Philosophy Department

What is Enlightenment? Reflections on Kant's Answer

On Wednesday February 3rd a panel of distinguished professors met to discuss philosopher Immanuel Kant’s work What is Enlightenment? The talk was moderated and hosted by University of Southern Maine professor Jason Read. The panel included professor Robert Louden, Sarah Marquardt (both professors of the University of Southern Maine), and professor David Cummiskey Chair of the Philosophy Department at Bates College. There were a good number of students and general public in attendance for the panel.

Professor Read introduced the topic by summarizing the two main arguments in What is Enlightenment.  The first of these is a call on one to use their own reason and the second is an argument that the public space (or the written, published word) is the proper area for critique and discussion, as opposed to, the private sphere of work. Professor Read then introduced each panelist and they offered their views on the work.

In his talk Louden offered a critique of Kant’s vision of enlightenment.  Louden’s criticism of Kant centers around the idea that Kant’s view of Enlightenment leaves out or actively argues against certain ideas that are of critical importance today. These include, the ability to speak one’s own mind in the private sphere, the ability to call out employers who make use of unsafe work place conditions, and the ability to have professional writers whose private and public activity overlap.

In contrast, professor Cummiskey offered a comparison of Kant’s notion of enlightenment to that of the Buddhist notion of Enlightenment- two ideas, which are generally kept separate. Cummiskey argued that it is more than simply a semantic coincidence that both use the term enlightenment and that the similarities between the two deserve serious consideration. Cummiskey went on to talk about the way in which both make use of meditation as a process rational thought.

Finally, professor Marquardt also offered a comparison; this time the comparison was between Kant and his philosophic predecessor Rene Descartes. Marquardt stressed the idea of the emotional versus the rational, arguing that, for Kant, there is no room for the emotional within the enlightenment. Marquardt offers Descartes as an alternative to Kant in understanding how the emotional can play a role in the rational.

The talks were followed by a lively Q&A session in which the panelists had the opportunity to engage with the audience.