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Immanuel Kant at 300 

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April 22, 2024, marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest philosophers in the history of philosophy.  Kant’s ideas of the Enlightenment are still relevant, despite the numerous criticisms that have been levelled against them. The Enlightenment was characterized by a spirit of exploration that led to new discoveries in both science and culture. Rather than promoting a narrow worldview, it encouraged people to question assumptions and religious beliefs. It still provides a framework for addressing some of the most pressing problems facing society, such as climate change and social inequality. While the Enlightenment has been criticized for its flaws and limitations, its ideas and values still have much to offer us today. Discussing

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April 22, 2024, marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest philosophers in the history of philosophy. 

Kant’s ideas of the Enlightenment are still relevant, despite the numerous criticisms that have been levelled against them. The Enlightenment was characterized by a spirit of exploration that led to new discoveries in both science and culture. Rather than promoting a narrow worldview, it encouraged people to question assumptions and religious beliefs. It still provides a framework for addressing some of the most pressing problems facing society, such as climate change and social inequality.

While the Enlightenment has been criticized for its flaws and limitations, its ideas and values still have much to offer us today. Discussing philosophy and philosophers — just as economics and economists — has to take place in a contextualized place and time. Judging people who lived more than 200 years ago from the standpoint of present-day (scientific) knowledge is nothing but anachronistic. That the person that was Kant and most people in his time held views that expressed ‘misogyny’, or were discriminatory, or even ‘racist’, is not the question. We all know that. What is much more interesting is to situate and try to analyze and understand why and in which historical, social, and cultural contexts these views were anchored. That said, I think that the philosopher Kant — and the philosophers and scientists who have followed in his footsteps — if he had lived today would strongly condemn all kinds of racism and other attacks on universal human rights and enlightenment.

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Sapere aude! “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

Immanuel Kant at 300 Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance … Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind — among them the entire fair sex — should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous. First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves. Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk. However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts …

Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use — or rather abuse — of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting nonage …

Enlightenment requires nothing but freedom — and the most innocent of all that may be called “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: “Do not argue!” The officer says: “Do not argue — drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue — pay!” The pastor: “Do not argue — believe!” Only one ruler in the world says: “Argue as much as you please, but obey!” We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.

Immanuel Kant

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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