In our youth, we enjoy relative freedom because of our protection from the real world. In a similar way, one of the problems with thinking in 18th century continental Europe, for Kant, was that there was someone who was protecting us from the “burden” of thinking for ourselves. Enlightenment starts with thinking for yourself and “throwing off the yoke of tutelage” which is not thinking for yourself.
To reiterate, the reason Kant observes that there is no freedom around him is because he does not see people thinking for themselves. Kant thus equates freedom in this text specifically with the freedom to think and speak without repercussions.
This freedom is not only beneficial for citizens but also for the government. In fact, Kant writes that more “civil freedom” will only bring “advantage” to “man.” Therefore, freedom is key to fulfilling the full capacity of the mind and of our species.
In a way, Kant is adding to Rousseau’s conception of human perfectibilité; we alone can achieve intellectual maturity among the different species.
My Questions for Kant
The necessary question to Kant then is, ‘What are the limits to understanding?’ and ‘Can the scientific and empirical methods save society?’ The unstated premise in this text is a resounding ‘Yes!’
Kant, however, is not under any illusion that he was close to belonging to that age. In fact, Kant distinguished between an ‘enlightened age’ and an ‘age of Enlightenment’ in order to establish that 18th century Germany is not where it could be.
The difference is that living in an ‘enlightened age’ would suggest that people were already enlightened and not in need of intellectual or moral change and reflection. Kant instead thought that the ‘age of Enlightenment’ arrived but has not yet come in completion. We have not arrived at our destination, Kant argues, despite the scientific method and systems of government that we have set up since the early stages of Enlightenment.
Another question I would have moving forward from this text is, In what way does Kant assume that revolution is acceptable in order to achieve the intellectual and moral progress that seems desirable from this text?
From analyzing history, most advances are the result of social revolution, such as the Civil Rights movement in the United States (1960s), or the October Revolution (1917), the French Revolution (1789), and so forth.
Change has usually occurred because of radicalism and not because of the slow process of reason. Perhaps that is due to humankind’s natural state of unreason. This is where I wish Kant would turn to next.
It seems that it was not until David Hume arrived on the scene in Europe that Kant’s celebration of reason was threatened by an awareness of the ubiquitous presence of intuition and emotion in the process of reasoning.
This short blog post is a part of my brief series on political philosophy! I cover thinkers from Locke and Rousseau to Marx, Hegel, and even Bernie Sanders. You can check out some previous posts here if you are interested:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the Origins of Inequality
A Brief Analysis of “Discourse on Inequality”
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