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Does Enlightenment Exist in the Real World?

April 9, 2011

Enlightenment – Kant defines it as “man’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity.”  When a person learns to think for his or herself without the guidance of others, Kant believes they have achieved enlightenment.  That’s all fine and well in theory.. but does such a thing really exist? Or would the pursuit of enlightenment be a ridiculous waste of time?  Somewhere in between?  And even if it does exist, how can it possibly be achieved?

Clearly, I base this entire discussion on the assumption that for the most part, humanity is not enlightened.  I think that’s pretty clear.  Although we like to believe we’re independent, free-thinking individuals, it seems that in reality, we are simply following the crowd.  Through the media, modern society assails us with beliefs, values, norms, and expectations.  Psychological studies show that people like to believe that they are immune to these influences, while believing that everyone else is susceptible to them.  In reality though, everyone is affected to some extent.  How is it possible, then, to think for ourselves?

Well, perhaps it just isn’t possible.  I think it would be nearly impossible to be completely enlightened, unless a person leaves society and lives entirely alone.  However, perhaps partial enlightenment is still plausible.  Most people think and learn by following the paths of others.  However, if a person seeks to learn through experience rather than from a “teacher,” they are learning and thinking in an enlightened manner.

Is it possible then, that attending the U of M, and this class in particular, is the last thing you should do if you wish to become enlightened?  I guess the answer is that it depends what you get out of it.  If you attend Polsci 101 and do a great job of memorizing exactly what each thinker believes, then you have not enlightened yourself at all.  Ultimately, remembering who thinks what doesn’t matter very much.  What does matter, in terms of enlightenment, is developing the ability to think critically and independently about each text and form your own opinion about it.  If you learn to question the great political thinkers and are unafraid to think in a way others may not agree with, this class may have helped you take a step toward enlightenment.

2 Comments
  1. Bri Kovan permalink
    April 10, 2011 3:19 PM

    You propose a really interesting discussion on enlightenment in today’s society. You didn’t mention much about the role of the media, but its role is overarching into every crevice of our lives, usually uninvited. I did a research project last week about the image of the idealized female body type over the centuries, and a similar discussion arose.

    The media doesn’t want people to know its influence. They probably don’t realize the full extent of their power. Instead it leads us to believe we’re at the foundation of all of our opinions or decisions, when in reality we’re either conforming to their opinion or against it. Either way, manipulated by them.

    In a society this interwoven with the media, how do we struggle with the notion of enlightenment? It’s a really tough question but important for us to think about. Good post!

  2. Kernelp Jie Wen permalink
    April 10, 2011 11:26 PM

    Hey, Amanda, you really made a good observation. However, I am a little confused in some of the points you have mentioned in your post. One is that” I think it would be nearly impossible to be completely enlightened, unless a person leaves society and lives entirely alone.” I am curious that whether one could live entirely alone with any other individual’s aid. I am also wondering if a person leaves the society to some extent, for instance, dampening the influence from others in terms of decreasing communication with other individuals , how he or she can employ the public use of reason as a major scheme suggested by Kant to achieve maturity. As all types of the biased media abound in every corner of our daily lives, probably only with the public use of reason could we ward off some insidious impacts from the media, for example, prejudice based on gender, race or just nationality.
    Well, as you have mentioned, there might exist other paths towards Enlightenment. You claimed that “if a person seeks to learn through experience rather than from a “teacher,” they are learning and thinking in an enlightened manner.” I am confused at this because learning through experience is way of engaging some types of communication (direct or implicit) with others, if other individuals knew more than you did, they could somewhat be called “teachers” in your specific context. In particular, these types of communication are more or less on the verge of Kant’s suggestion of the public use of reason. I do not know whether my interpretation or the ensuing implication from your concise statement is correct or not, but I do offer my heartfelt appreciation to you for your effort of this interesting post.

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