Out of Unmündigkeit – Final Thoughts on Translating Kant on Enlightenment

I will take my leave from this series of posts on the translation of the first sentence of Kant’s answer to the question “What is enlightenment?” with a consideration of how translators have handled Ausgang,the word that characterizes the passage out of the state of selbtsverschuldeten Unmündigkeit in which human beings have found themselves. Unlike Unmündigkeit, the Ausgang has no legal or philosophical implications. My big Langenscheidt suggests exit, way out, egress, going out, outing (in the sense of picnics), time off, end, termination, close, result, issue, outcome, upshot, starting point, outgoing, termination, outlet, mouth, debouchment, denouement, entrance, output, and a few other words.

Here is how the eleven translations I’ve been considering deal with the word.

  1. emergence
    John Richardson, in Kant, Essays and Treatises on Moral, Political, Religious, and Various Philosophical Subjects (London: William Richardson: 1798-99)
  2. emerges
    Sarah Austin, Fragments from German Prose Writers (New York: Appleton, 1841)
  3. advance
    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. leaving
    Carl Friedrich, The Philosophy of Kant, (New York: Modern Library, 1949)
  5. release
    Lewis White Beck, in Kant, On History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963)
  6. emergence
    H. B. Nisbet in H. Reiss, Kant’s Political Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1970).
  7. emergence
    Ted Humphrey in Kant,Perpetual Peace and Other Essays (Indianapolis, Hackett, 1983)
  8. release
    Leo Rauch and Lieselotte Anderson, in Kant, Foundations of Ethics (Millis MA: Agora Publications 1995)
  9. exit
    James Schmidt, in What is Enlightenment? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)
  10. emergence
    Mary J. Gregor, in Kant, Practical Philosophy, (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  11. emancipation
    David Colclasure and Pauline Kleingeld, in Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History (New Haven, Yale 2006)

The clear favorite is “emergence”, which was first used by John Richardson, the first translator of the essay. If we include Austin’s “emerges” in our tally — Richardson’s choice was taken up in five other translations. After that, we have two uses of “release” and one for each of the others: “advance,” “leaving,” “exit,” and “emancipation.”

At first glance, it is not clear that much hangs on how the word is handled. Austin’s translation (“A man is enlightened when he emerges from a state of self-imposed pupilage”) is the most problematic of the lot, but for reasons that would appear to have little to do with her translation of Ausgang. As I mentioned in the second post in this series, her translation makes it appear as if “enlightenment” a state that one achieves, as opposed to an action that removes one from a condition (that of a selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit), but doesn’t specify the condition at which we arrive as a result of the activity known as “enlightenment.” It is worth recalling that later in the essay Kant poses the question as to whether we are now living in an “enlightened age”, to which he answers: “No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.” He also, in an important discussion in §40 of the book whose title is now translated as Critique of the Power of Judgment, defined Aufklärung in terms of “not being passive with his reason but always being legislative for himself …” and then went on to explain that this “merely negative manner of thinking” was rather difficult to maintain.1 In other words, “enlightenment” is best thought of as an escape from something, rather than a particular destination.

But our understanding of how to characterize the condition at which we arrive as the result of our efforts at enlightenment may have implications for the translation of Ausgang, the term that characterizes the process that brings us to that condition. Since the opposite of Unmündigkeit is, of course Mündigkeit, we might be tempted to use that term as a way of specifying what “enlightenment” achieves. This suggests that, had Austin been consistent, she might have translated the opening sentence as “A man is enlightened when he is no longer in a state of pupilage.” But she didn’t and, indeed, couldn’t: the sort of Unmündigkeit on which enlightenment works is an Unmündigkeit that is selbstverschuldet, i.e., an “immaturity” for which the individual is in some way responsible. There are, then, a variety of different forms of “pupilage” and it is possible to leave some behind and still not be enlightened.

