Emmanuel Kant

EmmanuelKant is, perhaps, the most famous German philosopher in the modernphilosophy. His ideas made a significant synthesis between therationalism and the empiricism theories of the origin of knowledge.He sought to rekindle the place of reason in scientific and moralinquiry that was previously undermined by the empiricist David Hume.More so, his intellectual endeavor paved a way to German idealismthat was a remarkable turn in the conceptualization of humanknowledge of the physical world.

However,besides the remarkable contributions to epistemology, Kant also maderadical and racist claims in anthropology in which he considered raceas the key determinant of enlightenment (see Eze, 1997: 38-49). Thispaper sets out to evaluate Kant’s idea of enlightenment with aclose reference to the situation unfolding in Germany during theeighteenth century: a time in which Kant expressed his views.

Accordingto Kant, enlightenment denotes the act of man freeing from hisinability to use his intellect without being guided by anotherperson. The failure to use one’s understanding freely is what Kantterms as ‘nonage’. Nonage is a state of mind that is self-imposedas long as it derives from man’s failure to take the responsibilityof thinking and using his intellect. However, this does not implylack of the understanding. It involves failure to use it withoutdepending on other person’s guidance. For Kant, the indecision tomake this leap derives from internal factors such as lack of courageand laziness.

Enlightenment,therefore, implies an act of man overcoming this indecision andtaking up the responsibility of freeing his understanding: becomingan independent thinker. Thus, freedom is the key to shaking off thenonage. As such, freedom leads, inevitably, to enlightenment. ForKant, the essential freedom is that of public use of a person’sreason. Kant argues that this is the only freedom that guarantees theenlightenment of mankind. By public use of reason, Kant implies thescholarly use of an individual’s reason as he stands out amidst thegeneral public.

Theimplication is that while the common citizens or the public follows,without questioning, the dogmas stipulated by the class ofleadership, the scholar stands out and shakes off these dogmas. Hepublicly challenges the rationale behind any stipulated measures. Assuch, he follows only that which is in line with the right reason.

Theeighteenth century was the enlightenment age in Germany. Moreemphasis was placed on the independence of the exercise of reason. Inthis respect, Kant’s views on enlightenment are to be traced fromtheir immediate context (Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy,2002/2014). In the eighteenth century, there arose an apparentconfusion regarding what was to be taken as contributing to theenlightenment of the citizens and what was not to. As a result, therewas the need for Kant as well as for other scholars to answer thequestion “what is enlightenment?”

Kantwrote an essay titled whatis enlightenmentin which he captured some unique features of the situation in Germany(see Wilson, H.: 2001). It is in this work that Kant directs anattack against the then thriving German bourgeoisie. He conceivesmoral weakness as the major hindrance of enlightenment. As aforesaid,cowardice and laziness are the indicators of this moral weakness. Inthe eighteenth century, the German bourgeoisie depended on apatriarchal state which they took as their guardians. They stillretained the feudal customs that were rapidly eroding-off in otherparts of the Western Europe.

Moreso, the German bourgeoisie lacked civic consciousness and they stagedno challenge to the ruling class. The activities of the bourgeoisiein Germany were constrained to the dogmatism stipulated by theauthorities. As a result, the German bourgeoisie failed to realizesocial mobility. Instead, they lived simple and quiet lives. According to Kant, it is this aspect of the bourgeoisie thatcharacterizes cowardice and laziness. For him, it revealed animmature and conservative nature that was present in French and otherwestern nations. Kant viewed this as a major hindrance toenlightenment. Hence, Kant emphasized on independence and autonomy ofindividual opinions that is the way out of the thriving nonage.According to Kant, this depends entirely on one’s will toemancipate from the mental bondage. It was Kant’s hope that thebourgeoisie will eventually awaken to enlightenment.

Inthe same token, Kant turns to the Germany political class which heblames for leading to the lack of enlightenment. The ruling classdenied the middle class the kind of freedom that is essential toenlightenment. For Kant, free speech is crucial for the realizationof a meaningful enlightenment. It is in this vein that Kant expressesthe aforementioned denotation of free public exercise of reason. Thisimplies that the scholars, whom Kant considers as free thinkers inthe age of enlightenment, should be allowed, by the ruling class, topublish their thoughts without unnecessary obstacles.

