Home > Book Review, Philosophy > Exam Preparation – Kant: “What Is Enlightenment?”

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.

Categories: Book Review, Philosophy
  1. Rebecca Glasencnik
    November 27, 2012 at 8:41 am

    So have we reached an Enlightenment ideal yet? Do we have the opportunity for ‘public’ reason? 😛 we are in the internet age! We’re more connected than ever! Does this mean we’re enlightened?
    where is your critique/ own philosophy in there? Your summaries are awesome, much better than what I manage – but you need to do more. Take a position, even if you only take it tentatively… Any Ph.D will depend on it 🙂

    • November 28, 2012 at 5:36 am

      I didn’t put any of my own thoughts or philosophy in any of the notes I toke for the exam as I wanted to simply have the material, which I could engage with if the topic question asked – now, thinking about the Foucault qu in the exam, I’m not so sure I did engage with it, as it did say ‘discuss’, I simply elaborated his position, this could mean poor marks.. Shit. I do need to do more….

      • November 28, 2012 at 5:50 am

        ‘Discuss’ – you know what this means, in context of essays, right? (Not being critical (as in ‘negative’) here! – just trying to help a friend)
        Discuss: Present the different aspects of an issue and draw a reasoned conclusion. (essay ‘directive words’ – UNSW)

        Its an argument, not an explanation. You take a position. It can be a very tentative position, because of a lack of evidence, controversial evidence, etc – but you have to have a point you want to make with the essay. (I’m not perfect at this either – in fact, much of the time I’m crap at it.)

      • November 28, 2012 at 5:52 am

        Yeah defs didn’t do that, epic fail, lol…

  2. November 28, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Nah – you’ve likely got some good stuff in your exam, and essays – enough to do ok 😉 I just see how you could do better. I know you’re not supremely confident in YOUR interpretations – but you have to be willing to put a statement out there. If you don’t have confidence in your ability to read, interpret, and use this stuff – then they’re going to reflect that, aren’t they? Particularly with grad studies – you reflect the university – a phd is a big deal – they want phd’s to be good… Be good. I think with how you do this stuff on here – you’re good – you just need to take a position.

    This is high praise, by the way. I have too often taken the stereotype of ‘athletic jock’ means ‘no brains’. You’re proving me totally wrong – you’ve certainly got the brains! Just have a bit more confidence in your capacity to do this stuff, and don’t be so worried about ‘not having x knowledge’ 😛

    Pick a question. Figure out what you know/what you think. Pick a tentative position. Read. Figure out if you can defend your opinion, or do you have to rethink. Evidence points to… How to defend. What summary/exposition is needed to explain your position.

    And it goes on, and on…

    • November 29, 2012 at 5:33 am

      Thanks for your critique and advice, it is duly noted, and will be implemented in the future! And, thanks for the kind words! I try to buck that stereotype as much as possible, as it’s one people tend to assume a priori….

  3. November 28, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    You’ve offered a really concise summary of Kant’s essay, but (as stated in the comments above) you really need to present your own interpretive take on Kant’s philosophy. Trust me, you WILL need to learn how to do this, and I say that as someone who had to go through a Phd oral exam in English Literature and Philosophy. I’m now teaching a college-level course on “The Age of Enlightenment,” taught through a course blog you’ve referenced above in one of my student’s post, “Kant wouldn’t call him a Monster.” One of the central things we learned in this course is that Englightnment is always paradoxical: as Kant puts it, “argue as much as you want and about whatever you want, but obey!” In other words, the freedom of the scholar to speak publically requires that he or she follow the state’s orders and refrain from violating the private use of reason. The more freedom you have to speak in public, the more limited you become in the private sector. Hence, Kants idea of enlightened freedom leaves no room for civil disobedience–worker’s srikes, walkouts, etc. He recognizes this problematic contradiction, but believes that this contradiction will eventually be resolved in history.

    My students could give you further insights into the paradox of Enlightenment and hopefully inspire you to come up with your own interpretation. I’m sure they would love to comment on your post.

