Making Sense of “Aufklärung” – Translating Kant, Part III

I began this series of posts more or less as a lark, thinking that I’d look at how my fellow translators of Kant’s response to the question “What is enlightenment?” handled the opening sentence. But this exercise turned out to be both less interesting and more interesting than I’d thought. The differences between the eight twentieth-century translations that I located are relatively minor: while there are bones to be picked about how this or that translator dealt with one or another of the words, I’m not sure this really amounts to much (except, possibly, the disagreements on what to do with the word Ausgang). What was considerably more interesting, at least for me, were the three earliest translations, which differ quite markedly.

Here, once again, are the first three translations of Kant’s opening sentence on my list:

  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. A man is enlightened when he emerges from a state of self-imposed pupilage. Sarah Austin, Fragments from German Prose Writers (New York: Appleton, 1841)
  3. “Free Thought,” says Kant, “is the advance of man beyond the state of voluntary immaturity.” Otto Pfleiderer, The Development of Theology in Germany Since Kant translated under the author’s supervision by J. Frederick Smith (London: MacMillan & Co. 1890)

It seems to me that the differences here are of greater import than the variations in the later translations and also help fill in some of the gaps in my earlier research on Anglophone struggles to figure out just what it was that the Germans meant by “Aufklärung.”

For twentieth-century translators, it is obvious that “Aufklärung” should be translated as “enlightenment”  — indeed, at this point, it is difficult to think that it could be translated any other way. And there is also an almost irresistible tendency to assume that Kant’s answer can be read as an attempt to define the features of the historical period that we call “the Enlightenment.” This explains why Kant’s essay is almost always cited, if only in passing, at the start of almost every general account of the Enlightenment. What has tended, at least until relatively recently, to receive less attention are the circumstances of Kant’s writing the essay and what lessons might be drawn from them.1 The most important point to make about that context was that the essay was written as part of an attempt to clarify the features of a set of activities whose general character was far from obvious, both to the those whose asked and to those who answered the question “What is enlightenment?” In brief: this was an attempt to clarify a process, rather than define a period.

For much of the nineteenth century, translators were less than clear what the term Aufklärung designated. Richardson, working at a time when it was possible to find occasional essays still trying to explain what Aufklärung involved (the discussion dragged on into the early nineteenth century), correctly assumed that Kant used the word to refer to a process in which one was engaged: “enlightening” (i.e., clearing things up). But, by the middle of the century, Austin turned it into a condition that someone might attain (“A man is enlightened when …”) and, in the footnote I discussed in a previous post, suggested an alternative title for the essay that dispensed with the “very awkward word” Aufklärung altogether: “A plea for the liberty of philosophizing.” Finally, towards the close of the century, J. Frederick Smith decided that Aufklärung was a “terminus technicus that might best be rendered by pressing an English term from the early eighteenth century into service: “Free Thought.”

Two decades later, the following discussion of Kant’s essay appeared in Edward Caldwell Moore’s Outline of the History of Christian Thought Since Kant (London: Duckworth, 1912):

In 1784 Kant wrote a tractate entitled, Was ist Aufklärung? He said: “Aufklärung is the advance of man beyond the stage of voluntary immaturity” (25).

Moore was not unique in opting not to attempt a translation of Aufklärung at all: during the latter half of the nineteenth century this practice had the enthusiastic support of James Hutchinson Sterling, the author of the The Secret of Hegel and the subject of a number of previous posts on this blog. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, he insisted that Aufklärung was one of those German terms that was best left untranslated since it referred to something for which there was no precise English equivalent.

In the face of the Kant translations done by Richardson and Austin, Stirling’s claim seems quite peculiar, but it appears to have enjoyed some support among English translators of Hegel’s works. It is not until Baillie’s 1910 translation of the Phenomenology that “enlightenment” appeared as a translation for Aufklärung in a translation of one of Hegel’s works and the practice in translations of German histories of philosophy was to use such terms as “the Illumination” (and, in a few cases, the “Uplighting”) or simply to leave it untranslated.

What, then, explains why Richardson’s perfectly serviceable translation of Aufklärung (or, for that matter, Austin’s somewhat more problematic one) was ignored by these later translators? It’s possible that later translators were simply unaware of the Richardson and Austin translations. But the explanation may also rest with their assuming —  correctly, I think — that the term Aufklärung carried a different set of connotations in the works they were translating than it did in the text from Kant. As employed in Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy (and on the philosophy of history) and in those German histories of philosophy that he inspired, Aufklärung was used to refer to an historical period that was now complete, rather than a process in which one might still be engaged (as was the case for Richardson) or a state that one might attain (as it was for Austin). It also mattered that was already an English word for this period: “the Illumination.” Some translators used it; others were put off by its political connotations.

