My previous post examined how Kant distinguished “public” and “private” uses of reason and discussed the differing ways in which he drew this contrast. This one will focus more narrowly on the three examples he offered: an officer following orders from a superior, a clergyman instructing his congregation in the tenets of the faith, and a citizen paying taxes. It will begin by discussing how these examples had been treated by his contemporaries. It will then consider what recourse Kant’s agents have when they find themselves in disagreeing with the orders they have been given. It will conclude by examining a fourth example that Kant did not discuss: that of a university professor.
Kant’s Examples and their Context
At least two of the three examples Kant used in his answer to the question ” What is Enlightenment? had figured in earlier articles in the Berlinische Monatsschrift. Four decades ago, Eberhard Günter Schulz made a compelling argument that Kant’s reading of Moses Mendelssohn’s discussion of religious oaths, which appeared in the third volume of the journal, might help to explain the peculiar footnote that closed Kant’s essay by observing that while he had not had the opportunity of reading Mendelssohn’s article, he had nevertheless decided to submit his article in order to see whether his answer might “coincide by chance” with the answer Mendelssohn had already given. Mendelssohn wrote his article on religious oaths in response to Johann David Michaelis’ critique of his treatment of the topic in his Jerusalem. But, at the time when Kant was preparing his article, Mendelssohn had yet to address the critique of his position that had appeared in a 1784 book on Jerusalem written by Johann Friedrich Zöllner, the clergyman who first posed the question that Mendelssohn and Kant were attempting to answer. Schulz suggested that Kant might have had good reason to think that Mendelssohn’s response to the question “What is Enlightenment?” continued the discussion of religious oaths that he began in his rejoinder to Michaelis. Hence the stress that Kant devotes in his article to the example of the clergyman.
The case of an army officer’s response to orders from a superior had also figured, in passing, in an article in an earlier issue of the Berlinische Monatsschrift. In a discussion addressing the issue of freedom of the press (a topic of obvious relevance for Kant’s response), the jurist Ernst Ferdinand Klein framed the relationship between obedience and criticism as follows:
Subordination is the soul of the whole Prussian state. This subordination, on the one hand so indispensable and on the other so burdensome, is moderated, but not obstructed, by the freedom to think out loud. No superior will be hindered by it from doing what he wants, but only to want what he should not. Under such circumstances, fear of the judgment of the public can serve as a substitute for patriotism. It will not release the subordinate person from the duty of obedience, and what should be done, will be done. However, one is only forced to obey the command, not to condone it; to do, not to judge; to follow, not to agree. The bold reasoner bows ever so deep, and obeys as quickly as the rest; but one fears the audacity of his judgment, and takes care not to give him an opening.
The passage continues with the following example:
Suppose the leader of an army is surrounded by officers who strenuously judge all his measures. What is the effect of their reasoning? Will they hold up the execution of commands? Do they reason first, before obeying? Neither of these! Their reasonings after the event have only the result that the leader, if he recognizes their cleverness, seeks their approval either through asking for advice, or by considering carefully all his steps.
The contrast Klein drew between carrying out a command and endorsing it captures something of what Kant seems to have aiming at in his discussion of private and public uses of reason. And though the passage skirts the issues of whether officers have the liberty to publish criticisms of their superiors, the next paragraph suggests (at least in Klein’s view), that current Prussian policy permits such works to appear:
Thus when Prussia’s ruler suppresses writings against the state by censorship, he refers only to those which impugn the state itself, which betray it to its enemies, which loosen the subjects from their duty of obedience, and stimulate civil disorder. He does not censor moderate judgments about measures carried out by the prince or his servants. … Such freedom of the press is the distinguishing mark of a wise government.
The implications of philosophical arguments for military discipline had long been a point of contention in Prussia. In 1723, Frederick William I removed Christian Wolff from Halle and exiled him from Prussia on the grounds that his philosophy might be read as endorsing the view that soldiers who had deserted their posts should not be punished, since their actions had been predetermined and, hence, they could not help but desert. Though Frederick II reversed his father’s decision and reinstated Wolff when he assumed the throne in 1740, echoes of the incident can be heard in a comment Klein attached to one of the Wednesday Society’s internal documents:
If I write a morality for the common man, the censor cannot condemn my book because I have nothing to say about the duty to take oaths. If I however said that the soldier is obliged to nothing through the oath that he is not already bound as a citizen of the state or by virtue of its initial contact, the censor must prohibit the publication of the book, even if he is of the same opinion. It is entirely different if I express this proposition in a philosophical treatise. I can assume that such writings will not come into the hands of soldiers.
