Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Enlightenment as Moralistic Pig-Out

In the following two quotations from Was Ist Aufklarung?, Kant tells what Enlightenment is, and why many people fail to achieve Enlightenment,



“Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.”


And,



“Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a portion of mankind, after nature has long since discharged them from external direction ( naturaliter maioernnes), nevertheless remains under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so easy not to be of age. If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if I can only pay—others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.”


Here we see Kant emphasizing the importance of moral character in the ability to think independently-- and presumably—in becoming autonomous and free. Laziness and cowardice, defects of the moral character, are “reasons why so great a portion of mankind, after nature has long since discharged them from external direction ( naturaliter maioernnes), nevertheless remains under lifelong tutelage.” Laziness and cowardice are reasons why men are unable to become autonomous and free…. Good moral character is required to become truly autonomous.

The question I want to raise—and I don’t think I can answer it all at once-- is whether moral characteristics work as “reasons” in the manner Kant envisions.

First of all, I wonder whether it was either acute or accurate for Kant to characterize his comtemporaries as lazy and cowardly. He doesn’t try very hard to make that description of them stick… Perhaps then as now people were all too happy to think of “other” people in this derogatory manner. Kant observes that “a great portion of mankind” doesn’t have the ability to think independently, asserts that it is because they are lazy and cowardly, but doesn’t even bother to try to show why he is entitled to throw that insult at “ so great a portion of mankind” … Could Kant possibly have made such a case if he had tried?

Were Europeans or Americans of this time period lazy?

Well, I don’t think so. Even into the early twentieth century, large numbers of people in Europe and the Americas made their livelihood as agricultural workers, and it is grotesque to me to think that this way of making a living could be characterized as laziness. Working the land manually or with some animal power is grueling and difficult. If these are the people Kant is calling lazy, then he is calling people lazy who toiled and sweated from dawn to dusk. And that’s hideous. The time this essay was written, 1784, was at the beginning of the industrial revolution, so maybe Kant is thinking of lazy factory workers? But that’s just as hideous. Factory workers of this period were worked to death.

Even though I know that Kant himself worked very hard all of his life, there is something sad and even pathetic in this frail, skeletal little weakling of a man, with his powdered wig and his lace, who, even with his strict habit of a daily walk around the campus at Konigsberg never strenuously exerted himself physically, regarding his slaving and suffering fellows as lazy.

Note that it would be just as bad, or worse, if he had modified his slur by making it “intellectually lazy.” I’m not even sure what that would have meant, in this context. Anyway, I can’t buy, on the simple level of how people actually lived, that their “laziness” even existed, let alone explained in any satisfactory way, their intellectual status, or their political status, if thinking independently is the key to autonomy.

Were Europeans and Americans of this time well-described as cowardly?

I’m not going to entertain that seriously.

But even if Kant was correct to call his “unenlightened” fellows cowardly, that would have been only half of the task required of him in making the determination he needs to make. Again, he would also need to show that his “enlightened” fellows were brave.

What I found fascinating is the way that Kant characterizes what these putative cowards are thought to be afraid of and thereby hindered. The thing Kant identifies as fearful for these men in the exercise of their independent understanding is the making of mistakes, the misery of which would not even last long, on Kant’s view, because they would quickly learn from these, and would correct themselves.

“Actually, however, this danger is not so great, for by falling a few times they would finally learn to walk alone. But an example of this failure makes them timid and ordinarily frightens them away from all further trials.”

It isn’t entirely clear in Kant’s text, but it seems to me that he’s strangely associated thinking for oneself—reasoning—with simple skill acquisition. This seems to me to be a willful distortion by which Kant diverts attention from the clear and present dangers—the real dangers—accruing to men who think independently, even today. The clear and present danger: thinking for oneself, one may find oneself in disagreement with the powers-that-be, who regard those who disagree as adversaries, and who punish adversaries, sometimes severely.

If “falling a few times” meant only bungling a task, that would be one thing, but if “falling a few times” meant time in an 18th century jail, or worse, then that’s something entirely different. Grown men stronger and bolder and braver than either Kant or me have been “made timid” by punishments meted out by the powers-that-be… and that’s no surprise ( or shame.) Harsh punishment is scary stuff, and it’s real. Before Kant called anyone cowardly, ( if he ever needed to do that in the first place,) I wish he’d tried to make a fairer appraisal of the REAL dangers they were confronting.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Yusef,

Thank you so much for continuing this interesting discussion about Kant's text. Let's stay with it.

Let me add a few observations. I can't develop them all, but we can make a start.

I think you are reading him much too literally and thereby accusing him of indifference to human suffering in Preussia in the 1780's.

You even resort to ad hominem attacks: there is something sad and even pathetic in this frail, skeletal little weakling of a man, with his powdered wig and his lace, who, even with his strict habit of a daily walk around the campus at Konigsberg never strenuously exerted himself physically, regarding his slaving and suffering fellows as lazy.

The way I read him (and I may of course be wrong) he is describing human nature in general (and I think correctly), when he writes that it is so convenient to be immature!

His whole essay is a clarion call to the public use of reason. It is also (in the last part of it) a dedication to Frederick the Great and his tolerant rule.

But Kant also bravely attacked the worst of all tutelage: religious immaturity is the most pernicious and dishonorable variety of all.

Now, of course, Kant is always moralizing (and sometimes too much) but still he makes an important point when he is characterizing the Enlightenment as a phenomenon, an ongoing process; but he also presents it as a task and an obligation. Aude sapere

As an idealist he is of course NOT referring to the slaving farm workers outside Königsberg. Why should he? Rather he is addressing die Menschheit as a philosopher.

We need to work more on this, Yusef. I haven't - by miles - touched all the bases here.

I look forward to our future conversations and clarifications.

Down the line (in a couple of months) is a Derridian deconstruction of the text.

You have been warned!

Orla

Orla

7:09 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"You have been warned!"

Blast me with both barrels!

I won't be satisfied with anything less.

10:57 PM  
Blogger Matt Scofield said...

I like this attitude; definitely have to side with Yusef on the point of lazy/cowardly being in reference to immaturity.

4:51 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home