The Modern and the Postmodern 5th assignment {Coursera /Wesleyan}


The Kantian echo in the works of Emerson

The Age of Enlightenment bequeathed Europe with challenging ideas. The predominance of faith and kingship were highly disputed, whereas doctrines gave rise to sciences and intellect. Nevertheless, not all of those “enlightened” reached common ground. Delving further into a quest for the philosophical “truth”, men of logic proclaimed different versions for it. 

John Locke’s theoretical approach of knowledge was one of empiricism; we are born as “tabula rasa”, we perceive the world with our sensors from then on, a posteriori. Thus, a child is born without innate thinking but rather the predisposition to imitate his immediate surroundings. He dictates parents as regards their offspring’s upbringing:

Let me give two cautions. 1) The one is, that you keep them to the practice of what you would have grown into a habit with them, by kind words, and gentle admonitions, rather as minding them of what they forget, than by harsh rebukes and chiding, as if they were willfully guilty. 2) Another thing you are to take care of, is, not to endeavor to settle too many habits at once, lest by variety you confound them, and so perfect none. When constant custom has made any one thing easy and natural to ’em, and they practice it without reflection, you may then go on to another”.  [Locke 1693: Sec. 66]

Emerson’s views upon the matter are initially introduced with the phrase: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, —that is genius.”  [Emerson 1847: §1] Individualism, according to the great American thinker, is astoundingly more profitable in terms of personal thought and self-development; emulating others is simply redundant repetition of second-hand notions, hardly allowing room for personal growth. Indeed the Transcendentalism movement, which Emerson upheld, seems at odds with John Locke’s theory of Empiricism. So how does one define Emerson as a figure of Enlightenment?

Emerson’s “self-reliance” is expressed in his Kantian motto “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself”. [Emerson 1847: §50] Arts, religion, society or anything devaluing individualism is falsified.  Having given the very definition of the “Aufklärung”[ Kant 1784], Kant instructs the exodus of man from role models imposed upon him. We begin our lives with our sensory organs, we continue with the use of reason but neither experience nor pure thought is above one another.  “Sapere Aude” [Kant 1784] is exactly what Emerson demands of his fellow Americans:

 Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force, and do lean and beg day and night continually. Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born. [Emerson 1847: §33]

The transcendental idea of Enlightenment– first mentioned in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – is portrayed in Emerson as Intuition versus Tuition [Emerson 1847: §21ff]. A difficult task – even for the thinker himself – to fully understand the metaphysics of the soul, yet one can be sure whether such is present in a man or not. “Here is the fountain of action and of thought” [Emerson 1847: §25], after all.

Emerson understood that perhaps an application of the transcendental idealism version of Enlightenment might not be practically applicable. Nevertheless he preached perfection in an imperfect world, citing Kant as his primary inspiration.

It is well known to most of my audience, that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms. The extraordinary profoundness and precision of that man’s thinking have given vogue to his nomenclature, in Europe and America, to that extent, that whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought is popularly called at the present day Transcendental.

Although, as we have said, there is no pure Transcendentalist, yet the tendency to respect the intuitions, and to give them, at least in our creed, all authority over our experience, has deeply colored the conversation and poetry of the present day; and the history of genius and of religion in these times, though impure, and as yet not incarnated in any powerful individual, will be the history of this tendency.[Emerson 1842]

Works cited:

Emerson Ralph Waldo: The Transcendentalist  (1842)

Emerson Ralph Waldo: Essays: First Series. Self-Reliance (1847)

Kant Immanuel:  Critique of Pure Reason (1781)

Kant Immanuel: What is Enlightenment ( 1784)

Locke John: Some thoughts concerning Education (1693)


The Modern and the Postmodern: Coursera 1st writing assignment

How did Kant define Enlightenment? Use Kant’s definition to discuss whether either Rousseau or Marx is an Enlightenment figure.

Die Aufklärung


According to Kant (1784), “die Aufklärung” is “man’s emergence from his self – incurred immaturity” ; in other words, one attains the supreme level of maturity and emancipation at the same time through the wise use of logic, science and education. In his attempt to avoid stirring political persecution against him or instigate rioting thoughts, Emmanuel Kant proclaimed a preference to a more mediocre course of action, i.e. a “middle course”. “Sapere aude” (Kant 1784) against dogmatic principles of the time, would not necessarily mean any hazard to the established status quo of the elite. His definition of the enlightened Man was rather careful. “Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey!” (Kant 1784) he exclaims is what a noble ruler should bid his people. After all, the public needs vast amounts of time allotted, before Man can truly begin to think for himself, before he reaches the ultimate level of Enlightenment.


Upon viewing the case of Jean Jacques Rousseau, one might have considered this Swiss philosopher to be the exact opposite of the majority of Kant’s contemporaries. In truth, Rousseau sought to be enlightened by succumbing to inner passions and emotion (thus having a profound impact to Romanticism), when Voltaire and others spoke of pure logic. Rousseau was deeply religious while philosophers of the Revolution denounced God and King. Can one portray the man as a paradigm of Enlightenment? If we are to abide by Kant’s definition, then the answer to this question could indeed be positive. Rousseau does in fact praise emancipation and enlightenment; his way of unshackling the chains of immaturity however is one of rebirth, a return to nature’s cradle.

Being an admirer of the classics, Rousseau (1750) reminisces about the glory of the mighty Roman Empire and that of the ancient Greeks; Socrates himself, as he boldly states, was appalled by the hubris of men of the arts and the high opinion they carried for themselves. And to proceed to current day and age, he adds another example of man’s faulty state of mind: “It requires only a little sun or snow, only the lack of a few superfluities, to melt down and destroy in a few days the best of our armies.” In short, Rousseau is angered by idle thinkers, who in vain search for the truth, when the truth lies in doing. He even more so aggressively approaches vanity and the creation of useless “needs” that science –or too much “thinking” – has had to offer.

Can we really be free when we as people are enslaved by objects? Even worse, who is truly mature and conqueror of knowledge while under the oppression of another (owner of more objects than us)? If we wish to become enlightened we must first seek unity of the human clan – that cannot be achieved within “civilized” society, simply because society will not allow it. Rousseau (1754) remarks: “As long as men remained satisfied with their rustic cabins […]as long as they continued to consider feathers and shells as sufficient ornaments, and to paint their bodies of different colours, to improve or ornament their bows and arrows, to form and scoop out with sharp-edged stones some little fishing boats, or clumsy instruments of music; in a word, as long as they undertook such works only as a single person could finish, and stuck to such arts as did not require the joint endeavours of several hands, they lived free, healthy, honest and happy, as much as their nature would admit, and continued to enjoy with each other all the pleasures of an independent intercourse; but from the moment one man began to stand in need of another’s assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess the quantity of provisions requisite for two, all equality vanished; property started up; labour became necessary; and boundless forests became smiling fields, which it was found necessary to water with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the fruits of the earth.”

Amazingly enough, Rousseau’s works are still applicable to this day. And perhaps logic can drive a man so far, as to initiate change. Rousseau’s embodiment of Kant’s definition is one of true revolution of thought.


  1. Kant, Immanuel: An Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?” 1784. Prussia. as seen online :
  2. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences”. (Translated by Ian Johnston) 1750. Paris. As seen online:
  3. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: “A Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind” 1754. Geneva. As seen online: