Seminar: The Enlightenment and its Discontents WS 2022/23

TU Dresden | Wintersemester 2022 / 2023 Seminar: The Enlightenment and its Discontents WS 2022/23

Instructor: Prof. Dr. Nikita Dhawan (email:

Language: English

Block Saturdays: 15.10.2022, 22.10.2022, 29.10.2022, 05.11.2022

Office hours: by email by appointment

Tutor: Natalia Fomina (email:

Room: GER/52/U




The intellectual and political legacies of the Enlightenment endure in our times, whether we aspire to orient ourselves by them or contest their claims. Whenever norms of secularism, human rights, or justice are debated, we are positioning ourselves vis-à-vis the Enlightenment, which provides important intellectual, moral, and political resources for critical thought. Immanuel Kant’s dictum, “Have courage to use your own reason!” succinctly captures the Enlightenment claim of emancipation through the exercise of reason. In the face of feudality and authoritarianism, the Enlightenment intellectuals enunciate ideals of equality, rights, and rationality as a way out of domination towards freedom. Contesting the legitimization of social inequalities, the Enlightenment, it is claimed, influenced progressive political thought including liberalism and socialism. Enabling a critical reflection on political norms and practices, it has fostered the accountability of institutions, equality before law, and the transformation of social relations. Emancipatory movements for suffrage, abolition of slavery and civil liberties can all be traced back to the Enlightenment, even as it continues to inspire contemporary social and political movements. The Enlightenment idea of individual rights and dignity, it is believed, enables the exercise of political agency and expands individual freedom.

However, as has been pointed out by both scholars of Postcolonial Studies as well as Holocaust Studies, Enlightenment’s promise of attaining freedom through the exercise of reason has ironically resulted in domination by reason itself. Along with progress and emancipation, it has brought colonialism, slavery, genocide, and crimes against humanity. The seminar will engage with the contradictory consequences of the Enlightenment for the postcolonial world.

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