The Modern and the Postmodern


Portrait of Flaubert, circa 1856, by Eugène Giraud

We can assume that historical progress, its driving force or its supposed goal, play an crucial role in the work of  those philosophers and artists whose thoughts revolves around societial advance – in the case of Karl Marx- or for those whose art reflects society, like that of Gustave Flaubert.

In Marx’s work, historical progress has always plaid a pivotal role. The early Marx saw history driven by dialectical progress: History has always advanced only because societal contradictions had caused tensions and has given rise to revolutionary discharge, spawning new states. “The history of all hitherto existing societies in history is class struggles“ (1). „Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman … stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on … a fight that each time ended in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large“. (2)

The early Marx referred to Hegel’s dialectic. Contradictory states, he denotes as thesis and antithesis cause tensions, and both form a synthesis, a new and better state, in which contradiction merge. In Hegel’s view, history happens on its own accord, and humankind part is to look passively upon history and discern a beautiful truth hidden behind it. Marx rejected the passive part of humankind. For him, humans role was to accelerate history, predominantly by revolutions. The Communist Manifesto emphasizes this a score of times. (3). Marx saw historical progress optimistically.

History in Flaubert’s work has not a pure dialectical character. Contradictions play a role, but they do not end up in a synthesis, let alone a good one. They only lead to catastrophes. Flaubert depicts in his clashes of opposed movements in so far as it is an unembellished mirroring of reality. In „Madam Bovary“, the clash of Romanticism, its idealization of relationships with the reality of life renders the heroine incapable of coping with life. Rousseaus ideal of the natural state of man exposed to society. epitomized in „bovine“ Charles Bovary is bound to fail in an age of Enlightenment. Instead, the Enlightenment – unjust, shrewd but stupid, hypocritical – symbolized by the pharmacist Homais prevails. Historical progress turns out to be far less beautiful and does not advance society in the positive way it was promised. It is ugly. stupid and a lie.

If the plot of Madam Bovary is an indication of Flaubert’s perception of history, it also appeared to him in large parts as dull repetitions. His use of the past imperfect („Charles would return home; he would go out; later, he would have some broth“. (4)) represents habit and repetition, always boding something ill. The dullness is only interrupted by the apperances of stupity (Emma’s actions), hypocrisy (the agricultural fair) and cruelty (Rudolphe).

Karl Marx

Karl Marx, 1875, by John Jabez Edwin Mayall

Flauberts novel shows his absolute disillusionment with history without any hope for progress, let alone for a redemptive final state. This lead him to seeing art as the only remedy: reflect the world perfectly (he spent five years writing ‘Madam Bovary, weighing every word and sentence), all-knowingly and detached (he used the third-person and indirect address frequently), and as it really is. (5) (6). If you encounter history’s ugliness with perfect form, its stupidity with God-like omniscience, its hypocrisy with bluntness, you can rescue yourself from moral corruption. That is Flauberts reaction to dillusionment with history.

Disillusionment with history can be found in early Marx as well. In the Manifesto he already showed a notion of it, expounding how the Bourgeoisie unveils illusions. „The bourgeoisie … has put an end to all … idyllic relations. It has left remaining … naked self-interest … in one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.“ (7)

The later Marx turned away from dialectical historical progress towards economics. There is good reason to assume that disillusionment with history plaid an important role. First, Marx experienced his own disillusionment, noticing that the revolutions of the 19th century did not yield the expected changes (“the peasants wanted land, the workers wanted  wages and jobs, the middle-class wanted power and money” (8)), indicating that class struggles towards equality might  not have been the ‘really real’ of history. Second, in the ‘Manifesto’ he discovered disillusionment in history (“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe.” (9))  towards a burgeoning realization that economics might propel history: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe .. The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instrument of production … draw all … nations into civilization.” (10). Being dissillusioned, he discovered economics as the actual motor behind historical progress.

Disillusionment in and with history was THE siginificant influence on both Marx and Flaubert. It molded the late philosophy of the one and the art of the other. It lead the philosopher to reconsider it in order to discover the truth and the artist to withdraw from it for good.

