Enlightenment & the Intellectual Public

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Educational Thought


Enlightenment & the Intellectual Public


Immanuel Kant

Wednesdays, 5:10 to 6:50 pm
273A Grace Dodge Hall
On the Question of Background
Questions for the week

Working Groups

An Overview

January 20 & 27
Resisting Self-Incurred Tutelage
Theorizing in Historical Life

1918–39 | From WW I to WW II

February 3, 10, 17, 24 & March 2
Women in Public Life
Public Opinion • New Media
Office Work • Fordism
Urbanism • Racism
Radicalism • Nationalism

1946–89 | The Cold War Era

March 9, 23, 30, April 6, & 13
Material Abundance
Organizational Life
Power Elites
Coopting Dissent
More New Media

1989–???? | The Global Era

April 20, 279, & May 4
Pedagogical Paternalism
Privileging Inequality
The Prospects for Enlightenment

Theories of Communication
An Online Anthology
Some Thoughts on Graduate Study
A Note for International Students

In Construction

MSTU4010 -- Theories of Communication

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! [Dare to know!] "Have courage to use your own reason!" – that is the motto of enlightenment.

Immanuel Kant. "What Is Enlightenment?" (1784) Beck, trans.

An enlightened public has been key to aspirations for democratic self-government. The problems and possibilities of attaining and sustaining public enlightenment have been the fundamental concern in theories of how communications can and should work in the public sphere. This spring we will explore important efforts to understand these problems of public enlightenment in Western democratic experience during the past 100 years.

During the first two weeks, we will start putting the question by reflecting on Immanuel Kant's short response, published in 1784, to the question, What Is Enlightenment? In some ways, it has a very modern ring to it, but it takes careful, thoughtful reading. The links below point to Kant's original in German, and to three different English translations, one nearly contemporary to the original and two recent ones. To get things started, we would like each of you to post on your UserPage, a brief reflection on Kant's essay, explaining concisely whether or not you think members of the public are maturely using their understanding without direction from another in a way that Kant would think sound.[1]

Immanuel Kant: What Is Enlightenment?

Kant's essay, and others from the same circle, as well as most all that we will be encountering through the spring, are examples of theorizing in the midst of historical life. Theorizing is a form of action, and like all forms of action, theorizing takes place in a complicated, many-sided context. Even Kant's most abstract masterwork—The Critique of Pure Reason—was a work he turned to in response to his experience, provoked by what someone else, David Hume, the Scottish thinker, published with wide effect, awakening Kant from his dogmatic slumber. We will quickly move on from Kant and his contemporaries to sample many efforts to theorize about the public use of reason from within the difficult junctures in the historical experience of the past hundred years.

Specifically we will look at theorizing, thinking reflectively, about the public use of reason, of "making use of one's own understanding without the guidance of another," in historical settings where it was, at least on the surface of things, more or less a possibility. Hence, we will largely exclude the time of total mobilization during the two world wars and settings where the normal rule of law was set aside in "states of exception" imposed through dictatorship. We will divide our inquiry into two substantial blocks of five weeks each. In the first, we will look at the 20-year period from 1918 to 1938, with substantial attention to ideas about communications and public life in the United States and Germany. In the second, we will concentrate on American developments in the Cold War periods, roughly 1945 to 1990. We will conclude with three final weeks concentrating on communications problems in the subsequent period of globalizing neo-liberalism.[2]

Ah! Prudent souls, you now ask, "Just how are we going to do all this?" And, "What will we be responsible for?" And that worst of all questions, albeit a fair one, "How will we be graded?" These are perennial questions at the start of any course, but they are particularly difficult at the start of this course—MSTU4010, Theories of Communication—as it morphs into a conversation on Enlightenment & the Intellectual Public. We hope that having read this far you will realize that our having affirmed the importance of enlightenment, and our having privileged Kant's contention that the great threat to enlightenment "lies not in the lack of understanding but rather in the lack of the resolution and the courage to use it without the guidance of another," followed by the stirring injunction, Sapere aude!, all suggests that the chances of your getting clear, definitive guidance in response to these questions are low. Not because we will not try, but because they are questions indicative of the very problems we seek to study.

Here are some thoughts as a gloss on Kant's distinction between reason used in the öffentliche Gebrauch, the public sphere, as distinct from what persons do in the private sphere, really specialized, circumscribed capacities in roles or organizations. Saying what we think in the public sphere, we think that grades are meaningless and dysfunctional as forms of feedback in advanced education, and probably in all levels of education. They should be done away with in a reasonably organized educational environment. But.... You are enrolled and we are teaching in the private sphere, not the public, and here grading is part of the normal operating procedure. Hence, we will do grades, but we will try to do them according to criteria that will not undercut our commitment to the Kantian idea of enlightenment.

As a start, we want to act on two comments made about the course last semester. One came fairly early during a class session about the course website, namely that it was too full and too polished and consequently it created an intimidating threshold discouraging student construction of it. In comparison, what you will find here this semester starts as a tabula rasa, a blank slate that we should all work to develop. The other comment was in response to the more open-ended part of the course evaluations. Someone observed that we were too laissez faire about whether or not students put effort into preparing for class discussions, with the result that too many had too little to say. That was an astute and fair comment. This semester it should be the norm that each week each participant should enter onto their user page by noon Wednesday mornings some concise expression of public reasoning broadly relevant to the topic for the week and all of us should read those, and comment if so moved, before class session. We enunciate this standard, not as a course requirement, but as a normative expectation that persons in a group, convened to consider a complex matter, can appropriately expect of each other.

  1. By brief, we mean no more that 800 words, the length of Paul Krugman's OpEd on the difficulty of reasonable public discourse in the New York Times. You might take it, or some other one of numerous alternatives, as a point of reference in thinking about what Kant meant by the public use of reason and who exemplifies it in our current world.
  2. My spellchecker wants to change neo-liberalism to no-liberalism. hmm....