What social and political constraints limit human reason?

by Brúnó Lajos

The idea of being a free thinker, one that is capable of overcoming the limitations placed upon oneself by society, and arriving at conclusions independently of outside forces is rightly held up even in our age as a virtue. But how free can we truly be in our thought? What are the social and historical forces that allow or limit an individual to become this independent autonomous mind?

In this essay, I shall argue that Kant’s conception of enlightenment as the individual’s responsibility, strongly influenced by political, social and historical factors is one that merits our attention. I will also make the case that enlightenment in this sense should be understood as a minimalist conception, one that only calls for a way of thinking rather than a set of conclusions. Finally, I will argue that Kant’s weak historicism is preferable to a radical one because a universalized understanding of certain concepts is required for enlightenment to be universally realizable. 

What is Enlightenment? 

The meaning of enlightenment is not necessarily obvious, many different philosophers and many different ages defined it contrastingly and thought differently of it. I am going to focus on Kant and his 1784 essay What is Enlightenment? in which he defines the concept as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” (Kant, 1991:54). So what is this immaturity that enlightenment is the emergence out of? Immaturity is reliance on others to think for us, to tell right and wrong for us, and to orient our lives for us, while to be enlightened is to “Have courage to use your own understanding”, and to be able to do it independently of authority (Kant, 1991:54).

Immaturity here is not a lack of understanding but rather cowardice of using our reason in an autonomous fashion, relying instead on an external authority like a person or a book (Kant, 1991:54). It is in this sense that our immaturity is ‘self-incurred’ since we have the capacity of overcoming it, but out of “laziness and cowardice” we remain domesticated, therefore our state has to be understood as our responsibility (Kant, 1991:54). So enlightenment is not just a goal that is achievable by the individual, but it is also the moral duty of everyone to become enlightened and take responsibility for their own mind and understanding of the world because they are free and autonomous subjects who are capable of this step (Fleischacker, 2013:14).

This concept of enlightenment so far as I have presented it is a purely negative one, enlightenment is not reliance on others, enlightenment is not immaturity. So what would a positive conception of enlightenment look like? Enlightenment primarily is an attitude, one that questions authority and is willing to “think for oneself”, however in itself this condition of enlightenment is too weak since just by thinking for ourselves we can still go against reason by not being careful enough. Therefore, we shall also rely on two other maxims that Kant expresses alongside the ‘maxim of enlightenment’ (Fleischacker, 2013:22): the ‘maxim of broad-minded thought’ and the ‘maxim of consistency’ (Fleischacker, 2013:22).

The maxim of broad-minded thought is to use reason in a way that is universalizable, meaning the use of reason should not rely on anyone’s personal identity but rather on the objective properties of said reason. The maxim of consistency is equivalent to the principle of noncontradiction, one shall not hold two views at the same time that contradict each other, this is to “think in accordance with oneself”. To be enlightened therefore is not to have a specific view, but simply to attempt to follow these universal rules of reason, a capacity we as humans all share. 

Argue but Obey! 

This concept of enlightenment is an individualistic one. However, Kant himself notes that to become enlightened as an individual to ‘throw off the yoke’ is difficult, for we are so used to the comfort of relying on authorities and dogmas, and unaccustomed to the free movement of independent thought (Kant, 1991:55). Therefore he encourages the enlightenment of an entire public as one that is more likely (Kant, 1991:55).

To gain an understanding of the interaction between personal enlightenment and the limitations society places on it, we will also look at Moses Mendelssohn’s essay on the subject published in the same year. Now it is worth noting that enlightenment as Mendelssohn conceptualizes it is not an individual one but rather a societal one (Mendelssohn, 1784). As Mendelssohn sees it civilization has two key components, enlightenment, and cultivation. Cultivation is the realm of the practical, this includes things like industry or art, but also importantly morality and social order, meanwhile enlightenment is “to relate principally to theory or rational knowledge” (Mendelssohn, 1784).

To enlighten the public according to Kant we need not revolutions, for those would simply replace the old dogmas with new ones, but rather the freedom of men to make public use of their reason (Kant, 1991:56). This public use instead of private use of their reason, means that they must be free to discuss any subject at all as scholars and thinkers, but in their professional life they must obey the principles of their institution for the ‘interest of the commonwealth’ (Kant, 1991:56; Rauscher, 2016:4). Mendelssohn expresses the value of social order or cultivation, much more explicitly, according to him the public use of reason is needed, for men as men “require much enlightening”, but men as citizens require cultivation for the proper functioning of their institution. (Mendelssohn, 1784).

It is in the light of these ideas that the statement: ‘Argue but obey!’ gains a clear meaning: The enlightenment of the individual must happen in the context of a well-refined and functioning society. “The abuse of this enlightened state of mind weakens the moral sense, leads to insensibility, egotism, irreligion, and anarchy. The abuse of cultivation gives birth to licentiousness, hypocrisy, effeminacy, superstition, and slavery.” (Mendelssohn 1784). We can see that the conditions of enlightenment aren’t simply individual ones, but also societal and historical ones: An example of this is Kant’s reference to the immaturity of the “entire fair sex”, this can be explained by the historical subjugation of women, therefore the basis of their lack of enlightenment is an external one instead of a personal one (Kant, 1991:54).