In addition to serving as a reminder of how leery Berlin enlighteners remained when it came to comments that might be viewed as undermining military discipline, Klein’s comment also drives home the contrast between his rather cautious approach to the question of censorship and Kant’s far more radical stance. Where Kant argued that there should be no limitations on public discourse, Klein’s approach followed the prevailing Prussian policy of including a consideration of the likely audiences of works in deciding whether to censor a work.
Finally there is the example of the citizen and the tax collector. A search of the Bielefeld’s digital archive of Enlightenment journals turns up little prior to 1790s and nothing in the Berlinische Monatsschrift. There is a passing swipe at tax collectors in the critique of Kant’s essay that Johann Georg Hamann sent to their mutual friend Christian Jakob Krauss but, as far as I have been able to determine, though citizens may have had complaints about tax collectors, there would seem to be little discussion of it in print.
Arguing, Obeying, and Resigning
These three examples Kant provides are supposed to clarify the options available to individuals who (1) hold some sort of civil posts or position and (2) find themselves disagreeing with the orders given by their superiors. The standard interpretation of Kant’s essay sees him as leaving these individuals with the following options:
- When they are engaged in discharging the responsibilities associated with their positions (i.e., in so far as they are engaged in the “private use of reason”), they are required to do what they have been told to do, without argument.
- However, these same individuals are at liberty to address the public in the role of “scholars” (i.e., engage in a “public use of reason) and in that role ought to be able to raise objections to these activities without punishment.
But matters are somewhat more complicated than this summary suggests: (1) the “private” use of reason frequently involves something other an unquestioning obedience to orders and (2) in at least one of the cases, Kant notes that there is a third option available: resigning one’s position.
Regarding the first point, as Will Thomas rightly noted in his comment on the first post in this series, it is significant that Kant characterizes what takes place when individuals discharge the responsibilities associated with their “civil posts” as a “private use of reason”. Those who carry out orders are not automata; in at least some of the cases, they will have some latitude in determining how to execute the tasks they have been told to do. The conduct requested of the citizen is the simplest of the three: the tax collector specifies what needs to be paid and the citizen pays it. But the case of the clergyman is considerably more complex: the “symbolic books” specifying the central tenets of the faith require interpretation and the relationship of these tenets to the particular pastoral responsibilities is hardly transparent.
The case of the officer (which, as I suggested in the previous post, tends to be the example that today tends to trouble readers most) falls somewhere between the citizen and the clergyman. Eighteenth-century military orders covered a great deal of ground and were issued in forms that ran the gamut from detailed written orders dictating the order of march, logistical considerations, and command structure for a campaign to verbal orders issued in the heat of battle. Though it is not clear what sort of orders Kant had in mind in his example, Klein would appear to be describing what would have transpired in an officers’ conference, typically held the night before or the morning of the actual engagement, at which the plan of attack would be presented and responsibilities for executing it assigned.
In Article XXV of his Military Instructions, Frederick had this to say about such councils:
Prince Eugene used to say, that a General who had no mind to fight, need only call a council of war; and it is very certain, that in these meetings the question is generally carried in the negative: even secrecy, which is the very soul of war, is but seldom strictly observed.
A General, whom his sovereign has entrusted with the command of an army, ought to act in consequence of his own opinion, in which he is sufficiently authorized by the confidence which is reposed in him. Nevertheless I am of opinion, that he ought not entirely to reject the advice even of a subaltern, provided, after mature deliberation, it seems reasonable. In that case, he ought to forget the rank of him who started the hint, and act as if it had been his own.
In this case, at least, it would appear that the dictum Kant attributes to Frederick — “Argue, as much as you want and about whatever you want, but obey” — does not mean that private uses of reason (i.e., what is taking place in the officers’ conference) proceed without argument. There are occasions when argument is central to the proper execution of obligations associated with what Kant would characterize as an individual’s civil post.
