A RESPONSE TO KANT'S VIEWS ON MODERN ENLIGHTENMENT AND REASON
Kant has stated that enlightenment is “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity,”1 defining and characterizing personal enlightenment as a solution to a problem we all face at origin. Furthermore, he seeks to define the immaturity that man begins with as a dependence on others for guidance, non-rationally binding us to work in response to the control placed upon our own shoulders. Kant supposes that the only enlightened individual is one who is free of having anything done for him. I submit that this is irrational in that no man can survive fully independent of anyone else in the society of today.
Discussion of an issue in an enlightened manner becomes difficult, if one is to avoid the pitfall of accepting the guidance of another in the matter. Kant specifically refutes this sort of life, stating that letting anyone guide your mental self into an action is tantamount to subjugating your will in the matter. I believe Kant to have erred conceptually in that assistance is a necessary part of human functioning. The nature of science and learning can be summarized as standing on the shoulders of those who have come before us. If we are to accept Kant’s assertion that once someone has had the task of understanding the minutiae of every part of the whole of their lives lifted from their shoulders they have succumbed to the “laziness and cowardice”1 inherent in the
undertaking of said task, we must accept that the only way to become enlightened is to escape from the vicious cycle of such trivial concepts as “learning” and “accumulated knowledge.”
How can Kant reasonably state that these premises are sufficient? How can he entertain the possibility of an enlightened race of man, which he states as possible, even inevitable, given freedom and time?1 The constraints Kant identifies as barriers to societal enlightenment are those of unthinking obedience. In essence, Kant is simplifying his views on enlightenment into a guide of ways to be free in all public matters. The distinction of public versus private thought is an important one, as Kant allows for some restrictions of freedom on the individual addressing a private group as opposed to an individual to the public.
Kant specifies three objects that should be the concern of the cause of applied pure reason (in a public sense): the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God2. The freedom of will is the most exemplified in his essay on enlightenment, and he professes that with constraints on the freedom of will come constraints on the use of reason in matters public, and thus constraints on man’s progression toward enlightenment as an autonomous entity apart from the individual. Kant further specifies the free will of man to consist of all judgments independent of the material sensory influence, as opposed to the animal will, composed of synthetic
judgments stemming only from sensory impulses2. Freedom for Kant is a demonstrated and provable a priori truth. This begs the question and appraisal that man can realize that
freedom is an essential truth, and yet is, in large part, bound by his ubiquitous binding to the guidance and knowledge of another (as stated in his enlightenment essay). Beck reinforces this by stating that the step from barbarism, the animal will, to the civilized utility of freewill is the path along which man can achieve the state of pure reason as the ultimate motivator and decision maker3.
Kant’s description of the role of freedom in reason is all very sound, except for its application in the context of a constraint to the free use of reason, as stated by his enlightenment essay. How can a man temper his use of pure reason, a restriction of free will, in order to further the cause of enlightenment; would not the private censorship of pure reason be at odds with the requirement of free will inherent in pure, transcendental reason—supposedly a priori and provable? I would suggest that Kant oversteps the logical bounds he sets later in the Critique.
To assess the content of Kant’s essay, one must realize the nature of his commentary, one not as well reasoned, not as well delineated, and one that lacks the building points that characterize his later work. I cannot fault him for this specifically, but in addressing the shortcomings of his essay light can be shed on the later work, concerning logic and the recourse of pure reason in society and in man. Kant’s views are not always immediately apparent and often take perspicacious viewers much thought to truly understand his points.
In determining and understanding the final points regarding the goal of pure reason in life, Kant examines three questions that relate specifically to this topic: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope?2 Kant dismisses the first two questions as untenable and superfluous, respectively, and addresses the third at length—pointing out its relation to one of the three questions of reason. Kant addresses this to the question of happiness, and that of a greater being’s possibility of existence. He equates the presence and degree of happiness to be the fulfillment granted by a higher being, or by the presence of a higher being facilitating the presence of reason. Smith further specifies the types of happiness, morality and the being of worth. Morality is happiness with a natural value while the being of worthiness is an absolute; morality grounded empirically and the being of worthiness in the a priori4.
If the qualities of happiness and reason are so well entwined, and the faculties of public pure reasoning are absent in the majority of the populace, how can any of them be feeling empirically or deductively happy? Kant’s structure on this point evolved from his statements in his enlightenment essay to the formation of The Critique. The views expressed in the enlightenment text are subtly but significantly deviant from the views in his later works.
