What is Enlightenment?
Famous text by Michel Foucault, 1978.
Michel Foucault, 1978
translation by Mathew Henson, 1992
Today when a periodical asks its readers a question, it does so in order to
collect opinions on some subject about which everyone has an opinion already;
there is not much likelihood of learning anything new. In the eighteenth
century, editors preferred to question the public on problems that did not yet
have solutions. I don't know whether or not that practice was more effective; it
was unquestionably more entertaining.
In any event, in line with this custom, in November 1784 a German periodical,
Berlinische Monatschrift published a response to the question: Was ist
Aufklärung? And the respondent was Kant.
A minor text, perhaps. But it seems to me that it marks the discreet entrance
into the history of thought of a question that modern philosophy has not been
capable of answering, but that it has never managed to get rid of, either. And
one that has been repeated in various forms for two centuries now. From Hegel
through Nietzsche or Max Weber to Horkheimer or Habermas, hardly any philosophy
has failed to confront this same question, directly or indirectly. What, then,
is this event that is called the Aufklärung and that has determined, at least in
part, what we are, what we think, and what we do today? Let us imagine that the
Berlinische Monatschrift still exists and that it is asking its readers the
question: What is modern philosophy? Perhaps we could respond with an echo:
modern philosophy is the philosophy that is attempting to answer the question
raised so imprudently two centuries ago: Was ist Aufklärung?
Let us linger a few moments over Kant's text. It merits attention for several
- To this same question, Moses Mendelssohn had also replied in the same
journal, just two months earlier. But Kant had not seen Mendelssohn's text when
he wrote his. To be sure, the encounter of the German philosophical movement
with the new development of Jewish culture does not date from this precise
moment. Mendelssohn had been at that crossroads for thirty years or so, in
company with Lessing. But up to this point it had been a matter of making a
place for Jewish culture within German thought -- which Lessing had tried to do in
Die Juden -- or else of identifying problems common to Jewish thought and to
German philosophy; this is what Mendelssohn had done in his Phadon; oder,
Über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele. With the two texts published in the
Berlinische Monatschrift the German Aufklärung and the
Jewish Haskala recognize that they
belong to the same history; they are seeking to identify the common processes
from which they stem. And it is perhaps a way of announcing the acceptance of a
common destiny -- we now know to what drama that was to lead.
- But there is more. In itself and within the Christian tradition, Kant's text
poses a new problem.
It was certainly not the first time that philosophical thought had sought to
reflect on its own present. But, speaking schematically, we may say that this
reflection had until then taken three main forms.
- The present may be represented as belonging to a certain era of the world,
distinct from the others through some inherent characteristics, or separated
from the others by some dramatic event. Thus, in Plato's Statesman the
interlocutors recognize that they belong to one of those revolutions of the
world in which the world is turning backwards, with all the negative
consequences that may ensue.
- The present may be interrogated in an attempt to decipher in it the heralding
signs of a forthcoming event. Here we have the principle of a kind of historical
hermeneutics of which Augustine might provide an example.
- The present may also be analyzed as a point of transition toward the dawning
of a new world. That is what Vico describes in the last chapter of La Scienza
Nuova; what he sees 'today' is 'a complete humanity ... spread abroad through
all nations, for a few great monarchs rule over this world of peoples'; it is
also 'Europe ... radiant with such humanity that it abounds in all the good
things that make for the happiness of human life.' 
Now the way Kant poses the question of Aufklärung is entirely different: it is
neither a world era to which one belongs, nor an event whose signs are
perceived, nor the dawning of an accomplishment. Kant defines Aufklärung in an
almost entirely negative way, as an Ausgang, an 'exit,' a 'way out.' In his
other texts on history, Kant occasionally raises questions of origin or defines
the internal teleology of a historical process. In the text on Aufklärung, he
deals with the question of contemporary reality alone. He is not seeking to
understand the present on the basis of a totality or of a future achievement. He
is looking for a difference: What difference does today introduce with respect
- I shall not go into detail here concerning this text, which is not always
very clear despite its brevity. I should simply like to point out three or four
features that seem to me important if we are to understand how Kant raised the
philosophical question of the present day.
