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The Courage To Think

December 6, 2010

Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” was written in 1784 and addressed issues that transcend time such as people’s inability to think for themselves due not to their lack of intellect, but lack of courage. Kant’s essay also discussed the causes of a lack of enlightenment and the preconditions necessary to make it possible for people to enlighten themselves. Essentially, Kant believes that in order to be an enlightened individual; you must first be an autonomous, freethinking entity.

As I was reading Kant’s essay, I could not help but notice how direct he was with his writing and how correct he was with his analysis and reasoning. Kant answers the question of what Enlightenment is concisely in the first sentence of the essay: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” Kant argues that the immaturity is self-inflicted not because of people’s lack of understanding, but from the lack of courage to use one’s reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another. I strongly agree with every one of Kant’s claims because I have seen them at work on a firsthand basis.

I really started taking notice of the phenomenon of people not thinking for themselves in high school. I realized that in all my AP and honors classes people would collaborate and need help with even the most rudimentary work and assignments. This perplexed me because I viewed my classes as the classes for the brightest of the bright and for people who were free thinkers. However, as competition among peers became prevalent during the latter stages of high school because of the college application process, students would receive work from older kids as well as their peers in order to ace classes that they seemed like they had no business even being in. This dependent way of thinking Kant characterized as immature and as inevitably one of the leading pitfalls of society.

How can we expect to put the most intelligent people in charge of the world’s leading corporations when these supposed intelligent people cannot even critically think on their own? How are we supposed to be enriched as people when only a select few individuals do all the thinking? This epidemic affects more than just the people who can think for themselves. It makes each respective society weaker. The Enlightenment was a time of progress with a focus on individualistic principles, the use of reason, and that education could be a catalyst of social change and the demand for political representation. If we as a society continue to be told what to do, cannot complete tasks on our own, and look to others for all the answers, we are only going to revert back in time. We cannot make progress without everyone making an effort to better themselves intellectually through the advancement and gaining of knowledge.

7 Comments
  1. December 6, 2010 5:09 PM

    I agree. While I do think it is important for people to promote essays like Kant’s to stir peoples thoughts and get them thinking, I think it is unrealistic that every person should become enlightened. It is unnatural for people to think, it causes them uncomfort. Because of this people would rather be told what to do and think as little as possible. I think it would be great to get as many people as possible to realize this and to their best efforts try to become more intellectually productive, but like most of the readings we have done this semester it is too idealistic. Right now what we should focus on is making sure the people running the government and running our lives are those distinguished as enlightened. That way we, and the sleeping citizens will be in safe hands. Right now I am not too sure everyone with immense power in this country is too enlightened. This is why I am glad America is not a complete democracy. If so, the lazy scared masses would run the country and ultimately guide it to its downfall. Who’s to say that is not happening now? It seems even given the choice to elect public officials has been to much responsibility for fellow Americans. But it is the only fair and sensible way of running a government. So if we could get the masses to start thinking a little more, not necessarily becoming enlightened, maybe we would have more effective and enlightened public officials who could create order in this country and create peace on a global scale.

  2. reedmarcus permalink
    December 6, 2010 6:52 PM

    I definitely agree with the major points that you address in this post. I feel as though, while promoting essays like Kant must be promoted in order to influence people to think outside the box, it is not logical or realistic for everyone to become enlightened. If everyone was enlightened, it would take away from those who truly are enlightened with distinct ideals and philosophies and would take away from their true knowledge and thoughts. Promoting all people to think at that level is asking too much from the majority of the public, and would cause mass chaos in that people would start to argue and think they are always right. If the majority of the upper echelon of this country was enlightened, this country would never have decisions made because there would be way too many countering opinions and this would lead to the ultimate demise of the human race. So, while we should be promoting people to think, we cannot expect people to be enlightened or reach that high status of thinking.

