Discussion Boards for Kantâ€s essay “What is Enlightenment?” We begin our readings and discussion with this relatively short essay by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. One of the most gifted philosophical minds of the modern world, Kant is nevertheless difficult to read. Kant’s German was often technical and a bit stilted and is often, apparently, quite difficult to translate easily to English. His ideas are also often difficult and depend on our knowing quite a bit of the history of European philosophy going back to Plato and even beyond. I will do what I can to look at some key points in his essay to set up our discussions for the next few weeks. The editors of the Norton Anthology have a good introduction to Kant’s essay, as does Wikipedia (which has, over the last few years, really become a much better resource than it was, but it remains only an introduction and not an end source for our research in this course). The essay in question though offers an interesting starting point for us, as much of the first half of this course will connect to the idea of Enlightenment. For Swift, Pope, and Voltaire, Enlightenment both goes too far and not far enough–they satirize, viciously in the case of Voltaire’s portrait of his character “Dr. Pangloss” who satirizes the real polymath Dr. Gottfried Leibniz, the idea that Europeans were becoming enlightenedâ€”using reason, not merely force of arms or religious dogma, to solve their problems. But Swift and Voltaire saw the horrors around them, Irish peasants dying of starvation while the wheat, barley, and other grains they were raising were exported in Swift’s case, and the brute force of the French, Prussian, and other armies in Voltaire’s case, as wholly unenlightened. As we go forward this term, we’ll see in Blake, Equiano, and Douglass scathing depictions of force labor and slavery based upon the idea that those indentured servants and slaves were, by definition, inferior and deserving of their fates. Blake, Equiano, and Douglass attack such ideas and, largely indirectly but at times directly, connect back to Kant’s ideas here about freedom and personal freedom. So, what is Kant talking about here, then? Wellllll, it’s a tricky essay. Kant begins with his definition of enlightenment: ‘man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage … to make use of his understanding without direction from another,’ but what does that mean? Kant connects it to the Roman poet Horace: “Dare to know!” In other words, think for yourself. But is it so easy to be enlightened–can we just start thinking for ourselves and dare to know things? Philosophers have been arguing about this point since 1784. One of the key ideas for Kant is that a human being is endowed with the ability to think and reason, but many of us choose not to use these faculties. Another way to put it is that for many people, day to day life with its many toils and responsibilities–putting food on the table and keeping a roof over our heads–is simply too demanding to do much thinking. But Kant wants us to free ourselves, to will ourselves, out of this kind of blocked life. If only it were so easy, right? For most of us, just staying in the jobs or daily lives we have–never mind the jobs/lives we want–can be a struggle, so Kant is over-simplifying here for many people–but at the same time, his point is that we cannot be enlightened if we are trapped, so I don’t think that for ‘a great portion of mankind,’ laziness and cowardice are the reasons we don’t ‘dare to know.’ It’s expensive and difficult to be enlightened, right? It’s a privilege much of the time–this attitude is something that we’ll see in Swift, Pope, Voltaire, Equiano, Blake, and Douglass. But Kant hits on the key idea in the third paragraph–the ‘guardians’ as Kant calls them (we might call them the media, governments, schools, and other organizations that can (though not always) blind people to the conditions that trap them) can make us ‘placcid’ and ‘dumb,’ like domesticated cattle. If we just passive accept everything thrown at us, Kant says, we become like so many farm animals. But again, it’s very difficult to awaken and break free–we’re all so busy just surviving! Paragraphs 4 & 5 on page 106 are useful here–Kant is more explicit in these paragraphs than in much of the essay–we have to stop being cattle, throw off the yoke, and break free. But how? Paragraph 7 argues that it is through the use of pure reason. This is a recurring element of Kant’s philosophy that comes to him through the age going back all the way to Plato’s Republic. In that work, Plato argues that future leaders of any good society must be educated and prepared very carefully to become ‘philosopher-kings’ to lead and guide a society into success. But what about those are aren’t ‘leaders?’ Kant says that we must all use reason within the limits of our jobs–soldiers should follow orders, priests should preach properly from the catechisms, etc. He further argues that all of us in society (bottom of 107, top of 108) have to obey the social contract of society–follow the laws and mores–but doesn’t that, we might argue, put us back in the yoke? Kant’s point is that a good society functions best when everyone is reasonable and free but within the spheres of their lives, not trying to destroy the whole social order in the name of ‘freedom’–that’s anarchy. Kant is a big believer in the social order and people behaving rationally and in such ways as to benefit everyone. Kant’s philosophy here butts heads with human nature and especially the desire for self-interest which has lately been called “Objectivism” which says we have no duty to society, only to our own happiness. It’s certainly an on-going debate. Your thoughts? I hope this will spark some discussion, though none is required, as this essay was crucially important in distilling the philosophical goals of the Enlightenment, a movement we are still engaging in America and Western culture at large.
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