Kant indicates right away that the 'way out' that characterizes Enlightenment is
a process that releases us from the status of 'immaturity.' And by 'immaturity,'
he means a certain state of our will that makes us accept someone else's
authority to lead us in areas where the use of reason is called for. Kant gives
three examples: we are in a state of 'immaturity' when a book takes the place of
our understanding, when a spiritual director takes the place of our conscience,
when a doctor decides for us what our diet is to be. (Let us note in passing
that the register of these three critiques is easy to recognize, even though the
text does not make it explicit.) In any case, Enlightenment is defined by a
modification of the preexisting relation linking will, authority, and the use of
We must also note that this way out is presented by Kant in a rather ambiguous
manner. He characterizes it as a phenomenon, an ongoing process; but he also
presents it as a task and an obligation. From the very first paragraph, he notes
that man himself is responsible for his immature status. Thus it has to be
supposed that he will be able to escape from it only by a change that he himself
will bring about in himself. Significantly, Kant says that this Enlightenment
has a Wahlspruch: now a Wahlspruch is a heraldic device, that is, a
distinctive feature by which one can be recognized, and it is also a motto, an
that one gives oneself and proposes to others. What, then, is this instruction?
Aude sapere: 'dare to know,' 'have the courage, the audacity, to know.' Thus
Enlightenment must be considered both as a process in which men participate
collectively and as an act of courage to be accomplished personally. Men are at
once elements and agents of a single process. They may be actors in the process
to the extent that they participate in it; and the process occurs to the extent
that men decide to be its voluntary actors.
A third difficulty appears here in Kant's text in his use of the word 'mankind,'
Menschheit. The importance of this word in the Kantian conception of history is
well known. Are we to understand that the entire human race is caught up in the
process of Enlightenment? In that case, we must imagine Enlightenment as a
historical change that affects the political and social existence of all people
on the face of the earth. Or are we to understand that it involves a change
affecting what constitutes the humanity of human beings? But the question then
arises of knowing what this change is. Here again, Kant's answer is not without
a certain ambiguity. In any case, beneath its appearance of simplicity, it is
Kant defines two essential conditions under which mankind can escape from its
immaturity. And these two conditions are at once spiritual and institutional,
ethical and political.
The first of these conditions is that the realm of obedience and the realm of
the use of reason be clearly distinguished. Briefly characterizing the immature
status, Kant invokes the familiar expression: 'Don't think, just follow orders';
such is, according to him, the form in which military discipline, political
power, and religious authority are usually exercised. Humanity will reach
maturity when it is no longer required to obey, but when men are told: 'Obey,
and you will be able to reason as much as you like.' We must note that the
German word used here is räsonieren; this word, which is also used in the
Critiques does not refer to just any use of reason, but to a use of reason in
which reason has no other end but itself: räsonieren is to reason for
reasoning's sake. And Kant gives examples, these too being perfectly trivial in
appearance: paying one's taxes, while being able to argue as much as one likes
about the system of taxation, would be characteristic of the mature state; or
again, taking responsibility for parish service, if one is a pastor, while
reasoning freely about religious dogmas.
We might think that there is nothing very different here from what has been
meant, since the sixteenth century, by freedom of conscience: the right to think
as one pleases so long as one obeys as one must. Yet it is here that Kant brings
into play another distinction, and in a rather surprising way. The distinction
he introduces is between the private and public uses of reason. But he adds at
once that reason must be free in its public use, and must be submissive in its
private use. Which is, term for term, the opposite of what is ordinarily called
freedom of conscience.
But we must be somewhat more precise. What constitutes, for Kant, this private
use of reason? In what area is it exercised? Man, Kant says, makes a private use
of reason when he is 'a cog in a machine'; that is, when he has a role to play
in society and jobs to do: to be a soldier, to have taxes to pay, to be in
charge of a parish, to be a civil servant, all this makes the human being a
particular segment of society; he finds himself thereby placed in a
circumscribed position, where he has to apply particular rules and pursue
particular ends. Kant does not ask that people practice a blind and foolish
obedience, but that they adapt the use they make of their reason to these
determined circumstances; and reason must then be subjected to the particular
ends in view. Thus there cannot be, here, any free use of reason.
On the other hand, when one is reasoning only in order to use one's reason, when
one is reasoning as a reasonable being (and not as a cog in a machine), when one
is reasoning as a member of reasonable humanity, then the use of reason must be
free and public. Enlightenment is thus not merely the process by which
individuals would see their own personal freedom of thought guaranteed. There is
Enlightenment when the universal, the free, and the public uses of reason are
superimposed on one another.
