Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The eighteenth century was a time of rapid change and development in the way people viewed humans and their interaction with others in society. Many countries experience revolution and monarchies were overthrow. People began to question the values that were ingrained in society and governments that ruled them. Two of the biggest philosophers of that time were Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who both ignite the overthrow of tradition and whose philosophies were the basis of many future governments.

In order to truly understand how each of their philosophies shaped the intellectual and political landscape of the time, we need to examine their definitions of enlightenment.

Kant answers in his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment? ” as follows: Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.

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This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance.

(Kant 1) This definition articulates the chief principle of Kant’s philosophy, that we are to accept only those beliefs found acceptable to reason, and we can’t rely on religion, custom, or authority to determine actions that are beneficial to us. According to Kant, people need to lead lives in pursuit of freedom, which he defines as making use of public reason. The enlightened person is rational and autonomous, accepting nothing without a reason, never acting without a reason, always pursuing his or her freedom and the freedom of others.

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This is doesn’t mean that a person stops obeying the authority but rather functions in society while simultaneously questioning to questioning the rules and norms that it follows. For example he says a citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes levied upon him, but he does not violate the duties of a citizen if, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his objections to the impropriety or possible injustice of such levies.

On the other hand, Rousseau’s definition of enlightenment is more historically based but he starts off by saying “A revolution was needed to bring men back to common sense” (Rousseau 3) indicating that he believes that the enlightenment is intertwined with the ability to think. What can be clearly seen on the definitions offered both writers is that a fundamental conception of enlightenment is man making use of their reason. However when carefully reading his works, we can see that Rousseau equates enlightenment with freedom as well.

Rousseau’s conception of freedom is intricately linked to equality. For him the preservation of the right of every man to not have to succumb to the force of any authority is what truly epitomizes enlightenment. Both philosophers share the fundamental idea that man has to obey himself first, but that his thoughts and actions directly affect the rest of society. Kant addresses this idea through his conception of the categorical imperative which states that we must act only in accordance with that maxim through which we can at the same time will it become a universal law.

Rousseau makes a similar point as well when he instructs the public “find a form of association which defends and protects with all common forces the person and goods of each associate, and by means of which each one, while uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before. “(Rousseau 148) This paradoxical notion that man can only retain autonomy by giving himself to the all plays a key role in both the philosophies of Kant and Rousseau.

Essentially because man doesn’t grant himself any rights he would prohibit others from having, he would not place or be placed higher than anyone else, which would result in the public as a whole can achieving enlightenment. Both Kant and Rousseau examine the state of nature of man before he was constrained by convention and the artificial construct of civilization, and it is important to understand their competing views on this topic because both authors’ arguments rely on the reader’s agreement with their claims.

Kant sees enlightenment as the natural progression of man saying that “when one does not deliberately attempt to keep men in barbarism, they will gradually work out of that condition by themselves” and that “nature, then, has cultivated…the urge for and the vocation of free thought. ”(Kant 5-6) For him it is the laziness and cowardice of the people that results in this self-incurred nonage. Consequently the motto of the Enlightenment for Kant is “Sapure Aude” or “Dare to know! ”(1); a phrase that urges people to use reason without depending entirely on an guardian.

We can see the use of moral language right away with virtue associated with courage, which he believes is the only way that we can gain “reasonable appreciation of man’s value”, (2) and vice with docility and submission to authority. Morals are based upon reason and are a priori because they are free from any empirical attachment or subject to human sentiments, and since courage releases our facilities of reason from the shackles of immaturity, it automatically transforms into a virtue in Kant’s eyes.

This chain metaphor is also emphasized by Rousseau in his famous opening lines of On Social Contract which state that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains… as soon as [he] can shake off the yoke and does shake it off, [he] does even better. ” (Rousseau 141) However they use this metaphor to make two competing points. Rousseau believes that the increase in literacy, art and science has in fact restricted liberty by forcing people to conform to what the community deems to be worthy in order to gain praise, acceptance, and even funding for their endeavors.

Ironically, Rousseau defends a form of ignorance; in his ideal world, man would have the ability to think and do what he wanted to unfettered by the brainwashing of society. Furthermore, he condemns the arts and sciences for shifting the focus from man’s virtues to his talents, and credits these disciplines with the introduction of inequality, i. e. people “no longer ask whether man has integrity but whether he has talent.” (Rousseau 17) In Kant’s case it is ignorance of world that makes men susceptible to influential and knowledgeable guardians who frightened them, like domesticated animals, into being led into whichever path the guardians want to follow. In this case I agree with Kant’s theory that is ignorance that causes people to subjugate themselves to authority. While Rousseau’s defense of ignorance is good intentioned, it seems impractical and hypocritical since he later admits that convention and social order is what serves as base for all rights.

In short society compels man to use reason without blindly giving into his desires. Without a civilization humans would be a slave to their appetites and give in to whatever temptations they have. He later amends this strange anarchical view that he initially presents by saying that “although in [the civil state man] deprives himself of several advantages belonging to him in the state of nature, he regains such great ones…he ought bless the happy moment that…transformed him from a stupid limited animal into an intelligent being and a man.” (Rousseau 151) Kant would assent to the above statement, because unlike Rousseau, he believes that responsibility of overcoming “nonage” is on the individual and not society or government as a whole. While subtle, this crucial difference between addressing the individual versus addressing society at large is what leads Rousseau and Kant to diverging conclusions about the enlightenment despite using the same fundamental premise.