    You’ll hear from them soon…

    • November 29, 2012 at 5:31 am

      Thanks so much for your thoughts, and I totally agree, I see now that as a major fault in my philosophy work thus far at university, and in my next uni will attempt to take and support a position. I guess I was overly worried I would not find favor amongst the marker for my position and hence, lose marks. The irony being of course, I probably lost marks for not taking a position.

      I appreciate any and all feedback!

      • November 29, 2012 at 9:38 am

        Muahahaha… See? Lightbulb!

        I guess the issue I have (and you too, probably) is the worry that if we don’t ‘conform’ to the lecturers interpretation, we’ll get less marks/fail. However, we aren’t required to do so – and really, they can’t get away with that anyway. They don’t have to agree with you – but they have to see how you’ve come to a particular conclusion.

  4. drducky13
    December 6, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    A good example of the paradox of enlightenment may be found in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The limited civic freedom of the kingdom of the Houhnhymns allows for the development of scientific and philosophical thought free from any emotional entanglements. The Houhnhymn culture is one based almost entirely on rationality and logic and overcoming the childish limitations of passion. This, however, is not necessarily a good thing. The unbridled rationality of these political animals allows them to accept morally repulsive policies, such the calculated extermination of an entire species. While the strict society of the Houhnhymns allows reason to flourish, Swift also shows that some moral compass is needed to ensure that we don’t become too enlightened. Emotion has its place in the coldly rational world of enlightenment: it must exist to temper our thoughts and prevent us from attempting to rise too far above our natural place in the universe.

  5. December 6, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment” is quite possibly one of the most influential pieces ever written. It could be easily argued that it was Kant who got the entire discussion of enlightenment rolling. With that said, it should be noted that Kant’s piece is inherently paradoxical. Kant tells his readers that they should seek to find knowledge and truth by themselves. Acquiring knowledge from others is a means of giving up the freedom granted to us to think for ourselves. Thus Kant is arguing that one must take nothing for granted, but should take use their own freedom of though to arrive at any conclusion. Kant, however, is trusting that people will take his understanding of the world as truth. It is, indeed, Kant himself who best represents the paradox of the enlightenment.

  6. smcbride14
    December 6, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Frankenstein’s monster is a great symbol for the paradox of the Enlightenment. His very creation is a revolution, an attempt to cast off the limitations people believed existed and to challenge death itself. The creature is created fully mature, fully capable of using his own reason; he’s never had the guardians telling him what to think. However, Kant tells us that such an abrupt and dramatic action is not the way to enlightenment.

    “A public an only slowly arrive at enlightenment. A revolution is perhaps capable of breaking away from personal despotism and from avaricious or power-hungry oppression, but it can never bring about a genuine reform in thinking; instead, new prejudices will serve as a guiding rein for the thoughtless masses.”

    That’s the paradox of enlightenment. It’s a personal journey, but one that can only be sustained by public action. Frankenstein’s creature was an enlightened being in an unenlightened world, so his free thinking gave way to prejudice and hatred for mankind.

  7. leviathan
    December 6, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    One author whose protagonist experiences the paradox of enlightenment would be Mary Shelley. her book “Frankenstein” features the character Frankenstein’s Monster who quests for universal knowledge. Via his quest, the creature actually experiences a regression instead of progress. the more he learns, the more he begins to understand his own isolation. Because of this, he becomes more and more obsessed with his creator and less concerned with knowledge and reason. By the novel’s end, the creature goes on murderous spree in his quest for revenge. At the point, the monster experiences a regression in form–becoming immature in his attempt to reach maturity. However, the true crux of Kant’s theory of enlightenment is that one needs to think on his own.While you may base your work on our comments and other readings, it is important for you to form original thought. You don’t have to agree with us!

  8. December 6, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    The paradox of enlightenment refers to character’s enlightenment becoming the source of their regression. Furthermore, it can highlight the difference between what is acceptable in the public and private spheres; though one may be enlightened they are not able to effectively communicate their ideas on a basis of it hurting the public. Gulliver Travels, written by Jonathon Smith, highlights the paradox of enlightenment becoming the source of ones downfall. Protagonist Gulliver encounters the country of Houyhnhnms, a land where horses are the dominent species. The horses display a high level of intellect and base their actions on the good of society. While it initially appears that the Houyhnhnms have established a higher standard of living, close inspection reveals that the horses have foregone emotion and spontaneity. Their well calculated decisions and precise use of language leave no room for love or mode of expression. Though the horses demonstrate their enlightenment through advanced use of reasoning, resembling that of the Royal Society, they more importantly highlight the risk that accompanies misdirected progression.

