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Kant’s interpretation of the Enlightenment

Updated on December 16, 2017


The word or concept of ‘The Enlightenment’ has its origin in the 18th century where it was considered as a form of intellectual movement. The concept essentially involved a radical change in the manner which philosophers and scholars comprehended the role of reason. During this period, there was a significant glorification of reason to a higher level than it was supposed to be. For instance, there are some who replaced it with faith as the foundation for comprehending both the moral and physical worlds. Many philosophers, scholars and intellectuals had explored and presented their perspectives of Enlightenment, though one of these, Immanuel Kant did so with such a zeal and enthusiasm that his arguments seemed to become more conspicuous than many of the others. This paper basically explores Kant’s interpretation of the word or concept of Enlightenment.

Kant’s interpretation of the Enlightenment

According to Kant, enlightenment is a sense achieved by a person upon freeing himself from immaturity or (as referred to him self-incurred tutelage”) of which he had subjected himself to. For Kant, immaturity essentially implies one’s lack of ability to think on his own but be reliant on the opinion of compulsion of others to make decisions. Furthermore, one who is immature has no capability of utilizing his judgment to comprehend things (Cronin, 2003). The philosopher goes further to explain that an individual who is immature is in that caliber owing to the fact that the decisions he makes are largely influenced by others and not himself. In this respect, such a person is depended to be helped by significant others to the extent that it becomes hard for him to think or decide on his own. In further putting his argument across, Kant employs the analogy of the government and its relationship with its citizens. He regards citizens as tamed animals where the owner, trains them not to go through specific frontier minus their carts on since they will not be able to deal with the imminent dangers a head. Accordingly, the cattle becomes afraid of trying and seeing or encountering such dangers as they have been trained by the owner. Similarly, the government offers a set of ideas and beliefs to its people of whom one who is immature will agree without hesitation and thus facilitating the furthering of his or her immaturity (Kant, 1998).

Kant goes on to present various reasons that contributes to tutelage. Among these is men’s laziness whereby; some individuals perceive thinking as a cumbersome task and therefore, they do not want to think or expand their knowledge. Accordingly, they gradually came to develop simple minds which requires them to simply obey what they have been commanded or what has been decided to them by the second or third parties. The second reason contributing to immaturity as highlighted by Kant is cowardice which basically supplements cowardice. In this regard, an individual and the public fear using reason or thinking owing to unwillingness to delve into uncharted waters or uncertainties (Lestition, 1993). They are afraid of encountering the imminent risks that could make them fall while in the process of undertaking the venture. The third reason causing immaturity among people is the select few (elites) who consider themselves to be smarter and thus putting themselves on top through depriving others education and general knowledge. Therefore, the cowardice inherence to some individuals is complimented by the “smarter” ones in the society alongside their fear which they fully exploit by leading them backwards and suppressing them to the “cart’s harness of where they were tethered. These elite people do this by portraying the goodness of the current society in which they live in, magnifying the imminent risks and unseen dangers that are perceived to exist in the uncharted roots of reason. Blind Obedience and Complacency is the fourth and final reason presented by Kant as the basis for tutelage. In this perspective, individuals and the people have become satisfied in their confines of year long serfdom. They simply obey the directives given to them just liked “tethered cattle” without bordering challenging the person or the decisions imposed on them (DIJN, 2012).

For Kant, attaining maturity is a collective endeavor rather than an individual possibility, and that it is not easy for a man to reach maturity on his own. According to him, if an individual relies on others for direction on what to do or not do, he continues to lean on that partner and finds it unable to think on his own out of fear that he will end up making mistakes because of his poor judgment and thinking. Kant also explains that there are specific qualities required of an individual if he has to leave immaturity. These include vigor and fearlessness. According to him, if an individual achieved enlightenment, then such an individual and the public at large could liberate themselves from intellectual burden after many years of slumbering. It is important for individuals and the public to act judiciously think freely and be treated with a sense of dignity (Friedrich, 1991).

For mankind, enlightenment is inevitable and very possible. This is despite the fact that many of the individuals are still trapped in tutelage. What is required for now is for people to throw off the yoke of nonage and start thinking independently. In other words, they should stop relying on the push by others to make decisions or judgments. If there are even a few independent thinkers in the society who are allowed to exercise their mindset, it is even possible that they will be able to spread such a mindset and the spirit of appreciating the value of mankind, as well as highlighting man’s responsibility as an independent thinker. It is important to consider that the public is under tether and a yoke and if these are removed from them, it is quite possible that they will be able to keep these “elites”, smarter individuals or guardians in check. In other words, they will not have to agree to every direction or decisions made by these “elite thinkers”. Kant observes that for this to occur, there is a need for a kind of revolution that will regenerate the closure of personal autocracy or rapacious despotic oppression. However, this may not bring about the right reforms to thought modes. In this regard, there need to be guidelines for the unthinking guidelines (Kant, 1969).

There is nothing much required in attaining enlightenment other than freedom, which is considered by Kant to be the most innocent of all virtues. This freedom entails the individual and public use of one’s thinking capability in making decisions and judgments’ for himself and the society. Restrictions from all quarters as note by Kant such as the pastor imposing his message or will on the believer, an officer commands a citizen to do something, the tax collecting asking a tax payer to pay tax without questioning the amount as some of the ways through which the public has been curtailed into making use of their reasoning. These are freedom restrictions which should be reviewed per se in order to empower individuals and the public to enable them escape from immaturity (Habermas, 1994). Therefore, freedom should be granted to the public and it should be required of them to use it at all times, that is if enlightenment is to truly occur to all mankind.


Kant’s general argument is that enlightenment will enable individuals and the public to escape from their “self-inflicted immaturity/tutelage. Indeed through enlightenment, the public will break away from the intellectual chains that had tethered them to the whims of the “elites”. I duly support Kant’s observation that in many occasions, government and authority figures abuse their power by forcing obedience as well as depriving them the basic education and knowledge.


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