What is Enlightenment?: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

What is Enlightenment?

1st Edition

By Samuel Fleischacker


256 pages

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Paperback: 9780415497817
pub: 2013-02-21
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"Have the courage to use your own understanding! - that is the motto of enlightenment." - Immanuel Kant

The Enlightenment is one of the most important and contested periods in the history of philosophy. The problems it addressed, such as the proper extent of individual freedom and the challenging of tradition, resonate as much today as when they were first debated. Of all philosophers, it is arguably Kant who took such questions most seriously, addressing them above all in his celebrated short essay, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?

In this engaging and lucid book, Samuel Fleischacker first explains and assesses Kant’s philosophy of Enlightenment. He then considers critics of Kant’s views - from Burke and Hegel to Horkheimer and Adorno - and figures he regards as having extended Kant’s notion of enlightenment, such as Feuerbach, Marx, Habermas, Foucault, and Rawls.

Throughout, he demonstrates how Kant holds two distinct theories of enlightenment. On the one hand, Kant proposes a ‘minimal’ view, where to be enlightened is simply to engage in critical public discussion, allowing diversity of opinion to flourish. On the other, he argues that Kant elsewhere calls for a ‘maximal’ view of enlightenment, where, for example, an enlightened person cannot believe in a traditional religion. With great skill Fleischacker shows how these two views are taken in a multitude of directions by both critics and advocates of Kant’s philosophy.

Arguing that Kant’s minimal enlightenment is a precondition for a healthy proliferation of cultures, religious faiths and political movements, What is Enlightenment? is a fascinating introduction to a key aspect of Kant’s thought and a compelling analysis of philosophical thinking about the Enlightenment. Including helpful chapter summaries and guides to further reading, it is ideal for anyone studying Kant or the philosophy of the Enlightenment, as well as those in related disciplines such as politics, history and religious studies.


‘The book has much to recommend it. It ranges widely and discusses a variety of thinkers, both familiar and somewhat less familiar. It is attentive to discussions of the concept of enlightenment that Kant provided in texts other than the now-familiar essay from 1784 (e.g., his 1786 contribution to the Pantheism Dispute "What is Orientation in Thinking?") and examines the implications of Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason.’ - Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"First-rate scholarship and fascinating reading. Fleischacker’s account of both Kant’s conception of enlightenment and its complex and variegated legacy should be mandatory reading for philosophers and historians interested in enlightenment ideals or their critique." - Marcia Baron, Indiana University, USA, and University of St. Andrews, UK

"There is no shortage of critics for whom the Enlightenment condemns itself by its hubris, its cultural arrogance, and its imperialist tendencies. But does the appeal to the ideal of becoming enlightened involve dictating what will be believed by those who achieve this ideal? Or is it merely a matter of how those who are enlightened hold the beliefs they do (thereby preserving humility and securing greater allowance for pluralism)? Samuel Fleischacker, in an argument that distinguishes itself in equal measure by its learning and its lucidity, shows that Kant was torn between these two conceptions, and so were his philosophical successors. What results is a terrifically enhanced appreciation of the complexity and richness of the Kantian legacy." - Ronald Beiner, University of Toronto, Canada

"A rich introduction to post-Kantian philosophy. It would be an excellent selection for courses in the history of ideas, as well as for courses specifically focused on Kant and his critics." - Lara Denis, Agnes Scott College, USA

"Fleischacker brings out not only the contemporary value of Kant's work but also some of its limits and ambiguities, especially with respect to a distinction between "minimal" and "maximal" conceptions of Enlightenment, political liberalism, and freedom of expression. This is a volume that should be of interest to a very wide range of scholars, and of use to readers at all levels." - Karl Ameriks, University of Notre Dame, USA

"Crystal-clear yet cutting-edge, this new analysis is particularly strong on the subtleties of Kant's concept of Enlightenment, proceeding to shed fresh light on Foucault, Habermas and Rawls. This book accomplishes a double feat: helping students to orient their reading of Kant, while challenging teachers and scholars to reorient theirs." - Fania Oz-Salzberger, University of Haifa, Israel

'… a considered and timely discussion of matters of current interest that addresses not just students of political and social philosophy, but a broad audience, which it fully deserves to reach.' - Katerina Deligiorgi, History of Political Thought

Table of Contents

Introduction Part 1: Kant’s Enlightenment 1. The Official Story 2. A Different Side of Kant Part 2: Kant’s Critics 3. From Hamann to Burke 4. Hegel Part 3: Maximalist theories of Enlightenment 5. From Strauss to Marx Part 4: Twentieth century critics of Enlightenment 6. Forerunners 7. Horkheimer/Adorno; Foucault 8. Difference Critics Part 5: Minimalist theories of Enlightenment 9. Foucault, Habermas, Rawls Part 6: Kantian Enlightenment Today 10. Assessing Foucault, Habermas, and Rawls 11. In Defense of Kantian Enlightenment. Index

About the Author

Samuel Fleischacker is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois-Chicago, USA.

About the Series

Kant's Questions

"The Kant's Questions series is thoroughly excellent. The books combine depth of philosophical treatment with a fluid, easily-readable style, offering original historical interpretations of Kant's writings with an illuminating attentiveness to issues of contemporary relevance. All in all, the series reveals the stunning depth, power, and lasting impact of Kant's writings." - Robert Hanna, University of Colorado at Boulder, USA

"This is an excellently conceived series by internationally renowned Kant scholars who, unusually, focus not on individual works or sub-disciplinary fields of inquiry but engage with those questions which Kant took to be of perennial philosophical interest. Engagingly and accessibly written whilst meeting exemplary standards of scholarship, these volumes will prove an invaluable resource for students and teachers of Kant’s philosophy alike." - Katrin Flikschuh, London School of Economics, UK

"By providing careful and detailed accounts of Kant's answers to what he considered to be the most fundamental questions of philosophy, the books in this series constitute excellent introductions to the key aspects of Kant's philosophy. Moreover, by tracing the development of these questions and ideas to the present day, they contextualise contemporary debates within a historical narrative in a way that allows the reader to grasp the continuing relevance and significance of Kant's questions and the answers that he put forward." - Ralf M. Bader, New York University, USA


Series advisor: Allen Wood, Stanford University, USA

"The field of philosophy ... can be reduced to the following questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? What is the human being? Metaphysics answers the first question, morals the second, religion the third, and anthropology the fourth." – Immanuel Kant

With the addition of his celebrated essay, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? Kant bequeaths us five fundamental questions that continue to resonate and challenge today.

Kant's Questions explores the philosophical meaning and significance of each question. Taken individually, each book is a fresh and innovative introduction to a fundamental aspect of Kant’s thought. Taken together, the series is an outstanding resource on the central questions motivating Kant’s philosophical and intellectual outlook as a whole.

Each book shares a clear structure. The first part introduces Kant’s question, explaining his own answer to it; the second part explores historical criticisms to the question; and the third and final part of the book places the question in a contemporary philosophical context. Also included are chapter summaries and a helpful section of annotated further reading at the end of each chapter.

The Kant's Questions series is essential reading, not only for all students of Kant, but those studying subjects such as ethics, metaphysics, philosophy of human nature and the history of philosophy, as well as those in related disciplines such as religious studies, politics and sociology.

  • What is Enlightenment? Samuel Fleischacker
  • What is the human being? Patrick R. Frierson
  • What may I hope? Andrew Chignell
  • What can I know? Michelle Grier
  • What should I do? Julian Wuerth

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
PHILOSOPHY / History & Surveys / Modern
PHILOSOPHY / Political