Tag Archives: Age of Enlightenment

Sometimes I allow myself to just read what comes along on the internet, through some reference, it might be coincidental, and read. Read, click, read. So this was the string of events: three days ago I met my nice colleague from the history section, Dienke Hondius, whom I had not seen for some time, so we talk about what’s new. Not much earlier I had seen that there would be a presentation of her new book on Blackness in Europe, which I hope to attend. She told me she was also one of the initiators, or organizers, I don’t remember it exactly, of the ‘slavery history walks’ in Amsterdam of which I had heard. On these guided tours one is taken along places in our capital that mark the Netherlands’ involvement in the slave trade and the slave business in general. And she said something about a map.

So I googled the map. It shows where in Amsterdam slave owners lived. These were only owners, mostly, who had their investments overseas and reaped the benefits, without their own physical involvement. I must say I could not repress the urge to look if there were any of my ancestors on the list of names on the side, as those from father’s side were living right there, in the Amsterdam centre, back then, and were involved in trade. They were not, but some were in financial business, so they most probably benefited from the colonial situation anyway. Then, following some link somewhere, I landed on that blog which you might have seen some time, or not, where it is claimed that Beethoven was black. After reading the article I continued with reading the discussion below the several year old post, which had persisted through the years. The discussion got my interest.

It showed a perfect and deep confusion over the terms of debate. Mostly between European readers and Americans. These groups of readers, say from the ‘public’ (no specialists in critical race studies or in black history or other relevant fields) insist on exclusive conceptions of ethnicity or ‘race’. They went on, comment after comment, endlessly, without reaching any common ground. The ‘Europeans’ would stress the mixed ancestry of all their peoples, with large influx of Huns, Moorish Spaniards, Turks, and other, say, ‘non-blond’ peoples, and wouldn’t want to bother about Beethoven being black or anything. Race doesn’t exist, biologically, so socially it is not important either, was their bottom line. The Americans referred of course to practices from slavery times, especially after the slave trade had come to an end, when mixed offspring would always be named black, to ensure the procreation of new slaves (when necessary ‘produced’ by slave masters raping their female slaves themselves). To Jim Crow (segregation) laws, which categorized anyone with ‘one drop’ of African blood as black.

In the end, the ‘American’ discourse is, referring always to history, politically inspired. The European one sees itself as more ‘scientific’, objective, and neutral in a political sense. Here, however, it becomes interesting. As the work of a historian like Dienke Hondius aims to show, the traces of the same history lie also on European soil. Looking into them might help to understand some of the blind spots in European culture. We do not share the American history in the sense that ‘our’ slave owners just did their jobs over here, or drank their tea with friends, with most of them not coming into contact with the ugly details of the business. This might explain the bewilderment of so many Dutch when outsiders consider their ‘blackface Pete’ a racist phenomenon. There is much resistance to enter a common ground for debate, as it showed in the ‘Beethoven’ commentaries.

Still there is, to my view, a lot to learn for the European side. Not just with respect to our present society, and the silent racism that disturbs many social relations, but also with respect to the self-understanding of European culture. Michel Foucault is the one who did much groundbreaking work to this respect, especially in his longstanding dialogue with Kantian philosophy. In his Birth of the Clinic he writes that the medicinal gaze that took hold in the late eigtheenth century meant a revolution over against the belief in Enlightenment, for the concreteness which with bodies were now studied showed ‘powers of truth that they owe not to light, but to the slowness of the gaze that passes over them, around them, and gradually into them.’ The gaze thus bestows light, instead of believing in it as an independent faculty of reason.

In another sense this gaze characterizes the social and political history that Foucault exercised himself. In an essay on Kant’s essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’, Foucault’s approach to the program of light, which he called an ethos of permanent criticique of our historical era, shows there in his definition of critical research. It 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.’ Research into Europe’s relation to blackness is one of the significant instances of the search for light in the 21st centure.

The Dutchman, wrote Immanuel Kant in his Anthropology, is only interested in the useful. ‘A great man signifies exactly the same to him as a rich man, by a friend he means his correspondent, and a visit that makes him no profit is very boring to him.’ Although, being Dutch, and loving any kind of humorous thought that relativizes the idea that ‘my’ people, race, sex, or other group to which I could be ascribed might be better or wiser than those to which others are said to belong – the things that ‘our’ (Western European) most important Enlightenment thinker wrote on peoples and races makes me feel ashamed of ‘us’ philosophers.

