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: