The Most Innocuous Freedom, Everywhere in Chains

In his famous 1784 essay, What is Enlightenment?, Kant identifies the activity of enlightenment with a certain way of being public.

After suggesting that enlightenment is liberation from self-incurred immaturity, 1 Kant goes on to write:

“For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom. And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all — freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.” 2

This statement itself is, of course, a public use of Kant’s reason.

Published in the December 1784 issue of the Berlinische Monatsschrift in response to a question — “What is Enlightenment?” — Johann Friedrich Zöllner had posed a year earlier in the same journal, 3 Kant’s essay in fact performs the argument it articulates.

Kant argues that enlightenment involves the free public use of reason by using reason in public.

However, precisely how free it was is worth considering; for the central distinction around which the essay is organized, that between public and private uses of reason, seems itself to have been necessitated by constraints placed on public writing by the Prussian monarch, Frederick the Great.

However enlightened a leader he may have been for his time, in 1784 — the year in which Kant’s essay appeared — Frederick was unequivocal in forbidding private persons from expressing public judgment:

A private person has no right to pass public and perhaps even disapproving judgment on the actions, procedures, laws, regulations, and ordinances of sovereigns and courts, their officials, assemblies, and courts of law, or to promulgate or publish in print pertinent reports that he manages to obtain. For a private person is not at all capable of making such judgment, because he lacks complete knowledge of circumstances and motives. 4

It is perhaps no surprise, then, to find Kant carefully charting a distinction between the private and public uses of reason. The former, contractual in nature, is said to be subject to higher authority, while the latter is deemed free in the broadest, though “most innocuous” sense. 5 By the free public use of reason, Kant meant:

that use which anyone may make of it as a learned person [Gelehrter] addressing the entire public of the world of readers [vor dem ganzen Publikum der Leserwelt]. 6

The constraint on Kant’s free use of reason in the essay can be felt in the way he attempts to open space for the free expression of educated people even as he reassures those in authority that such freedom is “most innocuous.” In fact, the most poignant indication that his free use of reason is itself everywhere in chains is perhaps this superlative insistence that the freedom associated with it is the “unschädlichste,” the “most innocuous,” form of freedom.

The statement itself is a rather eloquent performative contradiction: Kant’s public declaration that the public use of reason is “the most innocuous” demonstrates the very real power it has. The superlative is hyperbolic, and the hyperbole gives clear voice to the tacit recognition that free communication can have powerful undermining effects on the absolute authority of the monarch.

Of course, Kant is a savvy thinker who understood that some things are better left unspoken in a world ordered by a monarch whose absolute authority seems to have been precisely what enabled him to allow people to “argue as much as you like about whatever you like ….” 7

Even so, however, it is worth emphasizing that in speaking publicly to open a space in which the reading public could mature into a genuine deliberative public, Kant engages in a potentially transformative kind of public philosophical practice.

In advocating eloquently in public on behalf of the practices of enlightenment, Kant himself continued to speak as the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Königsberg. Holding a Chair in the department of Philosophy, he, unlike the clergy of whom he speaks in the essay, does not seem to be required to relinquish his private contractual obligations in order to make public use of his reason. Habermas cites a 1729 directive from Frederick himself enjoining all chaired professors of the faculties of law, medicine, and philosophy to take turns submitting to newspaper editors “a special note, composed in a pure and clear style of writing” designed to inform the public of useful truths. 8

But truths however “useful” to a monarch, can have powerful transformative effects.

Indeed, at the end of the essay, Kant recognizes the transformative power of the free public use of reason:

Thus when nature has unwrapped . . . the seed for which she cares most tenderly, namely the propensity and calling to think freely, the latter gradually works back upon the mentality of the people (which thereby becomes capable of freedom in acting) and eventually even upon the principles of government, which finds it profitable to itself to treat the human being, who is now more than a machine, in keeping with his dignity. 9

Putting his words into public practice, Kant sought to open a space in which a world of readers might, over time, cultivate the habits of thinking and acting capable of holding even the government accountable. He was, of course, wise enough to recognize that his was an “age of enlightenment,” but not yet “an enlightened age,” 10 and that his public use of reason, therefore, must remain everywhere constrained by the concrete political conditions under which he wrote and spoke in public.

