Public & Private Reason: Why Kant Wouldn’t Cancel Speakers

By Zac Cash

In March 2019, the Psychology professor Jordan Peterson, whose views on transgender rights, climate change and gender identity has caused great controversy, had his visiting professorship invite rescinded from Cambridge University. Two years prior, protests erupted when the pro-Trump political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos announced that he would be speaking at UC Berkeley in California. Free speech is, clearly, an issue that surrounds our contemporary political and social world, with much being done to both restrict and enable its usage on campuses across the world. Last May, for instance, UK universities were told that they would have to comply with free speech laws or face sanctions for its restriction. For Kant in 1784, freedom of speech was an issue too. The Prussian King at the time, Frederick the Great, who championed progressive free speech laws, had become ill and crippled. Kant worried that his successor would be less inclined to maintain such values, so in the December 1784 edition of The Berlin Monthly, Kant published ‘What is Enlightenment?’; a seminal essay in political philosophy with an underlying aim of alerting the future King of the importance of maintaining free speech within Prussia. Here, Kant drew a distinction between the ‘public’ and ‘private’ uses of reason and explored why the political consequences of this distinction made it a necessary one. In the end, Kant’s plea did not work. Frederick’s successor (also creatively called Frederick) was notably more regressive and did much to weaken Prussia internally. Nevertheless, to assail the notion that Philosophy has no relevance today and develop on from Kant’s discourse, I want to consider how Kant’s 240-year-old distinction between public and private reason can help us understand contemporary debates around free speech.       

Free speech, through Kant, is an avenue for the contention and disputation of bigotry, rather than the acceptance of it.

Rather than taking the form of advancements in theoretical and scientific knowledge, Kant’s Enlightenment is more of a practical attitude. We can see Kant’s definition at the beginning of his text- “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” (Kant, 1991:54). Self-incurred immaturity is the inability and lack of courage to “use one’s understanding without the guidance of another” (54). But this is a moral, not an intellectual issue. Immaturity is a lack of courage and effort (thus, self-incurred), to think for oneself. Thus, to be enlightened, we must have the courage to think for ourselves and not blindly follow sources of authority which distract us from exercising this duty. Continually, there are two spheres to this Enlightenment – the individual, and the collective. Kant does not have much faith in individual Enlightenment, thinking “there is more chance of an entire public enlightening themselves” (55). Kant justifies this by claiming that it would be difficult for each individual person to work their way out of the ‘second nature’ immaturity they have become accustomed to (due to our own domestication of the other animals of the Earth and how any freedom they may have had has been restricted through “the leading strings to which they are tied”) (54), but the existence of a few genuine free-thinkers in society means they will “disseminate the spirit of rational respect… for the duty of all men to think for themselves” (55). 

It is important to introduce what Kant distinguishes as the ‘public’ and ‘private’ uses of reason – two distinct ways in which our reason can be deployed. The public use of reason is “the use which anyone may make of it as man of learning addressing the entire reading public” (55). Conversely, the private use of reason is “that which a person may make of it in a particular civil post or office with which he is entrusted” (55). In other words, one can either use their reason in their societal role, or they can detach themselves from it, and reason from a sense of holistic universality and become a ‘man of learning’ for the people, by excluding the interests and ends that prevail more privately. 

Kant claims that within a polity, the inclusion of public use of reason is of paramount importance. Collective (public) Enlightenment is possible, but this relies on freedom of speech being upheld. Only then can we attain our autonomy and have the courage to think for ourselves without being afraid to express our true thoughts on a matter or be forced to accept a certain ‘official’ way of thinking. Since the public use of reason relates precisely to the wider public sphere, and not the individual and subjective matters of the private use of reason, freedom of the public use of reason must flourish. Kant contrarily contends that restrictions on the private use of reason would not have major implications for the advancement of public Enlightenment, since we have a duty to obey and adhere to the rules of our specific societal role. In intertwinement with this disparity between the uses of reason is the priority that Kant places on intellectual freedom over civil freedom. Encapsulated in “argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey” (59), Kant presents the necessity of obeying within our private spheres, so we can preserve freedom of speech and thus collective Enlightenment within the public domain. Furthermore, we have a duty to obey within our private roles, since “it would be very harmful if an officer… were to quibble openly… about the appropriateness of the order in question” (56). But this is precisely why the public use of reason must prevail, as it allows one to freely detach from their role within the ‘realm of obedience’ and criticize such aspects of their role that would be neither appropriate nor permissible otherwise. Then, as University of Illinois Professor Samuel Fleischacker writes, “ideas can be played out without leading to rash political changes, and the people can come to mental maturity before they rule themselves” (Fleischacker, 2013:16). 

Dismissing … views as forgotten risks allows their acceptance and propagation, which is why the Kantian view must prevail

This may seem a little abstract and arbitrary, so let me provide you with an example. Imagine a teacher, or a university professor, who is unhappy with something that is being taught on the curriculum – perhaps they deem it too controversial, or too offensive, or maybe they feel that it leaves out something which they deem to be important. Kant would state that the teacher has a moral duty to, first and foremost, teach what is on the curriculum regardless of what it includes. That is because their societal role is that of a teacher and therefore their private use of reason should not come into play or cloud their ability to effectively teach. Yet, all is not lost for the teacher to voice such displeasure. Through the public use of reason, upheld by free speech, they would be able to express their feelings (perhaps the most prominent medium in which our contemporary theoretical teacher would do this would be via social media, a platform which did not exist in the 18th century, but we can appreciate what Kant is trying to get at here). 

