“Voluntary Nonage”? — Translating Kant on Enlightenment (Part 4)

Kant’s talents as a writer tend to be greatly underestimated. Granted, the Three Critiques are no walk in the park, but even when Kant’s prose struggles because it is forced to do rather difficult things, there are striking passages (e.g. A395-A396 in the First Critique which culminates in the image of the Pillars of Hercules). When addressing the readers of the Berlinische Monatsschrift, he was operating under a less demanding set of constraints. What is perhaps most striking here was his ability to construct formulations that succeed in fusing contradictory notions into remarkably evocative concepts. Consider, for example, “ungesellige Geselligkeit” (“unsociable sociability”) — the notion around which the argument of his “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim” turns.1 Or, more to the point: selbstverschultdeten Unmündigkeit, the great train wreck of syllables standing at the close of the first sentence of Kant’s answer to the question “What is enlightenment?”

It would seem that what Kant had in mind with this paradoxical formulation is clear enough: a state of what, for now, we’ll call “immaturity” for which the immature individual is responsible. But finding the right English words to render it is considerably more challenging than it might first appear (and here I should confess that I’m suspicious of the words I’ve just used in translating the phrase). Here’s how the various translations I’ve been comparing deal with Kant’s phrase:

  1. self-imposed nonage
    John Richardson, in Kant, Essays and Treatises on Moral, Political, Religious, and Various Philosophical Subjects (London: William Richardson: 1798-99)
  2. self-imposed pupilage
    Sarah Austin, Fragments from German Prose Writers (New York: Appleton, 1841)
  3. 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)
  4. self-caused immaturity
    Carl Friedrich, The Philosophy of Kant, (New York: Modern Library, 1949)
  5. self-incurred tutelage
    Lewis White Beck, in Kant, On History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963)
  6. self-incurred immaturity
    H. B. Nisbet in H. Reiss, Kant’s Political Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1970)
  7. self-imposed immaturity
    Ted Humphrey in Kant,Perpetual Peace and Other Essays (Indianapolis, Hackett, 1983)
  8. self-imposed dependence
    Leo Rauch and Lieselotte Anderson, in Kant, Foundations of Ethics (Millis MA: Agora Publications 1995)
  9. self-incurred immaturity
    Schmidt, in What is Enlightenment? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)
  10. self-incurred minority
    Mary J. Gregor, in Kant, Practical Philosophy, (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  11. 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’s quite a bit of variation here, with a very thin plurality going to “self-incurred immaturity” (four out of the eleven translations). Looking at the individual words, we get the following:

  • For selbstverschuldeten: “self-incurred” (5), “self-imposed” (4), “self-caused” (1), “voluntary” (1)
  • For Unmündigkeit: “immaturity” (6), “minority” (1), “tutelage” (1), “pupilage” (1), “nonage” (1), “dependence” (1).

A Brief Sketch of Kant’s Argument

What Kant was attempting when he jammed these two words together is not all that difficult to understand. In keeping the general tenor of the opening two paragraphs, Unmündigkeit carries legal connotations, which Kant proceeds to cash out in the second paragraph of the article when he indicates that, in the normal course of events, “nature” sets individuals free from this state (he deploys the phrase “naturaliter majorennes to denote this process of coming of age). There is a discussion worth consulting in his Anthropology, which explains that Unmündigkeit designates both “minority of age” (Minderjährigkeit) and “legal or civil minority” (AA VII:208-209). His subsequent talk about “guardians” (Vormund)in the next paragraph fits neatly into the legal terminology he’s employing (sorry, Straussians, he’s not thinking about Plato here).

Following the legal sense of the term, there are two different ways of being Unmündig:

  1. All individuals below a certain age are Unmündig and will need a Vormund to represent them in any legal proceedings.
  2. There is another class of individuals who, though above the age at which the some of the individuals (i.e., many of the boys) in category 1 attain Mündigkeit, remain in a state of legal or civil Unmündigkeit and, hence, will also require a Vormund to represent them. In Kant’s day, this group would have included women as well as various categories of adult males who continue to face legal or civil disadvantages.

