A man who had a significant impact on the life and philosophies of Thomas Jefferson, and therefore on the foundations of America, was the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant.
Over the past decade or so, I have read Kant’s works and have studied his influences on men like Jefferson and Marx. Kant was an exponent of enlightenment, which he defined in his seminal 1781 work, Kritik der reinen Vernunft or translated, Critique of Pure Reason.
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage [nonage = immaturity – Ed.]. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.
I believe that Kant’s work has been misappropriated by thinkers who do not adhere to Kant’s admonition that while we do perceive things through the filters of our own experiences, reason must be the basis for our decisions – we must be active decision makers, not choosing to be passively ignorant:
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on–then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me. Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind–among them the entire fair sex–should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous. First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves. Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk. However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts.
Thus it is very difficult for the individual to work himself out of the nonage which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown to like it, and is at first really incapable of using his own understanding because he has never been permitted to try it. Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use–or rather abuse–of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting nonage. The man who casts them off would make an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch, because he is not used to such free movement. That is why there are only a few men who walk firmly, and who have emerged from nonage by cultivating their own minds.
There was a time in my life when I thought that Kant was a Godless figure, an enemy of religion – but that was until I applied his philosophy of Sapere aude because he actually asserted that, due to the limitations of argumentation in the absence of irrefutable evidence, no one could really know whether there is a God and an afterlife or not. For the sake of morality and as a ground for reason, Kant asserted, people are justified in believing in God, even though they could never know God’s presence empirically. He explained:
All the preparations of reason, therefore, in what may be called pure philosophy, are in reality directed to those three problems only [God, the soul, and freedom]. However, these three elements in themselves still hold independent, proportional, objective weight individually. Moreover, in a collective relational context; namely, to know what ought to be done: if the will is free, if there is a God, and if there is a future world. As this concerns our actions with reference to the highest aims of life, we see that the ultimate intention of nature in her wise provision was really, in the constitution of our reason, directed to moral interests only.
Kant’s philosophy constantly demanded reason in all things:
If one cannot prove that a thing is, he may try to prove that it is not. And if he succeeds in doing neither (as often occurs), he may still ask whether it is in his interest to accept one or the other of the alternatives hypothetically, from the theoretical or the practical point of view. Hence the question no longer is as to whether perpetual peace is a real thing or not a real thing, or as to whether we may not be deceiving ourselves when we adopt the former alternative, but we must act on the supposition of its being real.
Kant also proffers the proposition that man cannot stay stupid forever and should he submit to elective idiocy, he is an enemy of not only himself but all of mankind:
A man may postpone his own enlightenment, but only for a limited period of time. And to give up enlightenment altogether, either for oneself or one’s descendants, is to violate and to trample upon the sacred rights of man.
In other words, we ignore reality at our own peril as the fact that the world continues to turn and change is inevitable and is a simple consequence of natural law. What you refuse to learn on your own, Nature will teach you…and not always in a gentle or kind manner.
Kant is said that:
- Man must pursue enlightenment relentlessly.
- That it is each individual’s responsibility to cultivate their own minds.
- We have a responsibility to ourselves to learn and to teach our progeny.
- Remaining immature or ignorant is a choice that violates the very sacred rights of man.
- Where reason is frustrated by inconclusive evidence, we must act if the condition was real (i.e. if the existence of God is not provable using reason and logic, we must act as if God is real).
- Reason must be applied to all situations in the quest for answers as new evidence is developed (i.e. poverty exists, we act to end poverty, the act does not end poverty, therefore we must change the act)
It appears to me that Kant’s works have been used as the basis for the post modernism of today by people who seek to escape enlightenment and prefer to only apply reason until it reaches a point where they can agree with the conclusions, albeit they incomplete. They refuse to acknowledge that while Kant did propose that the understanding of our world is a function of our perception, he required that we never stop questioning that perception using our intellect in an attempt to convert synthetic propositions into analytic propositions.