Friday, May 24, 2024

Quote of the Day (Immanuel Kant, Defining ‘Enlightenment’)

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! [from Horace, Epodes, 1, 2, 40] ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’ — that is the motto of enlightenment.”— German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), "What Is Enlightenment?" (1784), in On History, edited by Lewis White Beck (1963)

Last month marked the 300th birthday of Immanuel Kant in Königsberg, near the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea. As I learned from Lea Ypi’s essay from April in The Financial Times, his place of birth—and the extent to which his legacy belongs to one nation, rather than all humanity—has become tied up in the epic, blood-soaked wars of the 20th century that saw Konigsburg shift from East Prussian—i.e., German—control to that of Russia.

Unfortunately, changed European borders have, in the case of this pivotal modern philosopher, certainly proven the first half of George Orwell’s 1984 dictum that “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.” We are about to see, as the struggle over Crimea moves into another phase, whether the second part of that statement will hold true.

I first encountered Kant in the famous Contemporary Civilization” course at Columbia University. I came away with two points that have lingered in my mind about him ever since.

First, he was so quirkily regular in his habits, the legend went, that the residents of Königsberg set their clocks to coincide with his afternoon walk.

Second, though a constellation of thinkers were trying to come up with a more convenient way of viewing the world, it was Kant who offered the definition of “Enlightenment” with which I began this post—and which has come to characterize an entire strain of thought in 18th century Europe and America.

Humanity can only change by beginning a public questioning of what is true and what is false.  But, Kant implied, it is inhibited by laziness and cowardice.

In moving Europe further away the sway of religion, Kant and other philosophers of his movement looked to “enlightened” rulers—i.e., “benevolent despots”—like Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria to spread education, learning and culture.

In time, the despots became less benevolent (if they ever really were) and the continent became continually rocked by great-power struggles.

My class had read the philosopher’s stringently argued Critique of Pure Reason. What I was not aware of, however, until I read Ypi’s essay, was how difficult it was for Kant to maintain the independence of thought he advocated in his writings with the necessity of survival when Königsberg came under the influence of a foreign power: perhaps not so surprisingly, considering current events, Russia.

In 1759, Kant petitioned Russian Empress Elizabeth, asking for an academic post.  But 11 years later, once the Russians withdrew, Kant went back to his original Prussian rulers and was granted a full professorship.

In recent times, some elements in Russia highlighted that reversal, calling Kant a “turncoat.” That term might be a bit strong, but “opportunist” might apply better—and even that is hardly a compliment or term of endearment.

Did Kant feel disgusted with this ideological maneuvering? Maybe, because late in life he was writing, in no uncertain terms: “No state shall forcibly interfere in the constitution and government of another state.”

Having already seen Konigsberg change hands in his thirties, he had, by his seventies, lived long enough to see how the French Revolution had introduced the notion of an entire nation in arms—and collapsed any idea that civilian populations should be off limits in wars.

In 1795, Kent wrote the piercing essay “Toward Perpetual Peace,” warning, a century and a half before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about how “a war of extermination in which the simultaneous annihilation of both parties . . . would let perpetual peace come about only in the vast graveyard of the human race.”

Instead, he advocated a “cosmopolitan right,” based on the belief that “a violation of right on one place of the Earth is felt in all.”

Kant’s ideas have not only influenced notions of public education, but also the formation of organizations dedicated to preserving international security and guarding against the outbreak of war, such as the European Union and the United Nations.

(For yet another view of Kant focusing on the question of his Prussian or Russian identity, please see this essay by Robert R. Clewis in the April/May issue of Philosophy Now Magazine.)

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