Immanuel Kant on the Meaning of Enlightenment

“Have courage to use your own understanding!”

-The motto of enlightenment according to Immanuel Kant.

Immanuel Kant: What is Enlightenment? (1784)

Immanuel Kant

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.

Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians.

It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.

In fact, immaturity has become the nature of most people.

Now, it is difficult for any individual man to work himself out of the immaturity that has all but become his nature. He has even become fond of this state and for the time being is actually incapable of using his own understanding, for no one has ever allowed him to attempt it. Rules and formulas, those mechanical aids to the rational use, or rather misuse, of his natural gifts, are the shackles of a permanent immaturity. Whoever threw them off would still make only an uncertain leap over the smallest ditch, since he is unaccustomed to this kind of free movement. Consequently, only a few have succeeded, by cultivating their own minds, in freeing themselves from immaturity and pursuing a secure course.

Enlightenment for the public is very much possible if it is allowed freedom. However, a public can only attain enlightenment slowly. Perhaps a revolution can overthrow autocratic despotism and profiteering or power-grabbing oppression, but it can never truly reform a manner of thinking; instead, new prejudices, just like the old ones they replace, will serve as a leash for the great unthinking mass.

Nothing is required for this enlightenment, as pointed out earlier, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.

There are pervasive restrictions on freedom. But which restriction hinders enlightenment and which advances it?

The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among mankind; the private use of reason may, however, often be very narrowly restricted, without otherwise hindering the progress of enlightenment. By the public use of one’s own reason, it means the use that anyone as a scholar makes of reason before the entire literate world. The private use of reason is one which a person may make in a civic post or office that has been entrusted to him.

Now in many affairs conducted in the interests of a community, a certain mechanism is required by means of which some of its members must conduct themselves in an entirely passive manner so that through an artificial unanimity the government may guide them toward public ends, or at least prevent them from destroying such ends. Here one certainly must not argue, instead one must obey. However, insofar as this part of the machine also regards himself as a member of the community as a whole, or even of the world community, and as a consequence addresses the public in the role of a scholar, in the proper sense of that term, he can most certainly argue, without thereby harming the affairs for which as a passive member he is partly responsible.

For example, the citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him; indeed, impertinent criticism of such levies, when they should be paid by him, can be punished as a scandal (since it can lead to widespread insubordination). But the same person does not act contrary to civic duty when, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts regarding the impropriety or even injustice of such taxes. A scholar enjoys in this public use of reason an unrestricted freedom to use his own rational capacities and to speak his own mind. For that the guardians of a people should themselves be immature is an absurdity that would insure the perpetuation of absurdities.

To secure a constant guardianship over the people for all time is impossible. Such a contract, whose intention is to preclude forever all further enlightenment of the human race, is absolutely null and void, even if it should be ratified by the supreme power, by parliaments, and by the most solemn peace treaties. One age cannot bind itself, and thus conspire, to place a succeeding one in a condition whereby it would be impossible for the later age to expand its knowledge (particularly where it is so very important), to rid itself of errors,and generally to increase its enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature, whose essential destiny lies precisely in such progress; subsequent generations are thus completely justified in dismissing such agreements as unauthorised and criminal.

A man may put off enlightenment with regard to what he ought to know, though only for a short time and for his own person; but to renounce it for himself, or, even more, for subsequent generations, is to violate and trample man’s divine rights underfoot. And what a people may not decree for itself may still less be imposed on it by a monarch, for his lawgiving authority rests on his unification of the people’s collective will in his own. If he only sees to it that all genuine or purported improvement is consonant with civil order, he can allow his subjects to do what they find necessary to their spiritual well-being, which is not his affair. However, he must prevent anyone from forcibly interfering with another’s working as best he can to determine and promote his well-being. It detracts from his own majesty when he interferes in these matters, since the writings in which his subjects attempt to clarify their insights lend value to his conception of governance. This holds whether he acts from his own highest insight as well as, indeed even more, when he despoils his highest authority by supporting the spiritual despotism of some tyrants in his state over his other subjects.

