The solemnity with which everyone who engages in philosophical discourse reflects on his own time strikes me as a flaw. I can say so all the more firmly since it is something I have done myself; and since, in someone like Nietzsche, we find this incessantly — or, at least, insistently enough. I think we should have the modesty to say to ourselves that, on the one hand, the time we live in is not the unique or fundamental or irruptive point in history where everything is completed and begun again. We must also have the modesty to say, on the other hand, that — even without this solemnity — the time we live in is very interesting; it needs to be analyzed and broken down, and that we would do well to ask ourselves, “What is the nature of our present?”
— Michel Foucault, “Structuralism and PostStructuralism: An Interview with Michel Foucault”
What is the nature of our present? When French philosopher Michel Foucault posed this question during an interview in 1983, he was rephrasing the question posed two hundred years ago by German philosopher Immanuel Kant: What is enlightenment? Both thinkers pondered what it meant to be modern. When Kant posed his question, modernity was a dynamic idea bound up with the rationalist and progressive spirit of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment. When Foucault posed his question, modernity had become a contested idea under critical scrutiny.