Now this leads us to a fourth question that must be put to Kant's text. We can
readily see how the universal use of reason (apart from any private end) is the
business of the subject himself as an individual; we can readily see, too, how
the freedom of this use may be assured in a purely negative manner through the
absence of any challenge to it; but how is a public use of that reason to be
assured? Enlightenment, as we see, must not be conceived simply as a general
process affecting all humanity; it must not be conceived only as an obligation
prescribed to individuals: it now appears as a political problem. The question,
in any event, is that of knowing how the use of reason can take the public form
that it requires, how the audacity to know can be exercised in broad daylight,
while individuals are obeying as scrupulously as possible. And Kant, in
conclusion, proposes to Frederick II, in scarcely veiled terms, a sort of
contract -- what might be called the contract of rational despotism with free
reason: the public and free use of autonomous reason will be the best guarantee
of obedience, on condition, however, that the political principle that must be
obeyed itself be in conformity with universal reason.
Let us leave Kant's text here. I do not by any means propose to consider it as
capable of constituting an adequate description of Enlightenment; and no
historian, I think, could be satisfied with it for an analysis of the social,
political, and cultural transformations that occurred at the end of the
Nevertheless, notwithstanding its circumstantial nature, and without intending
to give it an exaggerated place in Kant's work, I believe that it is necessary
to stress the connection that exists between this brief article and the three
Critiques. Kant in fact describes Enlightenment as the moment when humanity
is going to put its own reason to use, without subjecting itself to any authority;
now it is precisely at this moment that the critique is necessary, since its
role is that of defining the conditions under which the use of reason is
legitimate in order to determine what can be known, what must be done, and what
may be hoped. Illegitimate uses of reason are what give rise to dogmatism and
heteronomy, along with illusion; on the other hand, it is when the legitimate
use of reason has been clearly defined in its principles that its autonomy can
be assured. The critique is, in a sense, the handbook of reason that has grown
up in Enlightenment; and, conversely, the Enlightenment is the age of the
It is also necessary, I think, to underline the relation between this text of
Kant's and the other texts he devoted to history. These latter, for the most
part, seek to define the internal teleology of time and the point toward which
history of humanity is moving. Now the analysis of Enlightenment, defining this
history as humanity's passage to its adult status, situates contemporary reality
with respect to the overall movement and its basic directions. But at the same
time, it shows how, at this very moment, each individual is responsible in a
certain way for that overall process.
The hypothesis I should like to propose is that this little text is located in a
sense at the crossroads of critical reflection and reflection on history. It is
a reflection by Kant on the contemporary status of his own enterprise. No doubt
it is not the first time that a philosopher has given his reasons for
undertaking his work at a particular moment. But it seems to me that it is the
first time that a philosopher has connected in this way, closely and from the
inside, the significance of his work with respect to knowledge, a reflection on
history and a particular analysis of the specific moment at which he is writing
and because of which he is writing. It is in the reflection on 'today' as
difference in history and as motive for a particular philosophical task that the
novelty of this text appears to me to lie.
And, by looking at it in this way, it seems to me we may recognize a point of
departure: the outline of what one might call the attitude of modernity.
I know that modernity is often spoken of as an epoch, or at least as a set of
features characteristic of an epoch; situated on a calendar, it would be
preceded by a more or less naive or archaic premodernity, and followed by an
enigmatic and troubling 'postmodernity.' And then we find ourselves asking
whether modernity constitutes the sequel to the Enlightenment and its
development, or whether we are to see it as a rupture or a deviation with
respect to the basic principles of the 18th century.
Thinking back on Kant's text, I wonder whether we may not envisage modernity
rather as an attitude than as a period of history. And by 'attitude,' I mean a
mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain
people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and
behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and
presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what the Greeks called an
ethos. And consequently, rather than seeking to distinguish the 'modern era'
from the 'premodern' or 'postmodern,' I think it would be more useful to try to
find out how the attitude of modernity, ever since its formation, has found
itself struggling with attitudes of 'countermodernity.'
To characterize briefly this attitude of modernity, I shall take an almost
indispensable example, namely, Baudelaire; for his consciousness of modernity is
widely recognized as one of the most acute in the nineteenth century.