The scope of this argumentation is, however, limited: the common feature of the three examples Kant offers is that they all are cast in the form of what Kant would subsequently characterize as “hypothetical imperatives.” As Kant would explain a year later in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, such imperatives (also known as “rules of skill”) are principles of action necessary to obtain a particular end that agents may, or may not have. Should the agent in question have no particular interest in the end the imperative is a “problematic hypothetical imperative” while in those cases where the agent actually does have an interest in achieving the end, it is an “assertoric hypothetical imperative.” Hypothetical imperatives are distinguished from the pragmatic imperative, which is directed towards an end that rational beings allegedly have (namely, the achievement of happiness), but lack a consensus on how to achieve. More importantly, it is also distinguished from the categorical imperative (also known as the moral law), which — in contrast to both hypothetical and pragmatic imperatives — is good, not because it directs us to an end we happen to desire or ought to desire, but because it is good in itself.
When agents are engaged in private uses of reason, their actions might be understood as conforming to the general structure of hypothetical imperatives (i.e., their reasoning is directed at the attainment of certain contingent ends) but with the added feature that the end to be achieved has been stipulated by another agent or group of agents. As a result, implicit limits are set on the scope of argument: for example, while those participating in an officers’ conference might be welcome to express reservations about the plan of battle or — in extreme cases — the advisability of engaging the enemy at this particular place and time, it is not the place to discuss the advisability of the war itself. However, at least in Kant’s account, officers should not be prohibited from raising the full range of questions — from concerns about the effectiveness of particular strategies to the overall rationale for the war itself — in texts addressing the general reading public.
While the foregoing may help to clarify the sort of arguments that might be raised within the private sphere of reason, it still leaves us with an agent who is forced to live the double life of an individual who, as a holder of a civil post, advances certain projects that this same agent criticizes in writings addressing the general public. But in the case of the clergyman, Kant suggests a third option. After discussing possible conflicts between the views that a clergyman might profess in his role as “a scholar” writing for the general public and the views he is obligated to present as part of his responsibilities to is parish, Kant goes on to note:
… what he teaches as a consequence of his office as an agent of his church, he presents as something about which he does not have free rein to teach according to his own discretion, but rather is engaged to expound according to another’s precept and in another’s name. He will say: our church teaches this or that; these are the arguments that it employs. He then draws out all the practical uses for his congregation from rules to which he himself may not subscribe with complete conviction, but to whose exposition he can nevertheless pledge himself, since it is not entirely impossible that truth may lie concealed within them, and, at least, in any case there is nothing in them that is in contradiction with what is intrinsic to religion. For if he believed he found such a contradiction in them, he could not in conscience conduct his office; he would have to resign.
What Kant offers here is a description of a case in which an agent can no longer continue, through his private use of reason, to support an institution whose principles and practices he criticizes in his role “as a scholar” addressing a reading public. What would appear to trigger this conclusion is a recognition that his conflict with the aims of the institution he serves cannot be resolved and, as a result, he cannot, in good conscience, continue to support it. As a description of the challenges that sometimes face clergy, this seems plausible enough. What is not clear, however, is how this might apply to his other two cases.
Consider, for example, the case of Siegfried Sassoon. In July 1917, having served with distinction on the Western Front since the Spring of 1915, Sassoon released the following statement:
I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.
It is clear that Sassoon’s objections were not directed at the competence of his superiors (though, as a survivor of the catastrophic first day of the Battle of the Somme, he would certainly have had grounds to do so), but rather centered on what he saw as a change in the overall aims of the war itself: he enlisted in a war that he thought would be directed at halting the advance of German armies into France; he found himself engaged in what he concluded was a war of territorial expansion.
Like Kant’s clergyman, Sassoon’s decision was grounded on an objection in principle: he had come to see that he could no longer, in good conscience, continued to support the ends of the institution that laid claim on the “private use” of his reason. There is, of course, an obvious difference between Sassoon’s action and that of the clergyman: unlike clergy, army officers are typically not free to resign their commissions when they choose. This difference might, however, be mitigated by the particular context in which Sassoon announced his declaration. He issued it in England at the end of a convalescent leave, rather than at the front, which meant that his action would had no immediate consequences for those under his command. So, while Sassoon was disobeying an order to return to service at the end of his leave (and, hence, violating what would appear to be Kant’s insistence that soldiers must obey, rather than argue with orders), the order he was disobeying prevented him from exercising an option that Kant grants to the clergyman: the option of resigning an office that violated the dictates of his conscience.
