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Dimitar Denkov, What is Enlightenment?..

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Dimitar Denkov, What is Enlightenment? Texts,Genres and
Contexts Around Kant's „Answering the Question:
What is Enlightenment?” Sofia: St. Kliment Ohridski
University Press 2011. 382 pp.
Vassil Vidinsky (University of Sofia)

The stated goal of the book (partially
based on previous books and articles)
is to represent one specific philosophical case around Kant’s „Answering
the Question: What is Enlightenment?” and his notes on logic published
by Jäsche (compiled at Kant's request from his late lectures and published
in 1800). This specific philosophical case is simply to answer the
enlightenment-question itself. “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?”
is a 1784 essay by Kant published in Berlinische Monatsschrift (Berlin
Monthly), edited by Friedrich Gedike and Johann Erich Biester. As
Denkov states, the question was posed a year earlier by the Reverend Johann
Friedrich Zöllner, who was also an official in the Prussian government
(185, 191). This text seems somehow marginal compared to Kant’s Critiques,
but Denkov’s reconstruction establishes its connection to the major
works and importance. This is only the most general framework, as the book
unfolds on at least four different layers:
1. The most immediate layer is the textual analysis of several works by
Kant, mainly the rather philosophically marginal but quite popular “What is
Enlightenment?” The analysis is enriched and strengthened by Denkov’s
new translations (included in the book), by comparisons presented in tables
(329-338), and by many interesting comments and remarks.
2. The next important layer, which sometimes supersedes the first, is a
detailed analysis of: one fable by Johann Zöllner (“Der Affe. Ein Fabelchen”);
one letter by Mr ** on The Automaton Chess Player (The Turk)
constructed by Wolfgang von Kempelen (“Schreiben über die Kempelischen
Schachspiel- und Redemaschinen” by Herrn **); some remarks on this letter
(as a response) by Johann Biester; and another letter from London. All these
different texts immediately surround Kant’s essay in the Berlin Monthly and
Denkov reconstructs and articulates an original interpretation of the connections
and links between these different themes and genres. This sometimes
leads us to surprising results, e.g. reducing the question “What is Enlightenment?”
to the question “what is it to be human?” or rather “What is
Man?” (278); or seeing Kant as a mediator between Zöllner and Biester.
3. There is a third layer, a very elaborate one, which runs through the
whole book and reconstructs some biographical, contextual and historical
influences, connections and paradigms. Here the book is at its best because
it tries to show that we can understand the past much better than it understood
itself (340); and of course for “the past” we can substitute “Immanuel
Kant” with ease. What is more important, however, is that Denkov’s book is
a sustained and thorough criticism of the version of the Enlightenment given
by Horkheimer, Adorno, and Lukács (80). It is a difficult task, but Denkov’s
readings persuade the reader to think about the Enlightenment in a more
subtle way and on multiple levels.
4. The last layer is an especially interesting one because it is the systematic
and careful presentation of Denkov’s own philosophical project:
contextual hermeneutics and history of concepts as common denominators.
This agenda can be found everywhere in the book but it is mainly concentrated
in the second chapter. It starts with the paradox about trying to reach
the origin through successive interpretations and clarifications (7) and
slowly goes through different (and sometimes strange) oppositions: monolith–
multitude; pathetic–humble; being–event; original–mediating; star–
nebula; system(atic)–comment(ary); revelation–translation; authorship–
readership (lectio); pure–kaleidoscope; seriousness–oddity; text–context;
ego-documents and alter ego-documents; and the important pair
sub[j]active–subjective (116). We have to keep in mind that these oppositions
are not made to divide but rather to unite the whole analysis. The same
tense unity is characteristic of Denkov’s account of culture and civilization
in Kant – these concepts are not really opposed to each other but sometimes
even overlap (82). Denkov lists five preconditions (113) which finally lead
us to one very important hermeneutical and phenomenological principle:
things, not as they are, but as they should have been in order to be what they
are now (115). This principle sums up the whole contextual reconstruction
of Immanuel Kant and his Enlightenment setting.
In achieving its aims and in presenting its layers the book takes three
consecutive steps: it opens and develops its core argument in the third chapter,
devoted to the epoch itself: the Enlightenment seen through the philosophical
structure of “question and answer.” This is the most general approximation
we can start with. But very soon the analysis concentrates on
the German Enlightenment and on the principle of tolerance, which will
have a crucial role in the book’s final conclusion (because both at the beginning
and at the end there’s the vitally important distinction between radical
Enlightenment and non-radical Enlightenment – cf. 162, 307).
Then we are led through the fourth chapter, which narrows the horizon
and tries to reconstruct the specific Kantian “conversations” and the art of
thinking together by analyzing the Berlin Monthly case. The fable, the answer,
and the letter are seen as typical genres and philosophical “revelations.”
We are introduced to different texts and contexts – all of them slowly
building a bridge between people, prejudices, upbringings, educations, public
roles and anonymities. The chapter concludes the interconnectedness between
the Kantian project of Man and the enlightening historical project of
technological progress. Man and machine are the main characters (although
sometimes not very visible) in these conversations, their tense interactions
are the real historical structure of the Enlightenment.
And finally (in the last chapter) we end our journey with Kant’s Critique
of Pure Reason, the role of Schopenhauer and the typical division of
the Critique into A/B-editions, which is nicely juxtaposed with Kant as
Homo duplex (311, 324) and his double project in his logic. Here Denkov
asks two crucial and interesting questions: what is the connection between
revolution (in thought) and Denkungsart (340-354) and how is Kant’s transcendental
logic related to reason-returning-to-itself (354-378). The first
question aims at the concepts of “protest” and “thought revolution”; it tries
to understand their conservative background because protest is seen as an
inner revolt against an unexpressed Denkungsart. In this context it is quite
clear why we should protest against the reduction of man to machine. The
second question leads us to one unexpected conclusion and quotation (from
the Jäsche Logic and from the Anthropology From a Pragmatic Point of
View): “Universal rules and conditions for avoiding error in general are: 1)
to think for oneself, 2) to think oneself in the position of someone else, and
3) always to think in agreement with oneself.” This is the-returning-ofreason-
to-itself and at the same time the principle which shows man’s dignity:
“Nature, then, has carefully cultivated the seed within the hard core –
namely the urge for and the vocation of free thought. And this free thought
gradually reacts back on the modes of thought of the people, and men become
more and more capable of acting in freedom. At last free thought acts
even on the fundamentals of government and the state finds it agreeable to
treat man, who is now more than a machine, in accord with his dignity.”
It is now clear that the book in not solely concerned with Kant’s transcendental
project or with his critical philosophy, but rather with the historical
context which makes it possible. So it is about the historical possibilities
and foundations of Kant’s transcendental project. And of course it is about
Kant’s Denkungsart and our Denkungsart – that most basic principle of
truth and tolerance. Sometimes the book looks like a huge thought experiment
and there are several theses which sound risky or speculative; Denkov
admits this. But the irony woven into all four layers helps us; and it helps
any methodological investigation, because any meta-commentary should be
distanced from its source – both epistemologically and emotionally.
As already said: beneath all these different layer runs the most puzzling
and crucial question (204): can a machine think? And if we try to answer,
we should keep in mind one trivial thing: all thoughts occur in contextual,
historical, and normative forms, even if they oppose them (8).