Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant was a German Enlightenment philosopher writing in the later 1780’s. He wrote a vital essay “What is enlightenment”. The main tenet of the piece is that people have the potential to think for themselves. Many live under a self-incurred tutelage, where they are instructed by others and allow themselves to be directed in their decisions by others. Maybe they have bosses, managers, teachers or preachers who tell them what to think. But Kant clearly believed that people should have the courage to think and reason for themselves. He suggested that people be able to make your own decisions, and take on the work of your life, rather than pay someone else to it.

Kant uses the analogy of cattle hitched to a cart that are under the control of the farmer. By being subdued the animal does not have the confidence to take a step of its own volition. But if it does, it may fall, but once it realises that isn’t so bad, it learns. In a tutelage situation, the teacher will teach what he has been told to the masses. They can only operate within the boundaries of what he tells them, and he can only operate with what his teachers give him. With nobody thinking for themselves, the people’s knowledge and wisdom is based purely on what is handed down to them. Kant describes this as absurd especially if the teachers are incompetent.

To be enlightened is different to living in an age of enlightenment. To absorb the various teachings of the writers and their developing views is to absorb the essence of the movement. This essence is the quest for truth that is personal and an unfolding journey. Kant does not give answers, but encourages you to ask the questions. Especially in religion, where German Protestants should know all about working things out for yourself, thanks Martin Luther.

This philosophy can create responsible, growing, independent people who are no longer part of the machine than rusts, but part of life that develops.

Kant also wrote about the difference between the sublime and the beautiful. He described beauty as bringing temporary joy and delight, but the sublime was something of a more profound nature. The sublime stirred the spirit and inspired many feelings. Awe, dread, wonder, nobility and splendour are descriptive of the sublime. But its nature is difficult to describe as such deep feelings may only be experienced once and could be difficult to put into words. Kant describes many instances of what is sublime and what is beautiful. He has to illustrate his point for the above reason. The first example of the towering and terrible majesty of a snow peaked mountain compared to a beautiful garden. Perhaps like all Enlightenment philosophers, he wanted to extend knowledge, experience and the utility of humanity. To seek the sublime is impossible because it is in the moment. To find it is life giving. Perhaps my example would come from music. You may find beauty in some trite, catchy little pop song. But the sublime exists in the words and music of the artists who have explored, experienced and struggled for it. The singer/songwriters, who truly seek the pathos of the condition of life, are closer to the sublime than the sing-along popstars.

Why choose temporary happiness when there is still a whole Universe out there waiting to challenge and enlighten you. Kant chose life and life to the full.

Conway-Laird (2017)  

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