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An Analysis of Immanuel Kant's "What Is Enlightenment?" (1784)

Updated on June 12, 2011
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant | Source


by Bianca C. Tate

June 12, 2011

In the opening sentence of Immanuel Kant’s essay, “What Is Enlightenment?” he answers the question quite succinctly. In brief, Kant believed that “enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.” Furthermore, he added that “Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another.” I considerably agree with his definitions, yet his annotations on immaturity in relation towards religion, the government, and the way people should live their lives are a bit obscured, impulsive and quite vague. Although I believe people should think for themselves and have an open-mind, I do not agree that that makes them qualified to live their lives without rules, regulations or guidance.

The world is continuously changing. Every new age causes for new ways of thinking, new rules, new leaders, even new wars. Things can’t always stay the same and they don’t. What was okay 300 years ago is not okay today. What is okay today, will not work tomorrow. The world must change because people change. Throughout history we observe the many changes our country undertook; from slave ships in the seventeenth century to the 44th President of the United States, President Barack Obama in 2008. But what causes these changes? What gives people the knowledge and courage to stand for what they believe to be right and justified? And most importantly, what planted the ideas in the minds of people such as Marin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy that lead them to make a difference in our country? Kant stated that “If I [Kant] have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all.” Kant believes that these “guardians” restrains people’s minds, making us incapable to think for ourselves, which in turn illuminates our freedoms. But, I say, it’s those same “guardians” that nurtures our minds enabling us to think for ourselves and stand up for our freedoms.

Books, especially, encourages many people and provides knowledge and wisdom and new ways of thinking. There is nothing wrong with being educated and I’m most positively certain that Kant could not have been as enlightened as he was if it wasn’t for a few books of knowledge or a few influential idols of the past. Every philosopher or leader has his/her own ideas about the world, including Kant. And when there is a leader, people will follow. Kant’s persuasion of enlightenment created followers of his own; so doesn’t that make himself a “guardian” in his own right? I agree with Kant that we should think for ourselves. But to be mature also means to keep an opened mind about things you do not understand. Kant is giving these “guardians” too much credit when people can indeed think for themselves and make their own decisions about life and how they want to live it. No one can tell them what to do or how to think; it’s merely choice.

I also disagree with Kant’s assumptions about government and religion. In his essay, Kant stated that “the government should release the human race from immaturity and to leave everyone free to use his own reason in all matters of conscience.” If someone thinks of a law as unconstitutional, they have every right to exercise their rights to ensure their freedoms. People have every right to agree, disagree, or agree and disagree simultaneously. And our government allows us to do so in the Bill of Rights. But we still need some form of stability. The government can’t “release” everyone. We still need rules, laws, and regulations in order to secure our safety. The laws of the land are made to protect the people and without it there will be chaos, confusion and disarrangement. We are the UNITED States of America and good will towards men is a sign of maturity that reminds us that we are in this together as a country.

Much like government, that gives order, people also need something to believe in. Kant believes that “as a priest, he is not free and cannot be such because he is acting under instructions from someone else… For that the (spiritual) guardians of a people should themselves be immature is an absurdity that would insure the perpetuation of absurdities.” Every person should know their own god for themselves without the help of a pastor or priest. Personally, I believe that when two or more people come together in His name, Jesus is in the midst. I also believe that we should trust in the Lord and lean not to our own understanding. That’s my religious view. I’m not saying that everyone should believe it, but I’m certainly not immature by Kant’s definition because of my faith. Religion doesn’t cause people to lose direction. Quite the contrary, whether you are a Christian or Buddhist, religion offers sense of direction and purpose. We live in a country where we are able to believe what we want to believe and practice those beliefs with others. And we do this by choice.

