“An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”, Immanuel
Kant ascribes enlightenment the status of an individual, autonomous
accomplishment that can only be realized through co-dependent and
social means. Although superficially contradictory, I explicate how
this relation is possible and why, within Kant's system, it in fact
must be the case. To illustrate my thought, I find in Victor Hugo's
nineteenth-century novel Les Misérables a case through which
to observe and explain the distinctions Kant draws between the public and
private uses of reason and their role in civic enlightenment.
antagonist of Les
Inspector Javert, struggles to reconcile his compassion for
the fugitive Jean Valjean with his professional duty to arrest him, a
dilemma that ultimately drives him to suicide. His last act is to
write an administrative missive entitled "A FEW OBSERVATIONS FOR
THE GOOD OF THE SERVICE", after which he drowns himself in the
Kant's lights, Javert has failed to emerge from his own self-incurred
minority (or, in other words, to become enlightened). Kant's special use of the term 'enlightenment' requires some explanation. "Minority" here, that from which we must emerge, is defined as the inability to apply one's reason without
external guidance, in Javert's case from the legal code. Javert
affirms this intellectual subjugation in the text, styling himself
the law's "slave".
itself, this 'slavery' does not thwart enlightenment; in fact, Kant
believes the worker is obligated to enact his superiors' will insofar
as he is officially their emissary, setting his own concerns aside.
Priests necessarily promote church doctrine when addressing a
congregation, for instance. Kant alludes to this privation
of personal judgment by styling this the private use of reason.
However extreme Javert's professional obedience, then, it alone does
not preclude his enlightenment. The culprit is rather his inability
to engage in the public
use of reason, the state in which one brings one's own reason to
bear on matters in a free public forum.
the public use of reason, individuals are answerable to themselves,
as opposed to any higher authority. While reasoning in this manner,
one may dictate one's own ends and question established modes of
thought without threat of censor or discipline. While 'off duty', a
priest may question church doctrine in the capacity of a scholar.
Although this use of reason operates within the public sphere, it is
still an individual's
use of reason and not that of the collective in
To return to our example, Javert qua
is bound by a standard of obedience. To achieve enlightenment, he
must acquire a second, civic persona through which to analyze the
methodologies and ends he privately promotes. Only through this
public use of reason could Javert have critically assessed his charge
to arrest Valjean, a process by which he might have rectified or
reconciled with his alienation from his private service. Deprived of
this persona, however, he is unable to do this. Enlightenment, then,
seems to rely on the freedom to address an idealized community that
scrutinizes and responds to one's findings. In allowing the single
self to articulate his singular will and see it acknowledged, this
freedom – and the public use of reason in general – is integral
to one's emergence from minority.
final "OBSERVATIONS" are paradigmatic examples of the public use
of reason. The letter constitutes Javert's bureaucratic misgivings,
formerly stifled by the incompatibility of reason's public use with
his solely private existence. Its contents are mostly mundane1, belying Javert's larger reluctance to incarcerate a man to whom he
owes his life. Writing "in his calmest and most correct
chirography, not omitting a single comma", Javert seems also to
approximate the idealized, unmuddied interpersonal communication Kant
envisions in his account. As the social conditions of the novel are
such that Javert cannot formally reconcile with Valjean's goodness,
or even comfortably question higher authorities on these more minor
points of policy, his path to enlightenment is obstructed, his
solitary use of public reason permissible only in the shadow of his
this, Javert is proof positive of Kant's claim that "it is
difficult for any single individual to extricate himself from the
minority that has become almost nature to him". Although it is
localized within the individual, few
persons will attain enlightenment under current conditions, and those
that hold within Hugo's novel. Individuals are, however, members of
the public and the practicable enlightenment of the majority of
society (instead of a small clique of privileged thinkers) becomes
possible only when the public sphere neither precludes nor inhibits
enlightenment, but acts to induce its realization.
civic preconditions for enlightenment across a society of individuals
characterize Kant's relation of selves to societies. Minority
betokens not only the intellectual subjugation of individuals but
also the social
of enlightenment. Minority is possible in individuals only by virtue
of larger societal tendencies to privilege dogma over independent
reason. It is, therefore, a social status quo that Kant argues must
transform in order for individuals to transcend their subjugated
state; his call for societal innovation does not contradict his
interest in individual advancement, but is rather its prerequisite.
is intrapersonal in its genesis, its realization requires the
fulfilment of certain interpersonal
conditions, namely access to the public use of reason.
Javert's rational development occurs internally, it is his experience
a public servant and a citizen
that defines its nature and its limitations.
1For instance: "It is inexplicable," Javert writes, "why the
special regulation of the prison of the Madelonettes interdicts the
prisoner from having a chair".