The free use of reason, it turns out, was much less innocuous than advertised.

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[This is one in a series of posts associated with a public writing project Mark Fisher, André Avillez, Kris Klotz and I are undertaking in connection with our work on the Public Philosophy Journal. We are attempting to use our individual blogs as public spaces in which to begin collaboratively writing an essay for peer-reviewed publication in an open access journal. The collaborative essay has the working title, Public Philosophy and Philosophical Publics: Performative Publishing and the Cultivation of Community.]
  1. The German is: Unmündigkeit, which literally means dependence, but is also a legal term designating a “minority,” i.e., one who is under age. See, Cronin, Ciaran. “Kant’s Politics of the Enlightenment.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 41, no. 1 (2003), 52.
  2. Kant, Immanuel. Kant’s Gesammelte Schriften (Akademie-Ausgabe). Vol. 8. Berlin: G. Reimer, 1902, 36. http://alias.libraries.psu.edu/eresources/PASTMASTERS. For the English, see: Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: ‘What Is Enlightenment?’” In Political Writings, 54–60. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 55. Hereafter cited as AA:8 with page numbers of the German edition followed in parenthesis by the English.
  3. Schmidt, James. “What Enlightenment Was: How Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant Answered the ‘Berlinische Monatsschrift.’” Journal of the History of Philosophy 30, no. 1 (January 1, 1992), 77.
  4. Cited in Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1991, 25. The alleged ignorance of the public has long served to legitimize authoritarian politics.
  5. Kant insists that “the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.” AA 8, 73 (55).
  6. AA 8, 37 (55).
  7. AA 8, 37 (55). Cronin suggests that the “unprecedented militarization” of society and absolute rule of Frederick allowed him to be tolerant of the free expression of ideas, see, Cronin, 67.
  8. Habermas, 25.
  9. AA 8, 41-2, translation from Cronin, 78.
  10. AA 8, 40 (58).

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • […] In a recent post in this series, Chris Long discussed the public use of reason in Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” As Chris noted, much of Kant’s argument was a response to, and determined by, the political circumstances of that time. In this and future posts, then, I’d like to bring the discussion of this series into a more contemporary setting. […]

  • This is an excellent philosophical and historical discussion of Kant’s initiation of the Enlightenment re.the use and defense of reason, particularly publicly as a benchmark for freedom of expression both generally and specially in regard to censorship by ruling powers.
    However, I’ve always struggled with Kant’s singular emphasis on reason as the supreme measure of reality and truth. It seems to leave no place for intuition or imagination for example. I refer to physicist Ricahrd Feynman’s contention: “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things that are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which really are there.” Wouldn’t the those two capacities be an intriguing and important subject to explore?

  • mdfphilpsu says:

    I think you are clearly right to see Kant practicing a form of public philosophy in his answer to the prize essay competition question “What is Enlightenment?”. You also point to an important and interesting tension between the kind of freedom he is advocating and exercising and the larger political context in which he does this. I agree with the substance of what you say here concerning Kant’s distinction between private and public uses of reason, and concerning the transformative power of public philosophical discourse. I’m not sure I follow you in your assessment of Kant’s rhetorical strategy, however. I don’t think a lack of consensus on this point would jeopardize our moving forward with the paper in any way, but I would like to hear more about what motivates your interpretation. I hope the following (i) summary of the main point where we appear to disagree and (ii) alternative interpretative suggestion will function to facilitate further discussion.