Kant creates a third group, and the article is concerned with them:  (3)  those whose condition of Unmündigkeit is selbstverschuldeten — which has been translated as “self-incurred,” “self-imposed,” “self-caused,” “voluntary.” As Kant goes on to explain, the individuals in this category have brought this status upon themselves through their failure to make use of their own reason, a failure that is demonstrated by their continued dependence on a Vormund long after they have ceased to be “naturally” Unmündig. Matters are considerably complicated by his using examples of a “Vormund” that go well beyond what one would expect to find in a court of law: his examples are a doctor, a clergyman, and a book.

There is more to say about what Kant is arguing but that is not my chief concern in these posts. Instead, I’m curious about the choices that those of us who have tried to put Kant into English have made and what they might tell us about how we understand the question that he was attempting to answer in his essay.

Nonage, Pupilage,Tutelage, Minority, and Immaturity

As I suggested in the first post in this series, in translating Unmündigkeit, Richardson had an advantage that all subsequent translator (with the possible exception of Austin) lacked: the word “nonage.” It fits perfectly: we depart from our nonage, we come of age, and if we stick around long enough, we enter into our dotage. These terms neatly map both the biological course of a life and the way in which our legal systems respond to it. Children need guardians to speak for them; so do the incompetent elderly.2

Austin used another word that, while not entirely lost to us, is foreign to most Americans: “pupilage.” Like nonage, the word has a good enlightenment pedigree. Locke used it in the Second Treatise  during a discussion of paternal power: “The Father might thereby punish his transgressing Children even when they were Men, and out of their Pupilage” (§105). Daniel Defoe employed it, in tandem with nonage in 1712 in his Reasons Against Fighting. Being an Enquiry Into this Great Debate, Whether it is Safe for Her Majesty, Or Her Ministry, to Venture an Engagement with the French, Considering the Present Behaviour of the Allies: 3

Will they still suppose us in our Non-age and Pupil-age, that we must be led about Blindfold, and be made Tools and Engines to the Dutch Avarice and Imperial Ambition?

The idea of being “led about” blindfolded aligns nicely with Kant’s invocation of children being placed in a “Gängelwagen” — a sort of eighteenth-century baby walker.

Austin’s formulation seems to have enjoyed a modest popularity during the nineteenth century. In 1844, Samuel Bailey quoted extensively from the translation (including the appearance of the phrase towards the end of Kant’s essay) in one of the notes for his Essays on the Pursuit of Truth and the Progress of Knowledge (261-3) and, perhaps following Austin’s lead, John Ware employed the phrase in The Philosophy of Natural History, Prepared on the Plan and Retaining Portions of the Work of WIlliam Smellie, (Boston: Brown and Taggard, 1860) (327).4 I have, however, found no use of Richardson’s “self-imposed nonage” in any of the nineteenth-century texts scanned by Google.

An Ngram comparing “pupilage” and “nonage” suggests “pupilage” had begun to become a bit more frequent than “nonage” a decade or so before  Austin’s translation appeared (but turning off the smoothing would likely complicate this picture).

Nonage&PupliageI suspect that she was unaware of Richardson’s work, but had she been considering “nonage” as a possible translation for selbstverschuldeten what might have tipped the balance in favor of “pupilage” was that the term had (and, indeed, in the UK still has5)  currency in the legal profession: it refers to a period of apprenticeship that lawyers undergo as part of their training. As the wife of the jurist and philosopher John Austin, she surely would have been quite familiar with the word. This usage, however, ought to have been a decisive reason for her to avoid using “pupilage.” There is nothing inherently contradictory or, indeed, particularly unusual about voluntarily entering into a state of pupilage. Would-be lawyers, seeking to enter the legal profession, subject themselves to the guidance of another, with the hope that they will, after this period of training, exit from this state of “voluntary pupilage.”


Brian Wilson

Much of the problem with finding a suitable translation for Unmündigkeit may follow from certain problems in Kant’s argument itself.6 Perhaps the composer Brian Wilson’s relationship with the psychologist Eugene Landy, who came to control almost every aspect of Wilson’s life, counts as an example of selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit (I’ll offer some reasons why this example might not work shortly). But I would assume that my relationship with the physical therapist who is working on my shoulder doesn’t. Using “pupilage” only makes matters worse by employing a word that suggests cases that don’t seem to match up with the ones that Kant wants to highlight. In other words, if the term we pick to translate Unmündigkeit doesn’t contradict whatever it is that we are using to capture selbstverschuldeten, we’ve done a serious disservice to Kant.

