What Is Enlightenment Kant Thesis Statements

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

Word Count: 1105

"Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?" (German: Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?) is a 1784 essay by the philosopherImmanuel Kant. In the December 1784 publication of the Berlinische Monatsschrift (Berlin Monthly), edited by Friedrich Gedike and Johann Erich Biester, Kant replied to the question posed a year earlier by the Reverend Johann Friedrich Zöllner, who was also an official in the Prussian government. Zöllner's question was addressed to a broad intellectual public community, in reply to Biester's essay entitled: "Proposal, not to engage the clergy any longer when marriages are conducted" (April 1783) and a number of leading intellectuals replied with essays, of which Kant's is the most famous and has had the most impact. Kant's opening paragraph of the essay is a much-cited definition of a lack of Enlightenment as people's inability to think for themselves due not to their lack of intellect, but lack of courage.

Kant's essay also addressed the causes of a lack of enlightenment and the preconditions necessary to make it possible for people to enlighten themselves. He held it necessary that all church and state paternalism be abolished and people be given the freedom to use their own intellect. Kant praised Frederick II of Prussia for creating these preconditions. Kant focused on religious issues, saying that "our rulers" had less interest in telling citizens what to think in regard to artistic and scientific issues.

Basic understanding[edit]

Kant answers the question in the first sentence of the essay: "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity." He argues that the immaturity is self-inflicted not from a lack of understanding, but from the lack of courage to use one's reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another. He exclaims that the motto of enlightenment is "Sapere aude"! – Dare to be wise!

The German word "Unmündigkeit" means not having attained age of majority or legal adulthood. "Unmündig" also means "dependent" or "unfree", and another translation is "tutelage" or "nonage" (the condition of "not [being] of age"). Kant, whose moral philosophy is centred on the concept of autonomy, here distinguishes between a person who is intellectually autonomous and one who keeps him/herself in an intellectually heteronomous, i.e., dependent and immature status.

Kant understands the majority of people to be content to follow the guiding institutions of society, such as the Church and the Monarchy, and unable to throw off the yoke of their immaturity due to a lack of resolution to be autonomous. It is difficult for individuals to work their way out of this immature, cowardly life because we are so uncomfortable with the idea of thinking for ourselves. Kant says that even if we did throw off the spoon-fed dogma and formulas we have absorbed, we would still be stuck, because we have never "cultivated our minds."

The key to throwing off these chains of mental immaturity is reason. There is hope that the entire public could become a force of free thinking individuals if they are free to do so. Why? There will always be a few people, even among the institutional "guardians," who think for themselves. They will help the rest of us to "cultivate our minds." Kant shows himself a man of his times when he observes that "a revolution may well put an end to autocratic despotism . . . or power-seeking oppression, but it will never produce a true reform in ways of thinking." The recently completed American Revolution had made a great impression in Europe; Kant cautions that new prejudice will replace the old and become a new leash to control the "great unthinking masses."

Private and public use of reasoning[edit]

Private use of reason is doing something because we have to. For example, rational workers in a specific occupation use private reasoning to complete tasks.

Public use of reason is doing something in the public sphere because we choose to improve our private function. Although someone may find his job or function disagreeable, the task must be completed for society to flow consistently. He may, however, use public reasoning in order to complain about the function in the public sphere.

A military officer is required to obey the orders of his superiors. A clergyman is required to teach the doctrines of the church that employs him. But the responsibilities of their office do not preclude them from publicly voicing any opinions that may conflict with those responsibilities. We expect office holders to stay in character at all times, but Kant gives examples. A clergyman is not free to make use of his reason in the execution of his duties, but as "a scholar addressing the real public through his writings, the clergyman making public use of his reason enjoys unlimited freedom to use his own reason and to speak in his own person."

Kant and religion[edit]

Staying on the religious theme, Kant asks whether a religious synod or presbytery should be entitled to “commit itself by oath to a certain unalterable set of doctrines.” He answers that a contract like this prevents “all further enlightenment of mankind forever.” It is impossible and immoral that the people of one generation could restrict the thoughts of the next generation, to prevent the extension and correction of previous knowledge, and stop all future progress. Based on this, later generations are not bound by the oaths of preceding generations. With freedom, each citizen, especially the clergy, could provide public comment until public insight and public opinion changes the religious institution. But Kant says that it is impossible to agree, “even for a single lifetime,” to a permanent religious constitution that doesn't allow public comment and criticism. If one were to renounce enlightenment for later generations, one would be trampling on the “sacred rights of mankind.” Neither an individual citizen nor a monarch has the right to constrict historical development.

Kant further explains why he has been emphasizing the religious aspect, religious immaturity, "is the most pernicious and dishonourable variety of all.” If Enlightenment is man's emergence from his ‘self-incurred immaturity' and the guiding forces of society, then simply put: the church is a political force which constrains public behaviour through the use of doctrine. By defining doctrines and making them politically binding, the Church can control the growth of reason, therefore, publicly it is in your own self-interest not to assent to a set of beliefs that hinder the development of your reason. It is in man's interest to surpass those that prevent him from using his own reason.

Kant and Frederick the Great[edit]

Then Kant segues to the subject of his monarch, Frederick the Great. He states that a monarch should allow his subjects to do or think whatever they find necessary for their salvation, and that such thoughts and deeds are “none of his business.” Religious ideas should not be subject to government oversight, and government should not support “spiritual despotism” against any of his subjects.

It is insisted that the king favours freedom in the arts and sciences because there is “no danger to his legislation” from his subjects' making public use of their own reason and providing “forthright criticism of the current legislation." Throughout history we see that most monarchs do perceive danger from free thinking subjects.

Kant asks if they (those living in 1784) are living in an “enlightened age.” The answer is no, but they do live in an “age of enlightenment.” His point here is that because of the actions of Frederick, there are fewer obstacles to “universal enlightenment.” Religious leaders may “freely and publicly submit to the judgment of the world their verdicts and opinions, even if these deviate . . . from orthodox doctrine.”

Finally, Kant provides some philosophy that is probably directed towards his monarch by proposing a paradox. “A high degree of civil freedom seems advantageous to a people's intellectual freedom, yet it also sets up insuperable barriers to it. Conversely, a lesser degree of civil freedom gives intellectual freedom enough room to expand to its fullest extent.”

Kant and orientation in thinking[edit]

Orientation in thinking links very much with direction of thought: on what basis does our thought path determine the way we act?

This is split into two conceptions, theoretical and practical thinking. Theoretical thinking is the laws of thought. It is subjective (an assumption), but must be established to prevent us from falling into chaos. A key example of this is the idea of an intelligible first cause and development of our moral attitudes. Practical thinking is the application of theoretical thinking to our thoughts, with which we can ensure the basis of moral laws through the concepts of freedom, highest good and happiness.

Kant and historical development[edit]

Humanity as a species requires historical development to become autonomous, for reason does not work instinctively; it requires trial, practice and instruction to allow it to progress. ‘Argue as much as you like, but obey' as, through opposition, a synthesis can develop. Resistance is needed for development.

Foucault and "What is Enlightenment?"[edit]

In 1984 French philosopher Michel Foucault published an essay on Kant's work, giving it the same title (Qu'est-ce que les Lumières?). Foucault's essay reflected on the contemporary status of the project of enlightenment, inverting much of Kant's reasoning but concluding that enlightenment "still entails work on our limits."

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

The first page of the 1799 edition.


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