- Modernity is often characterized in terms of consciousness of the
discontinuity of time: a break with tradition, a feeling of novelty, of vertigo
in the face of the passing moment. And this is indeed what Baudelaire seems to
be saying when he defines modernity as 'the ephemeral, the fleeting, the
contingent.'  But, for him, being modern does not lie in recognizing and
accepting this perpetual movement; on the contrary, it lies in adopting a
certain attitude with respect to this movement; and this deliberate, difficult
attitude consists in recapturing something eternal that is not beyond the
present instant, nor behind it, but within it. Modernity is distinct from
fashion, which does no more than call into question the course of time;
modernity is the attitude that makes it possible to grasp the 'heroic' aspect of
the present moment. Modernity is not a phenomenon of sensitivity to the fleeting
present; it is the will to 'heroize' the present .
I shall restrict myself to what Baudelaire says about the painting of his
contemporaries. Baudelaire makes fun of those painters who, finding
nineteenth-century dress excessively ugly, want to depict nothing but ancient
togas. But modernity in painting does not consist, for Baudelaire, in
introducing black clothing onto the canvas. The modern painter is the one who
can show the dark frock-coat as 'the necessary costume of our time,' the one who
knows how to make manifest, in the fashion of the day, the essential, permanent,
obsessive relation that our age entertains with death. 'The dress-coat and
frock-coat not only possess their political beauty, which is an expression of
universal equality, but also their poetic beauty, which is an expression of the
public soul -- an immense cortège of undertaker's mutes (mutes in love, political
mutes, bourgeois mutes...). We are each of us celebrating some funeral.'
To designate this attitude of modernity, Baudelaire sometimes employs a litotes
that is highly significant because it is presented in the form of a precept:
'You have no right to despise the present.'
- This heroization is ironical, needless to say. The attitude of modernity does
not treat the passing moment as sacred in order to try to maintain or perpetuate
it. It certainly does not involve harvesting it as a fleeting and interesting
curiosity. That would be what Baudelaire would call the spectator's posture. The
flâneur, the idle, strolling spectator, is satisfied to keep his eyes open, to
pay attention and to build up a storehouse of memories. In opposition to the
flâneur, Baudelaire describes the man of modernity: 'Away he goes, hurrying,
searching .... Be very sure that this man ... -- this solitary, gifted with an
active imagination, ceaselessly journeying across the great human desert -- has an
aim loftier than that of a mere flâneur, an aim more general, something other
than the fugitive pleasure of circumstance. He is looking for that quality which
you must allow me to call 'modernity.' ... He makes it his business to extract
from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history.' As an
example of modernity, Baudelaire cites the artist Constantin Guys. In appearance
a spectator, a collector of curiosities, he remains 'the last to linger wherever
there can be a glow of light, an echo of poetry, a quiver of life or a chord of
music; wherever a passion can pose before him, wherever natural man and
conventional man display themselves in a strange beauty, wherever the sun lights
up the swift joys of the depraved animal.' 
But let us make no mistake. Constantin Guys is not a flâneur; what makes him the
modern painter par excellence in Baudelaire's eyes is that, just when the whole
world is falling asleep, he begins to work, and he transfigures that world. His
transfiguration does not entail an annulling of reality, but a difficult
interplay between the truth of what is real and the exercise of freedom;
'natural' things become 'more than natural,' 'beautiful' things become 'more
than beautiful,' and individual objects appear 'endowed with an impulsive life
like the soul of their creator.'  For the attitude of modernity, the high value
of the present is indissociable from a desperate eagerness to imagine it, to
imagine it otherwise than it is, and to transform it not by destroying it but by
grasping it in what it is. Baudelairean modernity is an exercise in which
extreme attention to what is real is confronted with the practice of a liberty
that simultaneously respects this reality and violates it.
- However, modernity for Baudelaire is not simply a form of relationship to the
present; it is also a mode of relationship that has to be established with
oneself. The deliberate attitude of modernity is tied to an indispensable
asceticism. To be modern is not to accept oneself as one is in the flux of the
passing moments; it is to take oneself as object of a complex and difficult
elaboration: what Baudelaire, in the vocabulary of his day, calls dandysme.
Here I shall not recall in detail the well-known passages on 'vulgar, earthy, vile
nature'; on man's indispensable revolt against himself; on the 'doctrine of
elegance' which imposes 'upon its ambitious and humble disciples' a discipline
more despotic than the most terrible religions; the pages, finally, on the
asceticism of the dandy who makes of his body, his behavior, his feelings and
passions, his very existence, a work of art. Modern man, for Baudelaire, is not
the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he
is the man who tries to invent himself. This modernity does not 'liberate man in
his own being'; it compels him to face the task of producing himself.
