Exam Preparation – Kant: “What Is Enlightenment?”
Now that I have briefly looked at Davidson (and Part 2 here), I’m going to do a write up of Kant short essay for my notes in the exam – only so that I may feel some piece of mind in regards to being covered on all philosophers, should an unexpected question pop up. Today I will be focusing on his piece on enlightenment.
Enlightenment is man’s release from his self incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not without direction from another. Sapre aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!” – that is the motto of enlightenment. (Kant, p. 83 What is Enlightenment? (1784) 1997)
Kant thinks that it is laziness and cowardice that so great a portion of mankind remains “under tutelage”, by which he means we use books to understand for us, pastors who are our conscience for us, physicians who dictate our diets etc – because of this we need not think for ourselves, we can simply pay others do to the work for us. Kant thinks that these “guardians” have made us timid and afraid to work under our own tutelage, which he understands would be difficult, a throwing off such tutelage would leave you without a safety net, left to fend based on your own “natural gifts” (p. 84). Kant thinks that the public can only enlighten itself, if freedom is granted, and even then it would be a slow process, due to the reform in thinking that would need to take place in which new prejudices would replace old ones. What does Kant mean by “freedom” though?
For this enlightenment, however, nothing is required but freedom, and indeed the most harmless among all the things to which this term can properly be applied. It is the freedom to make public use of one’s reason at every point. (Kant, p. 84 What is Enlightenment? (1784) 1997)
The guardians of our lives though, halt us from dissent, in that they tell us not to argue (Kant suggests we think of tax collectors asking you to pay, the cleric asking you to believe etc) – to Kant this is a restriction on freedom. The private use of reason Kant states is very often narrowly restricted without hindering the progress of enlightenment, but what is private and public use of reason?
By the public use of one’s reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office in which is entrusted to him. (Kant, p. 85 What is Enlightenment? (1784) 1997)
Kant concedes that there are many affairs which are conducted in the interest of the community which require “a certain mechanism through which some members of the community must passively conduct themselves with artificial unanimity, so that the government may direct them to public ends…” (p. 85). This member of the commonalty must obey, although she may address the public. Here Kant is talking about, for example, the officer who must obey her chain of command, but as a “scholar” she may lay her concerns on her service before the public for judgement. Or of the priest who must convey the tenets and practices of his church to his flock, for he has accepted those tenets to work in such a position, but as a scholar he is free, and Kant would say compelled, to communicate to the public his own thoughts and critiques of the practices and tenets of his position.
The use, therefore, which an appointed teacher makes of his reason before his congregation is merely private, because this congregation is only a domestic one (even if it be large in gathering); with respect to it, as a priest, he is not free, nor can he be free, because he carries out the orders of another. But as a scholar, whose writings speak to his public, the world, the clergyman in the public use of his reason enjoys an unlimited freedom to use his own reason and to speak in his own person. (Kant, p. 86 What is Enlightenment? (1784) 1997)
Because of this Kant states that we do not yet live in an enlightened age, but rather an “age of enlightenment” (p. 88). As he states, and as we’ve seen, much still halts us from expressing our private reason free from “outside direction” – but we do, on the otherhand, have greater autonomy to share our private reason, “the obstacles to general enlightenment or the release form self-imposed tutelage are gradually being reduced.” (p. 88)
Kant, I. (1784) 1997. “What is Enlightenment?” Trans. Lewis White Beck. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment? Second, revised ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., Pp. 83, 84, 85, 86, 88.
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