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The Dangers of Philosophy

Updated on May 21, 2013


Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.

                        Monty Python, The Philosopher’s Song

Immanuel Kant

The Dangers of Philosophy©

Mark Monroe

May 16, 2011

When you take on the task of reading any philosophical text there should be a label on the front that states, “Warning: Contains Knowledge; Handle with Care,” because everything that comes out of the philosopher’s mind and is put into print has a potentially dangerous side effect for those who try to follow their logic and apply it to the empirical world. Such is the case with the call to action that Immanuel Kant wrote in 1784 entitled, An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’ He starts the piece with, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but a lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another.[1]

In this opening statement, of a relatively small work, Kant is throwing down a substantial challenge that he implies that everyone is able to pick up. He is claiming that the reason you have not reached any level of an enlightened state of thought is that people are afraid or lazy to break away from the yoke of tutelage. One reaction to this statement maybe a reckless abandonment of instruction, and learning; for the unprepared pupil, this message may encourage them to strike too far out on their own before they are mentally equipped for the journey. If the reader stops at the opening or does not relate the opening to the rest of the piece, the next lesson will be missed; thereby causing a misapplication of the meaning of the article. Reading a challenging text is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together, the more difficult the puzzle the more time is needed to complete the picture.

In the very young, there is a total dependence upon others for guidance and instruction. In the adolescent youth, there exists an inclination for a reckless abandon of guidance because of the appearance of little to lose and nothing more to learn. Then they are generally chastised for breaking away from the norm, which makes it difficult for them to make the escape later in life. While the old want to hold on because of the comfort of the known. We are born into dogma as a matter of survival – one is moving too quickly while the other is not moving at all. “Dogmas and formulas, those mechanical instruments for rational use (or rather misuse) of his natural endowments, are the ball and chain of his permanent immaturity.[2]” According to Kant, the dogmas are maintained by the guardians, those who have taken over the role of thinking for the society.

The second point that Kant is making is the importance of time and patience as it leads to enlightenment of a society. “Thus a public can only achieve enlightenment slowly. A revolution may well put an end to autocratic despotism and to rapacious power seeking oppression, but it will never produce true reform in ways of thinking. Instead, new prejudices, like the ones they replaced, will serve as a leash to control the unthinking mass.[3]” His warning may well apply to the people in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East that are experiencing a rapid change in the existing power structure. Historical, the rapid transitions from a totalitarian government to a more liberal form does not have a great record of success. It took the American Colonies 8 years (1775-1783) of fighting to win their independence and then it took another 4 years before our Constitution was signed in 1787. In between those dates (1775 – 1787) there were many who wanted to replace the British form of rule with a similar type of government or just return to British control. The situation in the Balkans in the 1990’s provides modern example of what happens when a totalitarian government is suddenly over thrown. With the fall of the former Soviet Block countries, age-old feuds were allowed to resurface leading the way to internal wars and genocide. The power vacuum that was created allowed local war lords to try to exert control over the region. Almost 20 years after the Soviet influence has left, the region is still trying to recover from the subsequent series of events.

Reading the second quote in isolation it may appear as if Kant was advocating a passive compliance of the masses or a slow revolution against tyranny. Which is a false assumption, he is just warning them that it is a long process for a sustained transition away from the existing dogma. There flash points exist in history which will act as a catalyst for a sustainable change; however, the revolution is just the first step in a long process.

To make this societal transition Kant is holding those in a position to guide the masses towards an enlightened state accountable, “a clergyman is bound to instruct his pupils and his congregation in accordance with the doctrines of the church he serves, for he was employed by it on that condition. But, as a scholar, he is completely free as well as obliged to impact to the public all his carefully considered, well-intentioned thoughts on the mistaken aspects of those doctrines, and to offer suggestions for a better arrangement of religious and ecclesiastical affairs.[4]” This appears to be sound advice, but it is a dangerous condition to fulfill, existing power structures do not treat kindly members of their own group publicly challenging the dogma. Historical events have demonstrated that established religions do not appreciate public challenges to their doctrine. In many cases, this was a deadly practice for anyone to undertake. In modern time we can see examples where this is still a dangerous practice. Currently in America we have laws in place that attempt to protect people who report wrong doing by the government or corporations, commonly referred to as “whistleblower laws.” But, these laws have a limited success fulfilling their mission.

This point appears to be in conflict with the first lesson, because it is directing those who can, to instruct, but lesson one is telling the masses to break away from instruction. That the path to enlightenment is breaking away from the yoke of their teacher. However, it is only through this public use of reason that the masses may become enlightened and it is the role of the teacher to encourage this break. However, most teachers are guardians of knowledge, so they do not encourage free thought, because that represents a loss of control.

