By Stefan Schindler
In his 1784 essay on the nature of Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant declared: “Enlightenment is liberation from self-imposed immaturity.” He also noted that, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase, “We live in an age of enlightenment, but we do not yet live in an enlightened age.”
Kant’s observations ought to give us pause. They are worth pondering. They are as relevant today as they were in the late 18th century. To reflect upon them with the seriousness they deserve, we might begin by noting that one hundred years later, another German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said of the same Prussian country in which Kant wrote his revolutionary Critique of Pure Reason: “This nation has made itself stupid on purpose.”
Nietzsche’s observation applies to America today. So does the maxim by George Santayana: “Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Let us then pause a moment to reflect upon the possibility – indeed, the necessity – of what Richard Oxenberg calls “heart-centered rationality.”
Heart-centered rationality is a way of referring to The Golden Rule, revived by Martin Buber in the Kantian-based ethics of his book I and Thou. Kant and Buber argue for the innate dignity of every person; a dignity worthy of respect. In order, then, to put an end to what the post-Kantian philosopher Hegel called “the slaughter-bench of history,” we need an ethical, educational, and cultural revolution; one in which cooperation has primacy over competition, and which embraces what the Dalai Lama calls “a common religion of kindness.”
Accordingly, we must recognize that our collective survival now depends upon a global commitment to what might best be called The Enlightenment Project. This, of course, returns us to Kant’s definition of enlightenment, which I will elaborate on in my next post, with reference to other major figures in the history of philosophy and the pursuit social justice.
Meanwhile, we might begin by noting that during America’s wars on Puerto Rico and the Philippines, Mark Twain declared: “America’s flag should be a skull-and-crossbones.” And when Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied: “I think it would be a good idea.”