Kant’s Public and Privates Uses of Reason

stamp for 250 years of birth of Immanuel Kant ...

stamp for 250 years of birth of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)(Philosoph) :*Ausgabepreis: 90 Pfennig :*First Day of Issue / Erstausgabetag: 17. April 1974 :*Michel-Katalog-Nr: 806 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kant divides society into two spheres, public and private. The public sphere is a place where people are free from obligation of their calling, and are free to be critical of society; the private sphere is a place where people are not free from the obligations of their calling (Kant 58; Outram 2). In the private sphere, subjects are required to restrain airing their opinions and judgments, in the interest of upholding the ruler’s will and diminishing the likelihood of anarchy and chaos (Outram 2). 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).

Kant gives people the right to freely express themselves in their writing while requiring them to limit their expression according to their vocation and status of life. As a result, Kant requires a clergyman to lecture to his congregation according to the symbol of the church which he serves, and gives him “the complete freedom to communicate to the public all of his carefully tested and well-intentioned thoughts on the imperfections of that symbol and his proposals for better arrangement of religious and ecclesiastical affairs” (60). Furthermore, Kant takes it a step further. He makes it the clergyman’s calling to communicate his thoughts on the imperfections of the church by pointing out all the practical uses of his lecture “to which he himself may not subscribe with complete conviction” (60). Kant justifies this position by stating that “it is not entirely possible that truth may lie concealed within them [the rules], and, at least in any case there is nothing in them that this in contradiction to what is intrinsic to religion” (60). However, Kant does point out that if the clergyman “believed he found such a contradiction in them [the rules], he could not in conscience conduct his office; he would have to resign” (60-61). Therefore, for Kant, the line between what we would call hypocritical actions and actions according to public and private uses of freedom is quite narrow.

In contemporary society, Kant’s public and private spheres are problematic in that we expect individuals to have whole and unique identities. Kant divides actions and thoughts into either public or private categories, and does not see these categories as contradictions. Instead, he points out that if these uses are carefully separated then the clergyman should have “nothing to burden his conscience” (Kant 60). Kant requires the clergyman to resign if he finds himself contradicting himself, but he does give the clergyman the right to criticize the church in his capacity as a scholar, a right that many clergymen in the modern world seem to lack. Unlike Kant who sees the clergyman as an agent of his church who has to teach his congregation something he does not agree with “as a consequence of his office” (60-61), contemporary American society expects people to embody one identity, and would not accept a pastor who argued against abortion to his congregation, and wrote pamphlets as a scholar arguing for women’s choice. This pastor would be considered a hypocrite. Our society is unfamiliar with distinctions between public and private uses of reason, and therefore cannot conceptualize a non-hypocritical nature of these acts.

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

Outram, D. The Enlightenment. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University. 2005. Print.

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