    Much of your interpretation of Kant’s rhetorical strategy appears to turn on a particular way of understanding and interpreting his use of ‘unschädlichste’ is describing freedom in the public use of one’s reason. You take it as a superlative that suggests hyperbole and involves Kant in a performative contradiction. If I have understood you correctly, you are saying that at the same time that he is calling this use of freedom the ‘most innocuous’ he is also exercising this freedom in a way that has clearly detrimental implications for absolute monarchy.

    If Kant were saying that it was the least powerful form of freedom, or that it was the least harmful to the status quo in authoritarian states, I think your interpretation of performative contradiction would be right on. What he appears to be saying, to my way of reading the piece, though, is that it is the ‘least harmful’ form of freedom. Further, the harm he has in mind is not to the power of the monarchy itself, but to those ends for which the state exists; i.e., the well-being of its subjects.

    He doesn’t appear to me to be using a superlative with his use of ‘unschädlichste’. I hear an implicit contrast between the freedom to argue all you want and the other kinds of freedoms that some state might allow (e.g., freedom to question or criticize the state in one’s official capacity as representative of the state, or freedom to disobey its statutes). In comparison to these others, the freedom to make public use of one’s reason really does seem to be the least harmful–especially when considered in relation to the state’s capacity to ensure the well-being of its subjects.

    A lot more could be said to flesh out and justify my interpretation, but here is clearly not the place for that. I suspect that conversation would be rewarding in leading us towards a better understanding of each other’s perspectives on the historical and philosophical significance of the work, so I hope we can continue our discussion. For our present purposes, in collaboratively writing a piece on the Public Philosophy Journal, it strikes me that our agreement concerning the transformative power of public philosophical discourse is the most relevant thing.

  • mdfisher says:

    I think you are clearly right to see Kant practicing a form of public philosophy in his answer to the prize essay competition question “What is Enlightenment?”. You also point to an important and interesting tension between the kind of freedom he is advocating and exercising and the larger political context in which he does this. I agree with the substance of what you say here concerning Kant’s distinction between private and public uses of reason, and concerning the transformative power of public philosophical discourse. I’m not sure I follow you in your assessment of Kant’s rhetorical strategy, however. I don’t think a lack of consensus on this point would jeopardize our moving forward with the paper in any way, but I would like to hear more about what motivates your interpretation. I hope the following (i) summary of the main point where we appear to disagree and (ii) alternative interpretative suggestion will function to facilitate further discussion.
    Much of your interpretation of Kant’s rhetorical strategy appears to turn on a particular way of understanding and interpreting his use of ‘unschädlichste’ is describing freedom in the public use of one’s reason. You take it as a superlative that suggests hyperbole and involves Kant in a performative contradiction. If I have understood you correctly, you are saying that at the same time that he is calling this use of freedom the ‘most innocuous’ he is also exercising this freedom in a way that has clearly detrimental implications for absolute monarchy.
    If Kant were saying that it was the least powerful form of freedom, or that it was the least harmful to the status quo in authoritarian states, I think your interpretation of performative contradiction would be right on. What he appears to be saying, to my way of reading the piece, though, is that it is the ‘least harmful’ form of freedom. Further, the harm he has in mind is not to the power of the monarchy itself, but to those ends for which the state exists; i.e., the well-being of its subjects.
    He doesn’t appear to me to be using a superlative with his use of ‘unschädlichste’. I hear an implicit contrast between the freedom to argue all you want and the other kinds of freedoms that some state might allow (e.g., freedom to question or criticize the state in one’s official capacity as representative of the state, or freedom to disobey its statutes). In comparison to these others, the freedom to make public use of one’s reason really does seem to be the least harmful–especially when considered in relation to the state’s capacity to ensure the well-being of its subjects.
    A lot more could be said to flesh out and justify my interpretation, but here is clearly not the place for that. I suspect that conversation would be rewarding in leading us towards a better understanding of each other’s perspectives on the historical and philosophical significance of the work, so I hope we can continue our discussion. For our present purposes, in collaboratively writing a piece on the Public Philosophy Journal, it strikes me that our agreement concerning the transformative power of public philosophical discourse is the most relevant thing.

