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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 25 (2003) 35-57

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The Contest of Enlightenment
An Essay on Critique and Genealogy

David Owen

Let us imagine that the Berlinische Monatsschrift still exists and that it is asking its readers the question: What is modern philosophy? Perhaps one could respond with an echo: modern philosophy is the philosophy that is attempting to answer the question raised so imprudently two centuries ago: Was ist Aufklärung?

—Michel Foucault

The topic of enlightenment remains, as Foucault's remark indicates, central to contemporary debates in social and political philosophy. This is perhaps most notably the case with regard to the energetic debate between advocates of critique and of genealogy sparked by Habermas's trenchant criticisms of Foucault's genealogical style of philosophical reflection in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. In this context, Habermas's discourse supports the orthodox picture of genealogy as an anti-enlightenment form of reflection, as an example of the lawless use of reason. Since this picture exercises considerable force, it is worth illustrating that it offers a bowdlerized—and to that extent, untruthful—picture of the relationship between genealogy and enlightenment. Such is the task of this essay, in which I will argue that Nietzsche's development of genealogy as a form of critical reflection is precisely oriented to overcoming the aporetic character of Kant's account of enlightenment (the account that underpins Habermas's own reflections on this topic). More specifically, this essay will show that Nietzsche's own commitment to enlightenment as an immanent ideal represents both a radicalization and deepening of Kant's account of enlightenment which aims to negotiate the aporia that Kantian critique bequeaths us.

Kant, Critique, and Enlightenment

In the preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant proclaims: "Our age is, in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit. Religion through its sanctity and law-giving [End Page 35] through its majesty may seek to exempt themselves from it. But they then awaken just suspicion, and cannot claim the sincere respect which reason accords only to that which has been able to sustain the test of free and open discussion" (1983: A, xii).

Kant's critical philosophy as the attempt to specify the nature and limits of reason as such is, thus, situated as the highest expression of the activity that, "in especial degree" characterizes his age. The relationship between reason and unconstrained public discussion invoked in this passage under the title of criticism is elaborated further in the revised second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (1787): "Reason depends on this freedom [of discussion] for its very existence. For reason has no dictatorial authority; its verdict is always simply the agreement of free citizens, of whom each one must be permitted to express, without let or hindrance, his objections or even his veto (1983: B 766f.)." 1

Thus, the activity of criticism is inextricably tied to the exercise of reason by citizens under conditions of free and open discussion, while the authority of criticism to govern is secured practically by citizens' recognition of the authority of reason as their authority over themselves. 2 These remarks have two significant implications for the concerns of this essay. First, they entail that the rule of reason requires free and open discussion by self-governing citizens. Second, they also entail that the legitimacy of Kant's activity as law-giver qua reason (i.e., his critical legislation on the nature and limits of reason) is itself dependent on the capacity of his critiques to sustain the test of free and open discussion by self-governing citizens. Kant addresses the first of these issues in terms of the relationship between the real (the conditions of the present) and the ideal (the conditions of the rule of reason). However, it is not (for the most part) in his three critiques but in a series of essays published between 1784 and 1798 that Kant takes up this issue. He does so by way of an analysis of his present&#8212...


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