What is Enlightenment? Re-reading Immanuel Kant in 2018
Obey but Think! OR Think but Obey!
Immanuel Kant published his seminal essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? in 1784. This was as part of an ongoing discussion on the nature of Enlightenment, and what it truly stood for. Unlike many other ideological movements in the 20th century, the Enlightenment saw concrete ideas being shaped in opposition to the world of the ancient regime (old order, i.e. the feudal/absolutist monarchic society). Immanuel Kant’s philosophical ideas came to define not only the basic contours of this particular debate, but arguably the primary vision of what we today know as Continental Philosophy.
Kant’s essay has been written about by countless others much more qualified in philosophy than I am (considering I am trained academically as a historian, and philosophy for me is only an unrequited love). But I shall attempt to offer to you a reading of this essay that as an interlocuter between politics, philosophy, and the history of ideas. If there is one key element within Kant’s essay, it is that of the nature of Duty and Obeisance.
Philosophers before him were rather preoccupied with analysing the nature of reality – whether the world is real or not, whether there is a heaven, or another world, whether God exists, and so on. Kant however shut them down in one stroke when he concluded that there is no possibility for humans to know what is beyond the observable world. Hence, he divided the world into two: the observable or phenomenal world, and the unobservable, transcendental world of beyond, the noumenal world. In doing so, Kant opened the door to now think about the nature of being itself. In other words, Kant and others after him could now think about what it means to exist in the world, and how one ought to live. This is Kant’s primary motivation in writing this essay: (re)defining what the nature of being truly is, and where it is derived from. For Kant, Enlightenment stood for Reason, whereas the old world was all about Religion and Faith. And as Kant writes in the beginning of his essay, to him, Enlightenment which stands for Reason and critical thinking represents the maturity of the human mind. The faculty to reason is the most important aspect of an Enlightened life. Religion, faith, uncritical support of any idea or institution for him was a sign of immaturity. And this immaturity was caused very much by internal factors: lack of one’s ability to think, to be critical, imaginative and so on.
Any good Marxist would, at this point, interrupt and point out the logical flaw in this argument. And I shall certainly do so. To say that one cannot think critically is not merely an intellectual shortcoming; it represents the unequal nature of society where those who have access to higher education and learning are trained to think critically, while others who cannot afford even basic education remain within the confines of the old order. But a good historian should remind the good Marxist that Kant’s world was slightly more complicated than that. And I shall certainly do so. Kant’s reality was that of the late 18th century, where the logic of the Church and the diktat of the King (often times the same thing) reigned supreme over all else, by virtue of them being the Church or the King. In other words, the ideas that the Church or the King followed were regarded as true simply because they held power in the name of God. Hence, in a world like that, it was a rather radical act to ask people to think for themselves, and to pitch Reason against Faith.
But coming back to Kant’s essay, he further presents a more nuanced definition of Enlightenment. He does so by introducing two ways Reason may be used in society. Named in a confusing manner, Kant talks about the Public Use of Reason and the Private Use of Reason. For Kant, freedom of Public Use of Reason was a key feature of being Enlightened. Public Use of Reason comprised of criticism, radical thought, and dangerous ideas. if you are being critical of everything that has not been questioned before, or that is accepted as logical, you are deploying the Public Use of Reason. For Kant, this was to be done at an individual level and inside what we refer to as the “private sphere” of everyday life. This is where things begin to be slightly complicated for both the good Marxist and the good Historian.
Private Use of Reason, rather confusingly, includes what one does in public life, i.e. what you do as a job, the duty of everyday life. It is the “public sphere” in which we should ‘obey’. It is important that one must obey and conform to dominant ideas in everyday public life because this is the basic requirement in order for any society to be functional. In other words, one must perform his/her job in accordance with the law, one must not disobey his/her boss, or breach the code of conduct in society. The good Marxist and the good Historian are now rather convinced that Kant is trying to sell to them a Modi-bhakt’s idea of Akhand Bharat. However, this is definitely not the case.
One of the key features of Kant’s Enlightened society is that this obeisance of norms and laws should stop the moment it hinders development of Enlightenment ideas and progress. This is to say that the Private Use of Reason should continue till the point that it does not hinder the Public Use of Reason. So, for example, Comrade Stalin must not be disobeyed, until he becomes a revisionist. In other words, society must function with a common set of ideas (G.W.F. Hegel, another German philosopher who succeeded Kant but criticised many of his ideas, calls this Sittlichkeit) that are progressive, and these ideas must be respected. And at the core of these progressive ideas is the space to debate, discuss, criticise, develop new ideas, till the point that they are not reactionary or regressive.
