Immanuel Kant

– Enlightenment Essay, Research Paper

What is enlightenment? Immanuel Kant attempts to clarify the meaning of enlightenment while composing the essay, “What is Enlightenment?”. This document was written in response to political and social changes brought about by King Frederick of Prussia. The goal of Kant’s essay was to discuss what the nature of enlightenment was. It also taught one how enlightenment can be brought about in the general public.

Kant explains that, “enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” (Kant 85). Tutelage is man’s incompetence to have direction for oneself. In other words, enlightenment is the progress of a society through the free activity of rational thought and scholarly critique. Kant feels that if we are going to liberate ourselves from tutelage then we must be able to use our freedom whenever we want. One can try to revolt but it’s most definitely going to fail. One can try to over-throw and then become the tutor themselves. This revolution will not lead to enlightenment, but rather lead to ongoing tutelage.

One prince said that the coming about of enlightenment will only arrive if you, “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!” (Kant 87). In short, this means you can argue but you can’t revolt. Kant seemed to take this into account when qualifying what will bring about enlightenment. Kant states, “the public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. The private use of reason, on the other hand, may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. By the public use of one’s reason I understand the use of which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him” (Kant 87). In other words, there are two types of reasoning: public and private. If one can produce an argument and present it to the

public with the intentions of making progress, they are using public use of reasoning. Rational workers in a specific occupation use the private use of reasoning. If one has a specific job they use reason to complete their task. This is done privately because the public need not know. In private use one must obey or the completion of the task is impossible.

Kant uses many examples of the difference between the public and private use of reasoning. If soldiers refused to follow commands then there would be no military. So, one solider may follow commands in which he disagrees with, but will later critique what he believes. This means that he will follow the commands as his private use of reasoning and then will speak out his complaints as his public use of reasoning. Another example used by Kant is how a citizen must pay taxes as his duty or his private use of reasoning. As a public use of reason he expresses his thoughts on the overpaying and inappropriateness of the levies. Kant’s main example has to do with clergymen and changing the symbol of the church as well as better organization. As a priest, one can not denounce the symbol of the church with his fellow clergymen. On the other hand, the priest can be a scholar and articulate his views in order to make progress within the church. Overall, Kant tries to enlighten us that it will never become impossible for the clergyman to fulfill his duties of office, this being the private use of reason. At the same time he can fulfill his responsibilities to the public to make progress, this being public use of reasoning. Kant states, “For if he believed he had found such in them, he could not conscientiously discharge the duties of his office; he would have to give it up (Kant 88). This implies that if it becomes contradictory to you, then it is impossible to fulfill both sides of reason.

Kant feels that we do not live in an enlightened age, but rather an age of enlightenment. Kant says, “As things now stand, much is lacking which prevents men form being, or easily

becoming, capable of correctly using their own reason in religious matters with assurance and

free from outside direction. But, on the other hand, we have clear indications that the field has now been opened wherein men may freely deal with these things and that the obstacles to general enlightenment or the release from self-imposed tutelage are gradually being reduced” (Kant 90). This statement clearly explains the difference between and enlightened age and an age of enlightenment. In an enlightened age we would all be religious without clergymen because we would know to which things we should be obedient or disobedient. In this age there would be elimination of self-incurred tutelage. During the age of enlightenment we are making the progress towards using both kinds of reasoning. This is a step towards competence and an ideal. In this age there is a reduction of self-incurred tutelage. Self-incurred tutelage is to defer our responsibility so one can incur power.

Kant later shapes the meaning of enlightenment, “I have placed the main point of enlightenment – the escape of men from their self-incurred tutelage – chiefly in matters of religion because our rulers have no interest in playing the guardian with respect to the arts and sciences and also because religious incompetence is not only the most harmful but also the most degrading of all” (Kant 91). Incompetence is not using pubic and private use of reason in balance with one another. Competence is the balance of both public and private use of reason. We must know how to determine when it is right to obey and right to argue. In terms of government obedience it is often necessary, but any effort to hinder the public is free use of reason should be forbidden. In Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?,” he shows the transition for the age of enlightenment to the enlightened age. It enables the people to become more like the guardian and managers of their own freedom. Thus, not needing guardians as teachers, rather


In conclusion, I feel that Kant was a brilliant philosopher. I agree with his thoughts one hundred percent. His ideas on the public and private use of reasoning are ones to follow in order to gain management of your freedom. You can argue but you can’t revolt. If one lives by the rules of reasoning, one will have competence. Thus, everyone as a whole will move closer to an enlightened age.


W. Beck, Lewis. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment.” Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1959. Pgs. 85-92


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