- Let me add just one final word. This ironic heroization of the present, this
transfiguring play of freedom with reality, this ascetic elaboration of the
self -- Baudelaire does not imagine that these have any place in society itself, or
in the body politic. They can only be produced in another, a different place,
which Baudelaire calls art.
I do not pretend to be summarizing in these few lines either the complex
historical event that was the Enlightenment, at the end of the eighteenth
century, or the attitude of modernity in the various guises it may have taken on
during the last two centuries.
I have been seeking, on the one hand, to emphasize the extent to which a type of
philosophical interrogation -- one that simultaneously problematizes man's relation
to the present, man's historical mode of being, and the constitution of the self
as an autonomous subject -- is rooted in the Enlightenment. On the other hand, I
have been seeking to stress that the thread that may connect us with the
Enlightenment is not faithfulness to doctrinal elements, but rather the
permanent reactivation of an attitude -- that is, of a philosophical ethos that
could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era. I should like
to characterize this ethos very briefly.
- This ethos implies, first, the refusal of what I like to call the 'blackmail'
of the Enlightenment. I think that the Enlightenment, as a set of political,
economic, social, institutional, and cultural events on which we still depend in
large part, constitutes a privileged domain for analysis. I also think that as
an enterprise for linking the progress of truth and the history of liberty in a
bond of direct relation, it formulated a philosophical question that remains for
us to consider. I think, finally, as I have tried to show with reference to
Kant's text, that it defined a certain manner of philosophizing.
But that does not mean that one has to be 'for' or 'against' the Enlightenment.
It even means precisely that one has to refuse everything that might present
itself in the form of a simplistic and authoritarian alternative: you either
accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its rationalism
(this is considered a positive term by some and used by others, on the contrary,
as a reproach); or else you criticize the Enlightenment and then try to escape
from its principles of rationality (which may be seen once again as good or
bad). And w e do not break free of this blackmail by introducing 'dialectical'
nuances while seeking to determine what good and bad elements there may have
been in the Enlightenment.
We must try to proceed with the analysis of ourselves as beings who are
historically determined, to a certain extent, by the Enlightenment. Such an
analysis implies a series of historical inquiries that are as precise as
possible; and these inquiries will not be oriented retrospectively toward the
'essential kernel of rationality' that can be found in the Enlightenment and
that would have to be preserved in any event; they will be oriented toward the
'contemporary limits of the necessary,' that is, toward what is not or is no
longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.
- This permanent critique of ourselves has to avoid the always too facile
confusions between humanism and Enlightenment.
We must never forget that the Enlightenment is an event, or a set of events and
complex historical processes, that is located at a certain point in the
development of European societies. As such, it includes elements of social
transformation, types of political institution, forms of knowledge, projects of
rationalization of knowledge and practices, technological mutations that are
very difficult to sum up in a word, even if many of these phenomena remain
important today. The one I have pointed out and that seems to me to have been at
the basis of an entire form of philosophical reflection concerns only the mode
of reflective relation to the present.
Humanism is something entirely different. It is a theme or rather a set of
themes that have reappeared on several occasions over time in European
societies; these themes always tied to value judgments have obviously varied
greatly in their content as well as in the values they have preserved.
Furthermore they have served as a critical principle of differentiation. In the
seventeenth century there was a humanism that presented itself as a critique of
Christianity or of religion in general; there was a Christian humanism opposed
to an ascetic and much more theocentric humanism. In the nineteenth century
there was a suspicious humanism hostile and critical toward science and another
that to the contrary placed its hope in that same science. Marxism has been a
humanism; so have existentialism and personalism; there was a time when people
supported the humanistic values represented by National Socialism and when the
Stalinists themselves said they were humanists.
From this we must not conclude that everything that has ever been linked with
humanism is to be rejected but that the humanistic thematic is in itself too
supple too diverse too inconsistent to serve as an axis for reflection. And it
is a fact that at least since the seventeenth century what is called humanism
has always been obliged to lean on certain conceptions of man borrowed from
religion science or politics. Humanism serves to color and to justify the
conceptions of man to which it is after all obliged to take recourse.
Now in this connection I believe that this thematic which so often recurs and
which always depends on humanism can be opposed by the principle of a critique
and a permanent creation of ourselves in our autonomy: that is a principle that
is at the heart of the historical consciousness that the Enlightenment has of
itself. From this standpoint I am inclined to see Enlightenment and humanism in
a state of tension rather than identity.
