The Words We Have Lost: Translating Kant on Enlightenment

KantBMWhat might have been the most famous words ever written about the Enlightenment go like this: “Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit.”  The problem, however, is that the author of these words — Immanuel Kant (of course!) — wasn’t trying to answer a question about a period in history (i.e., “what is the Enlightenment?”) but was instead trying to clarify what was involved in the process or activity known as Aufklärung. This has become a particular hobby horse of mine. It strikes me that, the moment we start to think that Kant was engaged in an effort to define what “the Enlightenment” was all about, we lose track of what was going on in 1784 and what happened over the course of the next couple of centuries.

For Kant and his contemporaries, “enlightenment” denoted a set of projects and practices. By 1784 there was considerable confusion as to what counted and what didn’t count as a contribution to the “enlightenment of the citizenry.” Hence the question that Kant, along with many others, was attempting to answer in the flood of articles on the question that filled German periods over the next few years. To assume that these articles were an attempt to capture central features of a particular historical period prevents us from understanding just how confused people might have been around 1784 about what was and what wasn’t “enlightenment” and how long it took for these confusions to be replaced by a new set of confusions: disputes about what the historical period now known as “the Enlightenment” was all about. I think these two sets of confusions are related, but I’d like to keep them separate, if only to prevent yet more confusion. In looking at what Kant and his contemporaries were doing, I think it is essential that we realize that it is not the job of historians to resolve other peoples’ confusions — this is what philosophers do, when they’re not helping flies out of fly bottles. There’s nothing wrong with this (though I’d prefer that the flies stay in the fly bottles), but even those who are concerned with trying to resolve past confusions need to get clear on just what it was that earlier thinkers were confused about.

Putting Kant into English

It was in this spirit that, a couple of decades ago, I edited a collection of translations of a few of the German discussions of the question “What is enlightenment?” along with some later discussions of the controversy from the 1780s and subsequent attempts to answer Kant’s question. There were, after all, a lot of responses to the question besides Kant’s and it seemed to me that some of them — notably Moses Mendelssohn’s — were interesting in their own right. Others were useful in clarifying what seemed to be at stake in the debate and helped to understand Kant’s particular concerns (e.g., I think it helps to know that a fair amount of ink was being spilled at this point about issues involving the freedom of the press). My one regret is that I didn’t include the two essays from the Berlinische Monatsschift that prompted the question to what which Mendelssohn and Kant responded: Johann Erich Biester’s article questioning whether clergy were required at wedding ceremonies and Johann Friedrich Zöllner’s response to Biester, which included the famous footnote that launched the discussion. At the time when I was putting the collection together it wasn’t clear (at least to me) just how important and interesting disputes about the concept of marriage were about to become.

As part of the project, I decided to try my hand at translating Kant’s answer. Here’s how I handled the opening sentence: “Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity.” I didn’t spend much time looking at other modern translations, but I did consult John Richardson’s translation in his edition of Kant’s Essays and Treatises on Moral, Political, Religious, and Various Philosophical Subjects (London: William Richardson: 1798-99). My hope was to get a sense of how Kant sounded to eighteenth-century English readers and to try to keep some of that in my own translation. But it became clear, from the very first word, that this wasn’t going to be possible.  Richardson’s English was too foreign from ours: “Enlightening is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage.”

In the years since I did my translation, my admiration for Richardson’s has continued to grow. In retrospect, his rendering Aufklärung as “Enlightening” was a masterstroke. “Mental illumination” was the convention for translating the word that was adopted at the German Museum, the magnificent but ill-fated journal that translated a remarkable number of eighteenth-century German texts into English. “Mental illumination” is serviceable, but clumsy. “Enlightening,” on the other hand, perfectly tracks the way in which Kant was using Aufklärung and the oddness of using this word in this particular place — which kept me from doing something similar — now strikes me as just what we need: it makes it clear that we are dealing with a discussion of an activity, not a period. “Nonage” also works perfectly as a translation for Unmündigkeit and, as I mentioned in my Preface to the volume, it was a word that I would very much have liked to have had available to me.  But using “nonage” today would have been even odder than using “enlightening.”

