Kant’s Enlightenment

“Self incurred immaturity” is the reason for the need of Enlightenment and it is just this immaturity which is “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without the direction of another”. Kant argues that it is not because man lacks reason but because of a “lack of resolution and courage to use it without the direction from another”. Therefore man brings guardianship upon himself and hands his authority and instruction on someone else to decide for him. It is from this logic that Kant declares: “have courage to use your own understanding!” and establishes it as the definition of Enlightenment.
The nature of self incurred immaturity is highly complex and in order to free himself from it one has to take an uncertain leap, in order to understand what would necessitate such an action on an individual level. Initially, Kant acknowledges that for any individual to extract himself from this life of immaturity would be very difficult because it is just this ‘immaturity’ which has become “almost second nature” to him. As a result the individual becomes fond of such a state, and in this position Kant believes that mankind is “really incapable for the time being for using his own understanding”. Since “never [having been] allowed to make the attempt” of using his reason, the individual is bound in a perpetual state of immaturity. Moreover, what is further problematic for mankind’s situation is what Kant observes as the “ball and chain of permanent immaturity”. These fetters are presented to man under the false illusion of contributing to his enlightenment but in actuality they are “mechanical instruments for his rational (misuse) of his natural endowments”. This means that mankind is kept from his release from the self-inflicted immaturity by false preoccupations, fooling him in believing that he has engaged his natural gifts in the right things. As a consequence his state of immaturity becomes permanent. Hence, Kant believes that the ball and chain appear in the form of “dogmas and formulas, those mechanical instruments for rational use”.
Kant then argues that anyone who does manage to rid himself of these shackles is still in self-defeating position as “he would still be uncertain about jumping over even the narrowest of trenches , for he would be unaccustomed to free movement of this kind”. The only solution to this dilemma according to Kant is to cultivate one’s mind. However, then what would be the instances which would indicate such a cultivation? The answer would be to become free from ‘immaturity’ which can also mean to be separated from incompetency and then secondly to continue on this journey of cultivation at a regulated pace.
Interestingly, there is then a shift in the manuscript and Kant guides his argument from the enlightenment of the individual to the enlightenment of the public. It is significant to note that perhaps Kant has an agenda in beginning his argument with the enlightenment of the individual. Only an enlightened individual can play a key role in helping the public be enlightened. In essence, there would not be an enlightened public without an enlightened individual. The enlightenment of the individual and the public both of which are still in process, that is during the period of Kant’s writing, define the Age of Enlightenment. According to Kant, we are not yet in the Enlightened Age, since the process is still unfolding.
Therefore “freedom” is the prerequisite for the public to be enlightened. Kant claims that if freedom is granted enlightenment is sure to follow. Having such freedoms would then create an environment in which independent thinkers may exist. Ironically, Kant also mentions that such independent thinkers may also be found “among those appointed as guardians of the common mass”. But these guardians can become independent thinkers after “they have themselves thrown off the yoke of immaturity”. They will be able to “disseminate the spirit of rational respect for personal value and for the duty of all men to think for themselves”.
What follows is a twist in Kant’s argument, which is that the guardians who are keeping the great masses of the people under this ‘immaturity’ are themselves also bound with a similar ‘immaturity’. As a result they are unable to appreciate their own worth in their assumed role as guardians. By being able to appreciate their own worth, they allow every man to think for himself and thus when everyone thinks for themselves, no one will be the guardian of the other. So to keep other people in this Immature state means to bring and keep this state upon oneself. As a result you do not appreciate yourself either. Kant would then claim that an oppressor causes oppression to himself as well.
However, there are some guardians who are capable of some enlightenment but unfortunately these guardians are forced by the public to remain bound. And yet the public is not doing this out of its own volition, but is incited to do so by some guardians. These guardians should realize that “it is very harmful to propagate prejudices because they finally avenge themselves on the very people who first encouraged them (or whose predecessors did so)”. It is important to remember that it was the public that was first brought under this yoke by the guardians. Then, in turn the guardians are brought under this yoke by the public through the incitement of the felloe guardians. This results in a complex web of contention between the guardians and those under them. It is because of these contentions that “a public can only achieve enlightenment slowly”. However, Kant warns that a revolution ca not ensure “ a true form in ways of thinking”. The revolution is limited as it can only ensure the “end to autocratic despotism and to rapacious or power seeking oppression”. This is because, according to Kant, the ways of thinking are never reformed via a revolution, the new “prejudices, like the ones they replaced, will serve as a leash to control the great unthinking mass”. Enlightenment is therefore more than the physical space of freedom. It directly relates to mental freedom –that is the rational appreciation of one’s own worth whether as an individual or as the collective public.
So only when society is experiencing freedom can enlightenment truly take place. However, the environment of freedom, which is to the benefit of the public, is defined by Kant as the “freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters”. By this definition, reason does not know any rest and can not exist in a state where it is not reasoning. For Kant, freedom and reasoning go together, however he himself offers the hindrance to such a utopian idea as there are “restrictions on freedom everywhere”.
Therefore for Kant, the two notions of the Age of Enlightenment and the Enlightened Age are contrary. According to him the society of his time is still undergoing the Age of Enlightenment and the majority of the individuals and the public have not yet reached the Enlightened Age, since they are still under the influence of a self-imposed “ immaturity”.

One thought on “Kant’s Enlightenment

  1. Alina,

    I think immaturity is the key idea in Kant’s essay and I am glad you seized upon it. What it means by it, as Foucault notes, is not at all obvious.

    I like your emphasis upon the fact that immaturity has become for modern man “almost second nature,” as Kant puts it. The “almost” is important; there is a way out. The situation is not hopeless. But the “second nature” part is important, too. Kant here seems to rely upon something which normally–for example, in his moral philosophy–he would not assign a great deal of importance. “Second nature” means something like “character” when we talk about individuals and “culture” when we talk about a people. These are both thoroughly Aristotelian notions that one would not expect Kant to use. But here his argument depends upon them in a crucial way. Both character and culture are things that are shaped over time by choice and by education. Hence the hope–the future is up to us. We can toss off our shackles.

    The balls and chains of dogma keep us down; philosophy cannot be propositionalized. We have to think for ourselves. But interestingly, as you point out, Kant does not think many will want to do this or enjoy it. So how this plays out is decidedly unclear, it seems to me, although I think you make admirable steps in that direction.

    Why is Kant so worried about public reason and public freedom? As you note, for Kant, reason and freedom are related. But why must they be public? Though an enlightened public depends upon enlightened individuals, we must remember that it is the public use of reason on the part of individuals that is free. I think this has something to do with Kant’s favoring of republics in Perpetual Peace, but I’d need more time to spell it out. The short story is that somehow modern republics get reconfigured in a way in which the only public goods are private goods. But this means that being an individual now means something different, too..


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