•    A Brief Analysis of Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”   

    Immanuel Kant

    Immanuel Kant

    In December 1783 Johann Friedrich Zöllner published an article in Berlinische Monatsschrift that stated his opposition to civil marriage, an idea proposed in a previous issue of the journal.  Zöllner wrote that the foundations of morality had been shaken in the name of enlightenment and concluded his piece with the question “what is enlightenment?” Zöllner asserted that this question must first be answered before “one begins to enlighten”[1].  Immanuel Kant’s reply to Zöllner’s question is often considered the most famous and most important.  In his essay, Kant succinctly outlined his opinion on what enlightenment is, the obstacles to enlightenment and how individuals achieve enlightenment.


    Kant defined enlightenment as “ man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” and the “courage to use your own reason[2]”.  Kant believed that “laziness and cowardice” were the prime reasons why many men remained un-enlightened[3].  Kant asserted that people refused to throw off the yoke of “self-imposed tutelage” because it was easier to pay people to think for them and run their lives[4]. As Kant put it a person could pay to buy a book to serve as understanding, a pastor to serve as a conscience and a physician to determine a diet.  There was no real need for an individual to exert their own will or their own reason since these “benevolent guardians” would take over an individual’s life for them[5].  The act of enlightenment, therefore, was the act of rejecting this easy form of life and asserting the primacy of your individual reason to reject the conventions of the social guardians who Kant asserted herded society like docile, dumb livestock[6].


    It is necessary to understand Kant’s definition of enlightenment in order to gain some understanding of what Kant thought was an enlightened age and what was an age of enlightenment.  Kant argued that obstacles to individual enlightenment went beyond self-imposed obstacles.  Freedom was the essential ingredient for enlightenment.  Society, however, imposed restrictions on freedom through laws and religion that constrained free thought through law, convention or threat.  Knowledge was also a requirement but access to it was often very restricted and guarded in late eighteenth century Europe but attempts were being made to bring knowledge to the masses.  An age of enlightenment was a time when obstacles to enlightenment were being removed or eroded, Kant believed that late eighteenth century Europe was in such an age. As a society allowed more freedom, it became more enlightened. An enlightened age, therefore, was an age when obstacles had been removed and individuals and society were enlightened and free to pursue self determination and self rationalization[7].


    Kant did not try to assert that the only path to freedom lay on the path of revolution.  Revolutions, according to Kant, merely replaced “old prejudices” with “new prejudices”[8].  Kant acknowledged that for a society to function properly, for a government to help its people, it was often necessary for an individual to “narrowly restrict” their reason in the pursuit of their job or duties.  Kant defined this as private reason and deemed it a necessity.  Kant used an example of how disastrous it would be for an office to question the appropriateness of an order rather than obeying it[9].  The private use of reason was offset by an individual’s public use of reason.  In this form of reason the individual takes upon the mantle of a scholar who “has complete freedom, indeed even the calling, to impart to the public all of his carefully considered and well-intentioned thoughts”[10].  Private reason would compel an individual to pay a tax, public reason would compel the individual to speak out against the necessity of the tax.  These two forms of reason allow a society as a whole to move towards enlightenment on the thoughts of enlightened individuals who are active members of society serving as agents of change but not necessarily revolution.  As a society becomes more enlightened, individuals are freer to act upon the enlightened opinions reached through their public role as a scholar.  This is a gradual process and Kant’s defense of the necessity of private reason implies that a disobedient society itself is an obstacle to enlightenment[11].

    The strength of Kant’s arguments lay in the context of when and where he wrote them. Kant lived in a monarchical society that allowed for little individual freedom or representation.  Kant’s evolutionary nature of enlightenment worked well in a society that is essentially not free.  History proved that societies that gradually allowed more and more freedom were able to maintain stability and encourage at least a small group of scholars to try to lead society’s trip to enlightenment.  A steadily evolution towards enlightenment will work in a society that is more restrictive or less representative of the people because the slow rate of changes will still be perceived as changes and many will be patient with a slow but steadily progression of change. In a more representative form of government, however, revolutions are built into the government through elections. If the elected leaders do not implement the ideas of those who elected them, the people become dissatisfied and disobedient.  So obstacles to enlightenment can be increased.  However, such systems by nature are built to accept and expect a fairly rapid pace of change that would not be possible in a monarchy.  New ideas can be implemented nearly every election so in this regard revolution, which in this regard are elections. If quick change is not implemented then the people grow frustrated and disobedient.  The dynamic is more complex than in a monarchy.


    Freedom of thought is all that is required for individual enlightenment.  Even the most repressive regimes find it impossible to block an individual from thinking.  So to some degree Kant doesn’t allow for enlightenment to happen in the absence of freedom.  The freedom to think and act upon those thoughts is the definition of Kant’s public reason.  But Kant’s definition of private reason seems incomplete.  While it is necessary for an individual to restrict their opinions based on duty or situation, that act does not restrict individual enlightenment.  The full scope of what Kant described as a public scholar is the freedom to think and give voice to those thoughts, a private reason may also exist that allows an individual to think but not be able to give voice to such thoughts.  This is different from sublimating their opinions to perform a duty.  This is done perhaps more out of fear than a sense of duty.  A soldier may not be free to question an order but in a more repressive society an enlightened individual may not be free to give voice to their opinions without penalty of death. In such a case is an individual a coward or lazy?  Certainly it takes a high degree of courage to speak out but to call those not willing to die for their opinions but how are self realized enough to have those opinions cowards is not just nor fair.  In a way Kant both argues against revolution but calls those unwilling to rebel in restrictive cases cowards.  So he undercuts his own argument if it’s taken out of the context in which he wrote it where thought was tolerated as was the scholarly debate of enlightened ideas.



    Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” is justly considered an important work regarding the enlightenment and reason. Kant concisely argues his opinion and presented examples to illustrate his points.  The arguments made are strong and logical in the context of the monarchal society Kant lived in that while restrictive, allowed for some freedom of thought and expression.  Kant’s arguments lose some strength when applied to different societies and governments.

    Kant, Immanuel.  What is Enlightenment?  September 30, 1784.


    Naragon, Steve. Johann Friedrich Zöllner. Manchester College. 23 June 2011.




    [1] Steve Naragon, “Johann Friedrich Zöllner”.

    [2] Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

    [3] Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

    [4] Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

    [5] Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

    [6] Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

    [7] Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

    [8] Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

    [9] Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

    [10] Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

    [11] Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”


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