In the article included in this week’s reading “What is Enlightenment?” Emmanuel Kant defines it as the emergence from a “self incurred immaturity”. This introductory sentence implies that man would remain in a state of immaturity out of laziness, or cowardice, delegating thinking to specialists, as a commodity.
Throughout his essay, he develops an argument for specific ways of using this enlightenment, in which we could see several paradoxes.
The most striking one could be the way that the use of one's own reasoning has to be operated only in a private sphere, and never disrupt the system it is criticising.
The temporality of the way to enlightenment is described in opposition to revolutions.
“Therefore, a public can achieve enlightenment only slowly. A revolution may bring about the end of a personal despotism or of avaricious tyrannical oppression, but never a true reform of modes of thought.”
When he opposes the slow process of enlightenment to revolutions, seen as necessarily unsuccessful because of their bursting nature, Kant denies the mechanisms of uprisings.
If their tipping point is sudden, it is the result of a longer process, and can only be achieved when the conditions to a revolution are gathered. Only then a revolution is not decided, it becomes ineluctable. He points that revolutions are always failures that lead to serving “New prejudices in place of the old, as guidelines for the unthinking multitude.”
It might sometimes be true, but alone, writings have never been able to overcome those prejudices either.
Extending on the notion of time, and freedom, we can argue that the reason for revolutions to be bursts of anger rather than written pamphlets is that the ones that are the most oppressed by the system in place do not have the necessary time to develop these thinkings. This lack of time might be the most powerful tool of oppression and alienation to a system.
Enlightened in the 21st century, who would be a “scholar” today, and what tool would they use?
As for other elements of the text that are to be put in the context of the writer, we could want to reflect on what would be the equivalent of a scholar today.
As pointed previously, Kant defines a specific space for the use of enlightenment, the one of the private sphere. He also specifies the tool for practicing it, the one of writing.
“let us say that he thinks of himself as a scholar rationally addressing his public through his writings”
How could we define a scholar today, and what would be the nature of their tools?
Even if we still consider writing, the format of this textual form has dramatically changed, along with its temporalities.
The content of this writing should be from an expert point of view, based on critical observations of their practice.
Yet, in the first paragraph of his essay, he blames this same delegation of thought to specialists:
“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--”
If relying on others' expert knowledge in their own field is considered as remaining in a position of nonage, how can being a thinker of your field of expertise be the way to enlightenment?
Where should we draw the line of objecting to a position if it contradicts too much with one’s conscience?
“For if he believed that such contradictions existed he would not be able to administer his office with a clear conscience. He would have to resign from it. ”
If we follow Kant’s argument on remaining within a system even when we perceive its flows, without trying to change it from the inside, without objecting, what would happen in the case of a system serving causes that go against the common good? Pushing this to the extreme, could we draw a parallel with Adolf Eichmann’s trial, where he claimed he was only “following orders”.