In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant proposes that to achieve enlightenment, one needs the freedom to make public use of their reason. Any such summary statement would run the risk of misunderstanding Kant’s position if we overlook the significance of the public itself. Kant defines public as a universal space potentially shared by all human beings, and private as a local and situational space specific to practical concerns. The public is a place where we meet as equals without obligations of service, and we come here voluntarily as autonomous agents or as agents striving towards autonomy.
Kant argues that the move towards enlightenment requires a free public, where individuals can argue over all matters, including religious matters, using reason. The public-private polarity also corresponds to two time scales, where long-term future corresponds to the public domain and short-term present/future corresponds to the private domain. In the public, individuals can transcend the requirements of local cooperation and obedience, as well as their individual inclinations.
Kant also discusses the duty of authority figures, such as the prince, to refuse dictating the society on religious matters, thereby fixing the religious commitments of the public. This refusal, or detachment, is a duty that enables individuals to exercise their reason freely and independently.
Kant’s optimism that “Men raise themselves by and by out of backwardness if one does not purposely invent artifices to keep them down” is a condition of enlightenment. This optimism acknowledges the potential for individuals to progress and improve their understanding through the use of reason, without being deliberately held back by external forces.
In general, Kant’s essay highlights the importance of a free public as a space for individuals to exercise their reason, transcend their inclinations and cooperate as equals. It emphasizes the duty of authority figures to detach from religious commitments and the significance of optimism in the pursuit of enlightenment.
In contrast to Kant’s optimism, many contemporary philosophers argue that freedom is eroding in our time. Byung-Chul Han, for instance, argues that modern society has shifted from an era of discipline to one of self-exploitation, where individuals are subjected to internalized pressures to unceasingly pursue goals. While these goals are perceived to be personal, they are in fact, the products of systemic neoliberal capitalism that utilizes human psychic power for the production of (typically immaterial) capital.
Han claims that this new form of social control operates through the logic of achievement, where individuals are required to constantly improve themselves and strive towards success. The result is a society that is driven by a never-ending pursuit of efficiency, productivity, and achievement, which comes at the cost of individual freedom.
The internalized pressure to achieve is also fueled by social media, where individuals constantly compare themselves to others and feel the need to present a perfect image of themselves to the world. This pressure to perform and constantly present a curated version of oneself, i.e., “like”-able profiles, only exacerbates the erosion of freedom in our society.
In this context, the public space that Kant envisioned as a site of reason and debate is increasingly becoming privatized, as individuals turn inward and become more concerned with their own self-improvement and success. The result is a society where the pursuit of individual goals and success takes precedence over the common good, and the public space becomes a space of competition rather than cooperation.
While Kant’s vision of a free public space as a site of reason and debate remains relevant, our understanding of it must be updated to take into account the internalized pressures of our neoliberal cultures. It is necessary to develop strategies to resist the logic of achievement and create a public space that fosters cooperation, inclusivity, and the free exchange of ideas.