Immanuel Kant’s renowned short essay, ‘What is Enlightenment?’ though written in 1784, has a surprising amount of relevance today. Many have debated or analyzed the topic and content, including Deleuze and Guattari, the Frankfurt School at large, and Foucault; though this list is by no means exhaustive. Kant begins with the definition of what has been building up for the Modern Era in philosophy, science and literature, the Enlightenment:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. 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.
Think for yourself. Do not let others convince sway you from your own convictions. Have the freedom, the courage to reason with yourself, and do not let your own biases or passions lead to decisions that will affect others in negative ways. Psychologically speaking, Kant is propounding that if we are to lead lazy lives, allowing others to legislate our lives for us (which is as relevant as Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus), then humans are to become slave-like creatures who owe their existential dependence to another. Much easier said than done, “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..” Are we not dependent upon a specialized amount of people to legislate and control our multi-faceted lives in ever increasing ways? With discovery of every new cell in the body comes a specialist on that single cell, and are we not to consult them about how to keep that single cell in tact and functioning properly? Gramsci teaches us with the increasing human population, jobs are becoming more specialized to accommodate the individuals, and in turn, more purposeless.
Kant then moves on to give the single criterion for the Enlightenment to prosper, freedom. He says that “if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable,” but with that, an obvious question surfaces: what is exactly meant by freedom? Luckily, Kant provides a tacit answer. Freedom entails the public use of reason without restraint. In other words, the freedom of the press in contemporary times could give a good example, criticism of the current regime, but in Kant’s case, he is mainly speaking of dogmatic religious doctrine. This makes sense, more so than today, because the Enlightenment is typically seen as a movement toward secularism and science, against the moral and religious bonds that kept humans shackled from the time period of the fall of the Roman Empire through the Medieval and Middle Ages. A sovereign, for Kant, holds his power negatively. His object is to unite the will of the people with the will of his own person, being a representative. “It is his business to prevent one man from forcibly keeping another from determining and promoting his salvation to the best of his ability.”
‘Progress’ is also a central theme in Kant’s essay; it is, in a way, human nature. Dogmatic religion and political dictatorship keep humans bonded, while freedom of reason amongst subjects allows for the pursuance of the sciences and the arts. Progress in the sciences and arts is what Kant calls the end of this Enlightenment. That is the true test of the freedom in a regime, what is censored versus what is not. Progress is slow and “a public can achieve Enlightenment only slowly.” We live in an age of Enlightenment, though not an Enlightened Age. In Kant’s sense, the process is still moving today, wherein certain topics can still be censored and controlled by the government – for example the Snowden case or the Zero Dark Thirty documentary (if their testimony is accurate).
Is freedom really the sole criterion for the Enlightenment, and the way toward a higher idea of mankind, though? The Frankfurt School would disagree at a later time; starting in the early 20th century. They would probably say that this freedom from religious dogma and unquestionable political authority was good, but led to an awful side effect; mass opinion globalization. This mass opinion would replace political and religious authority, but in a much worse way. Humans would believe themselves to be free, while following the footsteps of their neighbors, the town, the state, the nation, and finally, the world (with the ever-increasing amount of technology), shackled by opinions that are not their own. Marketing agencies and big business, Hollywood, etc., would make us believe certain things, think in a certain way, and eventually control us because of our weak, herd-like tendencies (Nietzsche) as humans.
An individual could believe him/herself free. Write an article criticizing the Trump regime for a military ban on trans-gender individuals. Does not a bulk of the people in America and internationally have the same opinion, and written the same ideas in different ways? Through Tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram aesthetics, etc. etc. This idea begs of the question, why are we thinking this way? Because we are born with the innate idea of the divinity and rights of man? Because we value freedom, no matter how pseudo it might be, giving an appearance of true freedom whilst grounded on mass opinion? The Frankfurt School would probably say that it is a movement of our common opinions and ideas, not necessarily reasoned with, but passionately massed together in a majority opinion; shunning away those who hold different views. What we believe does not have to do with our own beliefs, but in a globalized world, what others view and opinionate themselves with.
This last phrase is the beginning of Kant’s essay. He just moves on to other things that are irrelevant to humans in contemporary times, but the message is still there. Freedom is a wonderful ideal – Kant just does not see how it could have been perverted when transferring the ideal over to practical use in the world. Though it takes a significant amount of courage that is difficult to fathom, leaving space for dissension from authority is how humans can free themselves from the bonds. In Kant’s time, it was religious dogma and the support of many political regimes in their favor; today, it is our handheld devices, our social media, entities that keep us from thinking ourselves. The mass culture has infiltrated almost every facet of our personal, private life. Public opinion legislates our lives, not our own reason.
 ‘What is Enlightenment’ by Immauel Kant (trans. By Mary C. Smith)