By Justine Kolata

Justine Kolata received her BA from Yale University in philosophy and her MPhil from The University of Cambridge in politics. She is currently pursuing a PhD in German Philosophy at The University of Cambridge on enlightenment salon culture and conceptions of “a beautiful soul” in the philosophy of Goethe and Schiller. She is founder and director of The Public Sphere, a cultural organization that works to revive Enlightenment salon culture and strengthen structures of participatory democracy. She is also co-founder and co-director of The Bildung Institute, an Institute which teaches the art of self-cultivation through ideas, culture, music, and the arts.

In Über Pädagogik (“On Pedagogy”) Immanuel Kant wrote “…children ought to be educated, not for the present, but for a possibly improved condition of man in the future; that is, in a manner which is adapted to the idea of humanity and the whole destiny of man…Parents care for the home, rulers for the state. Neither have as their aim the universal good and the perfection to which man is destined, and for which he has also a natural disposition.” This powerful sentiment, advocating for a lifelong, all-encompassing vision of education and political action, encapsulated the distinct contribution that the German Aufklärung made to the European Enlightenment’s ideological ends and became the harbinger of innovations in political theory.

Profoundly influenced by Kant, German philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries such as Friedrich Schiller and Wilhelm von Humboldt recoiled from the radical political strands of the French Enlightenment that culminated in The Terror. Yet, they did not turn away from politics itself. In fact, their disillusionment with the revolutionary cause was inherently and deeply political. But these thinkers chose to develop their political philosophy along lines that they considered to be holistic, emancipatory and, in their eyes, imbued with the potential to produce eternal peace. Their approach was grounded in a faith in the agency of individuals to master their own destiny through reason, to realize their latent capabilities to transform society, not through violent political irruption, but by exercising the possibilities of new knowledge through self-cultivation in the name of a collective social good. Kant, Schiller, and Humboldt did not believe that the Enlightenment’s progressive ideological ends could be realized immediately. Rather these ends would emerge only through a continuous process of education of the citizenry, so developing their faculties to legitimately govern themselves. Premature, revolutionary action of the uneducated masses would only lead to despotism, more catastrophic for the public than monarchy or oligarchy.

The Aufklärung offered a political vision for the triumph of reason and individual freedom over oppression, grounded first and foremost in philosophical reflection. Only by fundamentally reconceiving what it meant to be human could “man release himself from his self-incurred tutelage,” as Kant famously declaimed. To judge the success of the Enlightenment by its immediate 18th Century political outcomes would be a myopic error that misses the magnitude of its social, cultural, intellectual, and, indeed, political implications, given that the Enlightenment was, by its very definition, a perpetual process, one never completed.

Today, more than ever, we need to re-engage and deepen this philosophical process set in motion by Enlightenment thinkers over two centuries ago. Politics, society, and culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has fallen prey to the seductive tyranny of instrumentality. Politicians focus on the immediate demands of their re-election campaigns; environmental agencies proffer piecemeal, anodyne “solutions” to climate change; academics produce endless critiques of critiques forgetting to create new knowledge themselves. Deeper questioning of philosophical and ideological value systems and the legitimacy of underlying assumptions is regarded as irrelevant to the immediate needs at hand. The intellectually brave and politically pioneering who challenge us to consider these fundamental questions are summarily dismissed as naïve and hopelessly disconnected from “hard realities.” Their “pragmatic” critics, on the other hand, arrogate for themselves exclusive claims to the definition of reality, or more importantly, what reality could be.

A “pragmatic,” solipsistic approach to politics that elides questions of collective morality and only focuses on immediate concerns has proven itself incapable of producing an equitable society that unleashes individual human productivity, while attending to distributive justice for all, especially the immiserated among us. Unreflective pragmatism, which compromises ethics and imagination, has instead played a critical role in paving the tumultuous path to our present state of politics. As Kant so presciently warned, social progress cannot be achieved if we focus exclusively on self-interest, masqueraded under the guise of pragmatism.

If there is one good thing that has come from the turn of events of the past year, it is that the tyranny of pragmatism has been exposed; it no longer holds complete dominion over political discourse. Metaphorically, the doors of perception have been opened for anyone with the courage to change society in his or her own unconventional way. Now is the time for the idealist and the visionary to seize the moment, to pose fundamental questions on the nature of existence, the purpose of society, the meaning of human liberty, the value of the collective good, to construct new, utopian visions from the ashes of a fragmented world, to reclaim the reins of politics from the cynics and the inveterate pessimists. The time has come in politics to return to philosophy, to question our core values and what it means to be human, to pursue the good without compromise and propagate new ideals in the service of humanity.