Mar 9, 2015

Monday Morning Quote (Kant)

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another... Have courage to use you own understanding.

-Kant, the self-help guru

I've also read translations that use the word tutelage instead of immaturity. That puts more emphasis on the idea that our immaturity is related to following some person or group that we have rightly or wrongly given authority over our own decision making. Another translation uses the term 'nonage' which literally means the period of being a legal minority (under 18 years of age here in Canada). If you're a minor, you are not given the legal rights to exercise your own authority - you're not even entitled to vote for who will dictate the laws and actions of your community.

I think it can be a scary concept to break out and try to use our own reason to achieve our own goals. This quote comes from Kant's essay "What is enlightenment?" which some take to be the defining statement of the Enlightenment movement (sort of like an Enlightenment manifesto). One of the big criticisms of the enlightenment is that it under values tradition and leads to nihilism. Nihilism is defeated by accepting the foundational myth of tradition. By breaking tradition we are left with no solid foundation in which to judge our actions and goals. Perhaps we are able to break through our immaturity while still accepting some of society's values. Enlightenment concepts allow us to question the norm and create progressive change.

Kant surprisingly concludes the essay by saying that we are to question and criticize authority but ultimately it is our duty to obey. We can still think for ourselves without needing to cause a harmful rebellion. As Kant states, "A revolution may well put an end to autocratic despotism and to rapacious or power-seeking oppression, but it will never produce a true reform in ways of thinking. Instead, new prejudices, like the ones they replaced, will serve as a leash to control the great unthinking mass." I see this as Kant asking for an open, pluralistic society. One where many opinions are tolerated and listened to and the leaders are criticized. A society with numerous religious and anti-religious beliefs and cultures from all around the world. One where we interact with people from all walks of life and never have a single unanimous authority figure dictating what we should believe and how we should act.

If you take the enlightenment to mean we should over throw the government and start a new society, you have completely missed the point.


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