The closeness of Richardson’s English to Kant’s German serves as a reminder that the vocabulary of the German enlightenment was not entirely foreign to translators like Richardson. According to Kant’s disciple Ludwig Heinrich Jakob, Richardson had studied Kant’s work during a stint at the university of Halle and two of his letters to Kant, written while he was living in Altenburg have survived.1 A few weeks ago it occurred to me that it might be mildly enlightening to slap together a blog post that would look at some of the ways in which the opening lines of Kant’s essay has been translated and see what might be said about them. I figured that, using Google’s Ngram Viewer, I could track the history of the various words that translators used and, perhaps, draw some enlightenment from this exercise. Rather quickly, though, what I was doing became too big (and too time-consuming) for a single post. So what follows will be the first of a series that moves, word by word (well, not every word) through the opening line of Kant’s response and explores the choices that different translators have made and what their choices might illuminate about the words, and the world, we have lost (think of it as my equivalent of making every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, except that it won’t take too long and will be much healthier).

Rounding up the Suspects

Let’s begin by collecting a few of the more readily available translations (please let me know if there are others that I’ve missed, which might be worth discussing):

  1. Enlightening is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage.
    John Richardson, in Kant, Essays and Treatises on Moral, Political, Religious, and Various Philosophical Subjects (London: William Richardson: 1798-99)
  2. Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity.
    Carl Friedrich, The Philosophy of Kant, (New York: Modern Library, 1949)
  3. Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.
    Lewis White Beck, in Kant, On History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963)
  4. Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.
    H. B. Nisbet in H. Reiss, Kant’s Political Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1970).
  5. Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.
    Ted Humphrey in Kant,Perpetual Peace and Other Essays (Indianapolis, Hackett, 1983)
  6. Enlightenment is our release from our self-imposed dependence.
    Leo Rauch and Lieselotte Anderson, in Kant, Foundations of Ethics (Millis MA: Agora Publications 1995)
  7. Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity.
    Schmidt, in What is Enlightenment? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)
  8. Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his state of self-incurred minority.
    Mary J. Gregor, in Kant, Practical Philosophy, (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  9. Enlightenment is the human being’s emancipation from its self-incurred immaturity.
    David Colclasure and Pauline Kleingeld, in Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History (New Haven, Yale 2006)

There are two places where everyone departs from Richardson’s choices: everyone translates Aufklärung as “Enlightenment” rather than “Enlightening” and everyone except for Lewis White Beck uses “immaturity” for Unmündigkeit. In contrast to his use of “tutelage” for Unmündigkeit (which is not the worst of choices), Beck’s decision to translate the important adjective selbstverschuldeten — which does a lot of work in Kant’s argument — as “self-incurred” seems to have caught on, though a few alternatives have been tried: Friedich attempts “self-caused”, while Humphrey and Rauch and Anderson use “self-imposed.”

Somewhat unexpectedly, the greatest variation involves what to do with Ausgang. Richardson’s use of “emergence” was followed by Humphrey and Gregor. I’m alone in opting for “exit,” and I still like it: it retains the rhythm of Kant’s opening (a three syllable noun followed by a two syllable noun) and, “Enlightenment” and “exit” parallel Aufklärung and Ausgang in starting with the same letter (small stuff, I know, but translation is nothing but an accumulation of small things, and I liked how it worked — besides it was how Michel Foucault’s translated Ausgang in his discussion of the essay). Two of the translations adopt “release,” which doesn’t work at all (what’s needed here is a word that implies an action on the part of the agent that is attaining enlightenment and “release” is much too passive). Friedrich used “leaving,” which is unobjectionable, I suppose, while Colclasure and Kleingeld use “emancipation,” which has many of the same problems as “release.”

And then there’s Menschen, which is probably the choice that has been most influenced by contemporary patterns of usage: up until 1983, everyone used “man’s,” then things became more complicated. Rauch and Anderson tried to avoid the issue of gender specificity by using “our,” which has nothing to recommend it, as far as I can see. Gregor, along with Colclasure and Kleingeld went for “the human beings.” And I, unrepentantly, used “mankind,” since anything else struck me as anachronistic (I made amends by following it with the neuter possessive “its”): there is every reason for us to avoid gender specific language when speaking of the species as a whole, but no reason at all to pretend that this was something that Kant or other male eighteenth-century writers would have done (like historians, translators are not in the business of getting flies out of fly bottles).

So, here we are: nine English translations and five German words. I hope to have something up about Aufklärung (including some tasty Ngrams) later this week.

  1. See Arnulf Zweig’s biographical note on Richardson in his translation of Kant’s Correspondence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and the discussions in Stephen Palmquist, Four Neglected Essays by Immanuel Kant (Hong Kong: Philopsychy Press, 1994) and Guisippe Micheli’s introduction to the reprint edition of Richardson’s translation, Essays and Treatises (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1993).

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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One Response to The Words We Have Lost: Translating Kant on Enlightenment

  1. Pingback: Translating Kant on Enlightenment: Two Nineteenth-Century Translations | Persistent Enlightenment

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