when thinking of my theory of enlightenment.

Milton deals heavily with reason in his piece which we were assigned (“Aeroepogitica”).  When talking about reason and trying to convince other people he says, “When a man writes to the world, he summons up all his reason and deliberation to assist him”  talking about how reason can allow you to gain a better understanding of arguments for yourself.  We know this because the piece was all about him getting people to think to themselves about the politics that went into publishing laws.  I obviously agree with Milton because of the way he used reason in his argument to make people think about the laws and how the politics should not factor in when thinking about how pieces should be protected from the authors and readers and even publishers standpoint.

Equiano, whom I agree with most tells the story of her life.  The ideas and theories she comes up with about the world are all based around what she was taught by her parents and family mixed with what she learned about the world just through experience.  She says in the middle of her writing “The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced” which greatly appeals to what I think about when I am forming my theories about enlightenment.  Equiano had all of these experiences that lead her to her understanding of what life was about, through her perception.  A quote comes to mind, “Experience is the mother of knowledge” (Cervantes), which is what enlightenment is all about, the way in which you take in and experience life and create an understanding of knowledge.


La Mettrie:


  • Meditation 1:

  • Meditation 2:




Can Humans Become Enlightened?

In order to proceed properly with this post, we must first define enlightenment. There are several different definitions floating around from a literary period to a philosophical one, but here’s how I feel the best way to define it is: Enlightenment is the ability to use human rationality to determine one’s own “correct” way to think and act as opposed to basing thoughts on superstition and tradition. As a whole, enlightenment may lead to a state of earthly perfection. It is both individual and political, as suggested by both Kant and Milton (whereas Descartes and La Mettrie seem to focus more on the individual aspects of enlightenment). One may examine these scholars’ works to determine how humans can achieve enlightenment.

We look at Descartes, who seems to essentially believe that one who is not enlightened, who still possesses a ‘nonage’ (as Kant would suggest), must start completely from scratch. In his first meditation, he says, “demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations”. The struggle here, according to Descartes, is distinguishing between truth and falsity. Descartes supplements my understanding of the concept of enlightenment by emphasizing the significance of leaning upon your own understanding and experiences rather than social prejudices in order to achieve enlightenment. This seems to match up with Kant and La Mettrie in that they both also focus on the individual to a certain extent. La Mettrie, however, does not seem to believe that one can escape his nonage simply by thinking himself out of it. He says that moral theorists believe that qualities such as cleverness, knowledge, and virtue (which all seem to be assets of an enlightened person) are “talents acquired by reflection and hard work”, but La Mettire disagrees with this while Descartes seems to believe that “reflection and hard work” are the only ways to achieve enlightenment.

La Mettrie, though his views partially disagree with Descartes, seems to have something significant in common with Descartes: he believes that one must “break the chains of your prejudice and arm yourself with the flaming torch of experience” in order to achieve enlightenment. Both scholars are emphasizing the importance of using experience in order to shed one’s nonage. La Mettrie presents a powerful reason as to why enlightenment may be difficult to achieve—“when we put limits on things that don’t have any, that is our pride speaking”. For me, this supplements Descartes belief that one must start from scratch when pursuing enlightenment because it suggests that we have to remove our self-imposed limits.

Kant seems to agree with La Mettrie’s view that we must use our own understanding to achieve enlightenment. In his essay, “What Is Enlightenment?” he defines enlightenment to be: “man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage”, where “nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding wthout another’s guidance”. He presents the motto of the enlightenment as “have the courage to use your own understanding”.

Although Kant’s idea of enlightenment seems to align with both La Mettrie and Descartes, I have to disagree with all three of them to a certain extent. The methods by which enlightenment are achieved (Descartes: demolish previous understanding and build from scratch; La Mettrie: remove the limits set by prejudices; Kant: emerge from one’s nonage) are spot on, in my opinion, but the actual concept of enlightenment is slightly difficult for me to grasp because of my Christian spin on enlightenment. Proverbs 3:5 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” My faith makes it impossible for me to believe that one can become enlightened using one’s own understanding.

