By studying Foucault, one would certainly realize that "Enlightenment" played a major role in creating discourses that led to disciplines and that the multiplicity of the latter contributed to more control and thus more power for the establishment. Is it fair to think that "Enlightenment" was the beginning of the panoptical method of control. And if so, was it an unintended consequence or a meticulously calculated method for perpetuation of subjugation and control of masses?

  • Could you expand upon how a such a "meticulous calculation" is even possible? Sociology is notoriously hard to constrain let alone calculate. I'm thus not sure what you're proposing.
    – Rex Kerr
    Apr 6, 2015 at 0:04
  • @RexKerr: I am not really proposing anything, I am simply asking a question whether we are dealing with several micro-consequences of the process of Enlightenment that unintentionally created the state of observation and control based on "normalization" of subjects that we experience today or are we dealing with a well thought-out method conceived by the power system that might have used the--in principal--noble cause of the Enlightenment to further its not-so-noble cause.
    – O.A.
    Apr 6, 2015 at 0:37
  • Well-thought-out by whom? When? (Are you requiring them to be prescient?)
    – Rex Kerr
    Apr 6, 2015 at 1:07
  • @RexKerr: Well-thought-out by the system of power as a self-sustaining, independent entity, i.e. not a specific group of people or the state. The following quote from "Discipline and Punish, The Means of Correct Training" might help to better convey the meaning of my question:
    – O.A.
    Apr 6, 2015 at 1:46
  • 1
    What system of power? When? Who specifically are you talking about? A "system of power" does not think. Do you mean General LaFayette? Kant? Locke? Some shadowy group of super-aristocrats bent on having their descendants 300 years hence take over the world? A random assemblage of people who find themselves in power, recognize that they owe their power to the multiplicity of disciplines and take modest steps to help this continue as it is in their own interest? Your question could be taken as anywhere from self-evident to a particularly far-fetched conspiracy theory.
    – Rex Kerr
    Apr 6, 2015 at 8:36

1 Answer 1


Consider Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626):

Non inutiles scientiae existimandae sunt, quarum in se nullus est usus, si ingenia acuant et ordinent.
(Sciences which have no practical use in themselves must not be considered useless if they sharpen and order the mind.)

Bacon was frustrated with speculations which did not lead to improvements in the human condition. And so, he argued that scientia which is not pragmatically useful (or meta-pragmatically useful) must be discarded. The trick here is that "pragmatically useful" depends on the person's desires. A Saturn V rocket is useful if you wish to go to the moon, but grossly inefficient if you want to feed the poor.

Josef Pieper's 1957 Knowledge and Freedom is a sustained critique of this epitomizing of pragmatism. According to Pieper, when the pragmatic is made the judge, philosophy is murdered and the sciences are hamstrung. True freedom requires freedom from the current desires of mankind. This may seem paradoxical until one realizes that the university cannot exist if the mob is allowed to rule. Neither can it exist if there is no unity whatsoever. The word itself is a combination of 'unity' and 'diversity'.

The actual shift to technological (vs. social) control may be captured by the following from Charles Taylor's A Secular Age:

The basic idea is that Baroque culture is a kind of synthesis of the modern understanding of agency as inward and poietic, constructing orders in the world, and the older understanding of the world as cosmos, shaped by Form. (795)

Another great book on this topic is Louis Dupré's Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. He digs into the old "ontotheological synthesis", in which the ideal is to become conformed to the world (the kosmos), and how that broke down, primarily due to nominalism, especially via William of Ockham (1287 – 1347). Dupré argues that it was really nominalism which laid a significant portion of the foundation for the Enlightenment, partly via detaching words from merely describing reality, to being tools humans could use to exert control over that reality.

As to Enlightenment being intended as a system of control, I suggest Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind:

    It has long been fashionable in some quarters to treat the thinkers of the Enlightenment as optimistic and superficial. This was a view promoted in the wake of the French Revolution by reactionaries and romantics, the counter-coup of the religious and the poetic, which has had considerable and enduring success. The modern philosophers are alleged to have believed in a new dawn in which men would become reasonable and everything would be for the best. They did not, according to this popular view, understand the ineradicable character of evil, nor did they know, or at least take sufficient account of, the power of the irrational of which our later, profounder age is so fully aware. In these pages, I have tried to show that this is a skewed and self-serving interpretation. No one who looks carefully at the project these philosophers outlined can accuse them of being optimistic in the sense of expecting a simple triumph of reason or of underestimating the power of evil. It is not sufficiently taken into account how Machiavellian they were, in all senses of that word, and that they were actually Machiavelli’s disciples. It was not by forgetting about the evil in man that they hoped to better his lot but by giving way to it rather than opposing it, by lowering standards. The very qualified rationality that they expected from most men was founded self-consciously on encouraging the greatest of all irrationalities. Selfishness was to be the means to the common good, and they never thought that the moral or artistic splendor of past nations was going to be reproduced in the world they were planning. The combination of hardness and playfulness found in their writings should dispel all suspicion of unfounded hopefulness. What they plotted was “realistic,” if anything ever was. (291–92)

  • "The very qualified rationality that they expected from most men was founded self-consciously on encouraging the greatest of all irrationalities." What does that mean?
    – Starckman
    Feb 1, 2023 at 13:24
  • I would take the meaning from the previous and following sentences. Instead of fighting selfishness, it would be harnessed to make society go. Prioritizing self over others would be irrationality, if 'rationality' is taken to be participation in some sort of social contract.
    – labreuer
    Feb 1, 2023 at 22:44
  • Is that anything to see with The Fable of Bees (Mandeville)?
    – Starckman
    Feb 2, 2023 at 5:50
  • I still find it weird, since the Enlightenment thinkers put so much emphasis on reason
    – Starckman
    Feb 2, 2023 at 5:51
  • I actually didn't know about The Fable of Bees, but that seems like an excellent example. If you want more on this topic, I suggest Albert O. Hirschman 1977 The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph and C. B. Macpherson 1962 The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. Apologies to the economists who took Homo economicus seriously in the first half of the 20th century, but most people throughout time have been all too aware of the limits of 'reason'. The evidence of that is never far from one's nose. (Sometimes behind it.)
    – labreuer
    Feb 3, 2023 at 14:16

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