Enlightenment and Thinking (Kant)

This morning I reread Kant’s well-known What is Enlightenment? [PDF], an essay that I’ve reflected on many times over the years.

Much more interesting (a recent reading, thanks to a friend’s deeper knowledge of Kant) though is Kant’s lesser-known (to me anyway) development on enlightenment and thinking, which is perhaps more reasonable and realistic. I quote below from SS40 of The Critique of Judgement. This piece, with extended footnote, emphasises the difficulty of thinking, and of the removal of superstition/prejudice. Enlightenment, like anything of worth, does not come easily.

While the following maxims of common human understanding do not properly come in here as constituent parts of the critique of taste, they may still serve to elucidate its fundamental propositions. They are these: (I) to think for oneself; (2) to think from the standpoint of everyone else; (3) always to think consistently. The first is the maxim of unprejudiced thought, the second that of enlarged thought, the third that of consistent thought. The first is the maxim of a never passive reason. To be given to such passivity, consequently to heteronomy of reason, is called prejudice; and the greatest of all prejudices is that of fancying nature not to be subject to rules which the understanding by virtue of its own essential laws lays at its basis, i.e., superstition. Emancipation from superstition is called enlightenment*; for although this term applies also to emancipation from prejudices generally, still superstition deserves pre-eminently (in sensu eminenti) to be called a prejudice. For the condition of blindness into which superstition puts one, which is as much as demands from one as an obligation, makes the need of being led by others, and consequently the passive state of the reason, pre-eminently conspicuous. As to the second maxim belonging to our habits of thought, we have quite got into the way of calling a man narrow (narrow, as opposed to being of enlarged mind) whose talents fall short of what is required for employment upon work of any magnitude (especially that involving intensity). But the question here is not one of the faculty of cognition, but of the mental habit of making a final use of it. This, however small the range and degree to which man’s natural endowments extend, still indicates a man of enlarged mind: if he detaches himself from the subjective personal conditions of his judgement, which cramp the minds of so many others, and reflects upon his own judgement from a universal standpoint (which he can only determine by shifting his ground to the standpoint of others). The third maxim-that, namely, of consistent thought-is the hardest of attainment, and is only attainable by the union of both the former, and after constant attention to them has made one at home in their observance. We may say: The first of these is the maxim of understanding, the second that of judgement, the third of that reason.

*We readily see that enlightenment, while easy, no doubt, in thesi, in hypothesis is difficult and slow of realization. For not to be passive with one’s reason, but always to be self-legislative, is doubtless quite an easy matter for a man who only desires to be adapted to his essential end, and does not seek to know what is beyond his understanding. But as the tendency in the latter direction is hardly avoidable, and others are always coming and promising with full assurance that they are able to satisfy one’s curiosity, it must be very difficult to preserve or restore in the mind (and particularly in the public mind) that merely negative attitude (which constitutes enlightenment proper).

4 thoughts on “Enlightenment and Thinking (Kant)

  1. Pingback: Can Enlightenment be traced to specific correlates of the Brain, Cognition, or Behavior? | Contemplative Mind in Life

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