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Public vs. Private Reason

March 24, 2011

A question came up in discussion today about public reason versus private reason. Immanuel Kant believes that public reason is reason that “anyone as a scholar” makes before the “literate world.” Private reason, he argues, is the use of reason that a person may make “in a civic post or office” that is “entrusted to him.” These definitions may seem pretty straightforward, but on further examination can become quite tangled. The question which I am referring to was this… If a University of Michigan professor degraded university policies in front of his class, would this be public or private reason?

At first, I jumped at the answer that it would be private use of reason because he is using reason within a civic post. Under careful consideration, I took back my initial response. Kant says that public reason is free, while private reason has restrictions to keep social order in tact. In private reason, you are supposed to follow the guidelines of the civic post you have been entrusted with. That means you cannot disagree or speak your opinion against the establishment you work for. For example, a soldier on duty cannot argue with his commander and a priest cannot preach against the church he belongs to. The restrictions on private reason are necessary for keeping disaster and chaos from happening.

Public reason means speaking your mind freely as a scholar. The university professor is indeed in a civic post, but in this case I believe he would be abusing private reason and reverting to public reason. As a scholar, he is speaking his mind freely to the literate people in his classroom. This is public reason. He is supposed to be using private reason, as a faculty member of the university. If he was doing so, he would restrict his words against the policies of the university. But, I believe he is abusing private reason and using public reason within a civic post, which Kant says is “disastrous.”

What are your thoughts on this case? Is it public or private reason?

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