by Daniel A. Kaufman
Another semester at Missouri State and another edition of Course Notes. Up for consideration this time is Immanuel Kant’s “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’ ”
Having taught Introduction to Philosophy from a topical perspective for a substantial period of time, in recent years I have been teaching the course historically, with a few variations in the syllabus here and there to keep things fresh for me. (I find that when a text has become too familiar, my teaching of it tends to suffer.) This semester, the reading list is as follows:
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
St. Thomas Aquinas, Excerpts from the Summa Theologiae
Michel de Montaigne, “Of Pedantry”; “Of the Education of Children”
Blaise Pascal, “The Wager”
Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method
Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”
David Hume, “The Sceptic”
John Locke, Second Treatise of Government
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic
Readers will notice that there is a slight looseness to the order of the texts midway through, and that’s because I wanted to present the Discourse on Method and “What is Enlightenment?” in direct succession.
In talking with students about Descartes and the Scientific Revolution, I distinguished between the scientific dimension of the revolution – i.e. the revolution in physics – and its epistemic dimension, by which I mean its rejection of an epistemology grounded in the authority of great traditions, institutions, and texts, in favor of one grounded in the faculties of the individual human mind and particularly, perception and reason. Descartes is quite explicit about this in the Discourse on Method, employing both arguments and metaphors to make the case that as individuals and as a civilization, we must critically examine our intellectual inheritance (through the dispassionate exercise of reason, by way of an uncompromising skepticism), if we are to ever have confidence that we are in possession of the truth, in science and elsewhere.
Descartes’ focus was primarily on science and providing it with epistemically sufficient foundations and a sound method by which to proceed from them, but as I explained to the class, in the century that came after, this epistemic revolution was exported from the scientific context to the moral and political arenas, resulting in what is commonly known as “the Enlightenment.” As one would expect, what followed was a sea change in both areas, for just as an authority-based epistemology quite naturally supports aristocratic politics and divine command morality, a (small ‘r’) rationalistic approach to knowledge tends to support liberal, democratic political ideas and deontological and consequentialist ethical ones.
It is in this context that we take up Kant’s essay, which begins as follows:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred it its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding! (p. 1)
This strong opening provided me with the opportunity to extend the discussion beyond philosophy and into our personal lives. While Kant’s point is meant to be applied to whole civilizations, it resonates at the level of the individual as well. Indeed, one can think of the processes by which a civilization matures and by which a child comes into adulthood as parallel, along the axis set up by Kant (and by Descartes, whose Meditations, written as they are in an intimate first person, also provide an opportunity to personalize the relevant message). Civilizational and individual maturity both, at their core, involve the adoption of a critical attitude towards our intellectual and sociopolitical inheritance, which not only is the means by which we develop ideas and practices that are genuinely our own, but is how we develop autonomy and the capacity for self-governance. I told the students that I am very concerned about their generation and the generation immediately behind them, in this regard; that I see an increasing reluctance to take up the mantle of individual authority; and that I believe that this bodes ill, for them, personally, and for our civilization, as a whole.
Kant maintains that in the modern era, when we refuse to accept epistemic authority and reject self-governance, the reasons, typically, are laziness and cowardice.
It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me. (p. 1)
He also makes it clear that his case should not be confused with advocacy for a kind of knee-jerk oppositionalism. The soldier, on the battlefield, shouldn’t disobey his commanding officer’s order to attack the enemy, and the clergyman, while conducting services, oughtn’t express his opposition to the practices of his religion. But accepting external authority in such circumstances is entirely consistent with the idea of epistemic independence and self-governance, for the soldier, when he walks into the voting booth, can vote for candidates who will cease his country’s war-making, and the clergyman, when engaged in scholarship, can make a case for reforming the faith. As autonomous, individual people, considered separately from our official roles and professional functions, we retain ultimate epistemic authority and have both a right and a duty to question and challenge. In an age of enlightenment – in a modern age – there can be no unquestionable dogmas and no incontrovertible practices.
Kant directly relates the imperative to self-governance to social and political freedom, and I explained to students that he makes a parallel connection between metaphysical freedom and morality, the only action having any moral worth being that which comes from a free and rational will. It is Kant’s view that this epistemic authority and the self-governance that follows from it reflects the fundamental, intrinsic value of the individual; indeed, that it is from the individual that all authority and value ultimately flow. This represents a powerful, secular way of articulating fundamental human rights and of grounding morality, and it is worth noting that twice in the essay, Kant says in the strongest possible terms that to deny human beings the capacity to critically examine and judge the beliefs and practice under which they live, is to violate their most fundamental rights.
One age cannot enter into an alliance on oath to put the next age in a position where it would be impossible for it to extend and correct its knowledge, particularly on such important matters… This would be a crime against human nature…
[I]t is absolutely impermissible to agree, even for a single lifetime, to a permanent religious constitution which no-one might publicly question. For this would virtually nullify a phase in man’s upward progress… [T]o renounce such enlightenment completely … means violating and trampling underfoot those sacred rights of mankind. (p. 2)