Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”

In 1784, German philosopher Immanuel Kant declared the motto of enlightenment as, “Have courage to use your own reason!”  He goes further to indict laziness and cowardice as the reasons why much of mankind repeatedly fails to uphold this motto, and instead prefers to remain under lifelong tutelage of external influences:

If I have a book which understands me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself.  I need not think, if I can only pay–others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.

The theme of self-determination (both politically and as a matter of personal principle) runs deep in the writings that came to define the Enlightenment tradition.  However, emerging within a culture of authoritarianism, to promote the values of individual reason and expression as the primary moral principles in life were inseparable from outright heresy.  But it is exactly this so-called heretical mindset that Kant urges the masses to embrace, precisely because it will free them from those who have appointed themselves as guardians of their thoughts:

After the guardians have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are confined, the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone.

Naturally, Kant considers the implied danger to be a farce concocted by these self-appointed guardians to preserve their own authority, and the deception largely persists because the ordinary man “has come to be fond of this state, and he is for the present really incapable of making use of his reason, for no one has ever let him try it out.”  And that is the primary intent of Kant’s appeal on behalf of reason; simply for the public to be given the opportunity to be guardians of their own mental faculties–i.e. their own enlightenment.  Kant believes that an enlightened public is not only a desirable goal, but an obviously possible one, because “if only freedom is granted, enlightenment is almost sure to follow.”

However, Kant still remains realistic in his own idealism for an enlightened public.  He understands that many prejudices have been ingrained in the public’s psyche that are outright counter to enlightenment thinking, and that therefore “the public can only slowly attain enlightenment.”  He reasons that while tyrannical regimes can be toppled by speedy revolutions, they do not remove said prejudices and predispositions that prevent the public from embracing enlightenment, and that different measures are necessary to reform the ways by which people think (or, rather, refuse to think).

Freedom, of course, is the primary component needed in Kant’s view for an enlightened society.  Namely the freedom to think, and  “make public use of one’s reason at every point.”  Unfortunately, though a simple proposition, there exists much standing in the way of achieving this level of public awareness:

But I hear on all sides, “Do not argue!”  The officer says: “Do not argue but drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue but pay!” The cleric: “Do not argue but believe!” Only one prince in the world says, “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!” Everywhere there is restriction on freedom.

The prince Kant is talking about is Frederick II of Prussia, whose civil reforms the philosopher sees as necessary preconditions for creating an enlightened society.  (Reaffirming this point later on in the essay, when he declares, “Do we now live an enlightened age? The answer is, ‘No,’ but we do live in an age of enlightenment / or the century of Frederick.”)

Despite his call for complete freedom for a citizen to use his reason, Kant does differentiate between a person’s right to espouse his opinion freely, and the right of a state to place certain mandate’s on a person’s freedoms when it comes to exercising its right to govern over said person as a subject to its laws.  For instance:

The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him; indeed, an impudent complaint at those levied on him can be punished as scandal.  But the same person nevertheless does not act contrary to his duty as a citizen when, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts on the inappropriateness or even the injustice of these levies.

The hallmark of modern democracy is the right we as a citizenry have to petition our government, either directly or through our elected representatives, to change and shape the laws we abide by in accordance with out collective understand of what is moral and what is just.  Hence, what Kant is proposing above seems rather uncontroversial to us in the 21st century; however, in 1784, a proposition such as this was quite radical indeed.  For to suggest to an absolutist authority, be it monarchical or clerical, that the public ought to be free to openly reason, question, and argue all matters of thinking, including the very function of the authorities that preside over them, is to a hitherto unchallenged power the first an open call for anarchy and heresy.  Kant remains unfazed by such objections, as he clearly lines out how his proposal is neither destabilizing for the state, nor damning for the public’s salvation, because enlightenment–as a product of allowing the pubic its freedom of reason–is the fundamental component in nurturing a society that, even while it remains free to voice its dissatisfaction with the authorities presiding over it, the very freedom of being granted a voice at all endears the public to the system that has set up the parameters that grant such freedoms that treat them “in accordance with their dignity.”

Bibliography

Kant, Immanuel.  “What is Enlightenment?” Berlinische Monatsschrift, 1784.

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