Kant and Rousseau

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The Influence of Kant and Rousseau on the Enlightenment

The eighteenth century was a time of rapid change and development in the way people viewed humans and their interaction with others in society. Many countries experience revolution and monarchies were overthrow. People began to question the values that were ingrained in society and governments that ruled them. Two of the biggest philosophers of that time were Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who both ignite the overthrow of tradition and whose philosophies were the basis of many future governments. In order to truly understand how each of their philosophies shaped the intellectual and political landscape of the time, we need to examine their definitions of enlightenment. Kant answers in his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?” as follows: Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. (Kant 1) This definition articulates the chief principle of Kant’s philosophy, that we are to accept only those beliefs found acceptable to reason, and we can’t rely on religion, custom, or authority to determine actions that are beneficial to us. According to Kant, people need to lead lives in pursuit of freedom, which he defines as making use of public reason. The enlightened person is rational and autonomous, accepting nothing without a reason, never acting without a reason, always pursuing his or her freedom and the freedom of others. This is doesn’t mean that a person stops obeying the authority but rather functions in society while simultaneously questioning to questioning the rules and norms that it follows. For example he says a citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes levied upon him, but he does not violate the duties of a citizen if, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his objections to the impropriety or possible injustice of such levies. On the other hand, Rousseau’s definition of enlightenment is more historically based but he starts off by saying “A revolution was needed to bring men back to common sense” (Rousseau 3) indicating that he believes that the enlightenment is intertwined with the ability to think. What can be clearly seen on the definitions offered both writers is that a fundamental conception of enlightenment is man making use of their reason. However when carefully reading his works, we can see that Rousseau equates enlightenment with freedom as well. Rousseau’s conception of freedom is intricately linked to equality. For him the preservation of the right of every man to not have to succumb to the force of any authority is what truly epitomizes enlightenment. Both philosophers share the fundamental idea that man has to obey himself first, but that his thoughts and actions directly affect the rest of society. Kant addresses this idea through his conception of the categorical imperative which states that we must act only in accordance with that maxim through which we can at the same time will it become a universal law. Rousseau makes a similar point as well when he instructs the public “find a form of association which defends and protects with all common forces the person and goods of each associate, and by means of which each one, while uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before."(Rousseau 148) This paradoxical notion that man can only retain autonomy by giving himself to the all plays a key role in both the philosophies of Kant and Rousseau. Essentially because man doesn’t grant himself any rights he would prohibit others from having, he would not place or be placed higher than anyone else, which would result in the public as a whole can achieving enlightenment. Both Kant and Rousseau examine the state of nature of man before he was constrained by...
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