An interesting attack is made upon Kant’s defense of philosophical argument in his system as dependent on the same rationale that governs mathematical reasoning. Smith refutes this by clarifying Kant’s intentions; He states that mathematics and philosophy are undeniably and terminally unrelated, that they are in effect, polar opposites, given liberty with the general axiomatic progression. He identifies the conceptual reasoning applied with mathematics as a discursive method, while the reasoning involved in philosophy is most certainly an intuitive progression. When extrapolating the points made in a mathematical argument, more concepts can be synthesized—in philosophy, no further schematization can produce concepts any clearer than those that were at origin4.
This distinction is important as it plays a role in the early criticism of Kant, of which the enlightenment essay is a part. The main argument was for dissolution of the concept of philosophical reason by means of established mathematical method. This was refuted and generally placed upon a pedestal of unfounded misunderstanding, and was likely a reason for Kant’s revisions and the production of his Critique of Practical Reason. Among many other reasons for that publication, most were issues of misunderstanding; Kantian logic is not easily comprehended in its totality, and missing definitions or certain statements can create a problem in deciding the validity of his reasoning.
I believe Kant’s works to be, after and including The Critique of Pure Reason to be nearly perfect, devoid of the indecision apparent in his enlightenment essay. But the problem of Kant’s ethical suppositions on the moral character of man in the Critique is significant. Kant argues for a declination of human value structure based upon a few tenets, basing emotion on generally low concepts and hedonistic motivation. I disagree with Kant on this matter and I believe that man has a heroic quality beyond what drives him with the considerations of reason, happiness, and other outside forces that Kant supposes work for the shaping of man and a society of men. The essential desirable quality that I find in man must be independent of Kant’s unfeeling structure. I cannot abide his dissolution of the laudable, non resultant qualities in man.
I believe that the romantic, eccentric man is an inherent quality in our being, not a result of some outside force or a consequence of our subconscious self having been manipulated by values foreign to our direct sphere of influence. I cannot envision the spirit of man as such a base entity as to only be affected by the Kantian characteristics. The views he professes in his enlightenment essay and elsewhere are generally pessimistic about the ability and quality of the majority of people; He asserts that none but those who have had the intellectual epiphany and realized their dependence on others has captured them in a net of dissolution and at a place where they cannot fully be the most moral individual possible (using reason publicly).
Kant’s overt references to the Prussian ideal of an enlightened society are at once disturbing and frustratingly biased. He implies that any action that does not rely on reason is a reversion to the animal self; creativity, love, and elegance are foreign to the judgment of Kant’s reason, and would be regarded as regressive. Kant was biased in his views for a rational and logical explanation of a sort for all things, denying the indomitable mystery in life, reminiscent of Cartesian values considering the mind and body problem.
Kant’s suggestion of adhering to the categorical imperative in determining courses of action to take as a moral body is a fairly inconvenient and unwieldy suggestion. There are many situations where one could conceivably act in such a way as not to be professing their actions as the basis for a common law. Many of Kant’s principles are designed in similar ways, as to be a generally sound idea, perhaps cold to the emotional and designing needs of man, but still functional in theory. The commonality of all Kant’s theory is in his adherence to his strict logic while simultaneously considering the core question within his philosophy. “How are a priori synthetic judgments possible?2” This sweeping question facilitates discussion of many issues relating to problems in the center of Kant’s logic, and the lack of precedent before his consideration makes it much more difficult and possibly of larger consequence having been avoided or not recognized by all philosophers except perhaps Hume before Kant. This problem relates again to the discussion of philosophy versus mathematics as to which intuitive systems of reason are present in either. This question spawned the creation of the Critique as a response in the mode of a collection of all a priori principles to be used as a purely intuitive science. The creation of The Critique of Pure Reason was facilitated by the existence and acknowledgement of other pure sciences, mathematics, and, at the time, a pure natural science that was under question of supporting or not supporting Kant’s division.
Kant was not without encouragement in his argument and logical procession. David Hume was his predecessor in the closest resemblance to Kant’s field in philosophy. He entangled the same structural problems, and faced many of the same criticisms as Kant did in his early writings. The major difference and opposing point for their philosophies was the question of cause and effect. Hume’s proposition was that causality was improvable and he outlined his reasons for believing so in his document An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Kant’s precise refutations of Hume’s arguments against causality eventually won out, giving him acclaim in his profession and credibility to pursue his writing.