Accordingto Kant, enlightenment calls not just for individual’s legislationbut also generation’s legislation. The implication is that that nogeneration ought to make rules for another generation. What mattersin a law is whether the generation is willing to legislate the maximin question and make it a universal. However, given that man is arational animal, the law should also be in line with the rightreason. In this regard, enlightenment calls for a government thatenhances freedom in the aforementioned aspects. For Kant, the bestform of government is tantamount to an enlightened monarchy whichoffers adequate civil, as well as individual mind’s freedom. Therepublic, which characterized the eighteenth century Germany, hadfailed to provide this freedom hence hindering enlightenment.

However,Kant’s views of enlightenment have not gone unchallenged. Forinstance, Emmanuel Chekwudi Eze argues that Kant’s views representa logocentric enunciation of an essence of man that does not derivesupport from the historical records (Eze, 1997). Eze conceives ofKant’s views as extremely racist and attributing humanity to thewhites at the expense of other races. As it is apparent in Kant, thepower of reason is attributed only to the whites and denied of otherraces. Hence, Eze concludes that Kant’s views were not meant tocapture the real trends in enlightenment, but to justify, throughlogic, the existence of racial classification.

Perhaps,the major blow on enlightenment is that posed by Edmund Burke. Burkeviewed prejudice as more superior than the ‘naked’ reasonemphasized by Kant and other enlightenment thinkers (see Badger,2014). Hence, Burke favors political conservatism that was dismissedby Kant as being dogmatic. For Burke, prejudice contains latentwisdom of a well laid out way of doing things. He argues that thereason, on its own, is not reliable ground for moral action becauseit can be easily perverted. The implication is that anything can begiven its rational basis. As such, enlightenment is viewed as theenemy of morality and the father of selfish individualism. For theproponents of this criticism, real reason is characterized not byindividuals’ but cultural notions of rationality.

Onsimilar grounds, Nietzsche views Kant’s enlightenment as havingfailed. He attributes the failure to the apparent fact that Kantundermined the previous dogmatisms, but, failed to leave it open forthe liberation of morality and reason from the notion of certainty.According to Nietzsche, Kant constructed thought systems grounded onreason rather than faith and ancient authorities. However, thethought systems built eventually turned into myths or‘metanarratives’ that restrict human beings capacities to definetheir being and identities.

Thetwo criticisms aforementioned denote the overemphasis placed onreason as the key to enlightenment by Kant. Liberation of man fromthe nonage as implied by Kant, according to the critics, does notnecessarily lead to enlightenment. In this regard, the core of Kant’senlightenment: ability of the individual to use his understandingseems misguided. As pointed out by Gray, reason can, at best, lead tothe sort of agreement to be at variance amongst persons ofincommensurable values as opposed to value consensus (Gray, 2000).

Inconclusion, we may argue that enlightenment as conceived by Kantdepicted some aspects of reality in Germany in the eighteenthcentury. The fact that the dogmatism of following the stipulatedhabits was existent cannot be overlooked. In the same token, theemphasis of reason as the key to enlightenment should be viewed as anintellectual work by Kant. Kant aimed at synthesizing the battlebetween the two dogmatic world views: the rationalism and theempiricism. At the time that Kant was writing, David Hume had alreadypublished his two works: the inquiry concerning the humanunderstanding and the treatise on human nature. In these two works,Hume had completely undermined the role of the human reason inscientific inquiry and morality. In fact, Kant claims to have beenawakened from a deep slumber by Hume’s radical position.Consequently, Kant expressed his ideas with the aim of attributingthe role of reason in moral and political decision making.


Badger,P.(2010). “What’s Wrong With the Enlightenment?” PhilosophyNow

Eze,E. C. (1997). RacistEnlightenment: a reader.Cambridge, Mass, Blackwell.

Eze,E.C. (1997). “The Color of Reason: The Idea of Race in Kant’sAnthropology” JournalOf the History of Philosophy 44(4):623-634

Gray,J. (2000). Twofaces of liberalism.New York, The New press.

Hill,R. K. (2005). Nietzsche`scritiques the Kantian foundations of his thought.Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Kant,I. (2009). Perpetualpeace.London, Penguin.

StanfordEncyclopedia of Philosophy: fromhttp://plato.stanford.edu/entries/18thGerman-preKant/on 21stDec 2014 at 1000HRs GMT.

Wilson,L.H.(2001). “Kant`sExperiential Enlightenment and Court Philosophy in the 18th Century”Historyof Philosophy Quarterly 18(2):179-205