Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What is Enlightenment

This essay of Kant's presents an interesting idea about enlightenment and its role. He argues that the masses are unthinking masses bound by guardians that they at some point willingly put in charge so that they could be lazy. These guardians kept taking more and more authority and power over the unthinking masses and then the unthinking masses pretty much just stopped being able to do anything. These bindings that people have willingly put on themselves is what prevents humans from progressing as nature intended and breaks the human ability to work towards perfect civic unions. But Kant argues that every now and then someone breaks out and on a rare occasion actually manages to try and free others from the guardians. Sometimes it works and sometimes the Guardians stop it from really taking hold. Kant argues that this lack of free thinking and reasoning and of course arguing is the biggest problem humans face from becoming enlightened. I don's really see how it would ever be possible to have a period of real enlightenment where everyone began truly thinking for themselves without also bringing about a complete collapse of society. Which seems odd considering society's progression is what we would ultimately be freeing ourselves to achieve.


  1. Kant says that enlightenment is the act of the individual rising above the thoughtlessness of the masses, but there is a paradox that complicates his claim. The human’s potential for enlightenment; that is, freedom from immaturity, is never just his own, but is enmeshed in the structure of the society in which he/she lives. Often those with power give the thinker the framework in which to think, therefore an individual’s revelation is always influenced by, or can be for the society in which he lives, (in some cases the thinker’s enlightenment is for his self alone).
    While enlightenment is not gained by and for one man alone, since man is so deeply influenced by the lives of others, the individual man or woman always still has the power to think for him/her self. This is the paradox: that an individual’s maturity depends on the thoughts of others, yet this relationship which can be either an abuse or a blessing, but cannot overpower each man’s ability to think for himself. This potential in every man is what moves history, although the power each person has to think on their own can be smothered by those already in power. Their thoughtfulness may cost them what the hypothetical society (and maybe Kant) calls “progress”. The society as a whole progresses when the enlightenment of some is not used for the good of those few enlightened, but is used for the society as a whole and toward the good that it holds to. When Kant says there is no precinct that can be passed through generations and forced upon a new and changing era, he forgets that there must be some long-standing standard by which all eras measure “progress” and “enlightenment”.
    What I think he is right about though is that man must always have the ability to think and reason, and speak his mind constructively. The progress of a society depends on the progress of man’s ability to think, which should not be measured only by his individual enlightenment, but also by the enlightenment of the society as a whole. Whether this produces a better society depends on whether their enlightened state is used to better the life of the individual alone, or whether it is perceived with the good of the whole in mind.

  2. I don't read Kant as saying that enlightenment is exclusively (or even primarily) the individual rising above thoughtlessness. In fact, he appears to say that it's much more likely the society than the individual. Where are you getting that it's the individual that he's primarily concerned with?