  9. December 6, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    To quote one of perhaps the greatest films of the 21st century, and perhaps all time, Legally Blonde….
    “The law is reason free from passion”
    Ok, Aristotle is really the one who said this but Elle Woods is really the one who used them to bring enlightenment to our generation. In the same way, I feel that your comment, “much still halts us from expressing our private reason free from “outside direction”” may reveal the true meaning behind Kant’s words – and show the truth Kant was going for in his terms of enlightenment. As we all know, Elle proves Aristotle wrong – the law is NOT free from passion, and in her realization of this truth and the conclusion of her story, she becomes enlightened. In the same way, we see the monster in “Frankenstein” also becomes enlightened when he discovers the world of humans through literature and family. It is this the act of taking the passion, the judgment out of a situation in order to see where it becomes truly necessary to put it back in… For Elle, that required putting passion into the law. For Frankenstein’s monster, that meant attempting to make others see beyond his wild exterior. For Kant, “the obstacles to general enlightenment or the release form self-imposed tutelage are gradually being reduced.” And it is this paradox that you should delve into in order to complete your study of Kant’s philosophy.

  10. cotremba
    December 6, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Hi Rob – here are some thoughts on the paradox of Enlightenment as exemplified through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein most accurately depicts the paradox of the Enlightenment of inevitable regression in the pursuit knowledge. Victor Frankenstein desires to surpass the confines of his university studies that he has so aptly conquered, and fashion a way to reverse the previously irreversible: death. In his drive to create the creature – an ideal human that is superior in strength and intellectual capabilities, and born a “blank slate” (in following with Locke’s form of enlightenment) – Victor regresses further and further away from what makes him human. He loses touch with his loved ones (his parents, Elizabeth), his emotions (loses his love for Elizabeth, and his friend Henry Clerval), and experiences (he is isolated from society), as well as his body (becomes sick, starving) and causes pain and heartache (his family, Elizabeth). Essentially, he loses all that the creature wishes he had, all of the emotional and experiential aspects that make humans human. Furthermore, Victor comes to realize the responsibility of creating a different kind of human species only after he has created it, and the possible consequences of his actions (as when he grapples with the possibility of making a female companion for the monster). Thus, Victor recognizes the responsibility of enlightened learning only after destruction has occurred, and in the pursuit of knowledge he regresses into a reclusive, regressive state.

  11. Martha1234
    December 6, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    The author that exemplifies this paradox of enlightenment by speaking their mind, yet obeying at the same time is Olaudah Equiano. In his narrative, he criticizes the slave trade, and speaks for abolition of slaves. At the same time, he raised the money to gain his own freedom by participating in his own slave trading. He encourages and wants freedom for himself, but at the same time is controlling the freedom of another being. This clearly shows the paradox of the enlightenment because the only way that Equiano can speak out against abolition and write his narrative is by gaining his own freedom, and the only way he can gain his own freedom is by doing the exact thing he’s fighting against. He is standing up for what he believes in, but obeying the societal ways of becoming economically independent. Obeying is the only way he can actually speak up for his beliefs.

  12. kmleonard
    December 6, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Even after explaining exactly how one can release himself from immaturity and achieve Enlightenment, Kant ends his essay saying that ultimately the Enlightenment process is paradoxical because as you try to reach universal knowledge on your own, you are repressed into certain accepted ways of thinking. Jonathan Swift shows this paradox in his satiric novel Gulliver’s Travels through his protagonist’s, Lemuel Gulliver, adventures to foreign lands. At each new place, Gulliver encounters a new race of people with different laws than that of his homeland England, and at each place he is fooled into thinking that these places have superior knowledge. But, even as Gulliver continues on this quest and obtains more and more knowledge that seems to be making him smarter and more intellectually free than the people of England, he regresses into a more basic and simple way of thinking, and ultimately rejects human society. Basically, Swift shows this paradox by having Gulliver become someone completely shut off from the real world because he became “Enlightened,” when really he completely regresses into an animalistic state as a result of all of the knowledge he gained on his adventures.