If it is now asked, “Do we presently live in an enlightened age?” the answer is, “No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.” As matters now stand, a great deal is still lacking in order for men as a whole to be, or even to put themselves into a position to be able without external guidance to apply understanding confidently to religious issues. But we do have clear indications that the way is now being opened for men to proceed freely in this direction and that the obstacles to general enlightenment- to their release from their self-imposed immaturity- are gradually diminishing. In this regard, this age is the age of enlightenment.


A Critical Analysis With Special Reference to What Kant Calls “Guardians”

To me, by guardians, Kant meant experts and expert opinions which may include books, religion, government, leaders etc. Kant believes that these “guardians” restrain people’s minds, making us incapable to think for ourselves. We need to come out of this to get enlightened.

I do not totally agree with this understanding of Kant’s. These same “guardians” also nurture our minds enabling us to think for ourselves and stand up for our freedoms. For example, books, especially, encourage people to think, to imagine, and to explore, and provide knowledge and wisdom and new ways of thinking. There is nothing wrong with being educated. Kant could not have been as enlightened as he was if he had not read Hume or Leibniz. Every philosopher or leader has his/her own ideas about the world, including Kant. And when there is a leader, people will follow. Kant’s persuasion of enlightenment created followers of his own; so doesn’t that make himself a “guardian” in his own right?

Kant believes that people are enslaved by the “guardians” who bestow “shackles of a permanent immaturity” inhibiting us from enlightenment.

I think that it is not guardians that bestow shackles of a permanent immaturity inhibiting us from enlightenment. I think it is the individuals themselves and their laziness and cowardice. Kant seems to blame to much on the guardians. It is the individuals he should blame upon.

Well, we may imagine a world where individuals are never guided. Their minds has no influence from anybody like what Kant calls “guardians”. Their minds are raw and free. In such an imagined world, where our minds are raw, can we live the most ideal life?

Or, can we be free from the influence of any expert knowledge when we live in a society? Or can there be a society where there is no expert knowledge, or where there is no State, no government? Can individuals think best for themselves when they are left free, without any guidance, rules or regulations?

Free from guardians or a considerate use of guidance

I agree with Kant that we should think for ourselves. But to be mature also means to keep an opened mind about things you do not understand.

“Guardians” can’t make a person do much. We may be encouraged or persuaded or influenced, but we are still left with choice. Yes, the freedom of choice.

We may argue that people cannot use their right to freedom of choice in certain circumstances. For instance, people say that an illiterate person may blindly follow a leader and his actions are guided accordingly.

This may be followed by the question: why don’t these illiterate persons learn/study to make themselves better?

Then one can say that these folks do not have the economic or circumstantial capacity to do so. In such cases, the State should ensure that its citizens are well educated.

But again, to get education or not to get education- what will the individuals decide? If they go to get education, when the State directs/guides/tells them to do so, then it would be like the State is acting like a guardian. If they decide to get education on their own thinking, are not the books they are studying a form of guardian? If the individuals decide to remain illiterate, is it the best way they can think for themselves?

My mind is straying here……

Well, “guardians” such as books, leaders, government and religion, give us maturity, guidance, stability, and individuality. Since the beginning of time, humanity has had the ability to question; question belief, question authority, question life, etc. How we act on those questions continuously enables our society to change. It’s important for every person to have an opened mind to new ideas and good will towards all men, as opposed to just yourself. Furthermore, although you may not believe what one person values, you need to respect them. Whether you agree or disagree with me or Kant, remember that it is your choice. Everyone has a choice to believe what they want, do what they want, and say what they want even without being persuaded or encouraged by “guardians.”

But, yes, when people are not given freedom to use their own reason, when they are not allowed to question, then that is dangerous.

Note: You can call this a summary or abstract (or whatever you may think) of the original text. I took a great deal of liberty in reorganising the paragraphs for better clarity of what is written in the original text. This particular article here includes some personal views towards the end.

*I do not own Kant’s text reproduced here. I am merely reproducing it in the hope of making this great text reach more readers.
*A good analysis of Kant’s text is HERE at

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