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What is enlightenment? My take.

March 23, 2011

Kant’s definition of enlightenment is the breaking of one’s chains from immaturity, to escape the totalitarian dogmas and traditions and think for one’s self. The enlightenment one gains is in the courage of creating one’s own ideas and straying from “groupthink”, from the pulsing central brain of the automaton. However, what Kant addresses isn’t enlightenment but the definition of enlightenment. Enlightenment itself is an abstract idea and even stating enlightenment as an abstract idea is a definition rather than it’s form.

However, is enlightenment truly as Kant describes it? The basis of enlightenment is a realization and by defining enlightenment, Kant has his own enlightenment. Enlightenment thus is the feeling of “getting something”, of neural synapses connecting two separate ideas to create a new idea from the two. Enlightenment is synthesis rather than analysis. However, as I addressed earlier, this is also a definition of enlightenment and not what enlightenment is. For example, an apple is not a fruit with edible flesh. Describing it as such is only defining it and not answering what it is since “fruit” is a human concept, something that doesn’t exist in nature. Thus, if the word “fruit” is not natural, how can it describe something that does exist without human nomenclature? An apple has always been an “apple” or exists without a name for it but a “fruit” doesn’t exist as it is just a consensus among people to agree on a definition for that word.

Then, going back to Kant’s definition, that enlightenment is thinking for one’s self, is it possible? Foremost, language is a construct, a tradition and a way of sending down thoughts from one generation to another. In this sense, no one ever thinks for himself but rather has already had generations of information transferred for his ease of reference. Every word that Kant utters is in essence part of the official dogma as words are agreed upon by all to have specific meanings. When I say “dog” people all agree on an animal with four legs that perhaps barks and fetches the paper or that it’s a derogatory term used to define a person. Yet that in itself goes against what Kant says since we aren’t thinking for ourselves. We haven’t created our own language, shed of the influences of society. Instead, we adopt society’s language and use it in order to understand others and vice versa.

If the words “dog”, “apple”, “word”, “enlightenment” already have meaning, then aren’t we already thinking in a way others are telling us to think? Aren’t we in an eternal state of dis-enlightenment as we are born told what to do and can never truly break away from anything as everything we do is based on our previous experiences. The only pure way to think for yourself would be to live on an abandoned island starting from your birth but that is not feasible.

Even if we adopt Kant’s definition of enlightenment, aren’t we ironically doing what he told us not to do which is to use others’ ideas? If we use Kant’s definition of enlightenment, we are thinking as he thinks rather than formulating our own ideas on the matter. Thus, how can his definition of enlightenment ever be achieved by us if it’s telling us to disregard what other say, even his own preaches?

What enlightenment is then, is an impossible and paradoxical idea. It’s an idea where one thinks for one’s self rather than thinking as the “machine” tells you to. However, isn’t that itself influenced by the machine, and if not the machine, the ideologies of those who revolt just like you but before you.  Even using another definition of enlightenment, say, a lightbulb going off in your head, metaphorically of course, and you think of something completely innovative, isn’t that still part of the tradition, to create new and innovative things, since after all, no matter how new and innovative something is, it still is definable by human terms as we give everything a specific meaning and nothing exists without a name. Going back to the definition of an apple, Webster (for a better definition than my haphazard take) defines it as : the fleshy usually rounded red, yellow, or green edible pome fruit of a usually cultivated tree (genus Malus) of the rose family; also : an apple tree — compare crab apple. But what exactly is “fleshy”. It is an adjective but an adjective is a human creation. However, let’s disregard that, but then arises another problem. All the words used to define apple must then be redefined according to Kant’s enlightenment as they all have previous connotations formed by the “tradition”. And even then, the words used to define those words must be defined and so on and so forth until no word can have a definition without a previously used word. For example, If X is B and B is D and D is Z and Z is K and K is L and L is M and M is Z and Z is K and K is also X and X is B, words are forever trapped in their self-defining circle and nothing can itself truly define anything else.

Sadly, I don’t think there is any way to enlightenment as enlightenment again, is defining what we already know or would have known sooner or later. For us to know something we can never know is impossible and thus is also enlightenment.

One Comment
  1. Stephan Sakhai permalink
    March 23, 2011 4:54 PM

    Your post was very insightful and thought-out. I agree with you that because of the tradition, language, and culture that each one of us has grown up with, it is nearly impossible to break away from any of that and veer towards Kant’s definition of enlightenment. However, it is kind of sad to think that theres nothing we can do to be original or to think for ourselves. I mean, on a day-to-day basis I believe i make choices and sometimes do thinks that aren’t part of regular cultural tradition. But yet, after thinking about it the way you have explained it, I guess at the same time we are taught to break free, and clash against normalities.

    Therefore, i would agree that it seems that Kant’s definition and use of Enlightenment seem to contradict itself.

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