Immanuel Kant is well-known for his revolutionary appeal to each man that he should think for himself (and the famous Monty-Python clip from Life of Brian illustrates how frustrating making such an appeal can be). This was not just an ideological move, he founded this appeal on his very complex and systematic philosophy. This philosophy is often summarized in his ‘four questions’: what can I know (epistemology), what should I do (ethics), what is there to hope for (metaphysics/religion/spirituality), and who or what is ‘man’ (as the human being was called in pre-feminist times). The final question was, in Kant’s eyes, the summarization and presupposition of all three others. It is man that knows, acts, and hopes – and understanding man is therefore understanding the world. This makes anthropology (the knowledge of man) not just a discipline among others, for it digs into the enigma that we pose to ourselves – being conscious and only thus being ‘in the world’.

In the same book in which one can find the chit-chat on Dutchmen and Frenchmen and Germans, one finds a critical observation like the following: Anthropology […] can exist either in a physiological or in a pragmatic point of view. – Physiological knowledge of the human being concerns the investigation of what nature makes of the human being; pragmatic, the investigation of what he as a free-acting being makes of himself, or can and should make of himself.’ What is philosophically most revolutionary and interesting in this sentence is the idea that there are different ways of knowing, which produce different kinds of knowledge – and actually different domains of reality which we can enter or leave at the moment that we adopt or leave behind one or the other way of knowing. We can know the human being/mankind from the outside, so to speak, as a natural object – empirically. Or we can know it from the inside, as a free agent.

Many philosophers have returned to this strange potential to flip from being an agent to being an object of observation. George Herbert Mead, for instance has distinguished between the ‘me’ (the self as observed) and the ‘I’ (the acting self). The agent, the ‘real’ I, however, can not be known – in the sense that we normally understand knowing as explaining by means of causality. The I is free, and distances itself from external causes. It never knows what it will choose. Psychologically: when we choose something, we notice it when we already have done so. Choosing precedes that kind of observational knowledge. Kant, now, claimed that we can know about choosing – but in another manner than the normal empirical manner. This kind of knowing he calls reason. Through reason I can know what I, as a free-acting being make of myself, or can and should make of myself. In reason, therefore, lie the foundations of morality, of education, and of civilization. Beautiful thoughts that have appealed to many great minds through the centuries, and nowadays form the basis of the global belief in education, development, and the necessary progress of reason.

The enigma is, how a critical philosopher like Kant could mix up, in one book, these core Enlightenment insights, and gossip like the above about the Dutch. The gossip is more serious still when he looks into peoples farther away from his own tribe – the Germans (more exactly the Prussians). Not in the Anthropology itself, but in related and earlier works one can find outrightly racist remarks, where he writes about ‘the negroes of Africa’ that their belief in fetishes is ‘a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature.’ Remarks like these provide ammunition for those present-day thinkers who criticize the whole endeavour of Enlightenment as a colonialist enterprise, which has betrayed it’s own lofty ideals – as they are only the soft side of the exploitation of those who were declared to not partake in reason.

They (those criticists), pointing to the parochialism of Kantian Enlightenment, have an early predecessor. Max Scheler, who dedicated a stout volume to the critical analysis of (and finding an alternative to) Kant’s philosophy of morality and agency, already before 1916, wrote: ‘Only through the reasons contained in the foundations of Kant’s ethics […] can it be shown, psychologically and historically, that it was the roots of the ethnically and historically very limited […] ethos of the people and state of a specific epoch in the history of Prussia that Kant presumptuously dared to seek in a pure and universally valid human reason.’

There arise deeper questions, now, however. First concerning knowledge through reason. Foucault, who wrote one of his dissertation studies on the Anthropology of Kant, wrote (in a later work) that ‘we should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist where the power relations are suspended […] [and] admit that power produces knowledge.’ Concluding his work on the Anthropology he made it consistently clear: Kant’s thought revolved in an anthropological illusion – believing that through man we can know the world. His question ‘what is the human being?’ led in the end to Nietzsches answer: ‘the Übermensch’. And who is this superman? He/she is the one who has become enlightened about this: that everything he/she poses as truth is an interpretation. That there is no final truth behind the endless interpretations the human being produces. And the ‘super’ in his/her name indicates the psychological strength to endure and live in this unending uncertainty.