Enlightenment, therefore, has to also be understood as a process a whole society goes through, as each individual needs to learn to use their capacity to reason, to enter into an enlightened age, this is only achievable through good use of education (Kant, 2014:16). In this context arises a dual responsibility as conditions of enlightenment: It is the moral responsibility of each individual to become enlightened, to ‘think for oneself’ and to participate in public reasoning in an enlightened manner , but it is also the responsibility of our society to allow us to become enlightened, by allowing us to make use of our reason publicly, and by providing us with education (Fleischacker, 2013:30). This duality is why the Kantian concept of individual enlightenment supplemented with Mendelssohn’s cultivation is one worthy of attention, it allows us to treat everyone as an end in themselves, as an agent capable of using their own reason and through it bettering society. 

Religion against Enlightenment! 

One historical factor, I have not yet touched upon, but one that nevertheless is in close connection with enlightenment, is religion. Kant and Mendelssohn both highlighted in their essays the special way in which religion and religious hierarchies can undermine the process of enlightenment. Mendelssohn worries about a situation in which certain truths come into opposition with the basis of moral and religious systems, in these cases, people might prioritize tradition and cultivation over truth and enlightenment, which could have serious costs “we are indebted to it for many centuries of barbarism and superstition” (Mendelssohn, 1784). Kant’s worry is quite similar, he calls for the mutability of religious doctrines by members of the religions or by future generations, since the imposition of immutable religious teachings is a complete renouncement of enlightenment which “means violating and trampling underfoot the sacred rights of mankind” (Kant, 1991:58).

The concept of enlightenment is one that’s not foreign to religion and religious thinkers either. In premodern traditions to become enlightened referred to a realization of a higher reality, it could be gaining an understanding of Plato’s forms or to see the truth in a religion like Judaism or Islam (Fleischacker, 2013:5). This process is coupled with “putting trust in the guidance of certain religious figures whom one believes is wiser than … oneself” (Fleischacker, 2013:5). It is easy to see how this religious conception of enlightenment is antithetical to the one Kant develops, to be enlightened for Kant is to break free of the ‘guardianship’ of others rather than willingly giving up our mental autonomy (Kant 1991:54).

I am going to argue that Kant’s and Mendelssohn’s concerns about religion are not just justified but also weaker than necessary, for the principle of faith itself is contrary to the maxims of enlightenment. To have faith in something could have several meanings, it could be the acceptance of and the belief in revelation, it could also mean the reliance on the authority of a figure higher than us in a religious hierarchy, while it could also refer to the acceptance and endorsement of the absurd. These three conceptions of faith are all equally incompatible with enlightenment as they all violate at least one of the three maxims established earlier.

To accept revelation is to favor our personal understanding of reality over adopting the universal laws of reason, to make an argument in religious matters which by definition is not available to all human beings is to argue in a way that’s non-universalizable, therefore violating the maxim of broad-minded thought.

To rely on authority as I have already discussed is to suspend one’s ability to reason independently, therefore, it violates the maxim of enlightenment.

To conceptualize faith as the realization and acceptance of the absurd means that we notice the presence of two contradictory ideas in our thinking and yet we sustain belief in both of them, therefore suspending the universality of reason, as Kierkegaard puts it: “Faith is exactly this paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal” (Kierkegaard, 2006:47). This last conception of faith clearly violates not just the maxim of consistency, but also the maxim of broad-minded thought, as the tools of reasoning presented here are not universalizable.

In this sense, we can gain a similar understanding of religion and its relationship with enlightenment to that of Marx’s criticism of religion as the “opium of the people” (Marx, 2009). The abolition of religion for Marx would have meant the abolition of “illusory happiness” since according to him the role of religion is to maintain oppressive hierarchical structures by softening the suffering of the oppressed. Religion in our case gives an ‘illusory understanding of reality’ to its practitioners in the form of a “comprehensive vision of the human good” (Fleischacker, 2013:27). This understanding gained through faith provides them with a sense of comfort and a false understanding of the world, which keeps them in a state of permanent immaturity (Kant, 1991:55).

For this reason, religion as a historical phenomenon is one that is in permanent conflict with enlightenment. I presented the case that Kantian enlightenment is incompatible with religious practice, but it is important to note that I am not making the case that holding any specific religious belief is also incompatible with becoming enlightened. The conflict arises between two separate ways of thinking and understanding reality, and not between two different sets of doctrines. 

Minimalism or Maximalism? 

