Mendelssohn’s Misuses of Enlightenment

Robert von Mendelssohn Collection, 1770-1785

Robert von Mendelssohn Collection, 1770-1785 (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

According to Mendelssohn, the essential destiny of man allows man to stay above “the level of the beast,” and the essential destiny of man as citizen allows the constitution and the essence of the state to continue to exist (55). Since “the unessential destiny of man comes into conflict with the essential or nonessential destiny of citizen,” Mendelssohn argues that rules must be established to note exceptions, and that the boundary that separates the uses and misuses of enlightenment is difficult, but not impossible to find (55).

Mendelssohn states that people must always strive toward goals of excellence and education (Heller: Medelssohn 2). Mendelssohn’s concept of enlightenment is like the mathematical concept of infinity. Infinity is not a number, but an idea; infinity can never be reached, but it can be approached. For Mendelssohn, approaching enlightenment is an eternal good for man as man (Heller) without which societies collapse and people descend into beasts (Heller: Mendelssohn 2). Despite this position, Mendelssohn warns that approaching enlightenment has to take place within a social and cultural context (Heller) because “the misuse of enlightenment weakens the moral sentiment and leads to hard-heartedness, egoism, irreligion, and anarchy” (Mendelssohn 56). In other words, while enlightenment should proceed “free and unimpeded,” society needs to examine the practical effects that their “enlightening efforts will have…on moral and social matters” (Heller).

Aspects of culture that facilitate enlightenment are the same aspects of culture that fascinate the misuse of enlightenment, i.e. rational and scientific thinking. Mendelssohn warns that enlightenment without practical analyses of enlightenment efforts can cause societies to “to sink into a new kind of barbarism” instead of “entering into a truly human condition” (Outram 6). Horkheimer and Adorno argue that unanalyzed enlightenment efforts of the beginning of the twentieth century lead to the new kinds of barbarism and atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust (Outram 6).

Kant defines enlightenment as “the freedom to make public use of one’s own reason, where ‘public’ signifies a publicly conducted argument in which all can participate” (Heller: Mendelssohn 2). He believes that critical thinking does not need limits because reason itself will win out. While he does make exceptions for completely contradictory statements, the boundary between hypocrisy and separation of public and private uses of reason is thin. Kant thinks of “reason as a form, or a manner of thinking, rather than as content” (Heller: Mendelssohn 2). He seems to believe that the innate activity of critical reasoning will necessarily make the correct side prevail, but this position presupposes that both sides argue and play fair. Kant would probably no admit to any possible misuses of Enlightenment in the public sphere of reading and writing. Instead, he would argue that the misuses of the enlightenment like the Holocaust were really not a misuse, but rather the underuse of enlightenment. He would argue that not enough proper arguments were put forth against the extermination of Jews; otherwise, the right arguments would have prevailed.

Mendelssohn, on the other hand, points out that societies exist on different levels, and that the speed at which enlightenment can proceed on a larger social level depends on the state of civilization in which that society exists (Heller, Mendelssohn 2). Therefore, his position is more rational and less idealistic than Kant’s position.

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

Heller, D. “Teaching Paper on Kant and Mendelssohn.” (2012). 1-3.

Heller, D. “Mendelssohn 2.” 3 September 2012. Mendelssohn 2 Forum. 6 September 2012.

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

Mendelssohn, Moses. “On the Question: What is Englitenment?” (1784). Trans. James Schmidt. 53-57.

Advertisements

Kant: More Constraints result in More Freedom

English: Immanuel Kant Deutsch: Immanuel Kant

English: Immanuel Kant Deutsch: Immanuel Kant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the end of his essay, Kant criticizes leaders, religious rulers and monarchs, who “have no interest in playing the role of guardian to their subjects with regard to the arts and sciences” (60). He emphasizes the notion of mankind’s self-imposed immaturity, and states that it is “this type of immaturity that is the most harmful as well as the most dishonorable” (Kant 63). In opposition to these immature leaders is the enlightened ruler. The enlightened ruler does not “fear shadows,” and is therefore able to create a society where a lesser degree of civil freedom creates more room “for spiritual freedom to spread to its full capacity” (Kant 63).

This is the notion that constraints actually create more freedom is quite popular in artistic and literary circles. In particular, constrained writing is a literary technique which requires a writer to some condition that imposes a pattern or prevents certain things (Constrained Writing). For example, constrained writing may restrict the range of vocabulary or impose a particular verse form. As a result, constraints are very commonly used in poetry writing (Constrained Writing). The popularity of this notion fostered the French movement called Oulipo or Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, the workshop of potential literature. Founded by French writer Raymond Queneau in 1960, the movement consisted of writers and mathematicians who employed constrained writing techniques (Oulipo). A contemporary and broader example of constraint writing is the use of writing prompts. For many writers, a blank page is daunting and overwhelming because there are too many options of where to begin, and what to write. As a result, many writers employ writing prompts which guide their writing process. Writing prompts restrict freedom by limiting the writer’s choices, freeing the writer to focus his or her mind and think creatively by fitting in whatever he or she wanted to write about into the prompt.

Writers who use constraint writing techniques view constraints just like Kant. The hard shell is representative of social constraints that protect the seed, “the inclination or vocation for freethinking” (Kant 63). A seed without the hard shell would be under constant threat from birds and harsh weather, making it difficult to flourish. Similarly, the masses’ inclination for free thought without social constraints and guardians would be under constant threat, making it difficult to flourish and mature. Therefore, the hard shell of social constraint protects and shields the masses, allowing them to develop to maturity and gradually become able to act freely (Kant 63). A transformation from seed to plant is the transformation from immaturity to maturity.

Kant again establishes a thin boundary between constraints that facilitate enlightenment and those that that facilitate tyranny. He appears to be quite uneasy about giving people more freedoms than they would otherwise be ready for, and believes that if the government is permitting enough and men are evolved enough then social tensions can be kept at bay.

“Constrained Writing.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 18 May, 2012. Web. 6

September 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constrained_writing

“Oulipo.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 8 August, 2012. Web. 6 September 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oulipo

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

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

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.

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.

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

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