  3. adamkornbluh permalink
    December 6, 2010 7:47 PM

    I think a big part of this problem is the fact that we attempt to objectify success in order for things to be more “equal.” Take a look at your point on AP classes. The point of the class is to pass a test in order to receive recognition you thoroughly understand the material. However, regurgitating information you may have received from a classmate, parent, or sibling is not learning.

    My best teacher of my school career was my 12th grade English teacher. In a way, she embraced Kant’s belief that enlightenment is the emergence from immaturity. Instead of giving tests or distributing essays with one specific prompt on a book, she would tell us to come up with a new, innovative thesis that has never been written before. Since we needed an original idea, assistance from classmates’ papers provided no help and instead we were stranded alone on an island, with our only means of escape being creating something new. These difficult assignments forced us to shed our insecurities of proposing unconventional ideas and grow into individual thinkers, which I think was what Kant’s enlightenment was all about.

  4. Zac Hiller permalink
    December 6, 2010 8:11 PM

    This is an excellent post. I completely agree and it definitely does shows Kant’s beliefs. Kants overall reason why people are not enlightened is “they are lazy, not a lack of intellect.” The kids in the AP classes definitely have the intellect to do the work on their own however it is easier not too. This causes them to collaborate and find work from people who have already taken the class. Hence, they are lazy. Kant would be proud that the education system today still proves his point.

  5. Molly Niedbala permalink
    December 6, 2010 8:31 PM

    I think you’re spot on. I’m not going to be blunt; when some high-school peers I knew to be expert cheaters got into schools like Dartmouth and Brown at the end of senior year, I was furious. Why did these immature and conniving people deserve to go to schools so renowned? Why did they deserve association with the best of the best? They didn’t, and still do not. But in the past months I’ve gotten over my initial indignation and am now seeing how sad the situation really is.

    These people have relied on others their entire lives, but now they’ve been left to fend for themselves (or have they?). They’ve used other people’s ladders to climb to the top, but now that support has been torn from beneath them (ostensibly). They will fall, and they will fall hard. They will be revealed, if not in their specific acts of dishonesty, at least in their blatant inability to produce original thought. Put on the spot, they will wither. Independent thought does indeed take courage to achieve, and at the collegiate level, it is harder and harder to fake. My peers’ cowardice will lead them to ruin even beyond their already-present intellectual dearth, all because they were allowed to skirt around developing the ability to think critically.

    What if their cheating had been reprimanded? Would they have stopped, and begun to think on their own? Would our academic environment be enriched by those thoughts that their dependence on others has, as it stands, prevented them from developing? I think most would agree that the answer is yes. By allowing others/ourselves to be dependent, we not only set them/ourselves up for eventual, individual failure. Rather, in suffocating their/our potential, we deprive the world of their/our potential to make it great. Are you guilty of either facilitating another’s dependence or of failing to move past your own? If so, you owe both yourself and the world of ideas an apology.

  6. Mycki Kujacznski permalink
    December 6, 2010 8:52 PM

    I agree with you that intelligent people need to learn to speak up and think for themselves, but I feel like this post makes the assumption that all people are intellectual. However, we all know that not everyone in the world is. Obviously people who are trying to make a difference in the world by holding a public office or something that will affect others need to have that ability, but I don’t think it’s necessarily important that EVERY person become enlightened. If people are just trying to quietly get by on a minimum wage job, I don’t think they should be criticized for not voicing their opinions. Maybe they’re not confident enough in their own intelligence to speak up, and maybe with good reason.

  7. yequan permalink
    December 6, 2010 9:55 PM

    Intelligence alone is not enough to push the world forward. I think the point Kant argues is that you must and have to think independently. Yes, we can rely on peers’ experiences and advices on applying colleges, but sooner or later, we have to work on our own. I remember when I was applying to college, and so many friends said to me that “this college is too hard for you” “that won’t happen” “hey dude, your SAT is not high enough”….. But if I do not give it a try, I will never know. Kant tells us to make decisions on our own. Other people’s opinions should not influence your own choice.

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