Kant's Definition of Enlightenment. Are We Really Free to Be Enlightened?

In Violetta L. Waibel, Margit Ruffing & David Wagner (eds.), Natur und Freiheit. Akten des XII. Internationalen Kant-Kongresses. De Gruyter. pp. 2615-2622 (2018)
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Kant defines enlightenment as “man’s release from his self-imposed tutelage” (my emphasis, WiE, p. 83).This definition suggests that those who remain unenlightentened, according to Kant, are responsible for their own state of immaturity. Despite this straightforward picture, however, closer examination of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment” essay and his other writings reveal that the satisfaction of certain necessary conditions for enlightenment, such as freedom of thought and proper education is beyond individual’s control. Hence, whether individuals are capable of attaining enlightenment is usually determined by external factors. This in turn means that contrary to Kant’s definition of and recommendations toward enlightenment, individual’s inability to think for herself could not entirely be self-imposed, and cannot be overcome merely by courage and resolution as Kant claims. It seems, therefore, that Kant’s definition of enlightenment is both untennable and incompatible with his other works. In this paper, I argue that we can salvage Kant’s definition of enlightenment, if we read it in its proper frame of reference. More specifically, I argue that Kant’s conception of enlightenment (as he presents it in the “What is Enlightenment”) requires two different sets of conditions to be met for the individual and for the society. In order for the definition to apply to individual human beings, we have to assume the validity of Kant’s conception of transcendental freedom. For the same definition to apply to the human species, on the other hand, we need to assume a different kind of freedom, i.e., freedom of expression.



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Saniye Vatansever
Bilkent University

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