Coursera :: Modern and Postmodern

I’m starting this page in order to document my experience at the Coursera course on “The Modern and the Postmodern”.

I’ll start here with my first assignment.


Rousseau under the lens of Kant’s Enlightenment

Kant defined the Enlightenment [1] as a process of moral development or maturation of humanity in which individuals become less dependent on others and more self-reliant in establishing and expressing their own views on all aspects of life but especially with regard to religious or spiritual matters. Such self-reliance required the moral virtues of “resolution and courage”.

The need for courage might refer back to the ushering in of the Age of Science following the hesitation of Copernicus to publish (1543), the cruel martyrdom of Giordano Bruno (1600), and the humiliation of Galileo (1633). In Kant’s own case, a Prussian censor disallowed the publication of his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone and Kant had to wait patiently for the then King to be replaced so as to regain his freedom to publish. [2]

However, courage can be needed in less obvious ways. It takes courage to write something original or controversial because the reading public might mock or judge harshly, leaving the writer feeling humiliated and rejected. This kind of courage is immediately evident in the opening preface of Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” [3] where he writes that he could “expect only universal censure” over “the position which [he had] dared to take”.

Is this courage enough to warrant judging Rousseau as a man of the Enlightenment? This is a vexed issue that continues to be discussed. As Delaney [4] puts it: “there is dispute as to whether Rousseau’s thought is best characterized as ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘counter-Enlightenment.’” This contradiction or ambivalence in Rousseau is exemplified in the above discourse which is a perfect example of Kantian self-reliance and courage but which also contains a never-ending diatribe against “enlightened” thinking. Delaney again: “The work is perhaps the greatest example of Rousseau as a ‘counter-Enlightenment’ thinker.”

It is important to make distinctions here among different meanings of “enlightened”. For Kant, becoming “enlightened” is clearly yoked to virtue that comes in aid of individual moral and spiritual maturation. It is not about being clever or learned; it is not about having knowledge of facts or scientific theories, or about being able to compose music that many will admire. All of the latter is closer to the sense of “enlightened” that Rousseau uses in this discourse. He is attacking a certain sort of vanity and arrogance that becomes associated with the arts and sciences. These are the vices of followers, not of leaders.

This is made abundantly clear in Rousseau’s high praise of the leading lights of the Age of Science: “Bacon, Descartes, Newton — these tutors of the human race had no need of tutors themselves.” Only similarly self-reliant geniuses “who feel in themselves the power to walk alone in those men’s footsteps and to move beyond them” should be permitted to “devote themselves to the study of the sciences and the arts”. Finally, “it is the task of this small number of people to raise monuments to the glory of the human mind.”

Rousseau is making a distinction here between a true and a pretentious enlightenment. In our own times, a distinction has been made between “scientific” and “scientistic” views, between “true” and largely pretentious science. A similar distinction can be made in the arts where pretension is such an easy trap for the budding artist and art appreciator.

There are certainly some non-Kantian understandings of “Enlightenment figure” to which Rousseau would not belong. In particular, his was a “discordant voice” [5] in the context of the French Enlightenment with its emphasis on this-worldly happiness and naturalistic science. However, Kant was strongly influenced by Rousseau in the development of his own practical philosophy dealing with ethics and the moral order. He loved to read Rousseau, so much so that he notoriously missed his daily walk after receiving a copy of Emile. Kant was a leading genius of the enlightenment and in Rousseau, he could readily recognise a fellow genius. He would not have stopped at describing Rousseau merely as “an Enlightenment figure”: he would have wanted to classify Rousseau further as a leader and a genius of the Enlightenment, in the same rank as Bacon, Descartes, Newton.

[1] Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question:  What is Enlightenment?”, World Public Library, 2008.
[2] Wayne P. Pomerleau, “Immanuel Kant: Philosophy of Religion”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011.
[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences”, University of Adelaide eBooks, 2012.
[4] James J. Delaney, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—1778)”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005.
[5] William Bristow, “Enlightenment”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010.

[666 words]


Graded 9

peer 1 → Effective argument.
peer 2 → Yes, abdolutely.

peer 1 → Good use of evidence.
peer 2 → Used enought quotations and examples.

peer 1 → Good exposition.
peer 2 → High quality of writing, sentences grammatical, paragraphs well-organised. Clear and interesting conclusion.

peer 1 → Excellent.


posted on forum for further feedback: Post Your Assignment 1 Essay Here


My second assignment is here: Meditations on History in Kant and Rousseau

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3 thoughts on “Coursera :: Modern and Postmodern

  1. Coursera :: Modern and Postmodern – PhiloSophia

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