Notes on Kant’s What is Enlightenment?
Posted on March 16, 2012
‘Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority. Kant means emergence from a form of slavery, in which one is not free to think for oneself, but instead is told what to think. In a sense, I think it relates to religious and state imposed rules. This is reinforced when Kant suggests to ‘have the courage to make use of your own understanding’, making that the motto of the Enlightenment. He, perhaps ironically, writes about the comfort of being a minor, or a slave to these rules. To have someone think for them, to have someone to understand instead of the self. There is no trouble then. The step towards the enlightenment is dangerous. It is difficult to think for oneself. However, those who currently serve to tell others what to think and how to act make that step seem worse. According to Kant “the danger is not in fact so great, for by a few falls they would eventually learn to walk; but an example of this kind [negative kind] makes them [those making the step towards enlightenment] timid and usually frightens them away from any further attempt”. Therefore, it is difficult for any individual to separate himself from the minority which has become natural to him. Only a few are capable of making this leap (possible relation to Nietzsche and the will to power?) The public can only achieve enlightenment slowly. A revolution may well bring about a falling off of personal despotism and of avaricious or tyranical oppression, but never a true reform in one’s way of thinking; instead new prejudices will serve just as well as old ones to harness the great unthinking masses. Here Kant means that by eliminating the masters, the rest of the society may well substitute old prejudices for new ones. By eliminating control, they, unable to grasp at the freedom they now possess will force themselves back into slavery but by different hand. Next Kant asks on what restrictions on freedom are harmful, and what are productive. The public use of one’s own reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among human beings. The private use of one’s reason may, however, often be very narrowly restricted without this particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. Public use is that in the public domain, that is in debate among citizens, in writing and in thought. Private use is that which one uses when representing not oneself, but another body. That is, a priest in his capacity as priest represents the church. Therefore, when acting in his capacity as priest, he is to restrict his use of reason, as he must represent the church. Publically though, that is, when not representing the church, he is able to, and, in fact, must, critique the church, it’s policies and actions. Kant expresses the above in the following passage: ‘A citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed upon him; an impertinent censure of such levies when he is to pay them may even be pubnished as a scandal (which could occasion general insubordination). But the same citizen does not act against the duty of a citizen when, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts about the inappropriateness or even injustice of such decrees. What is clear here is that a) when one’s duty is concerned, he is to act accordingly. As a citizen one has the duty to pay taxes, and therefore should. b) it does not go against the duties one possesses to criticize or to scrutinize (perhaps more aptly scrutinize) those duties. According to Kant, one cannot bind themselves to merely one unalterable creed, or tradition. Enlightenment, by being new in the way one interacts in society necessarily rids society of such dogmas. According to Kant one age cannot bind itself and conspire to put the following one into such a condition that it would be impossible for it to enlarge its cognitions (especially in such urgent matters) and to purify them of errors, and generally to make further...
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