Klemens Großmann, June 2013

1) 2) 3) 7) 9) 10) Marx, Engels: The Communist Manifesto,

4) 5) Flaubert: Madam Bovary

6) Flaubert’s letters to Louise Colet

8) Lectures “From Enlightenment to Revolution”, Part 5


In the „Dialectic of Enlightenment“, against the background of Nazi-Germany, Horkheimer and Adorno attempt to develop a genealogy of totalitarian systems in general. In a process they see continued and reinforced by the Enlightenment, they discover an emergence of totalitarian thinking. Critically reflecting on what enlightened thinking entails, a thinking which is the foundation of the society in which they lived, they appear anti-foundational. Nietzsche, considered an anti-foundationalist, is crucial for thinkers of Social Theory. Indeed, both were thorough readers of Nietzsche.

Horkheimer and Adorno predate the process of enlightenment long before Kant. They discover as its basic drive the ancient struggle for self-preservation in so far as „human beings have always had to choose between their subjugation to nature and its subjugation to the self.“ [1]. Together with the fear of nature – that „noonday panic fear in which nature suddenly appeared to humans as an all-encompassing power“ [1] – it results in an attempt to liberate oneself by trying to understand nature. They see this attempt Kant-like as „the doubling of nature into appearance and essence, effect and force“ [1], which had already been taken place in the epoch of myths: it is „ made possible by myth no less than by science“ [1].

According to Adorno/Horkheimer, in that epoch, in which human traits were projected onto gods, the subject (human as investigator) and the object (nature) were not yet separated. Humans could not yet oppress human nature. They agree with Nietzsche, who sees natural instincts as “human, all-too-human” [2] traits (for the last time) embraced in Greek mythology: “this … is revealed by the merest glance at the Greek gods, those reflections of noble and self-controlled man, in whom the animal in man felt himself deified” [2]. But whereas Nietzsche only goes so far as to present mythology as life-affirmative, for Horkheimer/Adorno it constitutes humankind’s early attempt to make the world predictable (“Myth sought to report, to name, to tell of origins … therefore also to narrate, record, explain“ [1]), and controllable (“Each ritual contains a representation … of the specific process which is to be influenced by magic.“ [1]).

With the Enlightenment humankind has the tools, and the fear of unknown nature starts to debunk the myths: „Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization, of enlightenment“ [1]. Now being able to deprive the gods of their power, human’s unleashed urge for domination takes over the process: “Ruthless toward itself, the Enlightenment has eradicated the last remnant of its own self-awareness. Only thought which does violence to itself is hard enough to shatter myths.” [1]

According to Nietzsche, humans developed the ability of generalizing objects into quantities and calculating via the “principle of equivalence” long before the Enlightenment, Those capabilities have their origin in humans prehistoric relationships to each other as „creditor and debtor“. Nietzsche supposes that from those faculties originates human’s superior feeling towards the animal kingdom: man as the “measuring animal”, equivalent to consciousness. Thinking has become calculating before the Enlightenment, and it possesses the potential for domination.

For Horkheimer/Adorno, these faculties – equating and calculating-  play an important in the progress of Enlightenment. The Bourgeois uses them for their predominance: „Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes dissimilar things comparable by reducing them to abstract quantities” [1].  Furthermore, “for the Enlightenment, anything which cannot be resolved into numbers, and ultimately into one, is illusion“ [1]. Put differently: qualities become illusions, because illusions are not to be dominated. Expelling the indomitable gives the illusion of total dominance. Enlightened thinking, under the spell of domination, cannot recognize this illusion: it becomes a totalitarian myth.

Domination strives to transform the object into generalized quantities – but generalization goes at the expense of the individuality of the single case. Humans have individual qualities; they do not fit easily into the general mold. Their self has to be reduced to unified entities, by social coercion if necessary: „because that self never quite fitted the mold, enlightenment … has always sympathized with social coercion. The unity of the manipulated collective consists in the negation of each individual“ [1].  Totalitarianism can spread to the social realm.

With science and mathematics, generalization and calculation, Enlightenment possesses the tools of domination. Transferring those tools also to society and law, Enlightenment experiences a regress to an all-encompassing driving force: progress is subjected to the primitive force of domination. Enlightenment, according to H/A reducing and coercing humans and society into calculable, controllable entities, driven by the inexorable “will-to-power”, inevitably ends up in that dialectical state Horkheimer/Adorno diagnose: in two inseparable, parallel processes of liberation over nature as progressive process and violence against human nature as regression. Nietzsche states why separation from animal nature is pernicious: it causes self-inflicted suffering; “man’s suffering from man, from himself, this is a result of a violent separation from his animal past”. [2]

Both Nietzsche and Horkheimer/Adorno diagnose negative, oppressing forces in the progress of Enlightenment. Whereas for the first, the process merely entails an unhealthy state for the individual and society, the latter discover in it a precarious product: enlightened thinking, able to subsume everything under its paradigm, gives rise to totalitarian thinking and becomes a myth it is unable to debunk by itself.