Immanuel Kant states a good argument in his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” He believes that people are enslaved by the “guardians” who bestow “shackles of a permanent immaturity” inhibiting us from enlightenment (“man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity”). But without them, there will nothing to encourage our minds and personal ways of thinking or believing. “Guardians” can’t make a person do anything. We may be encouraged or persuaded, but we are still left with choice. “Guardians” such as books, leaders, government and religion, gives us maturity, guidance, stability, and individuality. Since the beginning of time, humanity has had the ability to question; question belief, question authority, question life, etc. How we act on those questions continuously enables our society to change. It’s important for every person to have an opened mind to new ideas and good will towards all men, as opposed to just yourself. Furthermore, although you may not believe what one person values, you need to respect them. Whether you agree or disagree with me or Kant, remember that it is your choice. Everyone has a choice to believe what they want, do what they want, and say what they want even without being persuaded or encouraged by “guardians.” But don’t take my word for it. Think for yourself.


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    • helenstuart profile image

      Helen Stuart 

      14 months ago from Deep in the Heart of Texas

      I just can't jive with how you have interpreted Kant. It's all messed up. You need to study more. I also don't see how you can see "law" and the government as out and out protectors of our liberty. Are you watching CNN or BBC?

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I didn`t read Kant,but I will surely do.But just from reading your first sentences,I realized you don`t understand him :-)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I think you need to read Kant's essay and some of his other political writings more closely. Many viewpoints you associate Kant with are perspectives that he ridicules and deems highly problematic within "What is Enlightenment?".

      You write "things can’t always stay the same and they don’t. What was okay 300 years ago is not okay today. What is okay today, will not work tomorrow. The world must change because people change." ... Kant would actually agree with you on that one.

      In fact, Kant writes that religious authorities in pertaining "to a certain unalterable set of doctrines, in order to secure for ALL TIME a constant guardianship over each of its members, and through them over the people" are "preventing all further enlightenment of mankind forever". Kant is completely against a static worldview and it could be argued that the idea most central to all of his philosophy (and certainly within "What is Enlightenment?") is the idea that as human beings we are in a state of perpetual change; we are perpetually moving forward on a path to fully develop our natural capacities and to thus become enlightened.

      That's just one example of your poor understanding of the text, that I hope should serve to anyone who stumbles upon this page as reason not to take your argument seriously.

    • insurancesniper profile image


      6 years ago

      Your analysis is from the perspective of a 21st century American, and thus flawed.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Bianca, I agree with Joseph. Your analysis is from the perspective of a 21st century American, and thus flawed. You cannot approach Kant's world, and the way he thought about things in the realm of the world you live in. Kant expresses that the clergy will tell people what to believe in, without always even believing it themselves, all the meanwhile closing the door to discussion. That was the problem of Kant's world the people in power DID make the people do things. There was no discussion and people were truly bound by what he describe the "minority." I appreciate that you acknowledge the changes that have occurred throughout history to lead us where we are today, but learning not to apply our situation and mores (as well as our current knowledge) is one of the first things history students learn NOT to do.

    • profile image

      Joseph Dill 

      6 years ago

      The strength of Kant’s arguments lay in the context of when and where he wrote them. Kant lived in a monarchical society that allowed for little individual freedom or representation.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      This is the dumbest essay I have ever read in my life.

    • Aley Martin profile image

      Alice Lee Martin 

      7 years ago from Sumner, Washington,USA

      I use this piece to introduce World Literature II to my students. It is the single most important piece of literature I feel necessary to read and understand. My students come from a position of fear in making meaning for themselves due to the infliction of religion and public schooling rife in their lives. They are told what to do, think, feel and say. By the time they get to college, they believe what they think and feel is not either important or right. This offers them the opportunity to "Sapere Aude"....have the courage to think for themselves! I think too many people are still sheep in the world. There is no such thing as freedom or security however. Both are illusions. That being said we must choose to live an authentic life, one full of making our own choices....and not being held to the expectations of others.

    • bwstar2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Bianca C Tate 

      7 years ago from Jacksonville, FL

      Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it :-)

    • Robephiles profile image


      7 years ago

      It is an interesting idea of Kant's that you cannot prepare people for freedom but must just give it to them. It also strikes people as a dangerous idea. You do a pretty good analysis on that point.


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