In 1784, Kant wrote an essay called “What is Enlightenment?”, in which he defined the term ‘Enlightenment’ and analyzed the reasons for its emergence and influence. This essay is one of the most profound primary sources we have from the Age of Enlightenment and it also puts the view of the contemporary philosophers into perspective.
At the beginning, Kant argues that the humanity had been stuck in a ‘self-caused immaturity’ and he states that the reason for this immaturity is caused by “a lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another.” He encourages people, in all aspects of life, to apply their own reason to matters without seeking guidance by others.
His famous maxim, “Sapere Aude” (Dare to Know), perfectly summarizes his criticism of the past and his advice for the future. He accuses people of being lazy and avoiding the act of thinking.
Kant calls those who undertake the supervision for others the guardians. He argues that these guardians had made the people dumb animals by preventing them from daring and after that, scared them by showing ‘dangers’ that threatens them should they chose to walk alone.
He says that these dangers are not so great and one could learn to walk the way alone after stumbling a bit. He states that it might be difficult for the isolated individual to work himself out of immaturity as it had become almost natural for him. He believes that the only requirement for this Enlightenment is freedom, more specifically “the freedom for man to make public use of his reason in all matters.”
At the end of his essay, Kant briefly states that the age he lives in is not an enlightened one but one of enlightenment. He says people are still not allowed to use their minds completely freely on matters like religion but there are clear indications that individuals are breaking themselves free from their immaturity and freeing their minds.
Overall, Kant emphasizes the freedom of thought and conscious, like many other contemporary philosophers, and points out to a more enlightened future through the use of mind and reason. The essay is a perfect summary of the Age of Enlightenment and its values with its emphasis on concepts like reason, freedom and individuality.