In any case it seems to me dangerous to confuse them; and further it seems
historically inaccurate. If the question of man of the human species of the
humanist was important throughout the eighteenth century this is very rarely I
believe because the Enlightenment considered itself a humanism. It is worthwhile
too to note that throughout the nineteenth century the historiography of
sixteenth-century humanism which was so important for people like Saint-Beuve or
Burckhardt was always distinct from and sometimes explicitly opposed to the
Enlightenment and the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century had a tendency
to oppose the two at least as much as to confuse them.
In any case I think that just as we must free ourselves from the intellectual
blackmail of being for or against the Enlightenment we must escape from the
historical and moral confusionism that mixes the theme of humanism with the
question of the Enlightenment. An analysis of their complex relations in the
course of the last two centuries would be a worthwhile project an important one
if we are to bring some measure of clarity to the consciousness that we have of
ourselves and of our past.
Yet while taking these precautions into account we must obviously give a more
positive content to what may be a philosophical ethos consisting in a critique
of what we are saying thinking and doing through a historical ontology of
- This philosophical ethos may be characterized as a limit-attitude. We are not
talking about a gesture of rejection. We have to move beyond the outside-inside
alternative; we have to be at the frontiers. Criticism indeed consists of
analyzing and reflecting upon limits. But if the Kantian question was that of
knowing what limits knowledge has to renounce transgressing, it seems to me that
the critical question today has to be turned back into a positive one: in what
is given lo us as universal necessary obligatory what place is occupied by
whatever is singular contingent and the product of arbitrary constraints? The
point in brief is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary
limitation into a practical critique that lakes the form of a possible
This entails an obvious consequence: that criticism is no longer going to be
practiced in the search for formal structures with universal value, but rather
as a historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute
ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking,
saying. In that sense, this criticism is not transcendental, and its goal is not
that of making a metaphysics possible: it is genealogical in its design and
archaeological in its method. Archaeological -- and not transcendental -- in the sense
that it will not seek to identify the universal structures of all knowledge or
of all possible moral action, but will seek to treat the instances of discourse
that articulate what we think, say, and do as so many historical events. And
this critique will be genealogical in the sense that it will not deduce from the
form of what we are what it is impossible for us to do and to know; but it will
separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility
of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think. It is not
seeking to make possible a metaphysics that has finally become a science; it is
seeking to give new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work
- But if we are not to settle for the affirmation or the empty dream of
freedom, it seems to me that this historico-critical attitude must also be an
experimental one. I mean that this work done at the limits of ourselves must, on
the one hand, open up a realm of historical inquiry and, on the other, put
itself to the test of reality, of contemporary reality, both to grasp the points
where change is possible and desirable, and to determine the precise form this
change should take. This means that the historical ontology of ourselves must
turn away from all projects that claim to be global or radical. In fact we know
from experience that the claim to escape from the system of contemporary reality
so as to produce the overall programs of another society, of another way of
thinking, another culture, another vision of the world, has led only to the
return of the most dangerous traditions.
I prefer the very specific transformations that have proved to be possible in
the last twenty years in a certain number of areas that concern our ways of
being and thinking, relations to authority, relations between the sexes, the way
in which we perceive insanity or illness; I prefer even these partial
transformations that have been made in the correlation of historical analysis
and the practical attitude, to the programs for a new man that the worst
political systems have repeated throughout the twentieth century.
I shall thus characterize the philosophical ethos appropriate to the critical
ontology of ourselves as a historico-practical test of the limits that we may go
beyond, and thus as work carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings.
- Still, the following objection would no doubt be entirely legitimate: if we
limit ourselves to this type of always partial and local inquiry or test, do we
not run the risk of letting ourselves be determined by more general structures
of which we may well not be conscious, and over which we may have no control?
To this, two responses. It is true that we have to give up hope of ever acceding
to a point of view that could give us access to any complete and definitive
knowledge of what may constitute our historical limits. And from this point of
view the theoretical and practical experience that we have of our limits and of
the possibility of moving beyond them is always limited and determined; thus we
are always in the position of beginning again .
But that does not mean that no work can be done except in disorder and
contingency. The work in question has its generality, its systematicity, its
homogeneity, and its stakes.