You think that Kant is close to the resolution of the article when he states, “If it is now asked whether we are at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.[5]” Philosophers, lawyers, preachers, politicians, and con men love to speak in riddles. Kant’s point is that we are a, work in progress. We cannot yet be trusted to think on our own, yet the conditions are right for the masses to become enlightened. This begs the question, if the conditions have been right since 1784 and it is now 2011 is it ever possible to live in an enlightened age?

How does Kant hold a society of free thinkers together, especially if they really have not evolved to an enlightened stage? He has an appeal to authority. “A prince who does not regard it as beneath him to say that he considers it his duty, in religious matters, not to prescribe anything to his people, but to allow them complete freedom, a prince who thus even declines to accept the presumptuous title of tolerant, is himself enlightened.[6]” Kant is calling for a ruler who has vision to allow his people to espouse competing positions. He does have a backup plan if that competition becomes too aggressive. “But only a ruler who is himself enlightened and has no fear of phantoms, yet who likewise has at hand a well-disciplined and numerous army to guarantee public security, may say what no republic would dare to say: Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey![7]” To hold the country together, there has to be a ruler who can separate the religious from the political. The ruler in Kant’s reality does not rest his authority on the power of his Army alone. If the goal of the society is, as a whole, to become more enlightened, then the leader’s role is to create an environment where that can happen. It becomes a place where people are, “able to act freely. Evenly, it even will influence the principles of government, which find that they can themselves profit by treating man, who is more than a machine, in a manner appropriate to his dignity.[8]

You cannot read the text in question in a vacuum; it should be read in relation to the world. An understanding of the environment that Kant was writing in will help place the piece in its proper context. For example, in Europe in 1784, there was a great deal of pressure by the Christian church to identify with the “right” sect of the church; the wrong answer could mean your life. Kant in his writing had to be very careful not to directly challenge that power, yet at the same time challenge it.

Processing the information in this article one could say that depending on the situation movement or non-movement can be dangerous. As the French Philosopher Michael Foucault points out, “My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to hyper- and pessimistic - activism.[9]” This may lead some to believe that no choice is the appropriate course of action. As the Canadian rock band Rush tells us, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.[10]” No action is an action that is sustaining the loudest voice, to illustrate this point; you choose not to participate in an election because you do not like either candidate. That means that you have given your support to the group who can muster the most votes, whether you agree with their platform or not. You cannot say that it is not your fault, because your inaction was the support they needed to win.

There is a process to learning difficult texts, it is long and laborious, and many will believe too soon that they are ready to move beyond the instruction. As my cousin, the Rev. Shawnthea Monroe, stated on her Facebook account, “To the proof texters - liberal and conservative: If you won't do the hard work of faithfully wrestling with scripture, please stop quoting it. You're making Jesus look bad. No one said being Christian was going to be easy.” No one ever said that thinking was going to be easy. People can study religious, philosophical or historical tests for years and never understand their meaning. The function of dogma is to discourage enlightenment, yet at the same time it serves as the foundation to enlightenment. After getting this far through his argument, it is fair to ask, “What did Kant mean by enlightenment anyway?” It is the ability to take the information you have learned and think for your self. This does not mean that you can stop learning new information. To Kant, enlightenment was a constantly evolving process. As Socrates pointed out when he was on trial for his life for corrupting the youth of Athens, the reason that he knew that he was the smartest man in Athens was due to the fact that he knew that he did not know everything. Enlightenment is built on information received, applied and revisited repeatedly.

The honest author wants and challenges the reader to be critical of their work. At some point in time all written material is left to the interpretation of the audience, because we are creatures with a finite existence, the creator of the piece will no longer be around to defend their work. Once that transition takes place, then the debate about the work intensifies. Hence the reason that people today are still debating the meaning of Plato’s Republic, or the Bible.

Now do you take my word about Kant’s meaning in An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment? or do you take the time to read the text and form your own opinion?

© May 2011, All Rights Reserved

[1] Kant, Immanuel. An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?. Penguin Books. 2009 (originally published 1784). P 1

[2] IBID Page 2

[3] IBID Page 3

[4] IBID Page 5

[5] IBID Page 8

[6] IBID Page 9

[7] IBID Page 10

[8] IBID Page 11

[9] Michel Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics,” in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, ed. Hubert L Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 231-32.

[10] Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson & Neil Peart. Performed by Rush. Freewill. Permanent Waves.Mercury Records. January 1, 1980


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