The example of the Bürger and the tax collector is no less puzzling. It is easy enough to construct cases where a citizen might conclude that the continued payment of taxes to a state might violate certain deeply held moral convictions, but though Kant offers clergy the option of resigning their positions and while we might, with enough work, be able to come up with a Kantian account of what set of circumstances might justify an officer’s decision to resign his position, it is far from clear what options a citizen might have beyond paying the requested tax and proceeding, in print, to criticize the uses to which it is put. The problem, in part, follows from the fact that tax levies are typically used to support a variety of projects, not all of which our hypothetical citizen finds morally objectionable.
In cases where it is possible to draw a clear connection between a specific tax and a morally objectionable practice, a citizen could refuse (“on principle”) to pay the tax. For example, during the Vietnam War — which, in contrast to recent wars, was funded by increasing the telephone excise tax rather than by increasing the deficit — those who objected to the war could register their dissent by refusing to pay the seven percent increase that Congress enacted). In the absence of a specific tax, a citizen would be forced to opt, as Henry David Thoreau did at the start of the Mexican War (a war that he rightly viewed as a device for expanding slavery westerward), simply to refuse to pay whatever taxes he was asked to pay, regardless of their function. As Thoreau explained,
I meet this American government, or its representative, the State government, directly, and face to face, once a year — no more — in the person of its tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me; and the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present posture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it then. …
It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with — the dollar is innocent — but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases.
It is, however, difficult to speculate on what Kant would have made of Thoreau’s action, which amounts to a withdrawal from civil society, per se, and — as in the case of the rights of military officers to resign their positions — there is little in his essay to suggest how one might go about constructing an account.
I would be inclined to read Kant’s silences on this point as a further indication that the only example that actually concerned him — and, hence, the only one that he actually considered at any length — was that of the clergyman. This would be consistent with what we know about the context in which he wrote his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” and suggests that the essay might best be understood as a contribution to an ongoing discussion about the range of opitions available to clergy who held beliefs that diverged from the official doctrines. As a result, attempts to derive any insight about Kant’s views on the obligations of army officers or taxpayers from this essay may amount to a fool’s mission (which, of course, is not to say that such an account could not be constructed from other writings by Kant).
Scholars & Professors
At the risk of prolonging what appears to have turned into a discussion of all the things that Kant didn’t consider in his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”, there is one “civil post” that Kant with which he was quite familiar but on which his essay was silent: that of a professor at a Prussian university.
It is tempting to assume since professors tend to be “scholars,” their lives are devoted exclusively to the “public use of reason.” But this temptation should be resisted for at least two reasons: (1) they also, as part of the terms of their employed, engage in activities that might better be understood as falling into the category of “private”, rather than “public,” uses of reason and (2) the concept of “scholar” is not particularly well developed in Kant’s essay.
To start with with the second point, while the word “scholar” appears eight times in the essay, a review of its occurrences reveals that Kant’s usage is somewhat peculiar. Here are all the sentences in which the term occurs:
- I understand, however, under the public use of his own reason, that use which anyone makes of it as a scholar before the entire public of the reading world.
- But insofar as this part of the machine considers himself at the same time as a member of the entire commonwealth, indeed even of a cosmopolitan society, who in the role of a scholar addresses a public in the proper sense through his writings, he can certainly argue, without thereby harming the affairs in which he is engaged in part as a passive member.
- But he [i.e., an army officer] cannot fairly be forbidden as a scholar to make remarks on failings in the military service and to lay them before the public for judgment.
- This same individual [i.e., a citizen] nevertheless does not act against the duty of a citizen if he, as a scholar, expresses his thoughts publicly on the inappropriateness or even the injustice of such taxes.
- But as a scholar he [i.e., the clergyman] has the complete freedom, indeed it is his calling, to communicate to the public all his carefully tested and well-intentioned thoughts on the imperfections of that symbol and his proposals for a better arrangement of religious and ecclesiastical affairs.
- In contrast, as a scholar, who through his writings speaks to his own public, namely the world, the clergyman enjoys, in the public use of his reason, an unrestricted freedom to employ his own reason and to speak in his own person.
- At the same time, all citizens, especially the clergy, would be left free, in their capacities as scholars — that is, through writings — to make remarks on the failings of the current institutions.
- Under him [i.e., Frederick the Great] venerable clergy, in their role as scholars and irrespective of their official duties, freely and publicly present their judgments and insights — which here or there diverge from the established symbol — to the world for examination.
