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What is Enlightenment? By Emmanuel Kant

In his essay, “What is enlightenment?”, Emmanuel Kant describes enlightenment as the release of man from his “self-imposed” immaturity. He defines immaturity as the inability to make use of one’s understanding without getting direction from others. Nonetheless, immaturity in this context is not caused by a lack of reason. Rather, it is caused by cowardice and laziness.

As explained by Kant, remaining in this self-imposed nonage is easier than becoming enlightened. This is because remaining immature is the lazy option.[1] If knowledge is contained in a book, one will not go through the trouble of mastering it. Similarly, if a physician maintains one’s diet, one will not put in effort to learn the nutrients that their body needs. In this sense, people are not allowed to think for themselves as there are guardians who prevent them from doing so. Institutions like the government and religion are the guardians that Kant talks about in his essay.

A key to achieving enlightenment is freedom. People can only become enlightened when they have the freedom to use their reason publicly. Despite this, most people are not free. This applies even to the “guardians” who enslave others.[2] For instance, a priest cannot speak his true sentiments as he always has to communicate the church’s agenda. Therefore, much of what he communicates is the church’s orders as opposed to his thoughts and feelings. People’s freedom is often hindered by their civic duty, which requires them to obey everything they are told without question. An excellent example of these can be seen in citizens’ duty to pay taxes. No matter how high taxes go, citizens must comply with tax obligations. Nonetheless, off-duty, for instance, when taking the role of a scholar, citizens can criticize high tax rates. In his paper, Kant explains that he is not living in an enlightened age. Rather, he is living in an age of enlightenment. The process of enlightenment is gradual and takes a lot of time.

Kant’s ideas of enlightenment are very similar to the notions of justice, freedom and progress in the modern world. Even though these notions are often taken for granted, they were quite radical in the 18th century. There are numerous versions of enlightenment. However, all the different versions of enlightenment significantly contributed to the development of the modern world. Without the ideas of enlightenment, democracy and civil and human rights would have been delayed or even stopped from happening. Moreover, there would be little scientific and technological progress.

Today’s world is much better in terms of health, freedom, opportunity and safety as compared to previous centuries. Nonetheless, the world has not yet reached an enlightened age. The world currently faces numerous social issues like inequality and political polarization. Moreover, issues like climate change and physical health issues like obesity and mental health issues like addiction. Also, the world lacks a collective safety net. Some of these problems can be attributed to the ideas of enlightenment. For instance, slavery, totalitarianism and environmental destruction are all impacts of enlightenment.

People in the modern world are far from enlightened. Today, freedom is highly characterized by consumerism, which drives individuals to turn their backs on the wider society. However, brain and behavioral sciences suggest that people can only attain autonomy when they acknowledge their human weaknesses and understand their social nature. Therefore, autonomy goes beyond being free from oppression. It is not merely a right to be granted. Rather, it is a goal that can only be achieved through self-awareness and being engaged with society.

Even though there has been significant progress towards equal rights, discrimination and injustice are still major challenges in the modern world. For instance, racial discrimination is still rampant in many parts of the world. Even in a culturally diverse country like the United States, institutions that promote racism remain a major problem. Due to this, racial minorities endure injustices in education, employment, healthcare and the criminal justice system, among other sectors. Similarly, other minority groups like people with disabilities and homosexuals are treated unfairly. Most of these inequalities only highlight the underlying issue which Kant talked about in his essay: people are not allowed to publicly think for themselves. For instance, even though homosexuality does not cause any substantial harm to society, it is banned in numerous countries in the world and is generally frowned upon.

While democracy is utilized in most countries, people who question the government have often suffered negative implications. This only demonstrates how far society is from attaining enlightenment.

Enlightenment is crucial for the human race. People need to be allowed to publicly use their ability to reason. They should be able to challenge the status quo without fear or intimidation. Most importantly, they should be allowed to participate in deciding how society should be governed. However, these public freedoms can be easily misused. Therefore, they must be balanced with the citizen’s civic duty to obey and adhere to the status quo.


Kant Immanuel, “What is Enlightenment?”

[1] Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

[2] Ibid.


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