Crafting Gentleness

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

I Kant, can I?

Two days in a row now with blue sky. The weather has been unseasonably warm of late, although still a bit chilly the odd time, and the news was reporting that this hasn't been great for the feathered and furry ones, whose biological clocks are going all out of whack.

I was rooting around the other day, and happened to pick up The Portable Enlightenment Reader. I had browsed through it before, but I was struck by the opening lines from Immanuel Kant's essay, 'What Is Enlightenment?' (at least, that's what it's called in the English translation). I'm not normally an avid fan of Kant's (I don't really go along with the way that he thinks people think, and I'm not likely to be persuaded otherwise simply because his thinking about thinking has been torrentially influential), but I thought that maybe what he was saying here was pretty similar to my invitations to the students I work with to become more accountable and responsible for their own thinking:

"Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have the courage to use your own reason!" - this is the motto of enlightenment."

I find it rather unfortunate that I'm distanced a little by virtue of this being a translation. Another translation offered by the editor of the latin Sapere aude! is "Dare to know!" I would venture to suggest that Sapere might also be translated (in a roundabout way) as "to engage in knowing", "to experience knowledge", and, at a stretch, "to be aware". I, of course, suggest these things with little or no knowledge of latin, merely as a linguist who loves the way that the meanings of words can have a tendency, if we let them, to wander freely around the house of possible meanings in our heads a bit like my cat Nila wanders around my house whithersoever she pleases. I wonder what Kant thought he meant? Maybe he may have said something like, "Go onnnnn! Be audacious!" (or bodacious, if he ever happened to meet Bill and Ted).

I've been using the term "conceptual Ikeas" in class recently to speak of methods and methodologies and philosophical systems that may well be quite dazzling in their persuasion and quite titillating in their ability to reinforce or catalyse our desires, but which nevertheless can lock us into a very clearly laid-out, one-way path as soon as we pass through the doors of their foundational assumptions. Yes, you'll get some nice stuff to put somewhere where it can be visible to all; yes, there may be very tasty Swedish meatballs along the way; and yes, you'll be able to talk to all your friends about what you saw and/or bought there (and about how much you dislike Ikea), but there's still only one way in, and one way out, and the possibilities for being human can begin to seem a little limited while you remain within the architectural confines of the store. And someone else, who you may never know, designed the building, and some other people built it, who you almost definitely will never know. For me, becoming more accountable and responsible for my thinking involves learning how to identify which doors of assumption in my own thinking might lead into conceptual Ikeas that could easily diminish my capacity for audacity.

Sapere aude?


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