The Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? By Immanuel Kant

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Initial Reaction:

The essay made by Immanuel Kant is very insightful as it makes us realize that a lot of times, our actions and thinking are not from rationale thinking but a product of what the world is telling us to think. A lot of times, we fail to really mature because we become so dependent on our family, friends, the media, the school, and even the society on what we behave that we think everything that is existing in the world is the “truth” We do not question, we just follow because that is what’s comfortable at the expense of really discovering what is really the reason why we have to do such things.

For example, why do we really have to do a book review? Is it really for our growth? Or the teacher just needs to do his duty of teaching? Why do we have to do a diet? Is it because we need it or the advertisements tell us that we should adhere to that standard? There are things around us that are not really rationale but are just created formulas which suggest that it is how we should live our life. When we just follow these things, we lose our ability to be enlightened for we are bounded by what others wants us to believe and follow.

Kant suggests in his essay that for us to grow as individuals and as a society, we need to be able to find the reasons, question, and challenge the current teaching. We should not be merely followers but people who are really curious and in constant pursuit of knowledge. I like how he emphasized how people should be in constant search for the truth and be critical of what they know. He also mentioned that only when we are enlightened as people can we push for reform and growth for it is in knowing that truth that wisdom prevails than personal agenda of the one who spreads the dogma.


Immanuel Kant’s essay: “Answering the Question: What is enlightenment?” explains enlightenment as the ability of the person to be independent from the thoughts and action that were dictated by others. According to him, human beings have placed limits to themselves to understand what the “real” is because they were bounded by self-imposed borders that they were made to believe to be “true”.  He mentioned the word “nonage” which means inability to use ones understanding without another’s guidance[1]. This leaves human beings as just followers and not drivers of their own lives.

He described people who have not been enlightened as “minors”, incapable of deciphering things on their own and living the life dictated by others. Those who are labelled as “minors” are indecisive and lack the courage to use her/his own mind without the approval of others.  In this case, influenced mainly by the church and the by the government. When some is considered “minor”, they usually do not think about their actions that much and become too dependent. They become coward to experience the reality and are too indulged in staying in the “safe side”. Nonage here becomes the norm and it becomes difficult for the person to get out of it due to familiarity and too much dependence.

To lack enlightenment is to lack reason and freedom as one is not able to think critically and build new ideas. According to the essay, the “religious truths”, “dogmas”, and “formulas” have inhibited man into pursuing enlightenment. These things have been automatic tools that makes free movement harder since everything a person should do is already predetermined. Any deviation from what was set has a warning that one will stumble and fall.

Lack of enlightenment is the weapon of the church and state to control people. It has been used to pretend that “they” are guardians so they can influence ones thinking and manipulate ones actions. A lot of times, people will intently make people less educated so they will remain reliant on the more knowledgeable person who Kant describes as the “guardian”. Guardian promotes prejudices. This is what they use to oppress others.  They refuse to entertain questions but expect total obedience. They want to keep people from critically thinking because questioning facilitates reform.

To be enlightened, Kant mentioned that one must cultivate the mind and be able to think independently. From her/his knowledge, one must be able to use the new found freedom to build reason in all that matters. When one is free to choose and reason, he/she can bring enlightenment to mankind. An enlightened person will be able to question and challenge and system in order to free others. According to Kant, the continuous pursuit of what should be the way to think and act must not be dictated by others and not by the past but should be determined by the present.

Kant mentioned added that a free society is the one which allows criticisms and reforms. The ruler should allow complete freedom especially in relation to religious matters. The leader should be the one to push for people to get out of their own “barbarism” he added.  A free/enlightened society is that one where people are not afraid to question or follow commands. People are not afraid to argue but it does not mean that they should not obey. To Kant, obedience is a product of the self-discipline imposed by ones own understanding of the rationality of why things must be done. When there is enlightenment, the pursuit of things is based on pure and directed to reason.

In conclusion, Kant’s essay speaks volumes of the prevailing rule of the church and state. He calls on the leaders of these two institutions and the people to be in constant search for reason and knowledge. The church and rulers of the state should not use their power and teachings to manipulate the people but to organize them as people who are not machines but human beings who are capable of initiating changes.

About the author and the history of the work:

Immanuel Kant is one of the modern day philosophers who is famous for his work on The Critique of Pure Reason. The essay about enlightenment was written around the 1700 in Prussia during the period which is also called the enlightenment. At this time, a lot of scholars have already been questioning the teachings of the church and the orders of the state. A lot written documents have been written and taught in schools.

Kant grow up in a not so rich family. His parents are devout “Pietist” so he grow up learning about the religion is forced to also follow its doctrines. He is an intelligent man since he was a child so he became aware about the teachings in the church and started questioning those which can be seen in his other philosophical work.

Kant studied in Germany while he teaches. This is where he became more exposed to the other things in the society such as the government rule. This is the time when the monarchies are also strong in Europe. He has been questioning the rules that were set and that the validity of following the monarchy just because they were believed to be the chosen ones. He has been critical of the reason why one must follow these people.

His work, although years ago already, is still valid today for we still have the same strong push from the church and government to follow. Aside from these two, there are also other elements which shapes our perception and thinking to which Kant said we should be critical. Those are famous and powerful tend to use this to teach and make others follow. This is the reason why Kant has been constantly reminding us to be knowledgeable and continually seek the truth, be enlightened, for not all things we know are pure.


December 12, 2023


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