Perhaps the most peculiar strategy for dealing with Aufklärung was the one adopted by John Sibree in his 1857 translation of Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy. Opting to translate a German word with a French one, he explained,

There is no current term in English denoting that great intellectual movement which dates from the first quarter of the eighteenth century, and which, if not the chief cause, was certainly the guiding genius of the French Revolution. The word “Illuminati” (signifying the members of an imaginary confederacy for propagating the open secret of the day), might suggest “Illumination,” as an equivalent for the German “Aufklärung”: but the French “Éclaircissement” conveys a more specific idea.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, Sibree is a bit disingenuous. There was a “current English term” available, but he was reluctant (for the reason that he noted) to use it: “Illumination.” That he might want to avoid linking Hegel with those who embraced the idea that the French Revolution was the product of a conspiracy of Philosophes, Freemasons, and Illuminati, was understandable.  But his choice of Éclaircissement an an alternative baffled me until I tried comparing it to the other options.

An Ngram of the words Aufklärung, the Illumination, the Enlightenment, and Éclaircissement looks like this:

FourTermsThere are quite a few problems here. First (as usual) we are dealing with very few occurrences, so the fluctuations here likely amount to very little. Second, the samples that I looked at suggested that results for “the Illumination” may be distorted by such usages as “the Illumination of the Earth by the Sun.” Since the same may be true for “the Enlightenment” (e.g., “the Enlightenment of the native peoples”), I decided to try again, but subtract those phrases that continue with “of” from my searches for “the Illumination” and “the Enlightenment”. That produced a rather different looking Ngram (the usual caveat applies: small changes in small numbers of cases produce large changes):


These adjustments wipe out many of the occurrences of both “the Illumination” and “the Enlightenment,” but they do suggest that, during the 1880s, “the Enlightenment” begins to be used (admittedly, rarely) as a way of referring to an historical period (it is necessary to extend the Ngram into the first decades of the twentieth century to catch the big rise that occurs with the publication of Hibben’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Equally striking is the relative frequency of Éclaircissement vis a vis the other alternatives at the time of Sibree’s translation.

Hence, Éclaircissement‘s appeal for Sibree may have been two-fold. In addition to its freedom from the political connotations of “the Illumination,” it was a term that did much the same work as Aufklärung, but without forcing him into the clumsiness of employing a circumlocution like “the clearing up.” The fact that English readers had a certain familiarity with the term, thanks to its appearance in a number of fictional works in the early part of the century, also argued in its favor. But it is not a term that would have ever occurred to a translator of Kant’s essay. Kant, after all, was talking about something — be it a process, an accomplishment, or an historical period — that had at least some presence in Prussia. But, since the discussion of Aufklärung in Hegel’s Philosophy of History focused on France and on the role of Éclaircissement in the years before the French Revolution, Sibree might have reasoned that it was the best of a bad lot of choices.

This left translators and commentators on Kant’s essay (especially those who adopted Hegel’s general view of the concept) a bit unclear as to what to do with Aufklärung. But by the opening decade of the twentieth century it was becoming more common to see the Enlightenment as a European, rather than exclusively French, event, an event in which Kant had a role to play. Once that had become clearer, it was possible to see Kant not only as part of “the Enlightenment,” but, indeed, as the author of a text that provided one of the more powerful discussions of what the Enlightenment involved. This may explain why no twentieth-century translator has begun a translation of the opening sentence with anything other than “Enlightenment is ….”

Enough about Aufklärung: in the next installment I’ll look at the marvelously contradictory notion of “selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit.

  1. I’ve summarized some of the problems in the way the Kant essay has been used in a 2011 article in the History of European Ideas and Anthony Pagden offers a sensible account of the circumstances surround its origins at the start of his The Enlightenment and Why it Still Matters (2013).

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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4 Responses to Making Sense of “Aufklärung” – Translating Kant, Part III

  1. As yes, the OED ….. The Wikipedia article misrepresents what the new edition OED says (the author mistakenly wrote “mid 18th century” instead of “mid 19th century — I’ll see if I can correct it). The online OED is nice enough to refer readers to my article “Inventing the Enlightenment: Anti-Jacobins, British Hegelians, and the ‘Oxford English Dictionary,’” Journal of the History of Ideas 64:3 (2003): 421–43 for an explanation of the history of the earlier usage If you work your way back to one of earliest posts on this blog ( you’ll see a discussion of my adventures with the OED and some thoughts on what I’ve learned since Google gave us the Ngram, which helps clarify what is going on (the “Topics” tab up on the menu bar for the blog is probably the easiest way to get a sense of where else I’ve dealt with the question of the history of the concept, which is a major hobby-horse of this blog).