(1) Horkheimer/Adorno: Dialectic of Enlightenment

(2) Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (painted portrait)

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

According to Immanuel Kant, Enlightenment is the process of humankind overcoming the inability of making use of one’s intelligence, with two decisive characteristics. First, using intelligence is supposed to be independent of others, without others instructing or guiding it. Second, the inability of using it independently does not originate from a lack of intelligence, but from inertia, indecisiveness or a lack of courage. (1)

Bringing another pivotal figure of that epoch into consideration of whom Kant was an admirer, Rousseau, who was nonetheless an ardent critic of the Enlightenment, much in contrast to the excitement of his contemporaries, it appears as a valid question whether he was a character of the era of Enlightenment, but not necessarily a figure of Enlightenment.

According to Rousseau, the exact thing which enables a human being to reason, his intelligence, “has its needs, just as the body does“ (2), which causes harm on the virtues, in particular on the urge for freedom. In his “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences”, he considers arts and sciences as inevitable endeavors of an independent human mind at work and points out its perils. The sciences destroy the fundamental urge for freedom, an expression of self-preservation, because “the sciences … and the arts spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down … and make them love their slavery.” (3).

They also have harmful impacts on on authenticity because of vanity. “In place of contemptible ignorance, we will substitute a dangerous Pyrrhonism…” (4). The arts as a sign of luxury “bring with it … the corruption of taste” (2), because “every artist wishes to be applauded” (5) and “will lower his genius to the level of his age” (6).

The arts and sciences render people unable of noticing their bondage and create new corruptions of the intellect. They not only distract people from their dependence, but make them blind to it by giving it treacherous countenance, thusly depriving them of their ability of breaking free from a new dependence. Vanity and the need for approval impedes determination and courage. These new shackles cause the inability of the individual of using his mind independently. One evil seems to be traded for another, even for the same. Humankind at best gains a treacherous state of intellectual maturity. A state of universal enlightenment does not seem to be attainable.

Kant, in contrast, albeit “as things are at present, we still have a long way to go before men as a whole can be in a position of using their own understanding confidently” (7), saw “distinct indications that … the obstacles to universal Enlightenment … are gradually becoming fewer” (8). For Kant, universal Enlightenment seems possible, whereas Rousseau’s only hope is to bring those “who have no need of teachers” (9), men of the caliber of Bacon, Descartes and Newton, together with the powerful, because “it is the task of this small number of people to raise monuments to the glory of the human mind” (10) – hardly a state of Enlightenment of all humans.

Taking into account Kant’s definition of Enlightenment, Rousseau shows the ability of using his reasoning without guidance and making the result of it public with mature self-responsibility, being aware of the dangers: „I anticipate that people will have difficulty forgiving me for the position I have dared to take. […] I can expect only universal censure …. and I cannot count on public approval.” (11)

Rousseau’s bold and trenchant argumentation against the Enlightenment despite the ubiquitous excitement about it in society characterizes an unguided use of a mature mind. He is indubitably a person beyond the state of self-incurred immaturity of an unenlightened individual.

Nevertheless, according to Kant’s definition, Enlightenment is the process of humankind emerging from intellectual maturity, not the final state. Being a figure of Enlightenment necessitates playing a promoting role in that global process, while Rousseau, per dint of his heavy critique, does the opposite. Kant himself makes a distinction between an “enlightened age” and “an age of enlightened”: “If it is now asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.” (12)

Rousseau, thinking well-conceived, original and unpopular thoughts publicly and being both aware of the personal disadvantages it can entail and his own vices, shows all the hallmarks of a person able of using his mind without tutelage, with courage, self-responsibility and the maturity of yielding it prudently. Nevertheless, considering his heavy critique against the perils of Enlightenment and his indications towards its universal elusivenesss, he appears less as a figure of Enlightenment than a character of an enlightened age.