With the case of the teacher, Kant’s distinction does seem morally plausible. We understand that the primary role of a teacher is to educate, and anything that bars such a role must be dealt with externally. However, there are cases where the extent to which we are obligated to obey within our civil roles could be doubted, such as military and enforcement roles, where morally ambiguous orders are often given. If Kant asserts that we must obey unquestioningly in these circumstances, then we must question the moral aspect of Kant’s intellectual/civil divide. Some real-world examples come to mind: think of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the soldiers who actualized the Final Solution in 1942-45. Or, to refer a more contemporary example, the actions of the Metropolitan Police during both the Black Lives Matter and Sarah Everard protests could be deemed morally ambiguous due to the conflict between the maintenance of public order and the righteousness of both causes.  Perhaps sometimes, we should not shoot first and ask questions later – it seems there are instances where civil disobedience should be contemplated before mindless obedience. Debate and discussion on these morally enigmatic issues, whilst important, cannot be a replacement for the potential consequences if we rely solely on this and do not ever question our private roles. Furthermore, conversely, perhaps the distinctiveness of the two spheres of reason can also provide critique. If private reason entails conformity to the authority of previous roles in society, surely public discussion through the use of public reason can only hope to deal with public matters and therefore cannot hope to change private authority? Looking at it from the other end, the way we think and address the public in public reasoning is majorly affected by our private and civil lives.  A quote from Sinclair Upton comes to mind- “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” How can we hope to engage in critical public debate when we are so used to doing the opposite?

But why is any of this relevant to contemporary debates around free speech? I mentioned at the start of this piece the current issue of free speech in universities. In 1974, the National Union of Students introduced a ‘No Platforming’ policy, which prevented people with racist or fascist views speaking at universities (n.b. not all Student Unions adopted this policy). However, in 2021, the government published a paper proposing to “strengthen free speech and academic freedom” in universities, combining with 2017 reports by the Adam Smith Institute claiming that universities have a liberal/left-wing bias and thus poses a threat to ‘diversity of views’ across campuses. Due to the progressive ideals of the King during Kant’s time of writing, universities likely upheld such ideals too and therefore were crucial bastions in the fight for free speech. As such, we could deem that because of the importance Kant places on the public use of reason, university talks could cater to those who wished to express a specific point of view that they could not hold within their specific societal roles or discuss a topic which is separate from such a role. Indeed, such conclusions are not quite as clear cut, as it is unclear as to what is incorporated within Kant’s definition of free speech; modern notions of aspects of speech, such as hate speech, blurs the contemporary picture with aspects that were not applicable in Kant’s era. The University of Konigsburg, where Kant received his education, had numerous royal ties and therefore despite the King proclaiming free speech, the autonomy and liberality that is afforded to universities today would not be recognized during the mid-1780s. But, nonetheless, Kant’s proposals do not need complete contextual compatibility with today’s societal setup for them to be applicable. It seems unfair, for instance, that Amber Rudd should be barred from speaking at an Oxford University International Women’s Day event because of her links with the Windrush Scandal, when she was due to talk about a topic that was utterly distinct from her political life- the Kantian distinction between the public and private use of reason is precisely for this kind of example. Why should her role within the private sphere impact her freedom within the public realm? Consequently, viewing free speech through a Kantian outlook would support this libertarian-esque conclusion because the public and private circles are still as applicable today as they were in the 1700s. Despite fluctuations in the types of private roles and varying bodies of public reason, universities and their relevant bodies of discourse (such as the Oxford Union) withstand the test of temporality. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that the Kantian distinction does not support the ideals of such divisive speakers. On the contrary, by selecting a wider multitude of speakers, visiting professorships and other roles which allow public contact at universities, these held ideals could be more vulnerable to ardent and voracious criticism than ever before. Free speech, through Kant, is an avenue for the contention and disputation of bigotry, rather than the acceptance of it.  Of course, there is merit in contesting the value in preserving the freedom of speech of speakers who are associated with ethical stances that have, through prior and lengthy debate, been proven to be wrongheaded. Have we not established that these views are ethically inadmissible? But it remains that these views still have a tremendous influence within our contemporary world. How can we dismiss these views as ‘old news’ and irrelevant when someone like Donald Trump, a figure who not only embodies but promotes these views to the highest degree, has managed to hold office in the most powerful nation in the world? Dismissing these views as forgotten risks allows their acceptance and propagation, which is why the Kantian view must prevail, in order to deal with these still very pertinent issues head on. 

Hence, the disparity between public and private use of reason is crucial, since it affects how we, as a public and collective society, become enlightened. We cannot place faith on individual Enlightenment- instead, we must be allowed to unwaveringly deploy our public use of reason to challenge authority and build the courage to think for ourselves. This has numerous political implications, namely, that permitting free speech is critical for us to make full use of the public use of reason, as well as the hegemony of intellectual liberty over civil freedom, due to the varying duties that one has within those realms. In certain cases of moral ambiguity, consideration of civil disobedience may sometimes be required to prevent catastrophic consequences. Yet, Kant’s distinction is particularly relevant within today’s debates of free speech, especially within the ‘melting pots’ of universities where individuals from a smorgasbord of backgrounds, cultures and countries, mix. The importance of free speech has evidently, for many, not been lost over almost 250 years. Despite this progression in temporality, the distinction between public and private uses of reason informs contemporary debates surrounding the issue. My opening case of the Jordan Peterson controversy can now be addressed through a Kantian lens; not through a promotion of the blind acceptance of extremist opinion, but of the importance of exposing these views so they can be legitimately and appropriately denunciated. 


Kant, I. (1991) Political Writings. 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press.

Fleischacker, S. (2013) What is Enlightenment?. Routledge.

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