In the middle of all this flourishing of ideas, Kant responded to an inquiry: “What is Enlightenment?” with a brief essay in 1784. He characterized enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” adding “Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another.” He noted that “Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so many…gladly remain immature for life…. It is so convenient to be immature.”
A brief scan around the world 240 years later shows pretty clearly that enlightenment, using Kant’s description, is very much a process and not an event (certainly not a singular historical event). There are those who would argue that, technology and stacks of scientific “knowledge” notwithstanding, we are only marginally more “enlightened” than were the denizens of the 18C and that “progress” (the self-proclaimed goal of many thinkers of that era) remains pretty thin on the ground (at least of the moral variety). Kant didn’t know much about technological development (pre-industrial revolution, and all); but he thought that, with ‘enlightening’ leadership and the discarding of blind adherence to religiously-constrained understandings of the world, we humans would move forward.
Kant’s use of the concept of “maturity” shows that he understood the parallel between individual human development and the path of the species. Eighty years after Kant, the English philosopher Herbert Spencer advanced the idea that the education of the individual echoed the evolution of humanity towards modern civilization. I don’t know if this idea works with what we understand these days of psychological development (or of what we understand of the “civilizing process” for that matter). Still, I think there’s something significant here.
Beyond the accumulation of data/memories and the laying down of thought processes, individual human maturity does seem to imply some changes in attitude towards the world. There is the accommodation of the presence of others in the world, including an extensive line of thought seeing humans as social animals, often with an ability to embody morality and altruism. I think there is also a notable tendency for people, as they “grow up” to move past instant gratification and think in the longer term [N.B. I am definitely not making any blanket statements here that either individuals or the species always do so.]
I suspect that it has something to do with the capacity to imagine the future. As we move thru and past the constant change of adolescence and approach the (relative) stability of adulthood, we can more easily see ourselves as adults (partners/parents/etc.). Our own parents shift from being part idealized role models and/or semi-adversarial bosses to people whose roles and behaviors we can (increasingly (if we’re lucky)) understand. Being socialized into increasingly institutionalized settings reinforces the ability to contextualize ourselves in larger frameworks. At a practical level, this shows up in planning (college, budgets, careers, relationships).
So much for Steve’s theory of individual development. I doubt Kant had this in mind when he wrote about human maturity, but I think the point is the same. The question he might raise is whether this broadening of perspective is, at the species level, the meaning of enlightenment.
Our societies are increasingly filled with programs for long-term financial support and health care. We invest not only in businesses but in infrastructure. We imagine the future in detail and we scenarioize, plan, and speculate about it. Our demographics, particularly our increased longevity, makes us each personally more aware of what the world will be like decades hence (our selfish gene has to be more future-oriented than it used to be).
Another way of asking the question of where we are as a species, enlightenment-wise, is to take a look at how much we feel responsible for the future. There are plenty of people and groups of people/countries who still fulfill the role that Kant described: laziness and cowardice make it easy to be immature. Altruism is especially hard when you’re not already top dog (either in capitalistic or geopolitical terms). Competition (again, of either variety) provides a compelling distraction from self-care and long-term perspectives.
Sometimes, people don’t grow up until they hit a wall or get a great shock. Kant was optimistic about enlightenment continuing, even incrementally. However, he (and the rest of the philosophes listed above) didn’t have much sense of the mind-boggling effectiveness of the technological branch that enlightenment from religion and the ancien régime enabled. They likely thought that there would be plenty of time to continue our incremental progress and that we would, in due course “grow up.” We’ll see….