What is Enlightenment?

The Modern and Postmodern
Wesleyan University


1. How did Kant define “enlightenment”?

Kant defines enlightenment as “man’s release from self-incurred tutelage.” This tutelage is reliance on other people for instructions on how to conduct your life. Kant gives the example of allowing a physician to determine your diet so that you don’t feel the burden to independently consider your health. Dependence on other people—or institutions—will lead to an individual’s loss of control over their life, while inversely giving other people more power to exert their own ambitions on that individual. As Kant notes, there are constant restrictions on freedom but steady demands for exploitation, “Do not argue!” The Officer says: “Do not argue but drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue but pay!” The cleric: “Do not argue but believe!”

While this seems to imply that dependence on others was originally coerced, Kant claims it is self-incurred subjection. He goes on to say that man does not lack the ability of free thought but the desire to use it. At first glance one might question Kant’s statement, wondering how it could be that people would willingly give up their freedom of thought to have their lives dictated by others. Kant gives us several reasons for this paradoxical situation.

Firstly, it is a familiar situation because we are accustomed to this tutelage,  and “for any single individual to work himself out of the life under tutelage which has become almost his nature is very difficult.” If a person has never experienced independent thought, then it certainly will be challenging to imagine the possibility, let alone attain it.

Secondly, because we are used to tutelage, it is perceived as safe and comfortable. Speaking of the fetters of dependence Kant says, “whoever throws them off makes only an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch because he is not accustomed to that kind of free motion.” It is an uncommon person who will reach for that which is strange and unknown.

Thirdly, those who exploit this subjection promote the individual’s natural love for safety and fear of the unfamiliar. Kant likens it to the domestication of cattle—creatures which were once free and wild now no longer “dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are tethered” and “the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone.” Likewise we are warned of the troubles we will encounter by attempting a life of free thought. Of course this danger is greatly exaggerated and the benefits of freedom would soon recompense anyone for their initial stumbling—but this truth is not made known.

Kant argues that enlightenment comes when we throw off the chains of dependence upon others, chains which we through laziness and cowardice forged, but which are now guarded and tightened by our masters.

2. Compare Kant to Marx

In comparing Kant and Marx, we see that they share the theme of enlightenment being liberation from subjugation to others. But there are some key differences in their views which led them to very different conclusions.

Kant says that enlightenment is necessarily a gradual process, for “the public can only slowly attain enlightenment. Perhaps a fall of personal despotism or of avaricious or tyrannical oppression may be accomplished by revolution, but never a true reform in ways of thinking.” Additionally, he does not call for radical political involvement in this process because “for this enlightenment, however, nothing is required but freedom.” People will move towards freedom when they are left alone.

However, the Communist Manifesto is a call to active revolution, far from the abstract and philosophical work of Kant. Marx asserts that “of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.”  For Marx, enlightenment is about radical economic and political liberation. Influenced by the Hegelian dialectic, he contends that since the working class is living in conflict, this will necessarily propel society towards a resolution. He points out that the working class has been used by the bourgeois to tear down previous social structures, but that by doing this, “the bourgeoisie itself….furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie.”

Marx declares liberation comes with the abolishing of private property, “the proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation….their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.” Marx developed this manifesto as a prescription for political revolution and enlightenment, while Kant focused on the intellectual liberation of the mind—once people are free to think for themselves we will become enlightened.

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