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Mill And Kant Tell Us To Think

For Ourselves Essay, Research Paper

Immanuel Kant simply stated the creed of the enlightenment: ?Dare to know,? (Kant 1). To thinkers like Kant, to achieve enlightenment was to ?gain release from?self-incurred tutelage?[the] inability to make use of [one?s] understanding without direction from another,? (Kant 1). Enlightenment thinkers addressed this issue. They present to us the question; why is it so hard to think for oneself? They propose answers to this puzzle, as well as provide solutions that will teach us how to think for ourselves. Through Immanuel Kant?s ?What is Enlightenment? and J.S. Mill?s On Liberty, we can gain a deeper understanding of this question, and its answers.

According to Kant, ?laziness and cowardice? (1) are why we don?t think for ourselves. But this also contributes to the difficulty of thinking for ourselves. We get into the habit of letting others think for us thus it gets increasingly difficult to break this pattern. It is simply easier to let others do the thinking for us. Those who do the thinking also contribute to the pattern. They would, of course, like to maintain their control over the masses that do not think for themselves, so, the ?guardians? ?show?the danger which threatens if they try to go alone,? (Kant 2). One example of ?failure makes them timid and ?frightens them away from all further trials,? (Kant 2). This is one way that people were taught not to think for themselves, and were prompted to keep letting others think for them. What is so interesting is that Mills tells us ?the mass do not now take their opinions from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment, through the newspapers,? (63). The media bombards us with ideas and we are, in a sense, forced to take these opinions and make them our own. We only see what the media wants us to see and understand the world through this perception. In addition to the media, the government also tells us what to think. Principles and policies are imposed on the people by their government. When dealing with the government, it is much more than laziness that makes it difficult to think for oneself. In fact, to act against the government, for instance, to refuse to pay taxes, would lead to punishment. It is also the general opinion that the government conducts affairs ? which are?in the interest of the community,? (Kant 3). This too makes it more difficult to be of a different opinion than the government since it would have us believe that it?s actions are for the good of the people. Inequality also contributes to our inability to think for ourselves. Our education is the first inequality that has this impact. Based upon our education, we are told what to think. If we have a good education, we are told that we are smart and can do good things in the world, but if education is poor, we are led to believe that we are incapable of intelligent thought and must let others tell us what to do. The inequality of education often is a direct result of inequality of wealth and status. The poor do not have the means to get a good education thus can never learn enough to think for themselves.

But, why should we think for ourselves? While it is easier to let others think for you, and to tell you what to do, it is important that we think for ourselves. First, to think for ourselves helps to promote the progression of mankind. ?A people, it appears, may be progressive for a certain length of time, and then stop: when does it stop? When it ceases to possess individuality,? (Mill 68). When we think for ourselves and assert our individuality, we progress as a culture and society. In addition, thinking for ourselves increases our own personal value, ? in proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is, therefore, capable of being more valuable to others,? (Mill 60). Our individuality itself also is a reason to think for ourselves. People are all different. We do not all have the same needs and desires, so we cannot allow others to dictate our environment. ?If it were only that people have diversities of taste, that is reason enough for not attempting to shape them all after one model. But different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development; and can no more exist healthily in the same moral than all the variety of plants can in the same physical, atmosphere and climate,? (Mill 65). There are other reasons to think for ourselves than just our own needs, as well. One such reason is to reach the absolute truth. ??On every subject on which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons,? (Mill 35). ?It is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied,? (Mill 50). Thus we must all think for ourselves so that we may argue our own opinions and reach the balance between them, which is the truth. It is of even greater importance that we think for ourselves when we consider that between ?conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, [they can] share the truth between them,? (Mill 44).

In addition to presenting us with the problem, Mill and Kant also impart us with solutions. According to Kant, thinking for oneself and enlightenment are one and the same. He believes that the first step to enlightenment is to be given freedom. ?Indeed, if only freedom is granted, enlightenment is almost sure to follow,? (Kant 2). ?For enlightenment?nothing is required but freedom?it is the freedom to make public use of one?s reason at every point,? (Kant 2). ?The public use of one?s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men,? (Kant 3). Thus, to be enlightened, we must be free to exercise our reason, and do so. The ability to exercise our reason can be obtained through education. By educating more people, and doing so more thoroughly, we can begin to eliminate inequality and encourage people to think for themselves. This can bring a general improvement in the intelligence of the people and allow many more individuals to have the capacity to entertain intellectual thoughts. Another way to spread enlightenment is for the populace to increase its courage. When we are not afraid to try something, regardless of failure, we are more likely to progress. ?By falling a few times [we will] finally learn to walk alone,? (Kant 2).

It seems that we find ourselves involved in a never-ending quest for enlightenment. Kant and Mill attempt to tell us how we can think for ourselves, but this just perpetuates the cycle. By telling us how to achieve enlightenment, they are telling us what to think. Thus, it seems, that the only true path to enlightenment is that which we discover ourselves. By discovering the path to enlightenment, we are breaking the cycle by thinking for ourselves and finding our own way as opposed to doing what another tells us. By remaining open minded and exercising our courage and reason through education we can break the barriers that the guardians have set and finally achieve enlightenment.

Kant, Immanuel. ?What is Enlightenment??. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. Ed. Isaac Kramnick. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1995. 1-7.

Mill, J.S. On Liberty. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1978.