Immanuel Kant: What is Enlightenment?
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is a giant in the history of modern philosophy. Several
twentieth-century philosophic movements have their origins in Kantian thought, and many issues raised by Kant still
retain their importance. For example, in Metaphysical Foundations of Morals (1785), Kant set forth the categorical
imperative that remains a crucial principle in moral philosophy. Kant asserted that when confronted with a moral
choice, people should ask themselves: “Canst thou also will that thy maxim should be a universal law?” By this,
Kant meant that people should ponder whether they would want the moral principle underlying their action to be
elevated to a universal law that would govern others in similar circumstances. If they concluded that it should not,
then the maxim should be rejected and the action avoided. Kant valued the essential ideals of the Enlightenment and
viewed the French Revolution, which put these ideals into law, as the triumph of liberty over despotism. In an essay
entitled “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784), he contended that the Enlightenment marked a new way of thinking and
eloquently affirmed the Enlightenment’s confidence in and commitment to reason.
Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence
without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack
of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another. Sapere Aude! [Dare to
know!] Have the courage to use your own intelligence is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.
Through laziness and cowardice a large part of mankind, even after nature has freed them from alien guidance,
gladly remain immature. It is because of laziness and cowardice that it is so easy for others to usurp the role of
guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor! If I have a book which provides meaning for me, a pastor who has
conscience for me, a doctor who will judge my diet for me and so on, then I do not need to exert myself. I do not
have any need to think; if I can pay, others will take over the tedious job for me. The guardians who have kindly
undertaken the supervision will see to it that by far the largest part of mankind, including the entire “beautiful sex,”
should consider the step into maturity, not only as difficult but as very dangerous.
After having made their domestic animals dumb and having carefully prevented these quiet creatures from daring to
take any step beyond the lead-strings to which they have fastened them, these guardians then show them the danger
which threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone. Now this danger is not really so very great; for they would
presumably learn to walk after some stumbling. However, an example of this kind intimidates and frightens people
out of all further attempts.
It is difficult for the isolated individual to work himself out of the immaturity which has become almost natural for
him. He has even become fond of it and for the time being is incapable of employing his own intelligence, because
he has never been allowed to make the attempt. Statutes and formulas, these mechanical tools of a serviceable use,
or rather misuse, of his natural faculties, are the ankle-chains of a continuous immaturity. Whoever threw it off
would make an uncertain jump over the smallest trench because he is not accustomed to such free movement.
Therefore there are only a few who have pursued a firm path and have succeeded in escaping from immaturity by
their own cultivation of the mind. But it is more nearly possible for a public to enlighten itself: this is even
inescapable, if only the public is given its freedom. For there will always be some people who think for themselves,
even among the self-appointed guardians of the great mass who, after having thrown off the yoke of immaturity
themselves, will spread about them the spirit of a reasonable estimate of their own value and of the need for every
man to think for himself. . . . [A] public can only arrive at enlightenment slowly. Through revolution, the
abandonment of personal despotism may be engendered and the end of profit-seeking and domineering oppression
may occur, but never a true reform of the state of mind. Instead, new prejudices, just like the old ones, will serve as
the guiding reins of the great, unthinking mass. . . .
All that is required for this enlightenment is freedom; and particularly the least harmful of all that may be called
freedom, namely, the freedom for man to make public use of his reason in all matters. But I hear people clamor on
all sides: Don’t argue! The officer says: Don’t argue, drill! The tax collector: Don’t argue, pay! The pastor: Don’t
argue, believe! . . . Here we have restrictions on freedom everywhere. Which restriction is hampering enlightenment,
and which does not, or even promotes it? I answer: The public use of a man’s reason must be free at all times, and
this alone can bring enlightenment among men. . . .
I mean by the public use of one’s reason, the use which a scholar makes of it before the entire reading public. . . .
The question may now be put: Do we live at present in an enlightened age? The answer is: No, but in an age of
enlightenment. Much still prevents men from being placed in a position. . . . to use their own minds securely and
well in matters of religion. But we do have very definite indications that this field of endeavor is being opened up
for men to work freely and reduce gradually the hindrances preventing a general enlightenment and an escape from
SOURCE: Marvin Perry, et. al., Sources of the Western Tradition, Volume II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Company, 1995), pp. 56-57, third edition.