There are two main aspects of the this age that Kant and Rousseau focused on, the intellectual growth in areas of art and science and the idea of government and rights, a topic that was heavily discussed due to the number of revolutions occurring in this time period. In terms of growth in the arts and science, Kant lauds the exchange of ideas and thoughts in the society. He states the prince who allows freedom of expression “deserves to be praised … as that man who was the first to liberate mankind from dependence… and let everybody use his own reason in matters of conscience.” (3) For Kant, the scholar is obligated to disseminate information to the public, so that can it can be released from its collective nonage. He considers man to be fully free only when he can enjoy the complete freedom of his public reason, which Kant defines as right to be able to “communicate to his public all his…thoughts concerning errors in that doctrine and his proposals concerning improvement. ” (5) From several aforementioned passages that we can see that Rousseau completely objected to Kant’s outlook.

Since his philosophy was founded on the notion that enlightenment is linked with equality of mankind, he views the arts and science as an instrument for men to judge themselves as superior to others in society. He uses Socrates to enforce his point, stating that is better to assume you know nothing than to excel in one field and consider yourself to be the wisest of men. Furthermore, he feels that the very exchange of ideas that Kant praises so heavily is what hinders the enlightenment process.

Because these scholars who give information to the public will be placed on a pedestal, it will lead to the very domestication that Kant is trying to avoid, because people will now simply follow the tutelage of these scholars instead of actively using their public reason. Rousseau concludes that “those whom nature destined to be her disciples had no need of teachers. ”(Rousseau 20) It is only when a person disregards their preconceived notion and disregards the conformity of society that he can truly attain knowledge.

The other major aspect of the Enlightenment that Kant and Rousseau focus on is the relationship between enlightenment and politics. Kant’s political motto is “Argue as much as you like, and about what you like, but obey! ” (4) He further elaborates on this phrase through his theory of private reason, which he states the reason a person uses in a civic post. He deems it necessary for people to be occasionally passive in order to maintain an “artificial unanimity which will serve the fulfillment of public objectives, or at least keep these objectives from being destroyed.” Kant sees every rational being as an end in itself and society as a collection of the beings, which he terms as the “kingdom of ends. ” Viewed in conjunction with Kant’s doctrine of the categorical imperative, we can see why he would object to the idea of anarchy. If man disobeys communal laws, then he condones, and in some sense allows, for everyone to disobey them as well, since whatever maxim he follows he extends universally to everyone. This would result is chaos as everyone would disobey the law and no public order or goals would be fulfilled, which no rational person would want.

This doesn’t mean people can’t advocate for reform but instead merely refusing to obey, change should be brought about by influencing others to consider one’s opinion and through “uniting the voices of many…scholars, reform proposals could be brought before the sovereign … without, however, hindering those who want to remain true to the old institutions. ” In Kant’s world, the individual is placed above the state, in the sense that the actions and thoughts of each person are placed before the needs of the state.

However, Kant assumes that every person is rational and this rationality will guide them to follow the idea of the categorical imperative, and realize that any action they take is permissible for others to take as well. This means that people will in general take moral actions that benefit society because they would want others to take similar steps in order to maintain peace and strive for enlightenment as a whole. But ultimately, the individual’s ideas and thought are more important than that of the public.

Rousseau takes an inverted approach, and places the general will of society above the interests of man. He doesn’t think that man is a rational creature at all and in fact views man as greedy and someone who constantly seeks a way to gain superiority over his fellow citizens. Like Kant he believes that the law should not be disobey, but the law established by Rousseau is not create by an authority but rather what the public deems to be the moral path. Both Kant and Rousseau’s idea while extremely influential on modern society have flaws.

I agree with Rousseau that rights is a social construct, and I feel that Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative is too abstract, and ignores the role that society plays in influencing what values we emphasize. Ironically, by following universal law we end up ignoring the sentiments of the individual and forcing them to conform to our maxim without ever understanding their side of the story. In some sense, we make ourselves the guardians of everyone else and expect them to follow our notions of right and wrong, which is the opposite of Kant wants.

Rousseau’s social contract theory is much more practical in a sense and has become the basis of several constitutions including that of our own country. But he presumes that the general will is always right, which isn’t always the case. For example, until the 1960s the majority believed that slavery and segregation were morally permissible. Since he takes for granted that the general will is correct, he never provides a way for us to combat immoral impositions by the majority. Kant on the other hand accepts that there we should still have older institutions but always make way for newer ones to coexist.

Kant also agrees that in order to be enlightened, man can’t simple follow the view of majority which I think is mre pragmatic and realistic . In the end both authors provide a thought-provoking and insightful perspective on the relationship between society and man and provide useful and influential theories to reach ideal balance between preserving the freedom of man, and retaining the order and peace in society.

Works Cited

  1. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Basic Political Writings. 1st. I.

Cite this page

Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (2016, Nov 15). Retrieved from

Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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