Immanuel Kant: “What Is Enlightenment?”

(1784)

Explanation and Analysis of the Document

“What Is Enlightenment?” endeavors both to defend freedom of thought as the primary human imperative and to liberate the Enlightenment movement at large from the doctrinaire fetters of church and state. In short, Kant argues that enlightenment is the conscious decision of humanity to throw off its yoke of immaturity—consisting of the allegedly unchangeable truths pronounced by revealed religion, political ideology, and social conditioning—in order to progress to full maturity. That Kant perceives immaturity and maturity alike as free human choices is underscored by his description of the immature as naturaliter maiorennes, a legal phrase connoting persons “who have come of age by virtue of nature” and so only need to do away with their guardians to reach maturity.

Kant starts by reinterpreting the ancient Roman poet Horace's motto sapere aude, which literally translates “dare to know,” as “have courage to use your own...

Image for: Immanuel Kant: “What Is Enlightenment?”

Frederick the Great of Prussia (Library of Congress)

View Full Size