Tag Archives: Enlightenment

‘Sapere Aude!’ Kant and the Public/Private Distinction

“Sapere Aude! […] Have the courage to use your own reason!” (Kant, 1997, p. 83, my emphasis)

Kant is economical: In this short quotation, he indicts society, credits them with universal reason, and calls them to action. The quote suggests that every individual1 has the capacity for reasoning; they simply lack the courage and will to do so; this, according to Kant, implicates us in a ‘self‐incurred tutelage’ (p. 83). Kant presents Enlightenment as the escape from this immaturity; all that was required was the freedom to ‘make public use of one’s reason’ (p. 84). However, everywhere there were limits on freedom; some constraints were necessary to maintain public order. The acceptable, and useful constraints on freedom could be found within a distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’2 reason (pp. 84‐85). This distinction rests largely upon the degree of exclusivity, publicity, and emancipation from higher authority.

Kant sees society as immature, limiting itself to following the dictates of ‘benevolent’ authority figures who demand from ‘all sides, “Do not argue!” (p. 85), but adhere to ‘statutes and formulas’ without questioning (p. 84). Instead of developing their own abilities, they have abandoned them; they have allowed themselves to become comfortable and safe with ‘a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, [and] a physician who decides my diet’ (p. 83). Kant likens this acceptance to a herd of domesticated cattle, made dumb, placid and timid; afraid of a danger made to appear serious by the ‘guardians’ who wanted to retain their control (p. 83), yet in reality was considerably less. In this ‘easy’ life, there was no real need for an individual to exert their own will or their own reason; the road to an easy life only required the money to pay for it (p. 83). However, in this ‘easy’ life, there would be no way to ‘extend knowledge,[or] purify […] errors’ (p. 87), a condition which, according to Kant, would be a ‘crime against human nature’ (p. 87).

Kant did not impose a definition or rules for correct reason; this is viewed as an avoidance strategy; he did not want to provide a new ‘authority’ for society to follow, to inculate himself as another guardian. Instead, he was focused on encouraging the proper way to use our ‘natural gifts’ because true reform could not come from a ‘revolution’ (p. 84). Enlightenment must therefore proceed gradually because revolution merely replaced ‘old prejudices with ‘new prejudices’. This is why a single individual may not be extricated from dependence on their ‘benevolent guardians’ through this process, but the wider society could become more enlightened (p. 84).

Turning to Kant’s distinction between public and private reason, it is important to avoid being misled by these terms; ‘Public’ and ‘Private’ are used in specific ways. For Kant, ‘Public’ reasoning was used to highlight the open and inclusive nature of the reasoning process, the wide social network it was publicised to, and also necessity for the individual to be speaking in their ‘own voice’ (p. 86). Conversely, ‘private’ reasoning was closed and exclusive, in some ways limited in its publication, and was carried out as a subject to the will of another (p. 86). What is clearly seen here is a demarcation between the ‘modes’ or ‘roles’ which an individual has. In an Enlightened age, every individual will use both of these forms of reasoning dependent on their circumstances.

An individual using the ‘public’ form of reason stepped into the role of a scholar disassociated from their socio‐political milieu. Regardless of rank, this individual could openly criticise, discuss, and consider alternatives to policies and matters with which they were concerned. A citizen in this role would be active, and use their courage to provide the public with ‘all of his carefully tested and well‐meaning thoughts’ (p. 86) about errors being made. Private use of reasoning, however, was markedly different. This kind of reason is used within the constraints of an organisation, where you have a specific function within that organisation. Only those in charge have the capacity to determine process, and criticism or discussion is highly limited. While in this ‘private’ mode, citizens can think ‘what [they] will, but obey!’ (p. 85).

A similar dichotomy occurs with the publicity aspect. When utilising ‘public’ reason, the necessity for a broad audience is highlighted. Kant specifically highlights this using terms such as a ‘readership’, and a ‘society of world citizens’, and ‘the reading public’ (p. 85). Public reasoning aims at reaching the widest possible audience, specifically to encourage diverse opinions. There is also a sense here that Kant implies the capacity for publicity for posterity, with the unacceptability of unceasingly binding a society (p. 87). To the contrary, private reasoning limits its reach to a specific group, for a specific duration, and only while those within the binding of the institution remain.

The final and most important dichotomy occurs in the degree of emancipation from higher authority. For an individual to use public reason, requires them to be speaking from their ‘own person’. Contrast this with the conformity required by individuals limited to private reason, required to carry ‘out the orders of another’ (p. 86). Consider this in light of one of Kant’s typical examples, modified for these purposes. There exists a tax collector, call her Ann. Ann, using her capacity for ‘public’ reason, submits articles to various journals highlighting her understanding of the inconsistencies and inequality in a newly implemented tax regime. However Ann, in her position as tax‐collector has no capacity for arguing; she must accept her duty passively and obey the law as it currently stands.

For Kant, this ability to reason and argue, whilst obeying, is the epitome of enlightened behaviour. Through the individual act of courage by ‘throwing off the yoke of tutelage’, and free use of public reason, courage in others would be stimulated (p. 84). Through this engagement with others, giving and receiving cognitive challenge and through reflection and response to alternate viewpoints, all parties, including those who remain on the outside of the interchange, are provided the opportunity to progress in their path toward enlightenment.

In order to create a mature, enlightened society, it was necessary to have the courage to use the ‘natural gifts’ (p. 84) within all, rather than relying on various authority figures to simply tell us what is right, healthy or true. This is characterised as a social process of Enlightenment; a continual progression towards freedom, a means, as well as the end for human nature (p. 87). it was essential that the use of ‘Public’ reason was completely free, as the right, indeed the duty of society was to progress toward enlightenment (Kant, p. 87). However, constraints on ‘Private’ reasoning could be implemented without blocking public enlightenment, since one acts as a passive actor, a ‘cog in the machine’ (p. 85); this temporary constraint would be offset by their ability to use public reason.


Kant, I. (1997) ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment 2nd ed.,Trans. Lewis White Beck. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

1 Indications within the text suggest a gender-neutral reading is possible; this neutral reading could be challenged in conjunction with other work by Kant. This is a topic for a separate essay.

2 ‘Public’ and ‘Private’ reason used in this paper relate to Kant’s usage in Kant, I. (1997) ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment 2nd ed.,Trans. Lewis White Beck. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.