An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a prominent German thinker, focusing on epistemology,
the study of how we know things. His most famous book is the
Critique of Pure Reason
(1781), analyzing the limits of reason itself. One of his aims was to find common ground
between Baconian empiricists and Cartesian rationalists. Kant’s essay “What is
Enlightenment?” was published in the
newspaper in December 1784 as
part of an ongoing debate about new forms of thought in Europe and their relationship to
traditional structures of power and custom
Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the
inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is
self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and
courage to use it without guidance from another.
! [Dare to know!] "Have
courage to use your own understanding!"—That is the motto of enlightenment.
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after
nature has released them from alien guidance, nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong
immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians. It
is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve
as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert
myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome
work for me. The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men
have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex)
regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult. Having first
made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile
creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these
guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk
alone. Now this danger is not actually so great, for after falling a few times they would in
the end certainly learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes men timid and usually
frightens them out of all further attempts.
Thus, it is difficult for any individual man to work himself out of the immaturity that has
all but become his nature. He has even become fond of this state and for the time being is
actually incapable of using his own understanding, for no one has ever allowed him to
attempt it. Rules and formulas, those mechanical aids to the rational use, or rather misuse,
of his natural gifts, are the shackles of a permanent immaturity. Whoever threw them off
would still make only an uncertain leap over the smallest ditch, since he is unaccustomed
to this kind of free movement. Consequently, only a few have succeeded, by cultivating
their own minds, in freeing themselves from immaturity and pursuing a secure course.
But that the public should enlighten itself is more likely; indeed, if it is only allowed