Kant goes on to note that the natural process of growing older removes us from our state of “natural immaturity” and thereby makes us “mature” in the natural and, perhaps, legal sense (Kant, following the legal conventions of his day, assumes that it doesn’t work that way for women). In these cases, we have achieved a state of Mündigkeit, but it is not at all clear that we are necessarily “enlightened”: Kant suggests that there are any number of adult males who are incapable of thinking for themselves. Achieving the particular state of Mündigkeit that is associated with having “achieved enlightenment” (assuming, for the moment, that this is a formulation that Kant permits) requires something more than attaining the condition of “natural majority” at which we arrive simply by checking off the required number of birthdays (few things are as passive as growing older: it’s not something we do, it’s something that happens to us). This suggests that the sort of Mündigkeit we are attempting to achieve through the process of enlightenment requires further specification. That further specification will need to take the form of a modifier that is the opposite of “selbstverschuldeten” — e.g., what we are trying to achieve would seem to be a state of maturity that we bring about, rather than one that is imposed on us by the natural process of growing older

Some Help from Habermas

HabermasWe can get a sense of the sort of word we need by taking a look at what Habermas’ translators have done. The term Mündigkeit looms large in Jürgen Habermas’ writings from the 1960s. Indeed, in a famous passage from his Frankfurt Inaugural lecture, that sketched the outlines of the argument he was to present in his book Erkenntnis und Interesse (which, for reasons that once puzzled me, was translated into English as Knowledge and Human Interests2), he stated:

The human interest in Mündigkeit is not mere fancy, for it can be apprehended a priori. What raises us out of nature is the only thing whose nature we can know: language. Through its structure, Mündigkeit is posited for us. Our first sentence expresses unequivocally the intention of universal and unconstrained consensus. Mündigkeit constitutes the only Idea that we possess a priori in the sense of the philosophical tradition.3

In his translation of Knowledge and Human Interests, Jeremy Shapiro employed the phrase “autonomy and responsibility”, a few years later, John Vietel used “mature autonomy” and offered the following explanation of Mündigkeit in his Translator’s Note:

literally “majority” in the sense of “legally of age.” For Kant mankind’s “majority” is the historical goal of enlightenment (in “What is Enlightenment?”). To preserve this developmental connotation I have generally preferred “mature autonomy.4

Solutions such as these are a bit more understandable in light of the difficulties of understanding what condition we are in when we have overcome a state of “self-incurred immaturity”: it would have to be a maturity for which we were ourselves responsible, a maturity that we brought about as a result of our having the courage to think for ourselves.

What to Do About Ausgang

Because Kant does not burden the concept of Mündigkeit with these sort of considerations (the burden, instead, falls on the concept of “autonomy” itself), he did not pose quite the same problem for his translators as Habermas did for his. As a result, none of the translations we have been looking at have to come up with a way of indicating that the maturity that we arrive at through the process of enlightenment is a maturity for which we ourselves are responsible. But this issue strikes me as having significant implications for the translation of Ausgang, implications that might not have been immediately apparent to the translators (and I suppose this is as good a place as any to confess that none of this occurred to me until I started writing these posts).

800px-Cetoine_globalWhat troubles me about “emergence” is that it is too passive, a passivity that is only enhanced, in Austin’s case, by her use of “pupilage,” which set me to thinking about the pupa emerging from cocoons as butterflies: a nice image, perhaps, but not at all what Kant was after. “Release” and “emancipation” have much the same problem. We do talk about “releasing” ourselves from various external encumbrances (e.g., releasing seat-belts), but we also talk about people releasing us from certain obligations or, indeed, working with us to show us how we can free ourselves from certain impediments we might have. This does seem to be where Kant winds up when he moves on to emphasize the ways in which enlightenment is a collective undertaking, practiced by a “public.” But exploring that point (and talking about its possible tension with the opening paragraph) is beyond the limited scope of these posts, though I have touched on it in the brief discussion of Horace’s sapere aude that launched this blog and may have to revisit it in later discussions. “Emancipation” is, if anything, more problematic: unless I’m missing something (and that happens quite a bit), it is typically an act that others perform for those who have been subjugated (which explains why we need, in particular cases, to use the phrase “self-emancipation”). This leaves us with Carl Friedrich’s “leaving” and my “exit,” both of which strike me as avoiding the passivity that plague the other translations of Ausgang and convey, however weakly, the sense that enlightenment is an activity that we ourselves perform on ourselves.