    If you wanted to cite the blog entry, the way Zotero tells me to do it is: “Making Sense of ‘Aufklärung’ – Translating Kant, Part III,” Persistent Enlightenment, accessed May 30, 2014, (Wow, that looks cumbersome!).

    I’d recommend that you simply cite the JHI article or a conference paper of mine from last year which summarizes what I’ve learned since the JHI paper: “Tracking ‘Enlightenment’ Across the Nineteenth Century,” Proceedings of the 16th International Conference on the History of Concepts, pp. 30-39 (

  2. Sibree’s idea of translating Aufklärung as Éclaircissement never seems to have caught on in English, but it survives down to the present in Sibree’s translation of Hegel’s Philosophy of History (which remains the only English translation of anything approximating the full text. From Sibree’s footnote, it seems clear that his main concern was to find something other than the term “Illumination,” which had been the more or less standard translation, especially for translators of German histories of philosophy but which he saw as carrying connotations of the “Illuminati Conspiracy” (the term was used quite a bit in the Anti-Jacobin Review).

    Éclaircissement seems to have had a brief career as a loan word in English and I suspect that this is what must have given Sibree the idea of proposing it as a translation for Hegel’s Aufklärung (as you note, there is no French convention for using the term in the way he is proposing) There’s an entry for it in the 1891 edition of the OED (the online edition indicate that this entry has yet to be updated):

    1. clearing up or revelation of what is obscure or unknown; an explanation
    2. A mutual explanation of equivocal conduct; esp. in phrase, to come to an éclaircissement

    For the first meaning, the OED comes up with source quotes from as early as Dryden (1673) and as late as Thackery (1847). For the second, one of the source quotes is from Richardson’s Pamela.

    The plural “lumieres” has a lot to recommend it and I hope to say something about Foucault’s use of it in Discipline and Punish in a future post.

    Finally, I would be remiss not to mention how much I’ve learned from your work on the French Revolution.

    • Dale K. Van Kley says:

      Dear James,
      Well, I wandered into this subject because I foolishly agreed to produce an essay on “The Varieties of Enlightened Experience” for a book of papers originating in a conf. on “God and the Enlightenment” at Ohio U. in Athens two Octobers ago. In it, I refract the single E. into no less than seven “lights,” only one of which is J. Israel’s.
      The essay is about done, notes and all. But toward the beginning of it I problematized the term and, foolishly trusting in what seemed to be a serious Wikipedia article that footnoted the 3rd revised OED, stated that the term first surfaced in English in the mid-18th C. to designate developments in France. That was interesting, but also counter-intuitive, as I had always thought of “Enlightenment” as probably a tardy translation of “Aufklarung.” In a last qualm of conscience I happily decided to check the OED, where alas I found no confirmation of the Wikipedia article, which, as I mentioned, seemed otherwise quite up to date with the recent literature.
      Back to square one, I hit upon the idea of looking up the first English translations of Kant’s famous essay, and happened upon your enlightening article on line. I intend to cite it. How do you want me to do so? Give me a title with publication data etc.
      Even in the present day, English historians of the 18th c. do not seem to be able to agree whether any such movement took place on that island or not.
      In minor revision, I will say something about the lateness of the English term (for all I know, the same holds for Verlichting, Illustracion, Illuminismo, etc.) and, for English, go with “philosophe(s),” which was in fact use in 18th c. England to designate you know who across the channel.
      I must say apropos of the problems with the term “Enlightenment” that none of the recent string of publications on the subject bother to linger over it as a problem, not even Pocock’s. In contrast I have faced no such problem with “Jansenists” or “Jansenism” about which terms I am reputed to know something, either in English or in French, both of which languages employed these terms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And yet to the present day I am obliged to provide at least a thumbnail definition of these terms every time I employ then anew, while authorities on the Enlightenment may use this term without ever having to explain themselves at all.
      It’s not fair!
      Dale vK

  3. Dale K. Van Kley says:

    What’s with Eclaircissement? I see no entry for it in the sense of an intellectual movement in the OED, and I’ve never seen it used in that sense in French itself. France seems to be the only country that dispensed with singular noun. To the present day, the French content themselves with the plural “lumieres.”

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