- What is Enlightenment?
:"For the contemporary spiritual magazine see "What Is Enlightenment?".
"Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?" (German: "Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?") is the title of a
1784 essayby the philosopher Immanuel Kant. In the December 1784 publication of the "Berlinische Monatsschrift" ("Berlin Monthly"), edited by Friedrich Gedikeand Johann Erich Biester, Kant replied to the question posed a year earlier by the Reverend Johann Friedrich Zöllner, who was also an official in the Prussian government. Zöllner's question was addressed to a broad intellectual public, in reply to Biester's essay entitled: "Proposal, not to engage the clergy any longer when marriages are conducted" (April 1783) and a number of leading intellectuals replied with essays, of which Kant's is the most famous and has had the most impact. Kant's opening paragraph of the essay is a much-cited definition of a lack of Enlightenment as people's inability to think for themselves due not to their lack of intellect, but lack of courage.
Kant's essay also addressed the causes of a lack of enlightenment and the preconditions necessary to make it possible for people to enlighten themselves. He held it necessary that all church and state
paternalismbe abolished and people be given the freedom to use their own intellect. Kant praised Frederick II of Prussiafor creating these preconditions. Kant focused on religious issues, saying that "our rulers" had less interest in telling citizens what to think in regard to artistic and scientific issues.
Kant answers the question quite succinctly in the first sentence of the essay: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” But the answer itself is so enlightening, that it requires another 2,600 words from Kant to fully develop the concept. He continues that the immaturity is self-inflicted not from a lack of understanding, but from the lack of courage to use one’s reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another. Our fear of thinking for ourselves. He exclaims that the motto of enlightenment is “Sapere aude”! – Dare to be wise!
The German word "Unmündigkeit" means not having attained the
age of majorityor legal adulthood. It is sometimes also translated as "tutelage" or "nonage" (the condition of "not [being] of age"). Kant, whose moral philosophy is centered around the concept of autonomy, is distinguishing here between a person who is intellectually autonomous and one who keeps him/herself in an intellectually heteronomous, i.e. dependent and immature status.
The majority of people are lazy cowards who gladly remain in this immature state for their entire lives. Why? Simply because immaturity is convenient. Why is it convenient? Because “guardians” such as books, doctors, spiritual advisors, and anyone whom we can pay to think for us, does the heavy mental lifting and tells us how to think. Further, these guardians have convinced us that we don’t have to think. For “the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex)”, not only is thinking difficult, but it is dangerous. It doesn’t matter that the danger is NOT great. We have been intimidated into thinking that it is and therefore we are fearful of taking that first step into thinking for ourselves.
It is difficult for individuals to work their way out of this immature, cowardly life because we are so uncomfortable with the idea of thinking for ourselves. Kant says that even if we did throw off the spoon-fed dogma and formulas that we have been given all our lives, we would still be stuck, because we have never “cultivated our minds.”
The key to throwing off these chains of mental immaturity is freedom. There is hope that the entire public could become a force of free thinking individuals if they are free to do so. Why? There will always be a few people, even among those evil guardians, who think for themselves. They will help the rest of us to “cultivate our minds.” Then Kant shows he is a man of his times when he says: “a revolution may well put an end to autocratic despotism . . . or power-seeking oppression, but it will never produce a true reform in ways of thinking.” Kant was throwing a bit of criticism towards the recently completed American Revolution, but he points out that new prejudices will replace the old and will become a new leash to control the “great unthinking masses.”
Kant goes on to further define the type of freedom he espouses – “the freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters” (emphasis is Kant’s). The private use of reason is usually restricted, at that time to letters and private communication. (Although in these times, private e-mails can rapidly become public.) Kant encouraged the public use of reason so that anyone (the entire reading public) could make use of it.
Then he makes a very interesting argument in favor of all persons making their learned thoughts public. A military officer is required to obey the orders of his superiors. A clergyman is required to teach the doctrines of the church that employs him. But the responsibilities of their office do not preclude them from publicly voicing any opinions that may conflict with those responsibilities. We expect office holders to stay in character at all times, but Kant gives examples. A clergyman is not free to make use of his reason in the execution of his duties, but as “a scholar addressing the real public through his writings, the clergyman making public use of his reason enjoys unlimited freedom to use his own reason and to speak in his own person.”
Staying on the religious theme, Kant asks if a religious synod or presbytery should be entitled to “commit itself by oath to a certain unalterable set of doctrines” ? He answers that a contract like this prevents “all further enlightenment of mankind forever.” It is impossible and immortal that the people of one generation, could restrict the thoughts of the next generation, to prevent the extension and correction of previous knowledge, and stop all future progress. Based on this, later generations are not bound by the oaths of preceding generations. With freedom, each citizen, especially the clergy, could provide public comment until public insight and public opinion changes the religious institution. But Kant says that it is impossible to agree, “even for a single lifetime,” to a permanent religious constitution that doesn’t allow public comment and criticism. If one was to renounce enlightenment for later generations, one would be trampling on the “sacred rights of mankind.” Individuals can’t do that and even a monarch can’t do that.
Then Kant segues to the subject of his monarch, Frederick the Great. He states that a monarch should allow his subjects to do or think whatever they find necessary for their salvation, and that such thoughts and deeds are “none of his business.” Religious ideas should not be subject to government oversight, and government should not support “spiritual despotism” against any of his subjects.
Kant asks if they (those living in 1784) are living in an “enlightened age.” The answer is no, but they do live in an “age of enlightenment.” His point here is that because of the actions of Frederick, there are fewer obstacles to “universal enlightenment.” More men (remember how he feels about the fair sex), emerging from their “self-incurred immaturity.” Frederick is so wonderful and so enlightened that he doesn’t even presume to be “tolerant,” that’s how enlightened he is. Religious leaders may “freely and publicly submit to the judgment of the world their verdicts and opinions, even if these deviate . . . from orthodox doctrine.”
Then Kant explains why he has been emphasizing the religious aspect, “religious immaturity is the most pernicious and dishonorable variety of all.” No holding back there. Although I think Kant places a little too much faith in monarchs based on his positive experience with Frederick. He says that the king favors freedom in the arts and sciences because there is “no danger to his legislation” from his subjects making public use of their own reason and providing “forthright criticism of the current legislation.” Throughout history we see that most monarchs do perceive danger from free thinking subjects. Kant just got lucky.
Finally, Kant provides some philosophy that is probably directed towards his monarch by proposing a paradox. “A high degree of civil freedom seems advantageous to a people’s intellectual freedom, yet it also sets up insuperable barriers to it. Conversely, a lesser degree of civil freedom gives intellectual freedom enough room to expand to its fullest extent.”
Kant's last thought is nicely wrapped up in this patchwork sentence. “Once . . . man’s inclination . . . to think freely has developed . . . it reacts upon the mentality of the people, who . . . become increasingly able to act freely.”
Freedom of thought
Golden Age of Freethought
* [http://sap.ereau.de/kant/what_is_enlightenment/ An English translation of Kant's essay]
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