Kant’s Guardians

What does Kant mean in his essay by the term “guardians” on page 58? Is he absolutely opposed to all forms of social and intellectual “guardianship” or is his position more complex than that?

Guardians are people who “take up the oversight of mankind” for others (58). For example, a guardian is a pastor who supplements for an individual’s conscience; a guardian is a doctor who judges the individual’s diet. These guardians set themselves up as guardians for immature individuals and make sure that the majority of people view the step to maturity as both difficult and dangerous. Guardians make immature individuals stupid domestic animals and prevent “these placid creatures from daring to take one step out” beyond the cart to which they are tied (58 – 59). Guardians instill fear into immature individuals by saying that they are capable of proceeding on their own. While the danger is actually not that great, guardians instill fear and make immature individuals timid and easily frightened. As a result, it is difficult for any individual “to work himself out of any maturity that has become almost natural to him” (59). For Kant, guardians are representatives of social structure who tried to keep individualism down in order to preserve the status quo. He argues that rules and formulas are “the fetters of an everlasting immaturity” (59). Kant is not absolutely opposed to all forms of social and intellectual guardianship. He divides society into two spheres, public and private. The public sphere is a place where people are free from obligation of their calling, and subjects are free to write or speak critically (Outram 2). The private sphere is a place where people have an actual duty to restrain the expression of wayward political judgment, in the interest of upholding the ruler’s will and lessening the likelihood of the outbreak of chaos (Outram 2). Therefore, in the private sphere, the soldier must not criticize his superior officer, and the curate must not criticize the bishop, even if their commands seem absurd and wrong (Outram 2).

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784). Trans. James Schmidt. 58-64.

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780521546812

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