Kant’s moral views can be simplified into questions of what is either done from duty or done as general behavior, and further subdivided as having the concept of duty without complaint and duty by compulsion. Kant professed that the only truly moral route was to be dutiful and not complain. It did not matter if the duty was pleasurable, that was a bonus, but you must be willing to do it even if it were not pleasurable, for that is the nature of duty without complaint.
Kant in essence says that you should be good, even if being good does not feel nice at the time. It is, under his system, unquestioningly more moral to do so.
The Critique was created from the goal of having a pure and trustable science of reason to apply to problems and situations of philosophy, a necessarily a priori engagement. Because without the Critique Kant felt an actual pure science of metaphysics was an untenable concept. Basically, he created the Critique because he felt he needed it to, in good conscience, lay the groundwork for a unified pure science of metaphysics and whatever other branches of philosophy needed to use his pure reason2.
Kant is regarded as one of the more prolific authors in modern, and in the entirety of the field of philosophy. He has revolutionized the sciences of logic, epistemology, and metaphysics and created works that are sure to last. The most difficult part about understanding Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is noticing the varying instigations that shaped his Critique.
Kant was indeed a varied philosopher and attacked many branches of philosophy at once, responded to several philosophers, and crafted a system of logic and reason that was usable beyond just his research. His creations spawned a sect of followers that is an impressive testament to his powers of persuasion and reasoning capabilities. Kant’s only faults lie with his earlier reasoning that was discussed in the portion about his essay on the topic of enlightenment. Kant was weak in areas where he lacked resolute definition; this was fixed in large part when he ascribed the near totality of his philosophy in The Critique of Pure Reason. His relations to the concepts of the spirit of man and the indefinite are, in my opinion, somewhat unforgiving and cold natured. I do not ascribe to his notion that man is without a romantic or heroic driving force, and that the only moral life is one in which duty is followed to the proverbial “t”.
Kant’s life was one of near complete geographic isolation, and this heavily influenced his geo-political stances in his works. He was far from sheltered philosophically, and although he never left his home country, he was well read on all of the modern and classical philosophy of the time. Immanuel Kant was, by his own standards, an enlightened man, he spent the time removing the shackles of inarguable foreknowledge from his wrists and unfettered himself in the sense of a prisoner just learning to function out of jail. His first steps were faltering, but he created a system to live by and work on composing a more moral and less constraining universe by virtue of such.
Kant has many shortcomings in his writings conceptually and spiritually, but still can function in a philosophic sense quite well, he was satisfied with his published works even when critics could not understand his Critique of Pure Reason and he decided to publish a less intimidating version of the same essential points in the Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysic. Kant was a very well thought of and revolutionary writer. He assessed topics of supreme interest in the course of his writings, and was said to have incited a Copernican revolution in the discipline of philosophy. Whether this is true or not is perhaps irrelevant, but it cannot be doubted that he was a watershed figure in modern metaphysics and logic.
If one is to disregard his lack of respect for the unexplainable and rest his virtues purely upon his systematic and broadly sweeping rules for governing a moral life one could actually live by the tenets that he prescribes. In large he is not altogether completely unrealistic, and does not stretch the imagination in the realm of what is a possible life as opposed to the philosophies of other metaphysicians. Kant has a note of realism and unerring perseverance that drives the points home, even when he delves into language so antiquated and veritably bursting with philosophical jargon as to be nearly unintelligible without serious perusal over the course of days. While I find some of his views personally distasteful, I can recognize the good points in his work and adapt my view of his work as a whole to be one of admiration and sincere interest. Kant is anything but mentally boring, his works have inspired the wills and minds of nearly all of the philosophers in the last three hundred years.
Kant is a great philosopher with many prolific and sound ideas and procedures. He can adapt his system of pure reason to practically any problem and analyze it for the benefit of the fields of logic and, if appropriate, metaphysics. The problems of causality and of the synthetic a priori, to name a small amount, have been effectively conquered by the system that Kant devised, still applicable to modern problems and his logic has stood the test of time.
, Immanuel, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment” Accessed 2 December 2003. Available from http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/etexts/Kant.html
, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason
. Translated and edited by Norman Kemp Smith. New York: The Humanities Press, 1950.
3. Beck, Lewis White, Studies in the Philosophy of Kant
. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1956.
4. Smith, Norman Kemp, A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason
. New York: The Humanities Press, 1950.