The appeal of Lewis White Beck’s “tutelage” is that, unlike nonage and pupilage it is a word that is in current usage and, like them, carries the meaning of subjection to a state of “guardianship.” In principle, it also suffers from some of the same problems as pupilage. Consider this example: I enter into a tutorial relationship with a language instructor, who advises me that, if I am going to master Italian, it will be necessary for me spend a month in Italy and, while there, speak nothing but Italian. Because I want to perfect my Italian, I comply with the suggestion. It’s hard to see how this rises to the level of selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit. It is possible, however, that the current use of “tutelage” has changed to the point where we no longer associate it with voluntary decisions of this sort and, instead, take it to be descriptive of a state of subjection that we could not conceive as voluntary.

Rauch and Anderson used “dependence,” which captures part of what Kant seems to have in mind, but is a bit weak in picking up the juridical connotations (though we do speak of “dependents”). The other modern translations have shuffled back and forth between “immaturity” or “minority.” “Minority” has a lot to recommend it: it is probably the closest we are going to come to Richardson’s “nonage” and, unlike “immaturity” (which I used, but which I’ve never been entirely happy with), keeps us focused on the state of being a child, rather than simply acting like one (anyone who has ever tried to chair a university department will be well aware that “voluntary immaturity” is not unfamiliar among the ranks of the professoriate). But it sounds odd to me, perhaps because of the prevalence of its use in describing voting results and the status of parties in legislatures. This may have been what led me to use “immaturity” and to resign myself to inserting a long footnote explaining what I was doing. But I would really have liked to have had “nonage” still available.

Self-incurred, self-imposed self-caused, voluntary


J. G. Hamann

So, at last, we come to what Kant’s great critic Johann Georg Hamann dubbed the “accursed adjective”: selbstverschuldeten.7 As Hamann recognized, Kant’s initial characterization of “enlightenment” stands or falls on his ability to distinguish between a state of Unmündigkeit for which the individual is to blame and the subjection of individuals to what might be characterized as “self-appointed guardians.” To return to the unhappy (and musically catastrophic) relationship between Brian Wilson and Eugene Landry: does the fault lie with the childish composer or the devious psychologist?8 Or, to consider a practice for which we have recently gained a word: when a quite competent woman (e.g., Hilary Clinton) finds herself listening to a significantly less competent man (e.g, Ted Cruz) explaining matters about which she is already quite familiar, what we have is an example, not of selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit, but rather of mansplaining.9

Surveying our translations of Kant’s “accursed adjective” we see that “self-incurred” (5) barely beats out “self-imposed” (4), with “self-caused” (1) and “voluntary” (1) bringing up the rear. What attracted me to “self-incurred” was that it seemed to capture something of the sense of liability or guilt that selbstverschuldeten, thanks to the presence of Schuld, carries. Also, “incurred” sounded suitably legalistic. But a translator whose work I greatly admire recently pointed out to me that “incurred” is already reflexive, which makes the “self” in “self-incurred” somewhat redundant. This suggests that, in principle at least, I could have translated Kant’s phrase as “incurred immaturity.” But, of course, I couldn’t: the contemporary usage of “incurred” doesn’t, at least to my ear, refer to something that an agent is doing to itself (e.g., “incurring damages,” “incurred interest,” etc.). This, I suppose, suggests that Richardson was (as usual) on the right track with “self-imposed.” The crucial distinction in Kant’s essay, as Hamann recognized, is between the paradoxical condition of a minority, immaturity, or nonage that (1) one imposes on oneself and a similar state that is either (2) natural (i.e., actual children as opposed to childish adults) or (3) has been imposed on an individual by an other. Kant sees enlightenment as concerned with the first of these cases, rather than the second or third.

“Self-caused,” like “self-imposed” captures something of this, though it doesn’t quite capture the echoes of Schuld that I think (perhaps wrongly?) need to be conveyed. “Voluntary” also has its appeal, especially since we make distinctions in courts of law between “voluntary” and “involuntary” homicide and so on. It also suggests a link, which might be worth pondering, between Kant’s essay on the question “What is Enlightenment?” and Étienne de La Boétie’s Discours de la servitude volontaire.

This leaves us with one word to discuss: Ausgang. I’ll deal with that next time and then, finally, make my Ausgang from this set of posts.