1) 7) 8) 12) Immanuel Kant: “What is enlightenment?“, 1784
2) 3) 4) 5) 6)  9) 10) 11) Jean-Jacques Rousseau: „Discourse on the arts and sciences“, 1750

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Scientists and philosophers, those who bring about ideas breaking with traditional world views, being themselves children of intellectual traditions, are likely to make use of intellectual traditions. This is the case for a revolutionary scientist like Charles Darwin, but does it also apply to the thinker who broke with the philosophical tradition – Friedrich Nietzsche?

Darwin’s work shows Romantic aspects. We frequently encounter admiring depictions of the beauties of nature. „We see these beautiful co-adaptations most plainly in the humblest parasite … in the plumed seed which is wafted by the gentlest breeze“ (1). Not only in this regard he draws upon the Romantic. In his quest for understanding nature, he also puts on Kant’s spectacles of perception and makes the world and ourselves understandable. His observations of plants and animals on a heath (2) leads him to insights about ourselves: “’So profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption that we marvel when he hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysm to desolate the world …” (2).

Darwin takes recourse to Empiricism as well. He was concerned with what Kant called the phenomenal world. He studied surface and effect. When performing studies in order to derive the relation of animals and plants to each other (3), he only takes into account things perceivable by sensory experiences. He examines the plants visually. He even goes one step further by incorporating quantities: „twelve species of plants flourished in the plantations ..six insectivorous birds were very common in the plantations … I counted thirty-two little trees, and one of them with twenty-six rings of growth … “ (3). He takes recourse to a fundamental aspect of Utilitarianism: Taking measurable and countable entities and bringing them into an equation yields something of substance: “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” (4). Quantity of measurable entities matter in order to derive a conclusion.

Darwin stands even more in the tradition of Utilitarianism. By dispelling the notion of ‘species’ as a real thing, he helps devaluating hitherto valued entities, showing their lack of essence. Where the idealist would like to see a distinct species, an ideal or at least a to-be-perfected entity, there is actually nothing than gradual and imperceptible change. „It may … be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing … the slightest variations, rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good, silently and insensibly working“ (5). By bringing to the fore the genealogy of things, Darwin reduces hitherto idealized entities to their mere expedience. There is no ‘species’. It is merely a term, invented for dealing with a complicated world.

Friedrich NietzscheNietzsche assumes a starting point in the tradition of ancient Greece, in which being “human, all-too-human” was embraced. The ancient Greek Gods showed human traits which would have been in Judaeo-Christian ages considered immoral. They did not deny their animal urges: “…this, fortunately, Is revealed by the merest glance at the Greek gods, those reflections of noble and self-controlled man, in whom the animal in man felt himself deified … and did not rage against himself.” (6). There is no moral ideal here. Importantly, Nietzsche is not idealizing that state either.

Here ends Nietzsche harnessing the intellectual past and here begins his genealogy of it. Ever since Socrates and Plato, with the advent of the denial of animal instincts and the pursue of an ideal in lieu of it, Nietzsche critically scrutinizes intellectual tradition.

Religion and western philosophy, Judaeo-Christian ethics and the secularisation of it, Enlightenment as well as arts and sciences, are all the maintainers of an unhealthy ‘slave morality’, the constituents of which are resentment (a reversal of values, strength and health as ‘evil ‘instead of good, suffering and weakness as ‘good’ instead of bad, upheld by religion) (7), guilt and bad conscience (the result of a creditor and debtor relationship, with punishment as  sustaining tool) (8), and the ascetic ideal (the denial of a life in pleasure for an ideal, both in arts and sciences) (9).

For Nietzsche, the “will to power” is key. That “will to power” also steers and governs even slave morality. The urge for dominance is present even in the weak and rebels with resentment; in the individual it clashes with the internalized ascetic ideal, leading to bad conscience. Hence, all intellectual traditions with their ideals lead to sickness. Nietzsche rejects the intellectual framework of the past altogether.

Darwin, albeit debunking godlike humankind as myth, makes use of ideals in intellectual traditions:  fascination with nature and scientific objectivity in the quest for the truth, and he paves their path into the future: natural sciences prevail to this day. Nietzsche, discrediting and doing away with ideals, rejects making use of them. If anything, he ushers in a new tradition, the tradition of psychology: There is no ideal to meet. It is about trying to live mentally healthy – while pursuing the ideal of science.

1) 2) 3) 5) Darwin, The Origin of Species
4) Bentham, A Fragment on Government
6) 7) 8) 9) Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

Creating and consuming art has been an endeavor of humans ever since they have been living in communities. Since we can safely assume that only humans are capable of art, it is a legitimate question what the reasons and benefits are for us. Two thinkers who were exceptionally engaged with the psychological history of humankind are Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche. What are their accounts of genealogy and psychology of active and passive artistic activity?

