The Question of Enlightenment: Horkheimer, Adorno, Foucault

Dissertation, Vanderbilt University (1989)

This dissertation follows Michel Foucault's investigations of the discourses and practices of modernity in an attempt to recover and re-open enlightenment as a question against the self-destructive and self-defeating answers that enlightenment has given to the question of enlightenment. It takes the Critical Theory of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno as the exemplar and fullest expression of enlightenment thinking. In their analysis of the present descended from enlightenment, the promise of enlightenment and its values of reason, the individual, and emancipation have by a tragic necessity been ironically betrayed and transformed into a social reality that mocks those values. For Horkheimer and Adorno, this matrix of enlightenment values obstinately refers us to the enduring if elusive potential of our deep human essence, which we cannot now effectively serve but which we must continue to respect and preserve as regulative idea. This dissertation offers a parody of this essence and of the insistent demands of enlightenment valuing as a way to be liberated from their conundrums. Archeologically, it traces the discursive structure of Horkheimer and Adorno's Critical Theory to suggest that their admirable rigor in refusing to infect the idea of this human essence with the vicissitudes of the present ends in a futility that vitiates their critical efforts. Genealogically, it follows Foucault's investigations of the effects and products of enlightenment's practical, institutional human sciences, which share the values and structures of Critical Theory, to propose that the human sciences are not a therapeutic response to modernity's interminable problems but are instead thoroughly complicitous in their emergence and frustrating persistence. The philosophical discourse of Critical Theory and the practical discourses of the human sciences both would produce a human essence that is permanently failed and in perpetual need of resuscitation. By accusing enlightenment with its effects, Foucault's genealogies provoke enlightenment to collapse. They permit a critical, experimental, and exploratory thinking of ourselves and the demands of our present without the necessity of habitually referring ourselves back to our occluded but vital essence. We might become liberated from the necessity of emancipating ourselves and our truth
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