Kants Enlightenment and the Evolutionary Model of Progress

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Kant's Enlightenment and the Evolutionary Model of Progress

Kant's essay "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" holds a very optimistic tone for the future of humankind. He defines enlightenment as "man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity" (p. 54.) By this he means the immaturity of reason of which he believes the majority of the world is lacking in. This is not in itself a bad thing as he argues that the natural progression of mankind inevitably calls for the ultimate attainment of reason. Kant believes that if people throw off the chains of laziness and cowardice they will be one step closer to a successful end. This linear notion of progression has been rejected by anthropologists as misleading but it certainly fits its time-frame.

In classrooms today we are still taught that humans emerged on a sort of ladder of higher achievement. The picture that many of us received to learn about evolution contained a straightforward line of progression: fish Þ mouse Þ monkey Þ ape Þ human. This is a similar formulation of progression that Kant portrays in his essay. Mankind moves historically from a time of chaos and little reason to more reason, to more reason, and so forth. He did not believe that he was living in an enlightened time but rather that he was living in an "age" of enlightenment. This thought process establishes himself and his society as being on the right route but not near the goal line. However, reaching the goal is inevitable because it is simply humankind's natural progression. In his day and age nature was a fitting metaphor for the inevitability, or the innate right, of mankind's passage through time. Of course, there was not much cloning going on even twenty years ago. N...

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Not only is this view arrogant in assuming that the only way forward is upward, but it seems like if such an end were ever attained it would in effect cancel ourselves out. This "Enlightened Time" seems very reminiscent of the notion of the end of time (Judgment Day, Apocalypse, and so forth.) For what remains when all of humanity has reached this top-of-the-ladder? When all thought is Reason what is left to accomplish? It appears that such an end would result in nothing more than a Kantian heaven: idealistic to be sure but not realistic. The model that Kant used in ascertaining the position of humankind in evolution belongs to his day. The straight-line theory is not the standard by which we view global history today. Today evolution is a great big tree, or perhaps a garden of shrubbery, but it is not a ladder of accomplishment and progression.
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