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Kant and the Enlightenment Promise

by D.R. Khashaba

The 12th February 2004 marks the bicentenary of the death of Immanuel Kant, who may justly be regarded as an incarnation of the Enlightenment. Were Kant to come back into our world today, how would he view what has become of the promise of that glorious movement?

In 1784 Kant gave an answer to the question, "What is Enlightenment?" In giving that answer Kant was in the first place concerned to distinguish between the practical need to obey the laws and institutions of society, necessary for maintaining peace and stability, on the one hand, and the freedom of thought, the right of the individual to question and criticize those very laws and institutions in public, absolutely necessary for human progress, on the other hand. Most of what Kant says in that context may now be of historical interest only (if we leave out of account those areas of the world where freedom of thought is still anathema). But at one point Kant draws a seminal distinction between an age of enlightenment and an enlightened age.

If we are asked, Do we now live in an enlightened age?, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment. As things now stand, we still have a long way to go before men can be or can easily become capable of correctly using their own reason in religious matters with assurance, without outside guidance. But we do have clear indications that the way is now being cleared for men to work freely in this direction, and that the obstacles to general enlightenment, to man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity, are gradually becoming fewer.

Perhaps, writing at a time when intellectual Europe was living in the euphoria of the ideals of freedom and rationalism, Kant was over-optimistic. Yet he was clear-sighted and perceptive enough to realize that, much as it was gratifying to see the good work accomplished by the great British, French, and German thinkers, and the liberalizing reforms introduced by Frederick the Great (to whom Kant's article paid deserved homage), the fulfilment of an enlightened age was a far-off goal.

During the twentieth century the hopes and dreams that were generated in the preceding two centuries were dissipated. Today, two hundred years after Kant departed our world, we cast a look on the condition of humankind, a humankind that, by the lights of eighteenth-century enlightenment and nineteenth-century progressivism, should by now have become united in peace, goodwill, and prosperity — and what do we see? It is hardly necessary to give an account: intolerance, conflict, violence, poverty, and disease not only reign in the vast backward regions but are also evident in what might be termed the bright spots of the advanced world.

But bad as it is that we have failed to make good on the promise, it is a far worse calamity that we seem to have lost the beacon that signals the way. During the twentieth century mainstream philosophy lost its bearings. Seduced by the spectacular theoretical and practical successes of the objective sciences into thinking that the methods and criteria of those sciences were the only means to truth, philosophers sought to apply those same methods and criteria to questions relating to the meaning of life and the values that give meaning to life. Philosophy, especially the Analytical species prevalent in the English-speaking world, was broken up into specialized disciplines and fragmented into particular problems, all swayed and impregnated by scientism, reductionism, and relativism. All questions of meaning and value were consigned to the rubbish heap of 'metaphysical nonsense'.

On the other hand, religion, seemingly the only remaining shelter for meanings and values, continued to tether these meanings and values to irrational beliefs that enslave the mind and play a divisive role between peoples. Humanity was thus left to the mercy of the Scylla of amoral science and technology on the one hand and the Charybdis of dogmatic religion on the other hand. The option we were offered was: either science and no values or values bound up with what Kant called self-imposed immaturity.

The ruinous abdication by philosophy of its rightful domain is the consequence of the oblivion of philosophers to a great insight first beheld clearly by Socrates and re-affirmed by Kant as by no other philosopher. Science, concerned solely and exclusively with objective existents, cannot give answers to questions about meanings and values. Only ideas engendered by the mind and to be found nowhere but in the mind (Socrates), only the pure transcendental forms supplied by reason (Kant), can secure the ideals and values and put us in touch with the realities that constitute our moral and spiritual life. Twenty-four centuries after Socrates, two centuries after Kant, we badly need to re-learn the lesson.


Kant's "Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklarung?" was published in the Berlinische Monatschrift for December 1784. An English translation can be accessed at:

© D. R. Khashaba 2004

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