Kant’s Public and Private Reason: A quick examination

Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment”[i] is an interesting study because its themes are the corner-stone of liberal democracies. It is an exploration of the use of public and private reason. My professor, Peter Wake, described it as the manifesto of the Enlightenment, and the motto was “Argue as much as you want and about what you want but obey!”[ii] This seems like a controversial statement, but when examining the text you will find it more understandable.

Unfortunately, the best place to examine politics begins with Kant’s “What is Enlightenment.” The unfortunate part is, while not everyone has read this article, everyone is generally familiar with the concept of Public and Private, also Foucault was right when he said it was, “not always very clear despite it brevity.” [iii] It is not the most exciting text but rather it is merely a place to start. I will soon also write on his essay “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent,” and (maybe not finally!) his essay “Perpetual Peace.”

Kant defines enlightenment as, “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.”[iv] The self-imposed maturity is without self-reliance of understanding and thinking, and the “self-imposed” comes from laziness and cowardice.[v] He then proposes, “Have courage to use your own understanding!” as the motto of the Enlightenment.[vi] It should be noted, that he declares that he was not living during an enlightened age but rather an age of enlightenment.[vii]

Foucault links this with Kant’s teleology (which will be studied in “A Universal History”) and method as an “exit” or a “way out.”[viii] It is indeed why the motto “Argue as much as you want and about what you want, but obey!” seems much more utopic rather than totalitarian. If society were truly in an enlightened age, obedience would be far less problematic morally and politically. It is just like the nation-state withering away under Marx’s concept of a communist society. It, also, should be noted that neither Kant nor Marx were utopic, meaning they both had safety mechanisms for conflict and of general political and moral problems (Kant mostly morally and Marx politically) that societies should or must use.

Kant list a few immaturities as:

I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on. I need not to exert myself at all. I need not to think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.[ix]

Taken from these examples it would initially seem to that complete independence of thought and understanding would be the answer for the “way out” (as Foucault refers to it.) However in the list above, these mechanisms are tools for guidance. Given that the Pastor and the Physicians are hard to impossible to replace, then they would have to be responsible for public to which they serve. Their duty would be to foster free thought. However, here is where Kant runs into a problem; to serve properly they must do their obligation and to report on the problems of their vocation. This is where Kant inserts the division of private and public reason.

To be clear private and public are not antagonistic or completely and totally the opposite as our understanding of public and private life. Hannah Arendt has a chapter in The Human Condition on the typical concept of public and private that we are more accustomed to. The definition of private could be exactly as Kant defines it as, “I call the private use of reason that which a person may make in a civic post or office that has been entrusted to him.” The public use of reason is then defined as “By the public use of one’s own reason I understand the use that anyone as a scholar makes of reason before the entire literate world.”[x]Examples of the private use reason would be the solider following orders and paying one’s taxes.[xi] However to pay taxes but to criticize the use of taxes would be a use of public reason.[xii] Kant makes a long example of pastor following the obligations of the church in prayers and procedures but the if the pastor finds problems with these he must public criticize them but privately follow the churches teachings.[xiii] However, the catch is that the rules must not be entirely outside the bounds of moral and political procedures to be a detriment to follow them. In this case a binding of free thought.[xiv]


The use of public reason is thereby the mechanism to which an enlightened age will come. To speak openly and clearly then is the way the world grows greater incite into the practices and ills of the world and the problems of the government. Privately one must follow the rules but publicly one is obliged to speak out against injustices but also in general to foster free thought. The use of both private and public must be of the single person, let alone everyone, to improve upon the political and moral landscape.

Of course this is a very simple reading of a little strange essay. The reality is the difficult use of praxis and logos in terms of speaking freely and engaging politically. For Americans this essay would be very familiar with the First Amendment of the United States’ constitution. These practices are seen in most liberal democracies. The ability to speak frankly is not an obligation, as Kant would have it in these states, but it is protected. In some ways Kant’s essay is far more radical than our liberal democracies because it demands the citizens to be active in frank speech. This is not an endorsement of the essay’s solution but rather a starting point. This document will become clearer in the next post about “A Universal History.”

[i] It is actually called “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightement”

[ii] Immanuel Kant Perpetual Peace and Other Essays trans Ted Humphrey “What is the Enlightenment?” (Indianapolis: Hackett) 1983 p 42 – he repeats this again on page 45. The first full quote “(Only one Ruler in the world says “Argue as much as you want and about what you want, but obey!”) The “one ruler” he is referring to is, noted by this edition, as Frederick II of Prussia.

[iii] Michel Foucault The Foucault Reader trans and ed. Paul Rabinow “What is Enlightenment” (New York: Pantheon) 1984 p34

[iv] Immanuel Kant p 41

[v] Immanuel Kant p 41

[vi] Immanuel Kant p41

[vii] Immanuel Kant p 44

[viii] Michel Foucault p 34

[ix] Immanuel Kant p 41

[x] Immanuel Kant p 42

[xi] Immanuel Kant p 42-43

[xii] Immanuel Kant p 43

[xiii] Immanuel Kant p 43

[xiv] Immanuel Kant p 43-44

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