Summary And Analysis Of Kant’s Essay “What Is Enlightenment”

Categories: Immanuel Kant


Kant’s “What is enlightenment” was written in 1784. In his essay, Kant basically replied to a question that was asked in 1783 by Reverand Johann Zollner. Reverand Johann Zollner was a government official who posed an open question to all about the removal of clergy from marriages. Many people replied, but the most famous response came from Kant. Kant defines enlightenment as man’s emergence from self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is define as the state of being immature or not fully grown.

In this context, immaturity is the inability to use one’s reasoning without guidance from others. In essence, Kant is saying that we are not grown enough to think for ourselves. Instead, we accept whatever we are fed. Kant further explains that the immature person is this way because he lets others choose for him and becomes dependent on the instructions from others. Because the minor is so dependent, it is much harder for them to act and think on their own.

Get quality help now
checked Verified writer

Proficient in: Immanuel Kant

star star star star 5 (339)

“ KarrieWrites did such a phenomenal job on this assignment! He completed it prior to its deadline and was thorough and informative. ”

avatar avatar avatar
+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

Kant believes that man is incapable of using his own understanding because no one has ever allowed him to challenge it. All our lives we have been told what to do, and what to believe, and we are expected not to question why things are the way they are. “On all sides we hear do not argue”. The pastor tell us do not ask questions, believe. The tax man tell us do not ask questions, pay. The officer tells us do not ask questions, drill. Our whole lives are basically dictated to us and we do not use our reason to oppose what we are told.

Get to Know The Price Estimate For Your Paper
Number of pages
Email Invalid email

By clicking “Check Writers’ Offers”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We’ll occasionally send you promo and account related email

"You must agree to out terms of services and privacy policy"
Write my paper

You won’t be charged yet!

Instead, we drink the Kool-Aid. Kant tries to explain the influence of the government on its citizens by drawing an analogy using animals. Guardian make their cattle stupid and train them not to cross certain areas without their leading-strings by making the cattle aware of the dangers that lie ahead. This makes the cattle afraid to even try and see for themselves. Likewise, the government provides its people with a set of principles and concepts that the minors immediately agree with, which furthers their immaturity.

Kant's View on Individual vs Group Maturity and Enlightenment

According to Kant it is extremely difficult for a man to reach maturity alone but it is easy for a group of people to do it together. When a person starts depending on others for guidance, he finds it difficult to break out of that pattern and start thinking on his own. Any mistake he makes will highlight the faults in is way of thinking. A person must possess fearlessness and vigor in order to leave immaturity. Kant’s motto of enlightenment is “have courage to use your own understanding”. Kant was us to dare to know, sapere arde. To emerge from our self-inflicted immaturity we must utilize our reason, practice critical thinking, and manifest curiosity.

The Motto of What Is Enlightenment by Kant

Kant also speaks about public and private use of reason. Private reason is related to the reasoning of a large group of people that form an organization. Individuals in an organization cannot freely reason because every organization has an idea that they want people to accept and obey. One organization can be seen as one cog in a machine, and the machine is society. Each organization has a role to play. They want man to obey. Private reason is restricted. An individual is only able to practice reason freely as scholar. This is where public reason comes in. As long as an individual is not a part of an organization they are free to express different views on different subject matters. Kant explains that public use of reason is necessary for enlightenment to take place. Once people start expressing themselves openly in public forums, these discussion will eventually influence decisions taken by those in positions of authority.

Kant also distinguishes between the expressing of ones opinions and acting on those opinions. He uses an example of a clergyman at the church. The clergyman is appointed to teach the principles laid down by the church, so he must teach them as it is. However he can point out constructive criticisms, which can then be reviewed by his seniors. Therefore Kant points out that one cannot achieve enlightenment without following the laws of the society, he has to obey the laws but at the same time he should have the courage to criticize what he thinks is wrong or should be changed. So for Kant any society that does not obey the laws cannot achieve enlightenment.

From this Kant leads to the notion of how a monarch lacks the power to declare anything upon his people which they would not declare upon themselves, arguing that the power held by a leader is authority that can only be given by the people, not taken from them. He then explains the powers and duties that should be expected from an enlightened monarch living in an enlightened age before asking whether we live in an enlightened age. Surprisingly, his answer is no, with the warning that “we do live in an age of enlightenment.” Kant clarifies that much is still lacking in terms of enlightenment, but the suggestions are a forward progression toward enlightenment as represented by the iconic figure of the enlightened monarch of the day – King Frederick II of Prussia.


Kant concludes his essay by criticizing individuals who reject the pursuit of enlightenment by arguing that in doing so they unfavorably impact the enlightenment of all. Indeed, enlightenment is superior of the individual; the freedom to act grows exponentially with the achieving of enlightenment. Once achieved, it reproduces itself in the freedom to act without fear or cowardice which keeps one unenlightened.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
Cite this page

Summary And Analysis Of Kant’s Essay “What Is Enlightenment”. (2024, Feb 02). Retrieved from

Live chat  with support 24/7

👋 Hi! I’m your smart assistant Amy!

Don’t know where to start? Type your requirements and I’ll connect you to an academic expert within 3 minutes.

get help with your assignment