The Enlightenment commitment to Public Reason

In a text which is famous (but perhaps not quite famous enough) Kant discusses the topic “What is Enlightenment“. Written during “The Enlightenment“, Kant is not giving a sociological or historical account of the the age he lives in, but concerns himself with the topic of enlightenment itself – what is it to become enlightened?

For Kant, enlightenment is not a state which you might reach but a process in which one ought be constantly engaged. Kant calls this “Sapere Aude!” or “the courage to use one’s reason”. The operative term here is “one’s”, the key is that one ought have the inner strength to appeal to and use one’s own sense of reason, rather than accept and repeat the reason of another, thereby submitting to an authority. Enlightenment is about becoming one’s own authority on matters of consideration and thought, becoming the master of one’s own mind.

We might find this obvious – if one does not appeal to one’s own reason, can one properly be considered free? To be the sovereign of one’s own will seems a precondition to taking responsibility and being taken as responsible by others. But in fact, there are many situations where we do not appeal to our own reason, and for Kant we can even be justified in not doing so. For example, Kant says that” it would be disastrous if an officer on duty who was given a command by his superior were to question the appropriateness or utility of the order”. And while I’m not one to directly support the blind authority of the police, the argument that at least some such institutions are essential for a well ordered society is something accepted by all major political frameworks, anarchism being the only exception.

But if in some cases it is neccesary to submit to the reason of another, and man is only free or the author of him or herself if s/he submits only to his or her own reason, doesn’t this give rise to a contradiction?

Kant resolves the tension by appealing to the difference between obeying an authority in deed and approving of an authority in speech. Whereas society may require its members to submit to civic duties such as the paying of taxes, it cannot be counted as a civic duty to withhold one’s views concerning the wrongfulness or injustice of said taxes. Such freedom is the freedom of the scholar – to give reasons in public for a thought which appeal to the reason of every listener, and compel them to agree not by the authority of the speaker but by the use of reason itself.

Kant’s distinction between the public and private use of reason, then, is the distinction between reason as it can be publicly expressed so that it could be taken up by anybody, and reason as it imposes duties on others, that binds them by virtue of their membership in some group to certain obligatory actions or beliefs.

The use of private reason is acceptable insofar as it can be held open for criticism – so long as their is no private edict that states “no further thought on this topic is permitted”, then private reason can always be checked by the continual progress of enlightenment. Religious edicts, therefore, are a strong worry for Kant:

But would a society of pastors, perhaps a church assembly or venerable presbytery (as those among the Dutch call themselves), not be justified in binding itself by oath to a certain unalterable symbol in order to secure a constant guardianship over each of its members and through them over the people, and this for all time: I say that this is wholly impossible.

To make such an agreement would be, for Kant, to commit a crime against human nature, because the essence of human nature is progress.

Why is any of this relevant today? Because we live in a society where the public use of reason is being constantly criticized by those who attempt to bind, to limit it and exclude certain expressions of the public use of reason on the grounds that they are offensive or hurtful.

What would Kant make of the charge of “hatespeech”, or “offensive language”? I think the distinction can be cleared by reference to the notion of a congregation. A pastor is engaged in the private use of reason, no matter how large his congregation, because if the pastor were to recognize a fundamental error in what he or she were teaching he or she would not teach this problem to the congregation but resign the post of pastor. While there is nothing wrong, for Kant, with there being a church and a pastor, it is absolutely not acceptable for a church or group of churches to impose a private set of beliefs on everyone, a set of beliefs set apart from criticism. So it is acceptable for authorities of conscience (pastors) to exist, on the condition that their words are not binding on all of society, but only on groups who choose to allow their words to be binding by their membership.

The form of acceptable private reason employed by a pastor clarifies the distinction between the public use of reason and hatespeech – hatespeech is not the public use of reason because it is not directed at anyone, but at a specific congregation. It may appear to be public, i.e. it could be printed in a publicly printed newspaper, but in fact it appeals only to those in the privileged group, or those not excluded by the hatred expressed. And because it is directed towards a specific group, a congregation, is actually domestic and private, it expects its adherents to accept the reason on the authority of the institution. And therefore, we might decide that statements of the form “Group X is excluded from the bounds of natural law” to be alls to arms against the excluded group. What is the difference between the church leader who states that members of a certain group should be considered outside protection by the natural law, and the church congregation who on his or her advice allow themselves to carry out crimes against members of that group? Because the pastor is using private reason, his or her actions are analogous to the army commander who has told his soldiers that their actions are no longer evaluable by any law – if they interpret this as as free pass to commit war crimes, the commander can hardly be considered innocent.

This however draws the limits of hate-speech tighter than many would like. While it could provide ground for creating civic duty against expressions like “Group X are essentially unhuman and unworthy of civil rights”, it could not outlaw statements which are oft considered similar, like “Group X have accumulated such privilege that by acting in conspiracy with each other are able to exert uneven influence”. While the first statement is a simple claim of inhumanity towards a group of humans, the second is a sociological claim about power relations as concerns a particular group. Now the motivation for the second statement could be the same as the first, but because it takes the form of a evaluable claim about the state of social affairs, it can be accepted or rejected by anyone, including members of Group X, and is therefore the exercise of public reason.

To claim we cannot make statements about the objective situation of a group is tantamount to stating that certain groups deserve the privilege of not being subject to criticism. Imagine if we decided that calling North Americans of British heritage “settlers” was contrary to civic duty because it caused offense? It is simply a sociological and historical fact that some groups profit from colonization, and that sometimes (nay often) these groups find ways to protect the privilege they are able to acquire. After all, protecting power is what power systems do.

The best way to respond to racist and other offensive statements made in the language of public reason is simply to disprove them. If someone claims the holocaust didn’t exist, simply provide the well researched evidence that it did. In fact, to consider banning speech that claims the holocaust didn’t occur is quite disrespectful to survivors of the holocaust – because it presumes that you are unsure whether it actually happened, and therefore to maintain the narrative that it did one must stifle any dissent. Either that, or it presumes there is no truth in the world, only the art of persuasion – and that therefore to maintain the current order certain forces of persuasion must remain dominant over others.

But the idea that ideas are merely forces of persuasion is to reduce public reason entirely, and rename it all private reason. For persuasion is but a milder form of authority, an authority constantly trying but not always succeeding in imposing itself upon potential subjects.

To be a herald of the tradition of the enlightenment means to strive to take all expressions of public reason seriously not merely as expression but as attempts for truth. The proper response to “group X controls the political system” is not to call the statement racist, but to examine the evidence offered and appeal to one’s own reason in deciding whether the claim is true or false, plausible or implausible, and if plausible but unproven how much more evidence would be required, and of what sort?

Some would of course prefer that norms, taboos, and in extreme cases even police be used to prevent the saying of undesirable things. But these are those who do not love the truth enough to fight for it in reason – they prefer instead that a private authority would protect their truth, and more probably than not their truth will by their weakness become tired and old and not allow the continual progress towards enlightenment to renew it generation after generation.


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