Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Public Use of Reason, Communication and Religious Change

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Public Use of Reason, Communication and Religious Change

Article excerpt

Abstract: In this essay I intend to explore the relationship between the enlightenment and communication in Kant and those ideas through which he construes the enlightenment not as a process focused on the rationalization of the individual but as a collective one that require communication. In this context I will show the role that Kant gives to the idea of change in religion both as organization and doctrine. The basis of this approach is to reconsider the core of Kant's distinction between public use of reason and private use of reason and link it thus clarified, to questions raised by religious change.

Key Words: enlightenment, communication, public use of reason, private use of reason, polemical use of reason, religious change, emancipation, immaturity.


In his short and famous article An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? hereafter WE), Immanuel Kant considers that a priest must make private use of reason when he preaches the teaching of his church, but at the same time, he, as a scholar, can address the public at large making use of public reason. In this latter case, he can criticize the teaching and statutes of the church to which he belongs. In the same way, making public use of reason, the citizen may question the fiscal-policy and the officer may make observations on the orders received from his superior.1

The occasion of Kant's article was an article of the theologian and educator Johann Friedrich Zöllner. After examining the effects of enlightenment on the people, Zöllner wondered and asked the audience of his time: "What is Enlightenment?"2. Kant, like others, has taken this question seriously.3 He was joining a very animated debate regarding the enlightenment, which continued a long time after the publication of his answer. Ironically, two centuries after posing the question, Michael Foucault interpreted the entirety of modern philosophy as an attempt to answer this without being able to tell if it really succeeded.4 Kant's article remained in the history of philosophy not only by his famous definition of enlightenment as the man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity but also by bringing into question the distinction between public and private uses of reason, a distinction that seems to conflict with both his liberal conception and his idea of reason as faculty that gives unity of thinking.

The division between private use of reason - public use of reason continues to preoccupy the moral and political philosophers5, because of the fact that clarifying the separation between public and private uses of reason is crucial in a society in which the delimitation public - private concerns not only the states, the civil societies, the individuals and their beliefs, but also the plurality of communities and the cultures. In the name of plurality, the ones that promote the unlimited freedom join in their criticism with the ones who claim virtues of the past, preservation of particular lifestyles, or uphold prejudices. For them, the enlightenment does not represent, anymore, an ideal. On the contrary, radicalism, multiculturalism, relativism and conservative positions are both critical and opposed to it. However, even these positions regard communication as a solution to the problems that may generate conflicts, and understanding the other as a way forward. Despite such criticism, it should be noted that Kant interprets enlightenment as a collective process fostered by communication. Communication with others means to investigate their points of view, to suspend your own prejudices and interpretations, in one word, to think independently, with your own mind.6 Independent thought, the ability to make use of reason is the enlightenment statement proposed by Kant. He does not interpret here the independence of thought in an epistemological sense and does not consider that only those who reason correctly and discover the truth can enlighten themselves. Independent thought means to question yourself about your own assumptions, to use your own mind, and to act according to your own reason. …

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