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! “Have courage to use your own reason!”- that is the motto of enlightenment.
– Immanuel Kant, What Is Enlightenment?
Sometimes when I reread Kant I discover the strangest things. Take the passage above. It’s not what he’s saying that is as important as what he is implying. Obviously he tries to tell us that the humans of his era were controlled by exterior forces, rules, regulations, authorities and that most of them, being passive, allowed these regulatory mechanisms of morality, ethics, etc. enforced by the social institutions of the day to rule there lives because of sheer laziness and cowardice. But was it laziness and cowardice, or was it that these regulatory and normative mechanisms had become so naturalized for most people that they couldn’t see beyond them, didn’t know that other forms of thought might exist? Even if many of these people were literate enough to have access to such thought and thinkers as Kant, would their ideas alone make a difference? The institutions of authority that bound most average citizens of that age formed a nexus of material and social authority, based systems of enforcement and reinforcement, that mostly went unchallenged by the average citizenry. Most citizens lived in the shadow of these historical institutions under the illusion that they held the best interest toward them as the guardians of public trust, etc. The religious and social institutions for most citizens went without question, and even after the French Revolution these timeworn institutions reinstated themselves within the new social setting, mutated and mangled, but still alive and well.
Tutelage comes from the Latin tutela “a watching, protection,” from variant past participle stem of tueri “watch over,” which implies both a form of paternal and maternal protective imposition. Kant implies that most people do not have the ability to think or act for themselves, that they’ve become passive followers of familial, religious and political authorities external to their own lives. They are blinded to the internalization of this authority and have neither the resolve or courage to struggle free of these external and internalized regulatory processes. And, then, he says, wake up, you have a power within yourself to combat this authoritative order both within and without you: it is name reason. But what is this power of reason? What did Kant himself mean by the term “reason”? Why would it bring such freedom from authority to humanity so that they would no longer fall under the spell of custom and tradition?