Kant’s Use of the Seed Metaphor

From a painting of Immanuel Kant

From a painting of Immanuel Kant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do you make of the interesting growth metaphor (the developing “seed” under this “hard shell”) at the very end of Kant’s essay? What is this seed? What power is nurturing it? What will it turn into?

In the end of his essay, Kant emphasizes the notion of mankind’s self-imposed immaturity. In other words, he criticizes religious rulers and monarchs who “have no interest in playing the role of guardian to their subjects with regard to the arts and sciences” and states that it is “this type of immaturity that is the most harmful as well as the most dishonorable” (63). In contrast to these leaders, Kant presents the enlightened ruler who “does not himself fear shadows” (63). This ruler creates a situation where a lesser degree of civil freedom creates more room “for spiritual freedom to spread to its full capacity” (63). Here, Kant is adhering to the notion that constraint creates more freedom, a notion that some artists also uphold. For example, many writers work with prompts instead of simply a blank page. A blank page is daunting; there are too many options and these options are overwhelming. On the surface, writing prompts restrict freedom by limiting the writer’s choices, but in reality these prompts are freeing in that they focus the mind and allow for imaginative thinking. It is this notion that Kant seems to be working with when he talks about a hard shell protecting a seed. The seed is “the inclination or vocation for freethinking” and the hard shell is the constraints in society which protect the seed so that it could flourish (63). In an entirely free world, the seed (an individual’s inclination for freethinking) has no protections and could be easily squashed and trampled. Therefore, the seed needs a hard shell (social constraints which will allow it to “become more and more capable of acting freely”) in order to develop to maturity (63).

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

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