  13. zooey2013
    December 6, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Hi, Rob! Just wanted to leave a brief comment here. As exemplified in the works of various 18th century authors, the paradoxical nature of the Enlightenment (as mentioned above by our professor, hgarcia) is a crucial element in interpreting Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” One text that comes to mind when considering this topic is Samuel Johnson’s “Preface” to his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). In it, Samuel Johnson laments that
    “Commerce, however necessary, however lucrative, as it depraves the manners, corrupts the language; they that have frequent intercourse with strangers, to whom they endeavor to accommodate themselves, must in time learn a mingled dialect, like the jargon which serves the traffickers on the Mediterranean and Indian coasts. This will not always be confined to the exchange, the warehouse, or the port, but will be communicated by degrees to other ranks of the people, and be at last incorporated with the current speech” (2900).
    While Johnson was a proponent of Enlightenment hyper-rationality and the systematization of language, I find in his “Preface,” and especially in the above quote, evidence of the paradox of the Enlightenment. Isn’t innovation through unusual means and by varying types of people a contribution to the Enlightenment? For me, the linguistic dynamism created by the commercial interactions described above shows Enlightenment-minded innovation far more than top-down regulation of Enlightenment does.

  14. stevief7
    December 6, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    As stated in my other posts on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, both Victor and his creation seek to become enlightened. However, in contrast to what Kant says about becoming enlightened, both of them regress rather progress. This is due to the fact that they do not allow each other to grow and experience and learn. They hinder one another by putting each other under a yoke (as described by Kant). This leads to the question of whether one’s own enlightement is really soley in his or her hands, which in itself would be contradictory to the Kantian defintion. This could be conisdered another Kantian paradox.

  15. December 6, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Throughout our discussion of Enlightenment in this course, I have come to see Jonathan Swift’s satirical critique of several facets of Enlightenment thought as the best example of demonstrating the paradox of the Enlightenment, particularly in his work in Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver explores mythical lands, surveying different societies’ approaches to an Enlightened (or strikingly un-enlightened) lifestyle. Swift utilizies powerful personification in Gulliver’s final exploration of the Houyhnhnm horse society, in which the horses exemplify several of the ideals of an Enlightened group, yet simultaneously regress into a drone-like, emotionally mute state. As Kant explains, “argue as much as you want and about whatever you want, but obey!”, which calls upon the idea that the Enlightenment is limited within the confines of personal space; in other words, progress is inherently limited. Instead, the Houyhnhnm society must trot upon an established road, one approved by the greater society. This is where Swift made a particularly astute choice of utilizing personification, because the horses are separated from human society because they are, well, horses. With hooves, what kind of changes can they actually make? I hope this inspires some original thoughts for you…good luck with the exam!

  16. December 10, 2012 at 5:35 am

    Wow! Thankyou all so much for your thoughtful insights, analysis and critiques! They are greatly appreciated and have given me much to think about!

  17. December 10, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Sweet… Now send them all to my blog 😉 LOL

    I’m happy with the idea of the paradox of the enlightenment, however, I would argue against the idea of not being able to take knowledge from someone else.

    Kant’s idea of ‘public’ reason explicitly required publicity. It required sharing ideas, and gaining knowledge from others. What he didn’t want, was taking someone’s word as ‘gospel’ without further thought. Its knowledge, increased via a public engagement with issues of the day – but no one person has an absolute claim to authority, as to force you to reason in one way – courage to use your own reason, after all.

    Consider Nietzsche’s perspectivism in this light – we can’t get ‘the truth’, because the truth isn’t ‘out there’. However, via our perspective, we have ‘a truth’ – then by comparing it to others, and gaining more perspective, we can come closer to reality. Perhaps never reaching the ultimate reality, but getting closer towards it.

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