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Culture: Blogging our way to Enlightenment?
Thursday, 21 June 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
Is this what Kant meant by Enlightenment?
In 1784 the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, published one of the most important pieces of analysis about what the enlightenment, the movement that had spread across Europe over the century between the publication of the works of Spinoza and the publication of his own essay, meant. (A full text of Kant's work is available here it is a very short and interesting work, well worth a read)- but its worth summarising one of its main points- because in relation to that blogging and particularly blogging software may open up, if we dare to use it appropriately (of which more later) the world of enlightenment that Kant envisaged.

Was the Eighteenth Century Enlightened

For Kant didn't beleive that enlightenment had been achieved in his own lifetime- in the essay he suggests that the process of enlightenment had started- but that its conclusion lay somewhere in the distance- as he says

If it is now asked, "Do we presently live in an enlightened age?" the answer is, "No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment." As matters now stand, a great deal is still lacking in order for men as a whole to be, or even to put themselves into a position to be able without external guidance to apply understanding confidently to religious issues. But we do have clear indications that the way is now being opened for men to proceed freely in this direction and that the obstacles to general enlightenment--to their release from their self-imposed immaturity--are gradually diminishing

Kant beleived that the process had started- the way was opening- and some developments in our own day like the knighthood for Salman Rushdie would suggest that the path sketched by the sage of Koenigsburg of applying understanding to religious issues is opening for more and more people around the world. But Kant had a very particular definition of what enlightenment consisted of- and its into this that I want to dig- because it is a very interesting definition to bare in mind for the way that the modern world is developing.

Public and Private Reason

Kant's view of enlightenment depends upon what he calls a distinction between public and private reasoning. The reasoning that someone uses for their own work say the reasoning of a priest as he attempts to preach to his congregation, or the reasoning of a physician practising on his patient, or even the reasoning of a lawyer in a courtroom can all be defined as private reasoning- their end is domestic- the security of life is ultimately what lies at the core of why that person is reasoning in that way. Without their stipends, the priest, lawyer or physician would be unable to eat- consequently their reasoning is private and domestic in its telos.

Kant distinguishes such reasoning from what he calls public reasoning. For example he offers us the example of the army officer who whilst 'he must obey' an order 'as a scholar he cannot be justly constrained from making comments about errors in military service, or from placing them before the public for its judgment.' Such an example can be expanded to all walks of life- where Kant distinguishes on the one hand between the liberty afforded to the scholar and the necessary limits on that liberty afforded for the private man at work. Kant essentially in the essay argues that man's maturity results from his growth into a public man, into a man that enquires into things away from the settings of his domestic position.

And blogging

In many ways of course that is what blogging provides- it is a technological platform upon which people from all walks of life can begin to write and muse. Blogging is actually an activity that doesn't depend on popularity for its strength- the most popular blogs are often not the best ones- it is the blogs which open up new vistas, in which people's public reasoning has advanced furthest that are really the most important and interesting in terms of enlightenment- evaluating blogs by the intellectual maturity, the notion of man rising above himself, above both his unreasoning barbarism and his reasoning domesticity, to dispassionate and thoughtful consideration of the issues is vital to understanding why blogging could be and can be important.

But of course there is a small problem in this- for as Kant's motto for the enlightenment- saepe audere (dare to know)- demonstrates the purpose of enlightenment is understanding- is challenging one's own principles as much as those of one's opponents. Blogging can descend at its worst into a sort of echo chamber- Kant fears in his essay the way that man may invent artifices to keep themselves in barbarism- he is talking about the way that free speech could suffer from a nervous sovereign- but equally he could be talking about the way that it can suffer from the mob mentality on the blogosphere- from the chants repeatedly directed from attack blogs and partisan comments that force a gentle writer to resign.

Furthermore there is the danger that blogs merely become the way for me the blogger to put forward my view to you the reader- they don't become a way for me to tease out in print my thought, alter my thinking, revise my assumptions and consider again where I stand. The process of daring to know- as I conceive it- can never stop- there can never be a moment where you know that you are right and cease having to question yourself- once you do you have ceased to be useful, ceased to be part of the process of enlightenment, ceased to be a participant in knowing more and have become a dogmatist, repeating the lines given to you over and over again.

There is a last problem though with this model and that is that blogging takes time. It seems that increasingly time is at a premium in the modern world- especially amongst proffessionals- one of the contradictions in capitalism at the moment is that it thrives when people join voluntary organisations, contribute to local democracy in terms of time not just money and actually further the process of enlightenment- yet the demands of competition mean that people have to devote more and more time to their domestic work- their work that means ultimately little in the context of the enlightenment that supports capitalism- whereas they devote less and less time to the social world without which capitalism falls apart (this is a matter for another article but its worth noting here as well).

Dangerous Opportunity- the world of blogging

Blogging opens up real opportunities therefore- and also if used the wrong way can open up dangers. The opportunities it offers are for everyone to become a published author- policemen, magistrates, doctors, academics, businessmen, journalists- anyone can offer their thoughts (as Kant argued anyone should) without worrying about their domestic circumstances- we can all participate, all be as Kant labelled those who contributed to public reasoning, scholars.

There are dangers too- the dangers of the mob overrunning the internet and making it unpleasant for gentle minds to continue writing- cases of internet stalking have recently been rife in the UK blogosphere- with one particular writer Rachel from North London being subjected to an unpleasant campaign. Furthermore there is the danger that the internet stops us listening- and merely ushers in a world where a cacophony of voices each try and shout the loudest for attention- a kind of new Babel where everyone can't comprehend his brother because he isn't listening.

There is the potential though for Kant's dream of the enlightened man to be extended far from the base which he would have envisaged it might be extended- to an almost universal constituency. Dare one say it, but if it was the privilege of Kant's generation to see the process of enlightenment as he defined it start, it might be the privilege of our children to live in an enlightened society!