"Kant’s most famous essay, What is Enlightenment?, defines it as reason’s emancipation from its self-imposed immaturity. We choose immaturity because we are lazy and scared: how much more comfortable it is to let someone else make your decisions! ‘If I have a book that takes care of my understanding, a preacher who takes care of my conscience, a doctor who prescribes my diet, I need not make any effort myself. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will handle the business for me.’ With a familiarity surprising in a man who had no children, Kant discusses the ways in which children learn to walk. In order to do it they must stumble and fall, but to eliminate their bruises by keeping them in baby carriages is a recipe for keeping them infantile. Kant’s target was not overprotective mothers but authoritarian states, which have an interest in keeping their citizens from thinking for themselves.
We’re often unwilling to summon the energy or run the risks – even the risk of embarrassment! – that thinking for ourselves would demand. It’s easy to see why this is the message that teachers emphasise when they teach What is Enlightenment? in high schools. Surely the young should not be led to think there’s anything wrong with society that a little effort on their part can’t fix? Thus Kant’s message became a neoliberal mantra that only strengthened existing orders: any dissatisfaction you may feel with the world around you is your own fault. If only you could get rid of your own laziness and cowardice, you could be enlightened, grownup and free. No wonder Germans of a certain age, who had to memorise the essay in school, roll their eyes and groan at the very mention of ‘self-imposed immaturity’.
Oddly enough, though the essay is one of Kant’s most readable, few people bother to read, or at least to remember, much beyond those first few sentences. If they did they’d discover that Kant did not believe your dissatisfaction is your fault alone. You may tend, as I do, to laziness and cowardice, but Kant says these tendencies are abused. There are guardians who have taken over the task of supervising the rest of us, by convincing us that independent thinking is not only difficult but dangerous. This is a radical and powerful political message. Our inability to grow up is not, or not only, our fault. The social structures within which we live are constructed so as to keep us childish: grownup citizens are more trouble than they’re worth. The state’s desire for control and our own desire for comfort combine to minimise conflict.
Which guardians did Kant have in mind? Kant was living in feudal times when even enlightened rulers were paternalistic, and ‘paternalistic’ was not yet a term of abuse. It’s easy enough to see how feudal structures kept their subjects infantilised. Those who think Western democracies have done away with that sort of thing have forgotten de Toqueville’s warnings about the power of public opinion in market-dominated societies, in which ‘the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved safely at bay’. Without recourse to the paternalistic and authoritarian measures available to the guardians in Kant’s time, how might a modern democratic society work to keep us infantilised?
...Those who rule society promote our dependency, cultivating our taste for luxuries to distract us from thinking about the real conditions of our lives. You can walk into any electronics store and choose from a dizzying number of smartphones. How many choices can you make about the government that represents you, or the corporations to which it is indebted?"