Tim Smartt reviews 'The Dream of Enlightenment: The rise of modern philosophy' by Anthony Gottlieb

In 1784 Immanuel Kant wrote a remarkable essay entitled ‘An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?’ The essay, written for a magazine, provided an occasion for the great and difficult philosopher to present some of his ideas to a broader audience. The essay is short, accessible, and contains breezy descriptions of freedom, rationality, and human dignity. Kant’s answer is that enlightenment consists in acquiring the capacity to think for oneself, rather than outsourcing one’s thinking to others. Kant writes: ‘It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.’

There is something exhilarating about the idea that intellectual and moral maturity are attainable, and that the road that leads there can only be travelled by the courageous. Perhaps this explains the Enlightenment’s special allure for people who are interested in exploring the world of ideas.

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Published in May 2017, no. 391