On a larger scale than the individual, it is useful to examine Milton’s “Areopagitica”. Though this speech does not directly address enlightenment, it parallels to Kant’s perspective that the public can only achieve enlightenment through freedom—in fact, according to Kant, “this enlightenment requires nothing but freedom”. Though Milton is only addressing freedom of the written word in his speech, the concept can still expand to the general freedom and enlightenment of humanity. In the very beginning, Milton says, “This is true Liberty when free born men / Having to advise the public may speak free”.  In terms of enlightenment, Milton is saying here that the ability to speak freely is what can truly make man free. And, by way of Kant’s theory, the freedom to speak can lead to humanity’s enlightenment because man will be free and enlightenment will follow.

So the essential question is this: can humans achieve enlightenment? My answer: it depends. On an individual level, absolutely. As both La Mettrie and Descartes pointed out, individuals can achieve enlightenment using personal experience. Kant also emphasizes this. On a sociopolitical level, maybe. Enlightenment on a sociopolitical level seems to depend on the freedom of man and the willingness of man to release his collective nonage. Is this possible? Probably not.



La Mettrie



Think about it

If the Enlightenment is about “Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment” (Kant) as Kant puts it, then knowledge and personal experience are king. A bit rough around the edges, but quite simple at the same time. Kant speaks of how a general understanding of mankind will lead to an enlightened life. I can get behind this idea, for the most part, but I’m not completely sold that general knowledge is power.

If the Enlightenment is about “Never trouble your self about those faults in them, which you know age will cure: and therefore want of well-fashion’d civility in the carriage, whilst civility is not wanting in the mind, (for there you must take care to plant it early) should be the parents’ least care, whilst they are young” (Locke) then educations and guidance are king. Locke speaks of how education (guided knowledge) bring people into enlightenment through shaping the individual with guiding hands while they learn through their own experiences. I can get behind Locke’s main argument of education leads to enlightenment and that one cannot expect to know without being taught in one way or another.

If the Enlightenment is about “To doubt such things I would have to liken myself to brain-damaged madmen who are convinced they are kings when really they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass” (Descartes) then things in which we can personal persevere and justify than that is enlightenment. Descartes through his meditations speaks of how we can only justify that we are real and to doubt that is insanity and that through this justification, other ideas and subjects can be justified. I cannot say that Descartes is right or wrong, I can only know that I have read of a man presumed to be Descartes and that his ideals seems to abide by my code. Funny Descartes-ish humor, Descartes’s ideal of “I think there for I am” is sound and logical which is important to ideals of the enlightenment era.

If the Enlightenment is about “There are people who think that some part of them is made of glass and who have to be advised to sleep on straw (‘so that you won’t break’!), so that the straw can be set alight, causing them to be afraid of being burnt, which causes the supposedly glass limb to return to being a usable affair of flesh and bone” (La Mettrie) then our own minds cannot be trusted to reach enlightenment, but we must rely on our fellow man to keep us on such a path. La Mettrie seems to believe that through society and humanity, you can find enlightenment. I believe that for the most part, I trust in the people I surround myself with to keep me on the path of sanity. This idea is a bit off, if society is off based on your personal opinions.

The four of these enlightenment idealists come together, for better or worst, to provide a glimpse of what enlightenment means to them during the era. Without Kant, we wouldn’t think about how society can lead us to be anti-society based on ideals that may or may not have been given to you by society or your own personal society. Without Locke, we wouldn’t look into education as the source of our enlightenment because we need guiding factors to keep us learning productively, but there must always be time for dancing. Without Descartes, the enlightenment ideal of the self is all you know wouldn’t be available and the value of our own self experience would mean we could never justify ourselves. Without La Mettrie, the mind would be nothing more than mechanical processes that will one day extinguish the body by using up all the forces within it

One thing that everyone has in common is knowledge and reason. Through these (guided by education, self perspective, society, or any other factor) will always lead to enlightenment. Sapere aude, and dare to think.