This distinction between whether the conflict of enlightenment and religion is based on certain beliefs or certain patterns of thinking leads us to an important debate about the nature of enlightenment. One possible conception of it is a minimalist one based on which those who follow certain rules of thinking count as enlightened, and the conclusions they arrive at as a consequence of these rules has no bearing on this fact (Fleischacker, 2013:32). Another conception would be a maximalist one according to which one can only be enlightened if through the employment of reason (which is universal) she can arrive at objectively correct conclusions (Fleischacker, 2013:33).

In this maximalist view enlightenment as a historical process may have an endpoint since the use of our reason would ultimately lead us all to the same destination. The argument for maximalism is a convincing one: If reason is universal, and enlightenment is the proper employment of this reason, then surely it has to lead everyone to the same conclusions (Fleischacker, 2013:37). So how could minimalism ever be coherent, if part of being enlightened is the maxim of broad-minded thought, which compels the individual to make arguments that could be made universally? Furthermore, wouldn’t this mean that the freedom to make public use of one’s reason is only necessary for as long as we all reach said enlightenment after which it becomes redundant?

To make an argument for minimalism one must contend with these serious challenges. A possible defense is to make use of a distinction Kant creates regarding the uses of reason: Reason has a theoretical and practical use (Kant, 2014:10). In our theoretical reasoning, we must rely on assumptions, that we have to practically make, for example, gaining definitive knowledge about the existence of God is impossible, but according to Kant we still must make a judgment about it to maintain our reasoning (Kant, 2014:10). The idea that the axioms we rely upon in our employment of theoretical reason might differ, means that the conclusions we are driven to might also differ, despite us both being enlightened. So to indefinitely defer final judgment on any specific philosophical view is simply an exercise in intellectual humility (Fleischacker, 2013:38). And it is for this reason that the necessity of free public discussion isn’t historically limited, since those who might criticize our view on the basis of universal reason might not be yet capable of addressing it, as Mill put it in his famous defense of intellectual liberty: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that … The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment” (Mill, 2015:37). For this reason, our conception of enlightenment must be a minimalist one. 

Reason and History 

So what is the relationship between history and this minimalist enlightenment? Well, history certainly influences our ability to become enlightened, since historical processes and phenomena (like religion or power relations) can limit the ability of individuals for enlightenment. But in the Kantian conception enlightenment as a process remains a universal one, since both it’s subject (humanity), and device (reason) carry certain universal qualities (Fleischacker, 2013:33). Thus the historicism of Kant is a weak one which while acknowledges the importance of history relies on universal concepts independent of it. A challenge to this understanding of enlightenment can be found in the work of Foucault, who although embraces the minimalist aspect of it, also couples it with a more radical historicism. He describes enlightenment as a ‘philosophical ethos’ of permanent critique of our historical era (Foucault, 1984:9). The goal of this enlightenment is not to discover higher level truths, but rather to understand both our own selves and the reason we employ as historically contingent and limited, instead of transcendental (Foucault, 1984:11). It is this process of enlightenment, that opens up the possibility for a ‘historico-practical test of our limits’, an experiment that helps in losing our ‘arbitrary constraints’ (Foucault, 1984:12).

But is this radical historicism compatible with the attitude of enlightenment (to think for oneself) that I have introduced so far? I would argue that it is not. The most important quality of Kantian enlightenment is that it is universally accessible to all human beings, which requires an essential capacity that is shared by them: the ability to reason. To describe this ability as historically contingent is to deny the universality of enlightenment and the inherent human capacity to reason, as Mendelssohn puts it: “Were men deprived of their essential condition as men they would sink into brutes” (Mendelssohn 1784). Therefore any proper interpretation of enlightenment must preserve, this essential quality of men in order to remain universal and therefore worthwhile.  


In this essay, I have argued that the Kantian conception of individual enlightenment, governed by three maxims of reasoning and shaped by political and historical processes, is a desirable one because it addresses genuine human qualities. I identified religion as a historical phenomenon to be the antithesis of Kantian enlightenment highlighting the incompatibility of different notions of faith with our maxims. Furthermore, I claimed that this enlightenment must be understood in a minimalist conception of it, as an expression of intellectual humility, and as a recognition of the different uses of practical reason. Finally, I made the argument that for enlightenment to remain universal it must be attached to a weak historicity rather than a radical one. 


Fleischacker, S (2013): “What is Enlightenment?” (London: Routledge) 

Foucault, M. (1984) “What is Enlightenment?” In: Rabinow, P. ed. The Foucault Reader. Pantheon Books: 32-50. 

Kant, I. (1991): ‘An Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?”’ in Political Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 

Kant, I. (2014): “What Does it Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking” (Daniel Fidel Ferrer) 

Kierkegaard, S. (2006): “Fear and Trembling, ed. C. S. Evans and S. Walsh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 

Marx, K. (2009): “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” ed. Andy Blunden, Matthew Carmody 

Mendelssohn, M. (1784): “On Enlightening the Mind” 

Mill, J. S. (2015): “On Liberty” in On Liberty Utilitarianism and Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 

Rauscher, F. (2016): “Kant’s Social and Political Philosophy” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-social-political

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