  • kris_klotz says:

    mdfisher cplong Mark’s question raises an additional question: what
    does it mean for public reason to be harmless to the public without being
    harmful to the monarchy? Whether or not Kant thinks this is possible, as Mark –
    I think – suggests, we still have to examine whether it is in fact possible. Of
    course, we would have to take Mark’s own discussion of freedom and its relation
    to the philosophy faculty into account. http://markdfisher.com/philosophy-broadly-construed-part-iii-kants-conflict-of-the-faculties-and-beyond/, Mark described freedom as
    the “freedom to pursue the truth wherever
    it might lead in making a contribution to the world of learning.” Do we
    think that thiis can be either innocuous or harmless to monarchy?

  • cplong says:

    mdfisher I very much appreciate your response here. Yes, we do agree about the transformative power of public philosophical discourse. 

    Let’s play around with my interpretation of “unschädichste” in the text for a minute. I think Kant is using it in a very sophisticated way, one that its attuned to its rhetorical power. 

    To put it provocatively, I think Kant would like the powers that be to hear the word in the way you have interpreted it — it is the least harmful of freedoms. Any yet, I think that Kant recognizes that it is not harmless at all, that in fact, it is potentially very harmful in a powerfully disruptive way to the monarchy, as I think kris_klotz suggests. One reason I think this is that Kant suggests as much in passage I cited from the end of the essay in which he gestures to the possibility that the freedom of thinking could lead to the freedom of acting even against the principles of the government.

    When I said the statement in which Kant uses this term is an “eloquent performative contradiction,” my point was not to criticize Kant for being caught up in a performative contradiction, but to praise the rhetoric of the text for beautifully (eloquently) showing that the public use of reason is not harmless at all. 

    I am not sure I would go to the mat to argue that Kant intended it in this ironic way, but I would defend the idea that the text articulates that point beautifully. The text demonstrates the harmful power of the free use of reason by so hyperbolically denying it. (“Me thinks [the text] doth protest too much.”)

    Of course, my defense only works if we take for granted what I think kris_klotz is suggesting: the freedom to pursue the truth wherever it may lead is never innocuous or harmless to authoritarian regimes — which is why they always spend so much energy keeping their citizens from doing it.

  • mdfisher says:

    Thanks cplong and kris_klotz  for your replies. I think you are both right that “the freedom to pursue the truth wherever it may lead is never innocuous or harmless to authoritarian regimes”. If Kant were saying that it isn’t harmless to authoritarian regimes while showing that it is, he would certainly be involved in a performative contradiction.

    My point, however, is that his focus is not on authoritarian regimes. Instead, the focus is on the well-being of the subjects qua the legitimate end of any state (however configured). The claim is that the freedom to use one’s reason publicly is the least harmful with respect to this legitimate end of the state. The well-being of the subjects would be compromised if everyone were free to disobey; it would not be compromised if everyone were free to argue (as long as that argument is not itself a form of disobedience, as it is in the case that Frederick forbids; i.e., private persons expressing public judgment).

    This claim, in my view, is directly related to the broader view that the free use of one’s reason is a natural right. It doesn’t stem from and cannot be legitimately taken away by the government. To the extent that I contract with the government to serve the state in a way that requires obedience to some code or statutes, I have agreed not to publicly criticize those codes or statutes (that would be a private person expressing public judgment). If I have not done that, I remain free to question these things publicly in my pursuit of the truth. That does not grant me the freedom to disobey the laws based on them with impunity.

    So, I think this pushes our conversation in another direction as well. Do we think of reason as an aspect of our human nature and do we think of political legitimacy as something that is constrained within limits proscribed by that nature? Is that where our right (or even duty) to do public philosophy, even if it turns out to be harmful to the functioning of the current regime, is secured? For better or for worse, that is how I see Kant defending it. 