For Freud, art is a „palliative measure“, a method of reducing and avoiding suffering. In order to see how he derives at this conclusion we have to originate from one of his primary theories that the fundamental purpose of human life is seeking pleasure, and, as subordinate goal, the avoidance of suffering: “It is simply the program of the pleasure principle that determines the purpose of life. … As the pleasure principle itself has been transformed … into the ‘reality’ principle … the task of avoiding suffering pushes that one of obtaining pleasure into the background“ (1).

For Freud, two fundamental drives constitute the sources of pleasure: aggression, as a manifestation of the ”death drive’, and the constructive libido drive, the urge to love and satisfy, The libido emanates originally from sexual love, which later became transfigured into so-called ‘aim-inhibited’ impulses, with sexual love as its unconscious motive, but prohibiting the sexual act itself. The friendly relationships we have to members of the larger society is a manifestation of this.

Since for Freud pleasure is either accomplished by acting upon aggression or libido, it is substantial that the former is restricted by civilization, thusly robbing the individual of a means of obtaining pleasure: „I take the view that tendency to aggression … represents the greatest obstacle to civilization.“ (2) He goes further in showing that the libido is transfigured into aim-inhibited impulses and harnessed for rendering aggression against fellow-humans inoperative.

Considering the restrictions to natural happiness by the shackles of civilization, it becomes almost inevitable to understand that Freud saw palliative measures all the more indispensable means for reducing suffering. He mentions three methods: „Powerful distractions, which cause of to make light of our misery, substitutive satisfaction, which diminishes it, and intoxications, which anesthetize us to it.“ (3)

Concerning passive artistic activity, he sees it fall into the second category: „Substitutive satisfactions, such as arts affords, are illusions contrast with reality“ (4), yet also saw the illusionary downside of it.

The second form art -creative activity- also falls into that category, but another Freudian aspect is crucial for understanding its nature. Renunciation of natural drives causes a transfiguration into another form. He mentions „another technique for avoiding suffering, which „makes use of the displacements of the libido.“ (5) Here the task is, according to Freud, „to displace the aims of the drives in such a way that they cannot be frustrated by the external world.“ (6). That is the technique of sublimation, and the artists work fall under that term: „This kind of satisfaction – the artist’s joy in creating, in fashioning forth the product of his imagination … has a special quality“. (7)

Nietzsche’s account of art and aesthetics have to the following prerequisite aspects: Detachment from reality and the real object, resentment of natural vigor and reclusion from the world. Concerning the latter, he shows a similarity with Freud’s view on reclusion from fellow-humans as a means of avoiding psychosocial suffering.

Concerning detachment, Nietzsche claims that the artist could not depict what he does if he were what he depicts: „a Homer would not have created no Achilles, a Goethe no Faust.“ (8). An aspect of this is the artist being detached from reality: „A completely artist finds himself separated from the ‘real’ … to all eternity“. (9).

Concerning the more significant resentment aspect, for Nietzsche art is, despite the claims of Enlightenment figures like Kant, a transfigured derivate of the sexual instinct, and denies its sexual nature insofar as the weak has to deny natural vigor as ‘bad’. He makes the mocking assumption that an artwork in not the ascetic ideal it is claimed to be: „If our aestheticians … never tire of arguing … that … it is possible to contemplate even statues of naked women ‘without interest’ … one is entitled to have a laugh at their expense.“ (10). For Nietzsche the artist and his audience delude themselves by denying and rejecting the underlying natural instincts behind aesthetics – fitting perfectly into the great scheme of Nietzsche’s theory of resentment.

In comparison, whereas Freud is more accepting in seeing art as a legitimate choice and sublimation in order to reduce suffering in face of an external oppression by civilization, Nietzsche considers it as self-delusional act of internal resentment against animalistic vigor.

What might remain to moot are possible implications of the expounded views. It seems nothing much genuinely positive is left as motivation for pursuing art. and it might leave behind a bitter taste for all those with artistic interest. Yet, we have to keep in mind that both, Freud as well as Nietzsche, have the diagnosis as their main purpose, not prescriptions for us whether or not pursuing art.


