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31 Peter Fenves I. Few propositions of modern philosophy are as famous or memorable as the one with which Kant begins his “Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” This proposition contains in nuce the answer to the question : “Enlightenment is the emergence of human beings from the nonage for which they are themselves responsible.”1 Enough said, one might say; but Kant does not simply stop. As if driven by a fear that his answer is insufficiently clear, he proceeds to explain two of the terms in which it is formulated: “nonage” (Unmündigkeit) consists in an inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of someone else; “for which they are themselves responsible” (verschuldet) rests on a distinction between those who are capable of understanding and those who, as Kant writes, exhibit a total “lack of understanding.” What Kant fails to clarify—and this failure cannot be altogether distinguished from the threat of this “lack”— are the other two terms on which he draws: “human being” (Mensch) and “emergence” (Ausgang). About the former term, Kant is famously hesitant. As he indicates in a representative discussion of “philosophy in general,” all of what is called by this august title “in its cosmopolitan sense” revolves around this question: “What is the human being?”2 With respect to emergence , however, there is no similar hesitation—and this despite the fact that the “cosmopolitan sense” of any term, including Mensch, can itself emerge only in light of the “emergence” in question. The Courage of the Critic: Avital Ronell and the Idea of Emergence i-viii_1-256_Davi.indd 31 4/10/09 3:14:19 PM 32 peter fenves Instead of making sure that all of his readers understand what he means by emergence, Kant asks them something akin to a “test question”: identify the condition under which it can take place. The answer to this question can be found in a schoolboy exercise—specifically, that of translating a line from a Latin poem. Its author is Horace, who provides the “motto” of enlightenment: sapere aude. Although it is unlikely that anyone who came across this “motto” in the pages of the Berlinische Monatsschrift would fail to understand it—under the presumption, of course, that “understanding” here means devising an adequate German equivalent—Kant provides a translation of his own: “Habe Mut, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen .” This can be then translated into English as “Have the courage to use your own understanding.” With his own translation, emphasis included, Kant encourages his readers to emerge from the nonage for which they can be held responsible without having himself discussed what it means for them “to emerge.” This much is certain, however: “emergence” must be dangerous; otherwise, it would not require courage. And the other condition under which emergence is possible—other than the ambiguous virtue of courage—is that an answer be found to the question of the human being, an answer that rules out, once and for all, the possibility that this being is constitutively lacking in understanding. This possibility almost enters into Kant’s subsequent commentary on his one-sentence response to the question of enlightenment, however, when he writes, apropos of the self-serving “guardians” of the status quo, that they impress upon “the greater part of the human race (including the entire fair sex)” how difficult and dangerous it is for them to emerge out of their self-imposed nonage. It is not as though, for Kant, as opposed to the “guardians ,” there is no difficulty or danger in emerging—only that the dangers and difficulties are not the ones that the “guardians” seek to conjure into existence. Courage, then, is required of Kant’s readers to identify the real danger, which consists, above all, in discerning and therefore opposing the guardians’ pretense of danger, and this courage to the second degree— which comes very close to a second “nonage,” as it were, whatever it may be called—goes a long way to answering the “test question” Kant poses at the opening of his “Answer to the Question.” II. One of the very few inquiries into this question—the “test question”—can be found in Avital Ronell’s Stupidity. The aim of this inquiry can be briefly summarized as follows: stupidity is the name of the second-order courage i-viii_1-256_Davi.indd 32 4/10/09 3:14:19 PM 33 The Courage of the Critic that is the condition under which “emergence” can take...


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