Thursday, July 25, 2013

Rousseau, Kant and Marx Walk Into An Enlightened Bar

The Weiner Court of Muses
Der Weimarer Musenhof (1860); Schiller liest in Tiefurt
Theobald von Oer

If enlightenment is an aspect of our true biological nature, we can make a reasoned case for seeking out its continuation or presence in all other things. If, however, by means of technological advancement, we ultimately transcend the biological limitations that have long-since defined the experience of being human, i.e., finite existence, then the questions surrounding enlightenment may no longer hold our imagination captive.

Utilizing Kant’s Definition of Enlightenment:
Discuss Rousseau, Kant and Marx as Enlightened Figures

Kant’s (1724 – 1804) theory of enlightenment bridges the gap between the rationalist and empiricist traditions of 18th century Europe; a time characterized by dramatic revolutions in science, philosophy, politics, and the social order. Despite spending his entire life in the town of his birth, Königsberg (the then capital of Prussia; now Kaliningrad in Russia), Kant is regarded as one of the most influential European philosophers since the Ancient Greeks.

            For Kant, enlightenment was “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” which, if cultivated by means of his “natural endowments” (i.e., one’s own reason), could serve to free him from the restrictions that prevent enlightenment. By this reckoning, Kant would consider any scholar, who offered the public a “carefully considered, well-intentioned thought on the mistaken aspects” of any doctrine, an enlightened person, or at the very least, an individual freely acting out “their own reason in all matters of conscience” in order to “liberate mankind from immaturity”.

            It is a great and beautiful spectacle to see a man somehow emerge from oblivion by his own efforts, dispelling with the light of his reason the shadows in which nature had enveloped him, rising above himself, soaring in his mind right up to the celestial regions, moving, like the sun, with giant strides through the vast extent of the universe, and, what is even greater and more difficult, returning himself in order to study man there and learn of his nature, his obligations, and his end.”

            Rousseau's (1712 – 1778) explanation of human beings as initially existing in a “state of nature is a highly romanticized one. He is thus known as the first philosopher of Romanticism, and for his argument that human beings are innately good, but have had their behavior altered by the corrupting influences of society. Given Rousseau’s influence on Kant’s work, in particular in the area of ethics, we can deduce that Kant considered Rousseau an enlightened figure.

The Happy Accidents of the Swing
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 - 1806)

           For Kant, moral law is based on rationality, whereas with Rousseau, nature is a constant theme that should not be ignored. Despite these differences, like Rousseau, rather than ask the traditional question about whether our knowledge accurately reflects reality, Kant asked how reality affected our cognition or understanding. He attributed what we know as something that is determined by the nature of our sensory and cognitive apparatus. More simply put, knowledge starts with experience, which then requires ordering by the mind. Thus, it is possible by means of our reason, to discover universal truths about our world.  

            Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) thought that reality was historically constituted, containing internal conflicts that drive change. Like Kant, Marx thought that external (economic) forces affected our cognition and understanding.

            Marx’s work had a profound effect on world history, leading a third of the world’s population to live under regimes claiming allegiance to his philosophy. Like Kant, Marx believed that all concepts (including the processes belonging to history) were open to rational investigation. In other words, the historical situations upon which Marx based his philosophies were situations that contained internal conflicts that could be alleviated.

            Similar to Rousseau’s explanation of how social or external influences affected the natural state of mankind, Marx saw the inexorable logic driving the course of history as material, rather than spiritual, evidence for changes, and ultimately, the oppression of mankind, or more specifically, the worker. While Rousseau perceived social influences as something that affected human action, Marx further explained how those material forces, which affect human action, in turn, served as the engine of social change.

Diego Rivera (1886 - 1957)

Diego Rivera (1886 - 1957)

            For Marx, the dialectical conflict between distinct socioeconomic classes that production and distribution produce determines the course of history, driving social change, which ultimately contributes to the nature of class conflict. Thus, the opium of the people, accordingly, is that which sustains the status quo, the “superstructural” social phenomena (such as political institutions, religions, ideologies, philosophies, and the arts) that only serve the ruling class – the bourgeoisie.

La Bourgeoisie (1894)
Émile Pouget

            Much like how 18th century philosophers experienced what their generation considered to be inconceivable heights of intelligence, industrial progress, and longevity; we again find ourselves on the brink of great social and philosophical change, the ramifications of which will be profound for enlightenment thinkers. The adjustments technological advancement pose present a glimpse of the coming age that is both a dramatic culmination of centuries of social, philosophical, and technological ingenuity as well as a genuinely inspiring vision of what Kant meant by “enlightenment” (man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity”). At the onset of the twenty-first century, two hundred years after Kant’s death, humanity once again stands on the verge of reconsidering what it means to be enlightened, not only in this discourse, but as a global community living in an era in which technology will challenge the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged.


Rousseau, Kant and Marx are still in the bar discussing their theories of enlightenment. 

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