    Assuming not everyone agrees with this view about reason and human nature, can we be skeptical or agnostic about such issues, while also providing a robust defense of the practice of public philosophy–not just as a harmless academic pursuit, but as a practice that aims at the public good, while also bringing into question some of the most dominant assumptions within a given context concerning how, in fact, this good is best secured?

  • Sorry to join this conversation so late, but if I may I’d like to throw in my 2c:
    mdfisher, I think you have a good defense of your interpretation of Kant’s use of unschädlichste in “What is Enlightenment”, but I wonder if it is exclusive of cplong’s. 

    I can’t help but think of Gadamer’s critique of what he calls Romantic Hermeneutics  (Schleiermacher’s psychologism is his main target here) and its focus on reconstructing the author’s mind at the time of writing.  Implicit in such a hermeneutics is the assumption that the author is in full control of the text’s meaning at the time of writing, and that the text says what the author intended for it to say, and Gadamer refutes this assumption outright.

    For Gadamer, textual interpretation does not happen by a change of horizons (i.e. by the reader abandoning her standpoint in order to take up the authors and thus truly grasp the texts meaning).  Rather, understanding is always a fusion of horizons (of present and past, or of reader and text, etc.).  These horizons are made up, at least in part, of the prejudices and background assumptions that govern the reader’s understanding (and since we’re continually testing our prejudices, our horizons are inherently dynamic).

    One of the implications of this view is that the text can no longer be said to have one true meaning, for it can mean different things depending on the reader’s background assumptions.  That is not to say that anything goes, of course, for at least one criterion of correctness remains: the coherence of all parts to the whole.  If an interpretation of a text can only hold by ignoring some passages, then that interpretation can be dismissed as being incorrect (for it fails to fully make sense of the text).

    To make a long story short, I think that regardless of how Kant intended to use the term unschädlichste, so long as Chris can provide a coherent interpretation of the text by invoking his ironic reading of the term, we can’t deny that that, too, is what Kant’s “What is Enlightenment” means.

    But that is not to say that your interpretation is inferior or less accurate. In fact, I believe that reconstructing an author’s intention is very useful, for in many instances it allows us to arrive at a coherent meaning for a text and for a corpus (and this is why I think Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics are so convincing at times).  Yet Gadamer would caution us that arriving at a text’s meaning through historical reconstruction is risky, for either it ceases to be a quest for truth (I can argue that this is what the text meant for others, but not for the reader), or it takes place as a fusion of horizons despite the interpreter’s wishes.
    I hope I haven’t gone too far off topic here, but given the conflicting interpretations this seemed relevant.

  • It looks like my reply to mdfisher exemplifies one of its point too well: it did not say exactly what I wanted it to say!  

    I think I got too caught up in trying to trace Gadamer’s position (while keeping that sketch brief), and in the process I implied that Mark is guilty of a psychologism à là Schleiermacher, and therefore that Mark’s interpretation is a lesser one.  That is not what I meant to say.  I do think that Mark presents a coherent and meaningful (and dare I say it,  true) interpretation of Kant.  I just wanted to point out that, if a Gadamerian hermeneutics holds (and I am partial to Gadamer’s hermeneutics), then Mark’s interpretation is not exclusive of cplong’s, nor is the latter exclusive of the former.

    I don’t  think Mark was implying that they were, but I just wanted to make that explicit.  It’s a small contribution to the conversation, and I hope my previous reply can be better understood with this small addendum.

    The implication I had in mind in crafting my reply was that we may want to be explicit when pointing out that the ironic dimensions of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment” may not have been intended, but it is nevertheless a legitimate component of the text.  I think that may require some weakening of some of Chris’ claims (i.e. can it still be said to be a “rhetorical strategy” if it may have been unintended? Might it be better to say that Kant effectively opened up a space where a kind of reason could be exercised, even if he did not mean to?), but without any damage to the overall argument, if I understand it well.

  • […] essay is not merely a performance of public philosophy, it is as also the practice of a liberty that simultaneously respects and violates the political […]

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