So, if Foucault is right, where does this leave those of us who were placed by Kant outside the community of reasonable people? Does it make sense to just cry out that the Enlightenment was an imperialistic movement which used Prussian morality as it’s ideological weapons? And say that bringing the empire down will bring a new freedom? Or is there still something else about the enigma? Is it possible that there is a truth (a real one) to be found in the works that sprung from German soil? It might be this: Kant’s words were not final, they have shown to be open to reconstruction. And their appeal to self-governance have shown to contain the very weapons to break down the parochial, misogynist, racist, and eurocentric prejudices in which they have been packaged. Even if Nietzsche was right that no truth can be final, the emancipatory force of the Enlightenment ideal is open ended. It can be interpreted anew over and over again. The boundaries of reason can be redrawn (even to encompass the so called fetishist idolatry, perhaps). And even if the Enlightenment ideal will know an end, like everything in history, the end might not be here yet, as the ideal still functions as a tool in the hands of those whom Kant did not really see fit to take it in their hands.


Sources used:

Immanuel Kant Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Emmanuel Eze Race and the Enlightenment. A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, 1997

Michel Foucault Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology, Semiotext(e), 2008

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, Penguin, 1977

Max Scheler Formalism in Ethics and Material Value Ethics, Northwestern University Press, 1973

I am a feminist. I have always felt I could not not be one. All the same I have met with much confusion on the subject around me. Time to disentangle some knots and try to shed some light on the differing philosophical, political and social views that do and do not combine with feminism. A most important form of confusion one encounters often is the idea that feminism is something for women. That it is the ideology of a lobby that has for its aim to promote the interests of its members. Well, it is not, and that is shown in the many arguments that men have brought forward for it. They cannot be suspected to be members of a lobby group restricted to women, so why would they be feminists?

They have many reasons, political, social, philosophical – and they are not even of a kind. In general feminism is seen as a product of the Enlightenment – as one of the emancipation movements of workers, women and people of colour that based itself on the idea of the equality of all ‘men’. All the same, we have seen massive criticism of the major Enlightenment thinkers – for the fact that despite their general ideas about the equality of ‘mankind’ they excluded all the mentioned groups who fought for emancipation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from the realm where the equal rights reign. Such criticism has led to the questioning of the aim of Enlightenment itself: was it really a movement for the advancement of humanitarian values like equal rights for all, or was it the very succesful dust thrown in the eyes of those who were to support by their free labour and care the winners of the colonial and the early industrial era?

It is more complicated than that, as we see that in those same centuries of equality for the few and oppression for the most, we see Aufklärer (taken in a broad sense) who seem to have drawn the right consequences from the principles of modern thought. It is only natural that some of the feminist treatises of such writers, even of the men among them, are hardly known, for they sure went against the mainstream. Lets remember some of them. Like the social Cartesian Francois Poulain the la Barre (1647-1723), who wrote no less than three feminist treatises: On the Equality of the two Sexes (1673), On the Education of Women (1674) and On the Qualities of Men, against the Equality of the Sexes (1675). The final title might mislead – it contains a criticism of criticisms of feminism. Poulain based his arguments on the Cartesian critique of tradition as authority. If one thinks for oneself, unprejudiced, one must conclude, he argues, that men and women only differ where sexual reproduction is concerned, and in no other relevant aspects. Ergo: women deserve the same opportunities in public life as men. Here we see a consistent modernism – which cannot be dismissed on the grounds of creating false consciousness.

Somewhat less forgotten is the feminism of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). But when Mill is mentioned in the philosophy curriculum as the influential writer of Utilitarianism (1863) and On Liberty (1859), most teachers forget to mention his other important work The Subjection of Women (1869) – seeing feminism as a ‘special subject’ and not as one that stands at the centre of moral thought. To Mill this is not so: not only does he defend equal opportunities for women on the pragmatic ground that human society should use its most talented individuals to run its affairs and not harm itself by letting the talent of half of humankind wasted – but he also gives the pronounced moral argument that ‘every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any of their fellow human creatures, […] dries up […] the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being.’