Alert readers will note that Kant consistently employs circumlocutions such as “as a scholar” (five times), or “in the role of a scholar” (twice), or “in their capacities as scholars” (once). In other words, “scholar” designates a role that individuals take up. It is an activity that individuals who hold one of a number of particular posts in society (e.g., that of a citizen, an army officer, or a clergyman) might, from time to time, perform. Hence, while one can do various things, as a scholar, the role of scholar is not a “post” that one holds. Hence while a “professor” may, of course, step into the role of “scholar”, holding the post of “professor” does not, automatically, make one a “scholar.”
Kant’s essay is either remarkably vague or quite generous as to what one has to do to step into the role of scholar. The only requirement seems to be that the individual in question public a work that is available to the reading pubic.
This would suggest that, in many of the activities in which professors are engaged, they are not occupying the role of “scholars.” For example, when Kant lectured to his students at Königsberg, he was performing a task associated with a particular civil post but not (at least as he defines it here) speaking “as a scholar.” Indeed, were we to be picky (and, why not since, after all, we’re dealing with a picky philosopher), we might want to say that the phrase “speaking as a scholar” is a contradiction in terms: a scholar addresses the public “as a scholar” by publishing texts, not by “speaking” to them. When faculty lecture in a classroom or when clergy deliver a homily to a congregation, they are not action “as scholars.” This raises interesting questions about the status of communications that begin as spoken communications delivered in the course of fulfilling the obligations of a civic post that are subsequently made available to the general reading public. For example, prior to its publication in the Berlinische Monatsschrift, Johann Friedrich Zöllner’s article on prejudice and superstition had been delivered as a sermon at the Marienkirche. While, I suppose we would have to say that there is nothing to prevent private uses of reason from being made public, this is not something I’ve thought much about.
In any case, the idea that the lectures faculty deliver as part of the obligations associated with their posts do not constitute a “public use of reason” and, hence, the implication that, in delivering them, professors are not occupying the role of “scholar” is not as peculiar as it may sound. While Kant had considerable latitude in the courses that offered, in teaching those courses he was performing functions within a corporate entity that set regulations about how long semesters ran, how many hours a week courses met, and how classes were to be conducted (perhaps the most significant was that faculty were expected, as Manfred Kuehn explains, “to base their lectures on a textbook or ‘compendium.’” Kuehn goes on to note that Kant tended not to follow the compendia he selected very strictly and tended to use the order in which they presented topics as the jumping off point for his own discussions. But since his elaboration of his arguments was accomplished verbally and his audience was limited to those in the classroom, it would not seem to meet his requirements for what was involved in “addressing the general public of the reading world.”
To sum up: Kant did not seem to be particularly interested in setting boundaries on who could step into the role of “scholar.” It would seem to have had few, if any, entry requirements beyond the ability to write and to find a way of getting what one had written published. Kant, it would appear, thought that friends of enlightenment should not be in the business of limiting what individuals could read and, especially, what they could write.
That, more or less, concludes what I have to say about Kant’s discussion of private reason. What it means for those of us who occupy posts in corporate entities that (among other activities) recruit the students that we teach in classes that (with luck) provide some sort of benefits to those who take them is, of course, a different question. Since this post is already long enough, I’m reluctant to drag it out further. But, in my role “as a scholar” (which, as I hope should be clear by now, may not be quite the same as the role I occupy as “Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science at Boston University”), it is difficult to avoid noting that certain principles, which one would have thought were reasonably secure, have recently begun to appear surprisingly shaky and administrators at certain universities have displayed an unseemly interest in statements that faculty have issued to that part of the “general public of the reading world” that prefers its texts to be no longer than 140 characters.
The only sensible response to the question “What would Kant think about Twitter?” is to point out that Kant hasn’t been thinking about anything for at least the last 210 years. But it might be worth pointing out, especially to those who evince concern about (as they tend to say) the “impact” of public statements made by faculty concerning various matters of public interest on the allegedly easily offended minds of students that Kant seems to have assumed that congregations could deal with clergy who instructed them in doctrines that — when they were not in the pulpit — they criticized in writings addressed to the public at large. But then Kant, while conceding that his was not an enlightened age, could still hope that it might be an age of enlightenment. I’d like to think the same. But the way things seem to be going, I wouldn’t bet on it.