(a) Its Stakes
These are indicated by what might be called 'the paradox of the relations of
capacity and power.' We know that the great promise or the great hope of the
eighteenth century, or a part of the eighteenth century, lay in the simultaneous
and proportional growth of individuals with respect to one another. And,
moreover, we can see that throughout the entire history of Western societies (it
is perhaps here that the root of their singular historical destiny is
located -- such a peculiar destiny, so different from the others in its trajectory
and so universalizing, so dominant with respect to the others), the acquisition
of capabilities and the struggle for freedom have constituted permanent
elements. Now the relations between the growth of capabilities and the growth of
autonomy are not as simple as the eighteenth century may have believed. And we
have been able to see what forms of power relation were conveyed by various
technologies (whether we are speaking of productions with economic aims, or
institutions whose goal is social regulation, or of techniques of
communication): disciplines, both collective and individual, procedures of
normalization exercised in the name of the power of the state, demands of
society or of population zones, are examples. What is at stake, then, is this:
How can the growth of capabilities be disconnected from the intensification of
This leads to the study of what could be called 'practical systems.' Here we are
taking as a homogeneous domain of reference not the representations that men
give of themselves, not the conditions that determine them without their
knowledge, but rather what they do and the way they do it. That is, the forms of
rationality that organize their ways of doing things (this might be called the
technological aspect) and the freedom with which they act within these practical
systems, reacting to what others do, modifying the rules of the game, up to a
certain point (this might be called the strategic side of these practices). The
homogeneity of these historico-critical analyses is thus ensured by this realm
of practices, with their technological side and their strategic side.
These practical systems stem from three broad areas: relations of control over
things, relations of action upon others, relations with oneself. This does not
mean that each of these three areas is completely foreign to the others. It is
well known that control over things is mediated by relations with others; and
relations with others in turn always entail relations with oneself, and vice
versa. But we have three axes whose specificity and whose interconnections have
to be analyzed: the axis of knowledge, the axis of power, the axis of ethics. In
other terms, the historical ontology of ourselves has to answer an open series
of questions; it has to make an indefinite number of inquiries which may be
multiplied and specified as much as we like, but which will all address the
questions systematized as follows: How are we constituted as subjects of our own
knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power
relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions?
Finally, these historico-critical investigations are quite specific in the sense
that they always bear upon a material, an epoch, a body of determined practices
and discourses. And yet, at least at the level of the Western societies from
which we derive, they have their generality, in the sense that they have
continued to recur up to our time: for example, the problem of the relationship
between sanity and insanity, or sickness and health, or crime and the law; the
problem of the role of sexual relations; and so on.
But by evoking this generality, I do not mean to suggest that it has to be
retraced in its metahistorical continuity over time, nor that its variations
have to be pursued. What must be grasped is the extent to which what we know of
it, the forms of power that are exercised in it, and the experience that we have
in it of ourselves constitute nothing but determined historical figures, through
a certain form of problematization that defines objects, rules of action, modes
of relation to oneself. The study of modes of problematization (that is, of what
is neither an anthropological constant nor a chronological variation) is thus
the way to analyze questions of general import in their historically unique
A brief summary, to conclude and to come back to Kant.
I do not know whether we will ever reach mature adulthood. Many things in our
experience convince us that the historical event of the Enlightenment did not
make us mature adults, and we have not reached that stage yet. However, it seems
to me that a meaning can be attributed to that critical interrogation on the
present and on ourselves which Kant formulated by reflecting on the
Enlightenment. It seems to me that Kant's reflection is even a way of
philosophizing that has not been without its importance or effectiveness during
the last two centuries. The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered
not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of
knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos,
a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same
time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an
experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.
This philosophical attitude has to be translated into the labor of diverse
inquiries. These inquiries have their methodological coherence in the at once
archaeological and genealogical study of practices envisaged simultaneously as a
technological type of rationality and as strategic games of liberties; they have
their theoretical coherence in the definition of the historically unique forms
in which the generalities of our relations to things, to others, to ourselves,
have been problematized. They have their practical coherence in the care brought
to the process of putting historico-critical reflection to the test of concrete
practices. I do not know whether it must be said today that the critical task
still entails faith in Enlightenment; I continue to think that this task
requires work on our limits, that is, a patient labor giving form to our
impatience for liberty.
Giambattista Vico, The New Science, 3rd ed., (1744), abridged trans. T. G.
Bergin and M. H. Fisch (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1970), pp. 370, 372.
Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1964), p. 13.
Charles Baudelaire, 'On the Heroism of Modern Life,' in The Mirror of Art, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1955), p. 127.
Baudelaire, Painter, pp. 12, Il.
Ibid., p. 12.