What is Enlightenment, the Prequel, Or, Crappy Teaching Jobs in the Eighteenth Century

The other day I was teaching Foucault’s What is Enlightenment? to my Intro Lit Studies class, which included one student wearing what I took to be his reserves camo outfit with big leather boots. One research group had just presented on Kant, and, unsurprisingly, they were still puzzled by Kant’s counter-intuitive treatment of public and private reason. Kant’s example of the army officer who exercises his reason and renders obedience at the same time did not make these distinctions any easier for them to understand.

So I mentioned an anecdote about Kant I have always prized, to talk a little about Foucault’s treatment of Enlightenment as an exploration of historical limitations:

From Schneewind et al.’s Introduction to Kant’s Lectures on Ethics (Cambridge, 1997):

Kant began to teach at the Albertina University in Konigsberg in 1755, when he was thirty-one years old. He taught there for more than four decades, carrying what seems today an astonishlingly heavy load. Usually he gave four or five courses each semester, meeting classes four or five hours a week. He taught logic, metaphysics, physical geography, anthropology, and many other subjects. (He even taught the rudiments of making fortifications to the officers of the Russian army that occupied Konigsberg in the late 1750s.) (xiii)
. . .

[a little further on, after explaining the careful attention Kant gave to religious worship, control of the passions, cautions about sexual indulgence, and so on, Schneewind observes:]

One is reminded that Kant’s audience consisted largely of unsophisticated boys, younger than present-day college students, usually away from their rural homes for the first time, and for the most part ill-educated (xvii).

[Schneewind also mentions that Kant routinely lectured to audiences numbering somewhere between fifty and a hundred, which included not just the students but also tutors, civil servants, military officers, intellectuals like Herder, etc. Here is a little glimpse of his lecture style:]

Until the 1790s, his lectures were reported to be witty, somewhat rambling, full of life and feeling, with scattered references to current events and to books. In his early and middle years, at least, if not toward the end of his life, Kant answered questions and held discussions during the lecture hours. And as we have noted, he did not want his students to spend their class time taking notes. He wanted to teach them “not philosophy, but to philosophize; not thoughts to repeat, but thinking . . . thinking for themselves, investigating for themselves, standing on their own feet” (xix).

Not bad for a statement of one’s Teaching Philosophy, eh? And it couldn’t be farther from the style of the Critiques.

So, indeed, we talked a little about the historical limitations placed upon Kant, limitations represented by Frederick and those army officers sitting in his lecture-halls. We discussed how Foucault argues that Enlightenment, to be worthy of the name, cannot be restricted to an individual process of self-education and self-care, much less a finite group of historical texts and events, but also represents an ongoing collective process in the present, one which involves an assessment of the past to see what kinds of openings it can suggest for us for in the present, whether for action or reflection.

And these anecdotes of Kant’s teaching are one more touchstone I carry around, to discuss the difference that geography makes in our images of Enlightenment.

Best wishes,



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