Posts Tagged ‘Immanuel Kant’

Next semester, I will have te opportunity to teach a seminar on the concept of Enlightenment to students of the University of Bielefeld. This is a translation of the text published in the syllabus.

Dimensions of Enlightenment: Self-Understanding, Descriptions, Historiography

The most famous characterization of the essence of Enlightenment stems from the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He defined the concept as the “departure of man from his self-inflicted minority” and tied this to the motto “Sapere aude!”: “Have the courage, to use your own understanding!”

The question ‘What is Enlightenment?’ is not only at the centre of the historical study of Enlightenment. The age that we now know under that name asked herself the same question. Furthermore, it has up until the present played a major part in debates about the self-understanding of modern culture.

The aim of this seminar is to consider the concept of Enlightenment in all its many dimensions. Accordingly, the question mentioned is examined from three perspectives:

1. What is Enlightenment in Historiography?

With reference to the example of Enlightenment historiography general questions are posed about problems of historical periodization (when was Enlightenment?), terminology (what does Enlightenment mean?) theory and method (how does one study Enlightenment?). Several ways in which this field has been studied will be compared with regard to their particular understanding of the subject.

2. What was Enlightenment in the Enlightenment?

In the course of the Eighteenth Century a group of authors emerged that closely tied their self-understanding to the historical mission of ”enlightening’ the world. On the other hand, others viewed this group as ridiculous posers in the best case, a world-wide conspiracy against throne and altar in the worst. What Enlightenment meant was highly controversial. It was negotiated in a long discursive process. On the basis of selected sources, such debates will be analyzed. The focus will be both on strategies of (linguistic and visual) self-presentation as well as on the hostile depictions by enemies of the Enlightenment.

3. What is Enlightenment now?

Most strongly in France and in the Anglo-Saxon countries, but also in Germany, Enlightenment plays a significant role in debates about the cultural self-understanding of modernity. The question is posed, if we live in enlightened times – or at least in an ‘Age of Enlightenment’ today. Is Enlightenment obsolete? Has she in the course of the Twentieth Century, as Horkheimer and Adorno thought, proven to be dialectical? Or does she still shape the present? What does this mean in the confrontation with non-Western, ‘unenlightened’ cultures?

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