  1. For a discussion of the concept, and some thoughts on the proper translation of the term, see Allen Wood, “Kant’s Fourth Proposition: The Unsociable Sociability of Human Nature,” in Amelie Rorty and James Schmidt, eds., Kant’s Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim: A Critical Guide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 112-128.
  2. The idea of having someone speak for you in court suggests possible etymological links between Mund and Mündigkeit, but the only discussions I’ve seen of this question the connection. Any light that readers could shed on this for me would be greatly appreciated.
  3. I should confess that I have a weakness for eighteenth-century titles. It’s unfortunate that we can’t still do things like this.
  4. Removing the quotes around “self-imposed pupilage” turns up even more examples of the two words being used in close proximity.
  5. See, for example, this discussion.
  6. For a concise discussion of this issue, see Rüdiger Bittner, “What is Enlightenment?,” in Schmidt, ed., What is Enlightenment?345-358.
  7. J. G. Hamann, “Letter to Christian Jacob Krauss,” translated by Garrett Green in Schmidt, ed. What is Enlightenment?” 146.
  8. I suspect that most readers are less bothered than I am by the absence of a more effective bridge in “Love and Mercy” (one of Wilson’s better later efforts). Irrationally, I place all the blame for this on Landry.
  9. I’m indebted to CJ Pascoe for pointing this out.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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13 Responses to “Voluntary Nonage”? — Translating Kant on Enlightenment (Part 4)

  1. Kevin says:

    Appreciate your blogg post

  2. Pingback: What is nonage? – Alhimar.com

  3. Pingback: What is nonage? - The Millennial Mirror

  4. Pingback: Making Sense of “Aufklärung” – Translating Kant, Part III | Persistent Enlightenment

  5. self-inflicted childishness

  6. Pingback: Tracking the Reception of Kant’s Answer to the Question “What is Enlightenment?” | Persistent Enlightenment

  7. Cauê says:

    Dear James
    Actually I finished my PhD (here in Brasil: Doctorate), so I’m now carrying out a post-doc research. My thesis dealt with Kant’s conception of a cosmopolitan education. I read Kant’s Conception of Pedagogy as well as the article you mentioned and two others (just can’t remember names now). Hm, also her book on Moral Character. Very good work indeed. My approach was slightly different as I highlighted the relation between education and philosophy of history.
    From now on I will follow your website/blog. Thanks for sharing all this.

  8. Cauê says:

    Excellent ideas. I’m currently working on a PhD about the (possible) link between Aufklärung – Erziehung – Unmündigkeit in Kant, and I’ve been struggling with the same questions you pose. Greetings from Brasil.

    • Thank you for the kind words. Are you familiar with G. Felicitas Munzel’s recent Kant’s Conception of Pedagogy: Towards Education for Freedom (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2012)? It’s a wide-ranging and quite thoughtful discussion of the role of educational concerns in Kant. You can get a sense of her approach from an earlier article of hers, “Kant on Moral Education, or ‘Enlightenment’ and the Liberal Arts,” The Review of Metaphysics 57:1 (2003): 43–73.

  9. John Stamps says:

    When Kant talks about self-incurred tutelage or immaturity, do you perceive an echo (however distant or soft or ironic) to St Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians 3:23-25: “But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” My point is that Kant echoes Paul’s stern exhortation to grow up, but turns it against churches and clergy who won’t let their parishioners grow up to think for themselves.

    Better a late comment than never commenting at all.

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I haven’t really worked through the theological resonances in the essay, though they might very well be, particularly since it is likely that the chief focus of the essay (as Kant himself suggests towards the end) was on the need for enlightenment in religious matters. It may be significant that, of the three examples Kant gives (the clergyman, the taxpayer, and the soldier) most of the attention is given to the clergyman. It also is the only case where Kant comes up with a plausible exit strategy should the tension between public and private obligations (in Kant’s particular sense of the term) become unbearable: the clergyman has the option to resign his post (it’s hard to see how the soldier or citizen have an equivalent option). At some point I suppose I should check to see how Mündigkeit and Unmündigkeit are used in Luther’s translation of the bible.

    • Brett Provance says:

      Yes, I hold to this view. Kant is clearly echoing Galatians with Luther’s translation. Not the emphasis on “Freedom” in the essay (cf. Gal 5:1). I’ve picked up echoes of the Westminster standards in Locke’s writing, as well. These philosophers cannot be abstracted from their cultural contexts.

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