Kant and the Paradox of the 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! “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?

In the very next passage he tells us why people are unable to shake off the reliance of external controls and authority, because of sheer laziness and cowardice:

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a portion of mankind, after nature has long since discharged them from external direction (naturaliter maiorennes), nevertheless remains nevertheless remains under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians.1

The key here is that because of this inherent laziness and cowardice that Kant perceives in humans of his era he recognizes how easy it is for certain people to use this against the vast majority and set themselves up as “guardians”. This notion of guardians, benefactors as if they truly had the best interest for those under their care. Isn’t this the face of power of our neoliberal society? Have we not through kindness and paternalism in large measure created a society based of passivity and acceptance of authority, expertise, law, social norms, etc.?

Even those that supposedly rebel, they do it under the caring eye of our guardians, safely tucked away within paternalized institutions such as the academy, government, religion, etc. Most people in their everyday live just learn to flow with the system rather than buck it. Having families to feed, clothe, entertain, etc. most people turn a blind I to abuse in the work place: the anger of bosses, write-ups for petty non-infractions, monthly and quarterly reviews, tests, etc. all these regimented procedures to keep the employee in line, to tax them beyond the limits of physical and mental acuity.

Kant tells us: “It is so easy not to be of age. If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if I can only pay – others will easily undertake the irksome work for me” (KL 26-27). Isn’t this still true today? The vast majority of working people are so burdened by deadlines, reports, endless repetitive tasks, numbing mindless work of stocking, ordering, loading, unloading, moving, etc. that they depend on external authorities to take care of the other things in life: childcare, fast-food, state base schooling, television, video games, etc. Instead of creativity and inventiveness we have a ready made culture of distraction. Kant could see this in his own day, and we still have it with us. Kant continues:

That the step to competence is held to be very dangerous by the far greater portion of mankind (and by the entire fair sex) – quite apart from its being arduous is seen to by those guardians who have so kindly assumed superintendence over them. After the guardians have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are tethered, the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone. (KL 30-31)

Hasn’t the modern neoliberal state continued this dumbing down process for the vast majority of working people, made them into placid, passive beings who must be protected and sheltered against so many external threats? (Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto, The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America by Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt). Since the 9/11 attacks in America hasn’t the whole supposed free world been under the sign of a ‘state of emergency’? With the economic collapse of 2007 and the austerity measures in Europe haven’t people become more fearful and dependent of the paternalism of the state, and rather than revolting against such measures they’ve allow trillions of dollars to be siphoned off to the very institutions of finance that brought about this terrible problem to begin with?

As Kant said two hundred years ago and is still true today, the external pressures of society, peer pressure, authority have become naturalized to the point that we’ve almost forgotten how artificial it all is: “For any single individua1 to work himself out of the life under tutelage which has become almost his nature is very difficult. He has come to be fond of his state, and he is for the present really incapable of making use of his reason, for no one has ever let him try it out. Statutes and formulas, those mechanical tools of the rational employment or rather or rather misemployment of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting tutelage.” (KL 35-36) From Edward Bernays’ Propaganda to Chomsky’s latest reports on such practices we see the use of external forms of coercion on citizens, to the point that our mediatainment marketeers even use the latest in neurocognitive consumerism methodologies to tap into our fears, expectations and needs. While the military seeks to enhance through neurochems the next generation of training and war techniques to build the warrior of the future. We seem to be unleashing a new posthuman enlightenment devoid of humans.

Even after two hundred years of supposed enlightenment most people on our planet are tyrannized by familial, religious, or state based ideologies, custom and mores that bind their minds to passive acceptance of systems that they feel too powerless as isolated individuals to change or combat. So instead they just turn off the inner switch of the mind and numb themselves to workaday slavery of their lives of survival. I should not need to recount the endless horror stories of actual slave labor across our planet that many of the great corporate empires not only turn a blind eye too, but in fact live in perfect denial of; and, not only the corporations, but most of the governments of the supposed free world do the same. Human Rights groups, as well, document case after case of abuse, imprisonment, slavery, human trafficking, etc. all to no avail. Why? Because most people turn a blind eye, live such passive unimaginative lives of drudgery or escape into the infotainment complexes of our late capitalist enclaves that they no longer see the degradation as anything other than the normalized state of the world.

For this enlightenment, however, nothing is required but freedom, and indeed the most harmless among all the things to which this term can properly be applied. It is the freedom to make public use of one’s reason at every point. But I hear on all sides, “Do not argue!” The Officer says: “Do not argue but drill!” The tax collector:”Do not argue but pay!” The cleric: “Do not argue but believe!” Only one prince in the world says, “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!” (KL 48-49)

Isn’t this still true as well? When we question things aren’t we scolded by all those in authority that we are doing nothing more than arguing? That instead of arguing we should just comply, do what the authorities say and everything will turn out fine? I have to admit I’m not speaking of those that probably come to this site, read these words. No. For the most part people that have access to the internet that would actually read my words are already those who have for the most part already escaped the clutches of those familial, social and global authorities at least in being able to think for themselves, ask questions, and even at times take up the power of revolt or critique against the mind numbing power of this empire of the mind that closes most people off in passivity and helplessness, living bare lives of survival in hopelessness.

For Kant the central key was what he termed the “public use of reason,” the need for a public forum within which scholars could remark openly on the state of affairs concerning humanity without being judged or imprisoned for their thoughts. Freedom of speech, the cornerstone of the Kantian enlightenment project. Something that most critics of the enlightenment seem to pass over and forget conveniently is such remarks as Kant’s on the state of affairs of his own time:

If we are asked , “Do we now live in an enlightened age?” the answer is, “No,” but we do live in an age of enlightenment. As things now stand, much is lacking which prevents men from being, or easily becoming, capable of correctly using their own reason in religious matters with assurance and free from outside direction. But on the other hand, we have clear indications that the field has now been opened wherein men may freely dea1 with these things and that the obstacles to general enlightenment or the release from self-imposed tutelage are gradually being reduced.(KL 104-105)

A keen observer Kant was confident that things would continue in the enlightenment’s favor, yet we have seen the slow and methodical worlds of religious, political, economic, and governmental authority slowly erode such notions over time until the even the notions of the enlightenment – its foundation in ‘reason’ – have lost their power to sway even the most philosophers much less the average person in the street. So much for enlightenment.