I’ll take the combo please!

October 22, 2013

Group #4

In order to answer the question of whether or not we can achieve enlightenment, we must first examine a number of perspectives on enlightenment and use them to discover and form our own answer to the question.  But, before we can answer the latter question, we must decide what the definition of enlightenment actually is.  I believe it to be a combination of several factors, mainly dealing with finding out the truth about our lives by getting an education.  The idea of enlightenment can be as much a personal thing as it spiritual and political idea.  The term enlightenment can be applied to a number of ideas.  In this essay, I will be using the works of Renee Descartes and La Mettrie to further my understanding of the concept of enlightenment.

The enlightenment period deals mainly with our understanding of our place in the universe, but it also deals with other questions.  We can see this notion through the writings of Descartes when quotes Archimedes.  “Archimedes said that if he had one firm and immovable point he could lift the world with a long enough lever.”  (Meditations:  Second Meditation Pg. 4)  I think this is a good way to begin our understanding of the concept of enlightenment as I have several examples of firm points that will serve us well when trying to further understand the concept of enlightenment.  The first point that I will make comes from the man that I just quoted, Renee Descartes.

Descartes states that, “my understanding of what a thing is, what truth is, and what thought is, derives purely from my own nature, which means that it is innate.”  Descartes’ notion that truth in understanding something is an innate quality, as in it comes from our own interpretation, can create some tricky ideas for someone trying to comprehend the concept of enlightenment.  I would like to take us back Kant to fortify what Descartes is saying here.  Kant tells us that “It is more nearly possible, however, for the public to enlighten itself; indeed, if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable.”  This is suggesting that the more freedom that people have as individuals, the more likely it is that they will discover the truth.  I found that this quote from Kant can help us to further understand how enlightenment functions as a means of taking responsibility to educate ourselves and find the truth.  Whether you become educated by independent means, or by the means of an educational institution, these two believe that discovering the truth is one of the most important things.

But, in regards to truth, you also have to consider age groups.  I believe that it takes a person of a certain age to be able to have the cognitive skills necessary to deduct real truth out of information.  Whether that is from a religious, philosophical, or political standpoint, age plays a major factor in achieving enlightenment.  To further grasp what I’m trying to say here, take this quote from Strausburger’s Children and Adolescents.  “Children are different from adults, children are different from each other, and adolescents are different from children.” (Children and Adolescents. Pg. 3)  Strausburger is trying to say that children understand the world in a different way than adults.  So, in this respect, we cannot expect children to have the cognitive skills/development to get real truth out of a given set of information.  I believe that this point gives way to the notion that the concept of enlightenment is personal.

As far as La Mettrie is concerned, he’s all about reason.  Mettrie is more of a cold, calculated force than a child of the enlightenment, but I guess that’s exactly what makes him one.  Mettrie says that “experience and observation should be our only guides.” (To understanding the world)  From this perspective, I’m inclined to agree with him in the respect that personal experiences do shape the way we perceive the world around us.  No matter how much we try to fight it, we will always be inclined to go with our gut feeling when trying to figure something out, even if at times it goes against all logical reason.  La Mettrie helped me to find a balance with trying to understand the concept of enlightenment.  That is, while we should put stock in the opinions and findings of others, we should still rely on ourselves to solve some of the puzzle.  That is why I think enlightenment should be defined as a hybrid between personal and philosophical findings.  Obviously, you cannot understand the world without the help of others, but you should not leave it completely up to them to decide what life, and in turn, the world around it, mean to you.

How to become enlightened

I think that human beings can achieve enlightenment. René Decartes said in his Fourth Meditation, “As well as knowing that I exist, at least as a thinking thing, I have in my mind an idea of corporeal nature.” I agree with how Decartes describes that humans have souls and bodies in which those souls reside, more simply, humans exists in dualism – the metaphysical and the physical existence. To achieve enlightenment, I think, you have to have a mental self, as opposed to a physical self, in order to become enlightened in the way that Immanuel Kant describes, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage.”

