Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Kant is the most important German philosopher of the 18th century. He lived his whole life in Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia (modern day Kaliningrad). Kant is most famous for his three Critiques:

(1) Kritik der reinen Vernunft; Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 2nd edition 1787). Here Kant argues that human perception is limited because it is mediated by a priori perceptive categories.

(2) Kritik der praktischen Vernunft; Critique of Practical Reason (1788). Here Kant introduces his categorical imperative, which is to act in accordance with the principle that your action could become a general rule, followed by everyone.

(3) Kritik der Urteilskraft; Critique of Judgement (1790). Here Kant suggests that disinterested aesthetic contemplation enables us to escape our limited subjectivity and to judge things from a universal standpoint.

Kant's thought greatly influenced the dramatist, historian and philosopher Friedrich Schiller. The first work of Kant’s which Schiller read was Kant’s essay:

Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht; Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (1784)

The best place to start reading Kant, however, is his very short, brilliant essay on Enlightenment, entitled:

Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? (1784)

Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?

The essay opens with a concise definition of Enlightenment as an ongoing process. The key term is Unmündigkeit, which means the state of legal minority (requiring a legal guardian to make your decisions for you). Its opposite is Mündigkeit: legal majority, the ability to think and speak for oneself.

Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbst verschuldeten Unmündigkeit. Unmündigkeit ist das Unvermögen, sich seines Verstandes ohne Leitung eines anderen zu bedienen.


Enlightenment is the emergence of humans from their minority, for which they themselves are to blame. Minority is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another.

The beginning of the essay urges readers to dare to know (sapere aude), to have the courage to use their own reason. Kant goes on to explain that most people are too cowardly or too lazy to think for themselves; they find it more convenient to let others do their thinking for them:

Es ist so bequem, unmündig zu sein. Habe ich ein Buch, das für mich Verstand hat, einen Seelsorger, der für mich Gewissen hat, einen Arzt, der für mich die Diät beurteilt, u.s.w., so brauche ich mich ja nicht selbst zu bemühen. Ich habe nicht nötig zu denken, wenn ich nur bezahlen kann; andere werden das verdrießliche Geschäft schon für mich übernehmen.


It is so convenient to be immature. If I have a book which is reasonable on my behalf, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who describes a diet for me, etc, then I do not need to trouble myself. I do not need to think, if I can pay then others will take over the tiresome business of thinking for me.

Kant’s call for people to use their own reason is still highly relevant today, as many people still defer to so-called ‘experts’ in order to be freed from the burdens of choice, thought and responsibility.

The essay’s opening rhetoric is universal, suggesting that all human beings are capable of exercising their own reason. However, a note of caution soon creeps in to the essay: Kant says that the majority of people can only attain a state of intellectual majority very gradually. The essay argues against revolution as this would replace one set of prejudices with another.

Then, Kant makes a crucial distinction between the public and private uses of reason, saying that the former should be free, but the latter should be restricted:

Ich verstehe aber unter dem öffentlichen Gebrauch seiner eigenen Vernunft denjenigen, den jemand als Gelehrter von ihr vor dem ganzen Publikum der Leserwelt macht. Den Privatgebrauch nenne ich denjenigen, den er in einem gewissen ihm anvertrauten bürgerlichen Posten oder Amte von seiner Vernunft machen darf.


By the public use of reason I mean the use of reason made by a scholar who publishes his thoughts before the entire reading public. By the private use of reason I mean the use of his reason which he may use in the civil post or office entrusted to him.

The essay was written in an absolutist state, the Prussia of Frederick the Great. Kant cannot encourage civil disobedience, even in the name of reason, and so he insists that people must carry out their civic duties unquestioningly during working hours. Kant’s essay calls only for a very limited freedom in the first instance: only in the world of letters should freedom of speech be allowed. Kant was hoping to influence the Prussian authorities and Frederick the Great himself, and this is why he calls for freedom of speech to be restricted in working life. This might seem to undermine Kant’s opening message that Enlightenment can be universal: the essay implies that, for now at least, only educated people – who were in a minority – should have the right to hold a political debate. Kant asks for the bourgeoisie to be granted freedom of speech, in the hope that this public debate will gradually lead to greater reforms in the future.

Much of the essay is therefore designed to flatter Frederick the Great himself, in the hope that he would extend freedom to the bourgeois periodicals in which Kant and his fellow intellectuals published their work. Frederick’s own position was contradictory: he claimed that he was an enlightened ruler, but he presided over an autocratic state. Kant’s essay summarises this contradiction rather well:

räsonniert, soviel ihr wollt, und worüber ihr wollt; nur gehorcht!


reason as much as you like, and about whatever you like, but obey!

Kant concludes the essay with some cunning flattery: if Frederick restricts civic freedom but allows freedom to publish, then this will allow the Enlightenment to spread gradually and organically. Frederick’s restrictions will be the ‘hard shell’ necessary to protect the ‘seed’ of the Enlightenment. Kant places the Enlightenment under Frederick’s guardianship (Vormundschaft), asking for publishing freedom in the hope that this will lead to gradual progress.

English Translation

Immanuel Kant, Political Writings, ed. by Hans Reiss, trans. by H. B. Nisbet, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Further Reading in English

Andrew Bowie, ‘Kant and modernity’, in Bowie, German Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 6-20

Elisabeth Ellis, Kant’s Politics: Provisional Theory for an Uncertain World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005)

Michael Losonsky, Enlightenment and Action from Descartes to Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Reidar Maliks, Kant’s Politics in Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)

T. J. Reed, ‘Coming of Age in Prussia and Swabia: Kant, Schiller, and the Duke’, Modern Language Review 86 (1991), 613-26 (especially pp. 613-16)

T. J. Reed, Light in Germany: Scenes from an Unknown Enlightenment (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015)

Paul Roubiczek, ‘Immanuel Kant’, in German Men of Letters, ed. by Alex Natan and Brian Keith-Smith, vol. 6 (London: Wolff, 1972), pp. 73-90

Arthur Strum, ‘What Enlightenment Is’, New German Critique, 79 (2000), 106-36

G. A. Wells, ‘Kant contra Hume on How the Mind Works: Some Reflections on the Bicentenary Publication of Die Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781)’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 50 (1980), 118-54

Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone, 2002)