Two male feminists, modernists also, using very distinct arguments for their case. Their inspirational principles are distinct also. For Mill it is the greatest happiness principle, which acknowledges the importance of the sentient individual as the cornerstone of moral thought. For Poulain it is the objective or empirical equality of both sexes, apart from sexual reproduction – a more ‘materialist’, ‘proto-socialist’ principle. Feminism thus goes beyond widely differing views on politics and society, it surmounts them. Perhaps it provides one of several possible litmus tests for deciding, in the end, on the moral worth of the whole Enlightenment experience. And should the test produce a positive result, this would of course have to lead to the conclusion that Kant and many others who thought ‘some pigs to be more equal than others’, had it wrong in defending the lost cause of the subjection of women.

Dates and works of Poulain de la Barre and Stuart Mill I already mentioned in the text above. Their feminist works mentioned can all be accessed online.

Mill’s here:

Poulain de la Barre’s here:

Some of the research for this subject I did a long time ago, when I prepared the introduction to the early feminist Treatise on the Talent of Women for Science, of a Dutch thinker, Anna Maria van Schuurman, originally published in Latin in 1641, and translated by Renée Ter Haar in Dutch for the publication in 1996 by Uitgeverij Xeno, Groningen.

In 1745 the life of the distinguished Swedish engineer Emanuel Swedenborg took a radical turn, after he allegedly received direct revelations from Christ himself. This made him not only write an elaborate new interpretation of some of the books of the Bible, but it also made him change psychically. From that moment on he claimed to stand in continuous direct contact with the spirit world. Many contemporaries were possibly most interested in the visions which he had, which made him access information which he normally could not have had (the most famous case being his vision of a large fire in a town a long way from where he was). His followers paid more attention however to the moral consequences of his experiences. Swedenborg was convinced that only someone who had discovered his inner self (which is the part of a person which is already in the spirit world, while he or she is alive) could find the source of truly moral behaviour. He was also convinced that this was the core message of Christ.

Those philosophers who know something about Swedenborg mostly do so because his famous contemporary Immanuel Kant wrote a small satirical book about his ideas: Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Elucidated through Dreams of Metaphysics. This work of the Enlightenment philosopher is seen to be the turning point in his career – it marks the transition of his so-called pre-critical to his critical period. His critical works, e.g. the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical (is: moral) Reason, created a landslide in modern Western philosophy, and consequently in our understanding of science. These works claim to deduce from reason alone the borders of what we can sensibly call knowledge, and of what should sensibly direct our moral actions. In ethics this led to the famous adage to only choose such a principle to guide one’s actions that one would want everyone to choose. Thus Kant removed any arguments from Nature, or from Revelation from reasonable ethics. For theoretical knowledge his critical work had the effect to only acknowledge what we can derive from empirical research, i.e. from controlled sensual experience, which can be described within the limits or borders of sound reasoning.

In Dreams Kant tries his critical arguments out on Swedenborg, whose voluminous works he seems to have studied faithfully. As a philosopher who was interested in metaphysics, he wanted to read these testimonies of contact with the ‘invisible world’. They disappointed him, of course, because even more than those metaphysical works of his fellow-philosophers, they consisted of unfounded theories about realities which one could not check out for oneself. Thus he comes to the conclusion that the sole task of metaphysics should be to know and guard ‘the limits of human reason’. After a very satirical and critical treatment of Swedenborg, Kant concludes: ‘Thus, I have wasted my time in order to save it […] we see ourselves back on the low ground of experience and common sense, happy if we regard it as our assigned place from which we may never depart with impunity and which contains everything that can satisfy us, so long as we stay with what is useful.’

Historically Kant has been the real prophet, and not the spiritually enlightened Swedenborg, since Kant’s wish that serious researchers should ‘leave all noisy doctrines about such remote objects to the speculation of idle heads’ has become reality. Research into spiritual experiences is still mostly derided by those academic researchers who want to take themselves seriously. Testimonies of spirit appearances are treated with a sarcasm similar to that of Kant. But… there is more to the story. Recently the worlds of Kant researchers and of Swedenborg specialists are moving closer, and it seems that Kant took his contemporary much more seriously than his Dreams would show at first sight. Next to his proclaiming the necessity of ‘knowing and guarding’ the borders of the world of reason with an eye to sensible knowledge and action, he seems to have been sympathetical toward the belief in the spirit world as a source for spiritual consolation. And perhaps even to accept implicitly a connection between this belief and the personal sources of morality. For finding the right principle for action does not yet provide us with a motivation for following it.

