Kant’s “What Is Enlightenment?” Then and Now Reply

By Br Robert Antonio, LC

Immanuel Kant writes the essay “What is Enlightenment” in response to a question posed by a Prussian official and clergyman. The historical context is 18th century Prussia, currently under the rule of the enlightened Frederick the Great. Even though he ruled despotically, Frederick the Great brought about huge political and economic reform. Five years before the French Revolution, the enlightenment was in full swing, but few would be able to predict the consequence of its ideas in the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Kant writes from the point of view of a proud Prussian citizen, and his purpose is to spread the ideals of enlightened absolutism as well as to praise his own country. His thesis is the erection of a state with absolute intellectual freedom tempered by unconditional civil obedience. In this critique, I will spell out Kant’s main points and draw out both the positive and negative implications. To conclude, I will give a critical assessment of Kant’s essay as a whole.

Kant defines the concept of enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” Kant encourages his fellow Prussians to use their reason without the guidance of another. “Sapere aude!” Kant’s “dare to know” is for sure exciting; his dare invites us to transcend ourselves and not be afraid to innovate. In history, this daring to know has motivated continuous scientific research. Engaging in critical thought is another positive implication of this dare.

On the other side, Kant’s invitation can also be wrongly interpreted. For example, expert authorities need to be respected in their field of science. Yet, at the same time, money shouldn’t be wasted in foredoomed research projects. Although more citizens engage in scientific research, errors tend to be multiplied in science in an attempt to come up with something original, while the truth remains obscure.

Next, he moves on from the question of what is the enlightenment to the ideal of public enlightenment. In his words, all men have a duty to think for themselves. This enlightenment is achieved slowly and peacefully, since it involves changing ways of thinking. The positive implications are public education, the diminishing of class barriers, and an increment in general culture. Prejudices would be broken down. Individualism, however, can be a consequence of such a culture, since people will trust each other less. Public education as well is no sure remedy to the problem of manipulation. In fact, it can certainly be used toward that end.

To achieve public enlightenment, Kant holds that the only condition is freedom. Kant’s concept of freedom is different than ours. Freedom, in the context of enlightenment, is to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Logically, reasonable people will contribute to better laws, institutions, and society in general. Demagogues will not be able to persuade the people with empty rhetoric. Nevertheless, too much emphasis on reason, when not properly guided, may lead to the gradual disappearance of traditions and customs. It can easily slide into moral solipsism, since every person will be sole judge of his moral actions.

For Kant science is an absolute good. The constraint on intellectual freedom and progress, he claims, “would be a crime against human nature, whose original destiny lies precisely in such progress.” Today a similar argument is used by supporters of embryonic stem-cell research against opponents. The progress of science is regarded as an absolute, since human nature itself is progress. Without setting a deeper foundation for human freedom, Kant seems to posit a progress without any further purpose.

Viewing human nature as progressing, however, brings good news as well. Western civilization has distinguished itself for its ideal of unending scientific and technological progress, while other civilizations have stagnated at some point in their history. Although some use science with evil intentions, ongoing discovery and scientific work has benefited humanity on the whole.

I would like to end off with Kant’s paradox on freedom and obedience. “Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey!” Kant’s purpose is to justify Frederick’s absolute rule. Absolute civil freedom may lead to anarchy, while limited civil freedom allows room for full intellectual progress. Immanuel Kant was not able to predict that a growing bourgeois class would soon demand political rights in addition to their intellectual ones. His essay seems to overlook the fact that minorities, holding unpopular views, can still be oppressed without justice.

Nevertheless important positive implications may be drawn out. Since cultural and scientific progress replaces struggle for power and the desire for political success, one might anticipate that the strengthening of civil society should follow. In theory, a strong government is able to rule more effectively for the common good. But it would be idealistic to assume that big government always serves the common good.

Kant’s answer to the question, “What is the enlightenment?” provides us with a compendium of the spirit of the age. It would be useful to consider more of the facts and circumstances surrounding Europe at the time. Although the popular form of government at the time was the absolute monarchy, intellectuals such as Immanuel Kant, Montesquieu, Locke, Rosseau and others were already paving the way for free, democratic societies. These eventually proved better alternatives for a science-friendly society than absolutist regimes. Nevertheless, Immanuel Kant undoubtedly gives an accurate overview of the spirit of the enlightenment from the point of view of a man of his time and a fairly acute forecast of our times as well.

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