The Enlightenment has two mottos. The first is “Dare to know!”, which opens Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” The second comes later in the same essay. It’s “Argue all you will, but obey”. It is only by reading the two mottos together that the double nature of the Enlightenment is revealed: publicly, you can and should debate about, say, taxes all you will, but that doesn’t mean that at the end of the day, you should not pay your taxes. The freedom that Kant’s essay calls for is a carefully delineated one that ultimately remains within the law.
Kant’s story revisits Plato’s allegory of the cave. In Book VII of the Republic, a story is told of cave-dwellers who sit shackled to the ground and are able to watch in only one direction. On the wall in front of them, images are projected of objects that, on an elevation that is behind them, are carried in front of a fire. Philosophy, for Plato, is about turning one’s head away from the shadows in order to see the real. It’s about making one’s way out of the cave, into the sun. In Kant’s terms: about learning to think for yourself, without the help of guardians.
It’s this last line that brings out a tension between Kant and Plato. Plato’s Republic is a city in which an elite called guardians makes use of all kinds of disputable techniques—eugenics, ideology—to (first) preserve a tripartite class system (guardians, auxiliaries, and vulgar craftsmen), and (second) optimize the citizenship of the Republic at large—to produce more guardians. Within this political structure, the allegory of the cave appears to apply only to the guardians. Was Plato saying that the vulgar craftsmen should become enlightened as well? But then why was he advocating that the guardians make use of ideology to keep the vulgar craftsmen from such knowledge? It appears that in Plato too, enlightenment is linked to obedience.
This means, if anything, that Kant was right when he wrote that today, we do not live in an enlightened age but in an age of enlightenment. The enlightenment needs to be squared; it needs to enlighten itself. That does not mean, necessarily, that it needs to break out of itself into anarchy. It means, rather, that it needs to turn against its own defense systems—to become auto-immune–if it truly wants to be enlightened. And even that realm of truth that appears to open up here will never be a stable realm of veridiction. It exists, rather, within the negative moment of a truth reaching beyond itself, into the poetic regions of its own saying.
References: Plato. Republic. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1992; Kant, Immanuel. “Was ist Aufklärung?” In: Michel Foucault. The Politics of Truth. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. Trans. Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007. 29-37. Image: Alex Robbins (concept and design); Dan Davis (digital rendering). The Orchestra, model for an outdoor exhibition site, 2009.