The lesson of this story? That it is a shame when serious researchers dogmatically keep within the borders that Kant drew for theoretical and practical knowledge. It is like trying to imitate the Zen-master. Philosophy should make us think critically – and thus anyone studying philosophy should cross borders him or herself, like Kant did when he bought and read the work of the famous visionary. Philosophers should cross disciplinary borders, and not only read works that  belong to the canon of philosophy. And they should cross the borders of what is produced in academia – and read works that are not even considered to be based on logical reasoning or on empirical research, but which may be inspirational, revolutionary, religious, literary, or just entertaining. Only then can one make use of one’s potential for critical thought to the full.

Immanuel Kant lived from 1724-1804, Emanuel Swedenborg lived from 1688-1772.

I cited from Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and Other Writings, Swedenborg Foundation Publishers, 2002

Swedenborgs Works can easily be accessed online through:

A good introduction to Swedenborg gives Ernst Benz’ Emanuel Swedenborg. Visionary Savant in the Age of Reason, Swedenborg Foundation 2002

Some of the most up to date critical research on the relationship between the two is in German: Kant und Swedenborg. Zugänge zu einem umstrittenen Verhältnis (Friedemann Stengel hrsg), Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2008

One cannot talk about ‘morality’, I answered to a Master-student yesterday, without supposing the possibility of free action. She is interested in studying dissociation, identity, and moral responsibility, and  while we discussed those concepts and their relations, I was led to the articulation of a thought on the difficulty of  freedom in modern society which (as it often goes) surprised me although I was the one who put it into words. This phenomenon makes one wonder who is the owner of thoughts. But yesterday we pondered the owner of acts: one cannot suppose the possibility of acting without assuming there to be someone who acts, who can be held responsible, and who thus, somehow, has to be judged to be free to choose an action.

This argumentation would have satisfied Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant: the idea of freedom, he claimed, is enough for a human being to realize his freedom. That is a nice thought, my student and me went on, but what if in fact my freedom is disturbed? I think I am free, but I am the victim of a psychotic illusion, or of blind ambition. What if I am subjected to a temporal dissociative experience, losing my purpose while trying to adapt to the complex interactions and emotions at, say, a party? Or, what if one is influenced unknowingly by some kind of voodoo-practice?

We mused about these different possibilities, and moved on to the question of the difference between traditional and modern societies. The modern person deems himself free in comparison to those unenlightened enough to reckon with the possibility of magic and voodoo, and with the influence in their lives of ancestors and gods. Those people, he thinks, are not free, as they have to visit their spiritual advisors and healers regularly, uncertain whether they are subject to evil inflicted upon them magically, or whether they neglected their duties towards the ancestors. How can freedom, responsibilty, and thus morality, play a significant role in societies where such thought is dominant?

And then I heard myself saying: ‘see it like this: we, moderns, have freed ourselves perhaps from the bonds of traditional society, which thrives on the fears of acting independently and which has stability and conformity as its main goals. But while freeing us from the fears of novelty, we enslaved ourselves to progress.’ Everything we do needs to be ‘rational’, that is, add to progress – to better health, to a better future for my children, to a better relationship with my loved one; to efficiency in my work, to higher quality, to lower cost, to better competiveness… so are we free? Fear of the gods, or of the evil eye, has been replaced by the fear of redundancy – if my acts do not contribute to progress, they are superfluous, and so am I…

When, after that conversation, I went on to ponder how the ideology of constant change and progress (common to communist as well as capitalist thought) makes morality within its parameters very difficult, while it threatens our actual freedom, I remembered Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher from the hippie age who recently gained new interest. Marcuse tried to tackle this problem. The crowbar of his theory lies in the acknowledgment that one cannot be free unless one allows oneself to value the present society against possible alternatives. To do this, one has to presuppose a judgment like: ‘human life is worth living, or rather can be and ought to be made worth living.’ If we dare not critically value society from such a critical viewpoint, we pass our potential for freedom by. And if we do that, I add, the Kantian ‘idea of freedom’ will be void of meaning, and ethical theorizing will have no real subject. Ergo: no thought of moral responsibility, of freedom, makes sense without criticism of society as it is.

Herbert Marcuse lived from 1898-1979. I cited from his One Dimensiononal Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].

Immanuel Kant lived from 1724-1804. His foundation of morality in the idea of freedom is to be found in his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (dritter Abschnitt) – published for the first time in 1785 (and has had numerous editions and translations since then).