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Kant and Enlightenment Relations Essay

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This essay deals with the Kantian philosophy with particular reference to his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?” In this essay, Kant poses the apparently contradictory statement “Do we live in an enlightened age?” and the answer to this is “No! We live in an age of enlightenment”. This essay tries to bring out the fine distinction between these two statements and attempts to put this in context of the present age.

Immanuel Kant1

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who lived during the time of what we now call as the “Enlightenment”. He was born in Prussia in 1724 and is regarded as one of the foremost intellectual thinkers of his time. His essays about perpetual peace and Critique of reason were hailed for their extraordinary insight into the human condition and the state of war and peace that existed at that time.

What is Enlightenment?

“What is Enlightenment” is an essay written by Kant in 1784. In this Kant describes the conditions necessary for what is described as “man’s immaturity” and conditions necessary for man to emerge out of this and think for himself.

The definition of enlightenment as described by Kant in the opening paragraph of his essay is reproduced here:

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. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment2.

Distinction between an Enlightened age and an Age of Enlightenment

Let us know turn to the central theme of this essay, namely the distinction posed by the question that Kant puts forward in his essay and answers it as well. In the time of what is called the “Enlightenment” period where there was resurgence and rejuvenation in Europe in matters regarding the purpose of human life and the flowering of the sciences, there was also an emergence of the nation state and corresponding increase in the rights of individuals for their liberty. In this context, Kant wants people to move away from the “self imposed” shackles to his intellectual freedom and using his own understanding to emerge from the cocoon of apparent comfort provided by authority and by conforming to the established norms.

Kant identifies the barriers to an “Enlightened age” as those of the Church, the state and other authoritarian figures that keep man away from thinking for himself. The very subtle contradiction of rights provided by the state and the conditions attached for such liberties is what is the key factor in man reaching to his full in terms of Enlightened thinking. Hence, Kant calls upon the rulers and the guardians of civil society to treat man according to his own dignity and remove him from his yoke. He also makes the point that the guardians may find themselves under the yoke.

The other point about living in an “Age of Enlightenment” is the prevalence of independent thought and thinkers like Fredrick who have shown the way for man and the society to proceed to a fuller appreciation of intellectual freedom and liberation for man. Thus though we are not in an enlightened age because of the conditions imposed by the state and other “externalities” that impeded intellectual freedom, there is nevertheless a situation of an age of enlightenment. This theme is a recurring one from the time of that period and it continues to this day where thinkers and philosophers have mused about individual freedom and the role of the state etc.

Parallels to the present age

The famous assertion of Kant regarding the age of enlightenment and the enlightened age has many parallels in the present age and the first decade of the 21st century. With an increasingly global world and the advent of market economics, the nation state is being subsumed by the larger forces of capital and free trade. As such, the transnational corporations have taken centre stage usurping many of the functions of the nation state and providing many its services.

The advent of global media has given us newer forms of self expression but has also held us hostage to what Flaubert called the “mass manufactured visions of happiness”. 3

Thus we have a situation where the interconnectedness of life has provided us with more opportunities for self expression and at the same time held us in thrall of materialistic excesses. Thus the question posed by Kant remains as relevant today as it was when it was first articulated.


Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy. New York: Classics, 1926.

English. Dept. University of Pennsylvania. 2008. Web.

“Delusion of the Self.”Penguin Classics. 2008. Web.

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