Kant: Freedom & Rationality

Between every paradigm of philosophical thought, philosophers have set out on a singular quest for self-knowledge or, what modernists like to say, enlightenment. Each philosophical age started from distinct concepts and came at the question with varying attitudes. Different from previous metaphysical and theological approaches, modern philosophy believed human reason and rationality could finally find a universal solution to that question of self-knowledge. In Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay “Answering the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’”, we saw an interesting and somewhat surprising take on enlightenment and how Kant believed we could reach it. He claimed true enlightenment only came when man could courageously emerge from his immaturity and daringly use his own reason and understanding. Kant then defined immaturity as man’s “inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another”, and it is this dependence on other people that Kant claimed stunts man’s philosophical growth (1). What then was Kant’s solution? Freedom, he claimed, was all that was needed to find enlightenment. It was not just any freedom, but the “freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters” (1). He vehemently insisted that the public use of man’s reason must always be free, and we were left to wonder why Kant was so adamant about keeping it that way. However, before we can dwell deeper, we first have to clarify what Kant meant by a man’s public and private uses of his reason.

To fully understand Kant’s argument, we have to refer to Kant’s distinctions between public and private uses of man’s reason. Although the German translation makes it a little confusing, Kant defined the public use of one’s reason as “the use which anyone may make of it as a man of learning addressing the entire reading public” and the private use as the use of man’s reason while he is maintaining his entrusted post (1). Kant’s examples of the officer and the priest best display the differences between the public and private use of a man’s reason. For instance, it would be disruptive and even dangerous if an officer on duty were to question orders given to him by his superiors. Whatever his opinions are, the officer has to obey. However, once that officer is away from his job, he is free to voice his concerns and disgruntlement to the public. This is the public sphere of reasoning that Kant was referring to. Kant claimed that the public would reach a beneficial debate and begin to suggest improvements to the system which could later be enacted by society. Kane went so far as to say that “there is more chance of an entire public enlightening itself” than an individual because individuals are often too fond of their immaturity to find enlightenment by themselves (1). Therefore, the public use of man’s reason is when he shares his thoughts and opinions with society at large, and this is the likeliest route to enlightenment.

Now that we understand what the Kant considered the public use of man’s reason, we can look at why he insisted on keeping it free. There was a suggestion made by Kant that the public use of man’s reason is both beneficial to society as a whole and that it should even be considered a crime to try to limit this upward progress. Using a clergyman and his church as an example, Kant stated that outside from his civil obligations, a priest should be allowed to divulge his thoughts about religious doctrines to the rest of society, even if they do not coincide with the church’s stance. The priest should feel “obliged to impart to the public all his carefully considered, well-intentioned thoughts… and to offer suggestions for a better arrangement” (2). From this, Kant seems to imply that it is almost necessary that everyone constructively criticize his commonwealth because it is the only way society is going to get better. In addition, Kant insisted that the public use of one’s reason be free because he considered it a “crime against human nature” to block or hinder the inevitable progression of such a society (2). Kant went so far as to say it was “violating and trampling underfoot the sacred rights of mankind” to limit the public sphere (2). Without the opportunity to positively debate and publicly use one’s reason, society would not be able to overcome its immaturity. For the benefit of society, Kant vehemently argued for the freedom to make public use of man’s reason in order to guard what he thought was the only path to enlightenment.

From what we can tell, it seems that Kant believed the public use of man’s reason was both a positive influence and an inalienable human right. Exploring further, what do these beliefs say about Kant’s own understanding of rationality? We can see that Kant believed that using reason to solve a problem was equivalent to making something better. He felt that a rational society would naturally “work freely in this direction… to universal enlightenment” (3). However, this is all based on a skewed assumption that people would be smart enough to actually positively contribute to their society.  He assumed that when the people made “use of their own reason” that they would “put before the public their thoughts on better ways” of doing things, but that is not always the case (3).  If everyone is allowed to publicly voice their opinion, who is to say that the right and “universally true” one will be heard? He fails to account for the far louder and far more populous group of immature people. Kant even calls the officer a “learned individual” and the clergyman as a “scholar”, and it is somewhat suggested that he considered reasoning as the same thing as intelligence (2). His understanding of rationalism is that of a true modern philosopher in that he believes reason and rationalism build the path to enlightenment.

Kant’s essay is an interesting take on the enlightenment, but he still stands as the very definition of a modern philosopher. His confidence in rationality is infused in his essay, and his insistence that the public use of man’s reason be free only strengthens the evidence of this belief. Kant claimed that the public use of man’s reason was both beneficial to society and an inalienable human right. Those same claims reflected back on Kant, and we were able to determine that he considered rationalism as the only path to enlightenment and that only good things would come out of it. Right or wrong, Kant made a compelling case for freedom of speech. It would be interesting to see if he influenced the United States Bill of Rights, particularly its first amendment.

2 thoughts on “Kant: Freedom & Rationality

  1. Chelsea,

    This is a good job of working through Kant’s notions of freedom and rationality, especially in terms of referring to the text appropriately.

    Kant’s faith in a public’s ability to enlighten itself in a way is a staple of progressive liberal democracy, so perhaps it does not seem strange to us. But there are at least two concerns. One is, as Alina points out in her essay, that Kant seems to rely upon enlightened individuals to generate an enlightened public. The other is, as you at intimate, it is not clear that this would happen. There would certainly be a lot of noise, so to speak. Furthermore, if immaturity is bondage to others, how exactly we liberate ourselves by constraining ourselves privately is more than a bit unclear.

    It is worth wondering about why Kant is so confident that we all mean the same thing by “rational.” It is true that it is a very old notion that reason is something different than culture or convention; but it is also true that even the Greeks knew that culture puts severe constraints on what appears to be reasonable. Does Kant hold a Eurocentric or “moderncentric” view of rationality? If so, does he hold a problematic understanding of the individual?

    The influence of modern philosophy (including Kant, but also Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, and others) is a thorny question. We will look at it, though, in the spring (in the new course, Philosophy and the American Republic).


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