1), 2), 3), 4) 5), 6), 7) Freud, Civilization and its Discontents

8) 9) 10) Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals


Ralph Waldo Emerson with his insistence on self-reliance, is probably more of an inspirational intellectual character in terms of the ideals of the Enlightenment than it is the towering giant Immanuel Kant. If anything can be considered a heritage of the Enlightenment bequeathed to us through, it is that ubiquitous individualism, ideally paired with self-reliance. Aspects of the Enlightenment also appear with Virginia Woolf’s characters of „To the Lighthouse“. In order to get a glimpse of her account of Enlightenment, we may reflect upon her characters: as respresentatives of Woolf’s view on it.

Emerson imperative „Trust Thyself“ seems to be exactly congruent with the original Kantian definition of the Enlightenment „Dare to know!“. But whereas Kant makes an appeal to overcome laziness and cowardice, Emerson points at a natural instinct for self-reliance: „Every heart vibrates to that iron string“ (2) – which is observable in children: “infancy conforms to nobody“ (3). According to traditional Enlightenment, man has to be urged to think for himself in order to attain an enlightened society, and the obstacle lies in a natural inclination of the individuals to „gladly remain immature for life“ (4). In contrast to that, Emerson discerns other reasons for why people remain immature: they encounter certain obstacles to live up to their natural tendency of being self-reliant.

He surmises the benefits the individual gains from society – an entity which „everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members“ (5)- , that is, the security provied by society as motivation why be comply with the expectations society imposes on us. Society expects conformity from the individual „for better securing of his bread to each shareholder“ (6). Thusly, it commits us. It is partly this commitment that once we act publicly in a certain way, we consider it as a pledge to act in the same way henceforth. Hence „man … is clapped into jail by his consciousness“ (7), while instead, according to Emerson, he is much better off being free at any moment „to pass again into his neutrality“ (8).

This idea is closely related to Emerson’s concept of consistency as another obstacle to self-reliance. It is rooted in the „reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have to other data for computing our orbit“ (9). That neutrality, that state of being a clean slate, being free to act in new way every moment, is an indispensable precondition for being self-reliant, for acting upon our natural genius. Emerson sees the flame of Enlightenment already burning in each individual, only stifled by the shackles we have donned, whereas traditional Enlightenment strives to implant imperatively and foster it carefully. Emerson wants to overcome the shackles in order set it free: One remedial ingredient is keeping a solitude while being in the crowd.

For the characters in Woolf’s „To the Lighthouse“, traditional Enlightenment and self-reliance is also an issue. Charles Tansley is Woolf’s synthesis of both, ending up in a nihilistic state: Enlightened as to question what he is told and self-reliant as not to believe anything he is told. Hence, he is unable to believe in his own abilities and in those of others. What remains is his faith in hard work. Charles appears as a parody, perhaps a travesty of the traditional ideas of the Enlightenment, also in its aim to advance society. Despite his highfalutin moral claims, he adds nothing constructive to the community. He puts people off and discourages them („Women can’t paint, women can’t write“ (10)), and he ends up preaching in public, hypocritically and contrary to his actions, watched by Lily as Woolf’s alter-ego: „He was denouncing something, he was condemning somebody. He was preaching brotherly love“ (11).

Mr. Ramsay, trusting only knowledge inferred from logic, strives to put decisions on the basis of the latter and rejects hopes contradicting logic as lies. Originally emanating from the Enlightenment, Mr. Ramsay’s philosophy epitomizes its development towards an extreme, with the individual winding up in a different form of dependence: Now it is logic and total rationality dictating the individual, even against a need to connect with loving people: They cannot go the lighthouse, „not with the barometer falling and the wind due west“ (12). Mr. Ramsay, albeit appearing self-reliant, is actually the opposite of that. He is steered by rationality and logic, at the sane time needy for emotional support by other people, and not even believing in himself – “he had no genius, he laid no claim on that” (13) – he surely isn’t self-reliant in Emerson’s terms.

Even though rejecting any universal truth, Emerson promotes the original ideal of Enlightenment, the autonomy of the indivdiual, with his confidence in humans natural ability to act self-reliantly, merely stifled by psychosocial mechanisms, thusly paving its way into an individualistic post-modern society in which individuals are more aware of those mechanisms. Woolf’s account of it rather appears as cautionary tales against the corruption of personal authenticity and self-reliance through a misunderstood Enlightenment as mere logic and rationality in which hope is eliminated, but also in Rousseau’s tradition of pointing out the hypocritical aspects of it.