So, I disagree with Julien Offray la Mettrie who said in Man a Machine, “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.” La Mettrie only thinks of the human as what can be seen, he doesn’t believe that the mind is separate from the body. In la Mettrie’s mind humans cannot become enlightened. Because I agree with Kant on the method of enlightenment I cannot agree with la Mettrie about man as only a machine.

As for a method to achieving enlightenment I do not agree with Decartes’ idea of personal self-fulfillment. Kant’s method of achieving enlightenment is that we much shed our nonage, meaning that we must set aside all things we think to be true in order to question them all to find out what is actual.

While I do agree with Decartes that enlightenment is a personal and individualistic definition, I also think that there is importance in having institutional support to benefit intellectual property. When there is institutional support more people are willing to shed their nonage because they know that any original thoughts that come out of such will be protected as their own. John Milton is a proponent of inscribing author and/or printer’s names on texts but argues that it is not the duty of the government to decide what citizens get to read. Milton said, “And as for regulating the Presse, let no man think to have the honour of advising ye better then your selves have done in that Order publisht next before this, that no book be Printed, unlesse the Printers and the Authors name, or at least the Printers be register’d. Those which otherwise come forth, if they be found mischievous and libellous, the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectuall remedy.” I agree with Milton that texts should be regulated by author and printer but that the public should be allowed to decide what ideas are “infectious.” o While thinking about Kant’s idea of shedding nonage to become enlightened, it is important to also think about Milton’s suggestions about the freedom of press. When there is freedom of press more people are willing to attempt enlightenment and possibly create original ideas. Even more important is that the public has access to any documents regarding these ideas.

Enlightenment occurs individually but there are sociopolitical factors that influence the readiness of humans to become enlightenment by shedding their nonage.

Senses – Robert Yetter

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.

To Become Enlightened

When it comes to understanding the concept of enlightenment, one must realize the true meaning behind the idea of becoming enlightened. I believe this consists of a person achieving self-fulfillment in personal knowledge. A human possess the ability to incorporate new beliefs throughout their lives. This comes with the idea of realizing what is true and what it wrong. There are influences in the world that factor into one discovering what is right. To become enlightened a person must not steer away from the influences in the world but find first hand what they believe is genuine. This brings about the idea of enlightenment being a personal thing that individuals hold. Achieving personal insight allows for a person to strengthen his or her own beliefs and discover the factual evidence in their beliefs. La Mettrie goes on to say, “This real or apparent similarity of external spatial items is the ultimate basis for all truths and all our knowledge.” I think that a person has to first question what they believe in, and then find some sort of truth in what they believe. Distinguishing between things that are real must coexist with the thought process that people have. People must realize the actuality in the things they believe.

The method for which a person becomes enlightened is through the process of realizing what is authentic and real. Through this process a person must weed through the things that negatively effect how they incorporate the true ideologies of life. They must factor in different things to come up with a determination that includes the ideas of certainty. Descartes’ ideas relate closely to this process. His process of reasoning with doubt shows how a person can find the truth in the perceptions that they have. He says, “My reason tells me that as well as withholding assent from propositions that are obviously false, I should also withhold it from ones that are not completely certain and indubitable”, in this idea he believes in throwing out all beliefs and starting from ground level to find the truth in those beliefs. He does this by using doubt to discover if it is real or not. I agree with his argument because to find if something is real and genuine you must decided its existence by the process of reasoning.

On the contrary to this idea some might believe that it is impossible to become enlighten solely by one self. Some might say that other people must factor into one achieving enlightenment. The thing that throws me off with agreeing with this judgment is the fact that a person cannot truly achieve personal enlightenment this way. A person’s enlightenment would be altered by another person’s views and opinions. This might cause someone to possess the thoughts of a different person. I believe that one must have independence in discovering their knowledge on what they consider to be true. Kant says, “This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom-and the most innocent of all that may be call “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters”, this seems to be more realistic in the eyes of a person using their own reason to see how enlightenment can be attained.