Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?" (German: "Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?") is the title of a 1784 essay by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. In the December 1784 publication of the Berlinische Monatsschrift (Berlin Monthly), edited by Friedrich Gedike and Johann Erich Biester, Kant replied to the question posed a year earlier by the Reverend Johann Friedrich Zöllner, who was also an official in the Prussian government. Zöllner's question was addressed to a broad intellectual public, in reply to Biester's essay entitled: "Proposal, not to engage the clergy any longer when marriages are conducted" (April 1783) and a number of leading intellectuals replied with essays, of which Kant's is the most famous and has had the most impact. Kant's opening paragraph of the essay is a much-cited definition of a lack of Enlightenment as people's inability to think for themselves due not to their lack of intellect, but lack of courage.

Kant's essay also addressed the causes of a lack of enlightenment and the preconditions necessary to make it possible for people to enlighten themselves. He held it necessary that all church and state paternalism be abolished and people be given the freedom to use their own intellect. Kant praised Frederick II of Prussia for creating these preconditions. Kant focused on religious issues, saying that "our rulers" had less interest in telling citizens what to think in regard to artistic and scientific issues.

The text

Kant's opening paragraph of the essay is a much-cited definition of the Enlightenment:

"Enlightenment is man's emergence from self imposed immaturity (Unmündigkeit, translated here as the phrase "immaturity and dependence" can also be read as "nonage") for which he himself was responsible. Immaturity and dependence are the inability to use one's own intellect without the direction of another. One is responsible for this immaturity and dependence, if its cause is not a lack of intelligence, but a lack of determination and courage to think without the direction of another. Sapere aude! Dare to know! is therefore the slogan of the Enlightenment."

The German word Unmündigkeit means not having attained the age of majority or legal adulthood. It is sometimes also translated as "tutelage" or "nonage" (the condition of "not [being] of age"). Kant, whose moral philosophy is centered around the concept of autonomy, is distinguishing here between a person who is intellectually autonomous and one who keeps him/herself in an intellectually heteronymous, i.e. dependent and immature status.

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