1) 2) 3) 5) 6) 7) 8) 9) Emerson, Essays First Series, Self-Reliance

4) Kant, What is Enlightenment?

10) 11) 12) 13) Woolf, To The Lighthouse


In a pluralistic post-modernity with a multitude of approaches to identity, finding identity seems to be a task with unbounded creative authorship. Yet, identity is not a free choice among numerous possibilities as it might seem. While for Enlightenment traditionalist R.W. Emerson, gaining authentic identity is still relative straightforward, for Judith Butler it is much more complex. Focusing of the constraints and possibilities of self-crafted identity, the intention of both may be not that different: it is rather the step from modernity to post-modernity which makes for the striking difference.

In order to reason generally, we take gender, the subject Butler is concerned with, as a particular manifestation of identity. Then, she sees identity in general as an improvisational act as opposed to something preconceived, and the cause for the demand of identity is the individual’s need for recognition, taking recourse to Hegel’s claims that only through recognition we become human beings. The norms by which the individual is recognized are provided by the outside and are not fixed; they are “socially articulated and changeable” [1] and make for the personhood of the self: “The ‘I’ that I am finds itself at once constituted by norms” [1]. The individual’s identity is dependent on external norms: one must act accordingly to these norms in order to be an “I” that gains a limited agency for improvisations. “If I have any agency, it is opened up by the fact I am constituted by a social world I never chose.” [1]

Hence, identity in the postmodern world becomes not only impossible to design, but also a challenge requiring creativity and the ability of reacting to a social play: it is indeed improvisation. Power resides on the side creating the norms. There is not a single author of those norms, so this power appears what Žižek would call the imaginary “Big Other”. Identity doesn’t feel self-reliant, there is a power out there to be reckoned with. Emerson sees an external power as well, in the form of expectations for conformity, threatening his ideal of self-reliant identity. “At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say, – ‘Come unto us’” [2]. Yet, his remedy shuns the intricacies of the social interplay and is very much in the tradition of a modern, enlightened individual. He prescribes the elevated “solitude in the crowd”: “But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation” [2].

In contrast, for Butler softening external norms is crucial and ethically necessary: “What is most important is to cease legislating for all lives what is livable to some […] the differences in position and desire set limits to universalizability as an ethical reflex.” [1]. Butler sets ethical limits to Kant’s categorical imperative because it potentially encroaches on the individual’s authenticity. In Foucaultian thinking, it is possibly Enlightenment’s downstream normative force for identity. For Emerson, by contrast, a derivative of the CI is the  precondition of self-reliance: the conviction “that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men” [2] is derived from a divine, universal ideal, present but suppressed in each individual: “But we half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.” [2].

Postmodern Butler diagnoses something much less ideal. She recognizes identity as illusionary but nevertheless crucial for recognition and offers some improvisational leeway for self-invention. Due to the “staging and structuring of affect and desire” [1], identity norms have a performative structure, offering a possibility of influence: the sociability of norms exceeds my self-understanding, thusly “sustaining a temporal and spatial field of operation” [1]. Furthermore, the individual’s desire of fitting into a category is subject to a feedback-effect from those norms: “it (the desire) can exceed regulations, taken on new forms in response to regulation, even turn turns around and make it sexy” [1]. Hence, identity is not fatally controlled by norms, but reacts and can even be invigorated by them. Even more so, identity need those outside norms. For Emerson, by contrast, the norm is universally inherent to the individual; for Butler socially conveyed norms are the precondition of identity.

Butler, far from being fatalistic, extends the individual’s agency even towards a proactive role of co-authors. Since categorical terms are “crafted in time” and  work through excluding minorities” [1], and furthermore “social articulation of the terms depends upon its repetition” [1], “its articulation will begin precisely at the point where the excluded speak to and from such a category” [1]: if you keep repeating what constitutes “masculine” while being recognized as “masculine”, you can extend that norm. Identity becomes responsible for more than only oneself.

Emerson is the modernist proponent of an ideal behind identity. In contrast, Butler provides a post-modern diagnosis of identity which recognizes intricate psychosocial dependencies without a universal ideal. Pragmatically, she points out possibilities of if not inventing, but improvising on oneself: How much of what I am I have to be to be recognized – and how much beyond it in order to lead a livable life?

[1] Butler, Undoing Gender
[2] Emerson, Relf-Reliance