To demonstrate this through example,
For academics and professors:
Private use of Reason = teaching, checking students’ papers, assignments, clearing doubts
Public use of Reason = activism, engaging with theory, ideas, philosophy, and other new avenues of
For an Indian defense personnel:
Private use= kill Maoists, subjugate Kashmiris, kill Pakistani counterparts.
Public use= criticise Government of India, make Facebook video about bad food
These examples are not ideal for the sort of reading of Kant that I attempt to arrive at. But due to our inability to imagine the world outside the coordinates of our existence, it is a confirmation of Kant’s propositions that such examples have to be used to explain Kant himself. However, Kant further describes human nature to be wired to engage itself on critical thinking and developing new ideas. This is a radical proposal as God henceforth loses all agency to determine what the future shall be. Kant may not have intended to rob God of His omniscience, but as Nietzsche would later proclaim, God died, as Kant began to develop his philosophy.
To quote Kant himself:
"As things are at present, we still have a long way to go before men as a whole can be in a position (or can even be put into a position) of using their own understanding confidently and well in religious matters, without outside guidance. But we do have distinct indications that the way is now being cleared for them to work freely in this direction, and that the obstacles to universal enlightenment, to man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity, are gradually becoming fewer. In this respect, our age is the age of enlightenment, the century of Frederick."
This indicates how Kant is writing at the cusp of Modernity rather than within it. Kant preempts Modernity, laying down some of its central tenets: Individualism, Critical thinking, Reason over Religious belief, and thus indirectly Democracy, Liberty, and Equality. Kant is writing during Enlightenment, the task is not over, Enlightenment is being achieved; he is not in an already Enlightened period. And it is by understanding this that we must arrive at Kant’s central idea that I would highlight in the essay: the question of how one ought to live, with regards to performing one’s duty, and obeying the norms of society.
“But the attitude of mind of a head of state who favours freedom in the arts and sciences extends even further, for he realizes that there is no danger even to his legislation if he allows his subjects to make public use of their own reason and to put before the public their thoughts on better ways of drawing up laws, even if this entails forthright criticism of the current legislation. … 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!”
This is a deeply philosophical point that Kant makes which can be interpreted in both ways: Left-Wing Authoritarian (Stalinism, Maoism) and Right-Wing Libertarian (Nehru, Obama). On one level it may simply be interpreted to mean that all people need is the formal freedom to think that they are free, but in fact remain a part of the dominant system (Capitalism). The good Historian would however still hold doubts regarding Kant’s claim: “isn’t he supposed to be writing within Enlightenment? History obviously tells us how Enlightenment Modernity paved the path to Hiroshima-Nagasaki.” But the good Marxist would probably begin to realise here that Kant may have a few ideas to offer with regards to how the day after the Revolution might look like.
Kant here is not writing in the context of simply what is needed in immediate politics. He is writing of what the goal of our politics is (or at least, should be). To put it another way, Kant describes what Socialism or even Communism might look like. How one becomes a Socialist and how a Revolution must be carried out are not Kant’s concerns. What is more important is where Socialism and Revolution will take us. This is why Kant is and Idealist in both sense of the word: philosophical and political. Having said this, of course one must agree with the good Marxist that it is not Kant’s project to disassemble the state and all existing structures, so he is not talking in those terms. He is not an enemy of Capitalism or the Nation-state precisely because he isn’t living in a period where these are the social realities. (The good Historian at this point might be inclined to agree) Kant himself may not have been what we today refer to as a ‘Radical’, but I propose to read his ideas in a radical register.
In this way, Marx is the realization of Kant’s ideas. Marx fulfills the role that Kant has ordained as necessary for being enlightened. It is then Lenin (and soon after him, Stalin, Mao, Fidel and so on) who goes a step further and is far more radical than Kant’s call to think about how to change the world or Marx’s call for doing something to change the world. Lenin is the first instance of the perfect synthesis of Kant and Marx. In reading Kant, therefore, it is indeed a new Leninist approach of reapplying the ideas of both Kant and Marx that we must begin to work towards: a world where there is a basic non-negotiable set of rules (that are in themselves born out of Reason and Critique) along with enough room for dynamism, experimentation, imagination, and novelty.
About The Author
Saarang Narayan is an academic of the left. He holds a Master's from Oxford University in Modern Asian Studies and is a graduate in History from Hansraj College. A closet cricketer, a home-based music producer and sound engineer, and a session guitarist, he is on his path to academic glory in the field of History.