Where Foucault Got it Right

Foucault5In opting for “exit” I allowed my reason to be guided by one particular discussion of Kant’s essay: that of Michel Foucault. In his Berkeley lecture on the question “What is Enlightenment?” he argued that, for Kant, the concept of Aufklärung

it is neither a world era to which one belongs, nor an event whose signs are perceived, nor the dawning of an accomplishment. Kant defines Aufklärung in an almost entirely negative way, as an Ausgang, an “exit,” a “way out.”5

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, there are a few minor problems with Foucault’s interpretation of Kant’s essay. But they pale in comparison with how much he got right, which means that his lecture has much to tell us both about how to translate Ausgang and, more importantly, about how to think about the question Kant was trying to answer. And, while I’ve have (at last) finished thinking about how to translate the opening sentence of Kant’s little essay, I’m far from finished thinking about Kant’s essay. And I’ve come to think that the best account of why it is so difficult ever to be finished with thinking about the questions that Kant’s answer poses in the one that Foucault offered. I hope to say more about that in future posts.

  1. AA 5:294 Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment trans. by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000) 174
  2. Tom MacCarthy once told me that the rationale for translating it this way was to stress that the “interests” that concerned Habermas were interests that were central to the reproduction of the species, as opposed to the various more specific interests that individuals may have. I suppose this makes sense, though I’ve come to wonder whether translating the title as Knowledge and Interests might have allowed English readers to see that this book was — perhaps unintentionally — inviting a contrast with several other famous books whose titles also included two nouns joined by the conjunction “and.” In any case, it’s a book that gets nowhere near enough love these days.
  3. Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, trans; Jeremy Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 19 ) 314 (translation modified).
  4. Habermas, Theory and Practice, trans. John Viertel (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973) viii.
  5. Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader (New York: Random House, 1984) 34.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Out of Unmündigkeit – Final Thoughts on Translating Kant on Enlightenment

  1. Pingback: Adam Tooze about risk of large-scale sovereign default - My Blog

  2. Dafydd Roberts says:

    The merest refinement, but Houdini’s example might suggest to us that ‘escape’ is a word that well describes an exit from self-imposed constraint.

  3. juliusbeezer says:

    While I share Rorty and Hollander’s sentiment that these posts are worthy of wide dissemination they seem to have yet to grasp the power of the internet to do this. WordPress.com appears to be in rude health, so your URLs are likely stable enough, but anyway this page has already nicely reproduced by archive.org; there is an RSS feed to serve contemporary readers. Why kill the trees?
    On this note, thanks for holding Habermas’ statement that language “raises us out of nature” up to the light. But NO! Everything that is wrong with ‘philosophy’ in a single sentence—though perhaps it has been badly translated.

    • Thanks for the comment. I’ve been thinking about putting up a post about the current state of academic publishing (in part, to explain the frustrations that resulted in the creation of this blog) though I suspect that there’s not a lot to say that hasn’t been said before. Suffice it for now to say that not everything needs, or ought, to be printed on paper and a lot of things really shouldn’t.

      But I’d be more interested in finding out more about your “NO!” to Habermas’ profession of faith in the powers of language. His claim also strikes me as a bit strange, but perhaps for different reasons. For me, the stumbling block lies with the claim about “the only thing whose nature we can know”: it strikes me that the “nature” of language is not obviously a lot clearer than the nature of any number of other things.

      By the way, you seem to be cultivating an impressive garden of sites — I’ll have to call them to the attention of bicycle-riding Spinozist in the office next to mine.

      [Corrected at 9:00 AM EDT with insertion of “not” in final sentence of the penultimate paragraph — whoops….]

  4. Pingback: Thoughts on Translating Kant on Enlightenment (2013) | Foucault News

  5. > the sort of Unmündigkeit on which enlightenment works is an Unmündigkeit that is selbstverschuldeten,

    Use the correct German case “selbstverschuldet” (cf german.about.com/library/blcase_acc.htm) here to sound more appropriate 🙂

    Great work, sifting through all the translations!

  6. Kate Hollander says:

    Dear Jim, I agree with Dr. Rorty entirely.

    Thanks as always,

  7. Dear Amelie,
    It’s good to have such an erudite admirer, but these things go up here because (1) they are still pretty much half-baked and (2) the market for this sort of thing is considerably smaller than you’re suggesting.


  8. Rorty, Amelie says:

    The entire series of notes on the translations–using Habermas, Foucault et al, et al, is is interesting, helpful, stimulating. Please put them together in a little monograph and publish it, so it will be publicly available. __
    You could devote an issue of Kant Studien to it, but that’s not circulation enough…

  9. Pingback: Out of Unmündigkeit – Final Thoughts on Translating Kant on Enlightenment | ChristianBookBarn.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.