Function of Kant’s Guardians

True or false: the function of “guardians” is essentially hostile to individual thought and initiative. Make sure your response to this focuses on specific passages from the essay. In other words, don’t simply generalize.

The function of guardians is not essentially hostile to individual thought and initiative; it depends on which sphere it is used in. Kant argues that “the public use of reason must at all times be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men; the private use of reason, however, may often be very narrowly restricted without the progress of Enlightenment being particularly hindered” (59-60). 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). In general, Kant is not very optimistic of the entire Enlightenment process. In particular he points out that “a public can achieve enlightenment only gradually. A revolution may perhaps bring about the fall of an autocratic despotism…, but he can never bring about the true reform of a way of thinking” (59). Instead, new prejudices will replace the old, “as the leading strings of the faultless masses” (59). Therefore the free public use of reason is the only way that enlightenment among men can be achieved.

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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