In Kant’s time it was the authority of religion that was the dark force that imposed such apathy, passivity, and external and internal regulatory controls on citizenry. “I have placed the main point of enlightenment – the escape of men from their self-incurred tutelage – chiefly in matters of religion because our rulers have no interest in playing guardian with respect to the arts and sciences and also because religious incompetence is not only the most harmful but also the most degrading of all.” (KL 116-117)

Yet, Kant was puzzled by the paradox of his own notion of enlightenment, for in practical terms he saw that the only way to impose such freedoms was in itself to do violence to the very principles of enlightenment itself. As he says:

But only one who is himself enlightened, is not afraid of shadows, and has a numerous and well-disciplined army to assure public peace, can say: “Argue as much as you will , and about what you will , only obey!” A republic could not dare say such a thing. Here is shown a strange and unexpected trend in human affairs in which almost everything, looked at in the large , is paradoxical. A greater degree of civil freedom appears advantageous to the freedom of mind of the people, and yet it places inescapable limitations upon it. A lower degree of civil freedom, on the contrary, provides the mind with room for each man to extend himself to his full capacity. As nature has uncovered from under this hard shell the seed for which she most tenderly cares – the propensity and vocation to free thinking – this gradually works back upon and vocation to free thinking – this gradually works back upon the character of the people, who thereby gradually become capable of managing freedom; finally, it affects the principles of governnment, which finds it to its advantage to treat men, who are now more than machines, in accordance with their dignity. (KL 127-128)

Strange the greater civil freedom puts a limitation on mind, while a “lower degree of civil freedom … provides the mind with room for each man to extend himself to full capacity.” Kant the sociologist, or philosopher? What brought him to this conclusion? Careful observation of this own times, or some theoretical consideration? Is this actually a viable truth? Have we in our supposed modern neoliberal states, with all of our supposed freedoms actually restricted our capacities rather than enabled them? And, if so, why? In an age when we have access to so much information – the overloaded glut of published books, journals, databases, internet sites, etc. have we actually narrowed our field of knowledge down, our ability to know what is viable, accurate, pertinent?  Are we not more regulated and controlled by external and internal mechanisms now than philosophers such as Kant could have imagined? With the closure of the academies to the public at large, with open access sites a minimal, with most scholarly journals closed except as part of the accepted institutions of learning, or at a great economic cost to independent scholars have we restricted our freedoms in ways we have as of yet to understand?

Reading such works as S.M. Amade’s Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism, and others such as Philip Mirowski’s Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science, each of which expose the measures that governments, corporations, the sciences, and other institutions have been brought to bare toward enslaving society in a utopia of reason and rational thought, a world of control, regulation, and global governance that would keep the illusion of freedom and enlightenment mind but only under the careful supervision of both external guardians and self-imposed normative mechanisms that have become so naturalized that we no longer know just how artificial they once were. Mechanisms of control that give the appearance of freedom rather than freedom itself.

1. Kant, Immanuel (2011-06-21). What Is Enlightenment? by Immanuel Kant (Formatted) (Kindle Locations 24-25).  . Kindle Edition.

2 thoughts on “Kant and the Paradox of the Enlightenment

  1. Always loved that last line.

    But what if tutelage was all there ever was? Kant was under the spell of the only-game-in-town effect in so many ways, as were his contemporaries. The Enlightenment, on my account anyway, is first and foremost a wholesale rationalization of practices–and how could this appear as anything other than ‘freedom’ for Kant, given that so few practices had been rationalized? But as Nietzsche saw, that rationalization was always a rationalization of means relative to some end, and short of some way to fix those ends (for the Kantian project had failed in this regard as well), it would simply devolve into the maximization of appetite, the tyranny of conatus expressed under this or that traditional dodge. Once you’ve reengineered your society to continually rationalize practices, you’re pretty much locked in: philosophy is toothless at the best of times, but pitted against getting more for less? The tutelage of the priest becomes the tutelage of the specialist–as you point out.

    You can make the paddock bigger, but it remains a paddock all the same. And it’s always going to remain a paddock because, contra-Kant, we’re always going to remain machines. ‘Freedom’ is the wrong conceptual register to understand what’s going on–I’m convinced anyway. We need to stop trying to rationalize the system in terms of these traditional intentional modes and attempt to get a handle on the system in its own terms, not our own.

    Then we can come back and ask the question of ‘freedom,’ if it applies at all…


  2. Yea, most of this reading is in preparation for our work on post-intentionlism and its impact on society. A lot of clearing away so to speak, a kind of doubling back on the problems in philosophy and the sciences that led up to such new sciences as neuroscience to begin with. The more I read of the different facets of neurosciences from the evolutionary aspects in biogenetics to the technogenesis of brain mechanisms in the invention of culture. All these decisions being made in the pre-conscious brain instead of consciousness the movement from the myths of psychoanalysis to the actual workings of the brain we’re uncovering with both imaging and electromagnetic technologies. A lot of ground to cover but hey this is where its at.

    Been catching up on some of the neuroethical dilemmas of late and the nefarious uses to which these technologies could be put to use by our military-industrial complex. Obviously with all the good ehancements comes the counter side of manipulations and legal aspects of criminology, intelligence, military, etc.


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