August 20, 2019

What’s Enlightenment (post from Berlin, June 5 2015)


(I am catching up on posting blogs that I wrote while in Berlin for the month of June)

Most of you know that I am in Germany for a month long “mini-sabbatical,” attending a German language school.  One of my many goals is to read two of my favorite philosophers, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), in the original German. I have been told that these two philosophers are often impenetrable even in the original German, and German philosophy students read the English translations to understand what they are saying. So I have amended one of my goals to “not understand Kant and Hegel in the original German.”

I re-read parts of the works of Kant and Hegel before my trip (not presuming to understand them even in English), and I came across a famous essay of Kant’s, published in 1784. The “Enlightenment” was well underway, and maybe even already in its dusk as a philosophic movement. Then, as now, there was a certain ironic unclarity about what “Enlightenment” actually refers to. The Berlin Monthly invited readers to write essays on the term, and Kant took up the challenge.

I see his response as being rather cheeky.  Instead of trying to describe the philosophic movement of the Enlightenment, he described it analytically. Here the first sentence, famous among philosophers:  “Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit”, usually translated as “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.”  Immaturity here means relying on other people to do your thinking for you. He is referring to political leaders, clergy, and all manner of experts. The political dimension of the Enlightenment was democracy, the removing of despots and weakening the Church’s grip on knowledge. That political dimension, which created the conditions for the Enlightenment, does not itself grant enlightenment. Enlightenment happens within. The real enemies of enlightenment, Kant held, were laziness and cowardice.

I am fairly sure that this was not the answer the readers of “Berlin Monthly” were after. I will have to wait a little bit to see if “Faulheit und Feigheit” really mean “laziness and cowardice”, but if so, that’s pretty harsh. He is referring to his readers, of course. Then, and now, it is very tempting to study a philosophy to learn an answer, and not to learn what the questions of a philosopher were. We should be studying their answers as an example of thinking, not the final word. The same goes for our politics, religion, and psychology.

I remember one of the most arresting sentences I ever read, which I encountered in Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption:  Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. When discussing Freudian and post-Freudian views of “why children turn out the way they do,” Harris states:  “It has never been proven to be true.”  You can look at a behavior and assume some Freudian (or other ‘ian’) cause, but it has never been proven that a certain kind of parenting or experience in childhood, generally speaking, will produce a certain type of child. Picky parents can produce louts. Louts can produce fastidious children. Or a picky and then a fastidious child. That sentence of Judith Harris’s consolidated an emerging thought within me, that I had been too ill-disciplined or too timid to actually arrive at.

I think of all the slogans I have heard (and tremble a bit when I think of the ones I have used) that curtail thought, as opposed to being products of serious and searching thought. It takes hard, hard work to really think something through; why you or someone else acts the way they do, and the best way to change. What the best answer is politically. What the deeper truths are.

And sometimes we don’t want to see an answer because it would disturb our carefully built player’s-pack edifices, or we might actually have to change the way we think or live. Kant overtly referred to despots and clerics. I think he also meant the tyranny of shallow thought and our religion-like commitment to dubious conclusions, whether our own or others.

For our purposes, our constant question is: why do we do what we do (especially when we criticize, complain, condemn, or engage in needless conflict), and how can we transform. Answer that, and you can call yourself enlightened.