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Immanuel Kant, "What is Enlightenment?'" (1784)

In the 1770s, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) emerged as a philosopher of major European stature. He exerted a profound influence on German cultural-intellectual life, most notably by arguing that knowledge and the world are constructed by the autonomous workings of human reason and moral imagination (here he opposed the Lockean tradition, which tended to assign the human mind the more passive function of reflecting the rationality of the perceived world). This famous essay is a foundational document of German liberalism, in that it argues for intellectual freedom and freedom of expression as the means by which human beings attain moral and citizenly self-determination. To the extent that the Enlightened state (and Kant had Frederick II’s Prussia in mind) permits free inquiry and expression, a gradual conversion of monarchical absolutism into self-government by the educated and propertied classes – the liberal, as opposed to populist democratic, ideal – becomes conceivable and desirable.

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What is Enlightenment?

Immanuel Kant

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! [Dare to know!] "Have courage to use your own reason!" – that is the motto of enlightenment.

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 under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. 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 think, if I can only pay – others will easily undertake the irksome work for me.

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. Actually, however, this danger is not so great, for by falling a few times they would finally learn to walk alone. But an example of this failure makes them timid and ordinarily frightens them away from all further trials.

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