Kant and the “Private” Use of Reason

Readers of Kant’s little essay on the question “What is enlightenment?” have long recognized that the distinction between “public” and “private” uses of reason is both central to its argument and rather odd. Those perplexed by the distinction are in good company: in one of the written comments attached to the manuscript of the essay when, prior to its publication, it circulated among members of the Berlin “Wednesday Society,” Moses Mendelssohn characterized the distinction as “somewhat strange.”

The problem stems, in part, from the tendency to see the protection of a “right to privacy” as fundamental to modern, liberal societies and the further tendency to view this right as connected to the right of citizens (to employ the language of the Fourth Amendment) “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” Attempting to map this onto Kant’s distinction only leads to massive confusions. For while Kant maintains that an unrestricted freedom to publish opinions is fundamental to the progress of enlightenment, he also argues that the “private use” of reason “may often be very narrowly restricted without the progress of enlightenment being particularly hindered.”

Everything, of course, hinges on the peculiar way Kant goes about distinguishing public and private uses of reason. The “public use of reason” involves the use that individuals make of their reason in addressing that peculiar beast known as “the Public”, while the “private of reason” transpires in those cases then individuals perform certain tasks related to particular vocations. Indeed, Mendelssohn reframed the distinction precisely along these lines for his friends in the Wednesday Society: the “private use” of reason was “vocational” while the “public use” was “extra-vocational.” While this goes a long way towards clarifying the distinction, it doesn’t entirely remove the difficulties that plague Kant’s discussion.

Thanks to the now extensive literature on the “public use of reason” the use of the term “public” to refer to something other than various entities associated with the state probably seems less strange than the idea of a “private” use of reason that transpires in contexts that most present-day readers will have difficulties seeing as “private.” Kant provides three examples of individuals engaged in the private use of reason: (1) an army officer following an order given by a superior, (2) a citizen paying a tax levy, and (3) a clergyman instructing catechism students. I suspect that the difficulties present-day readers are likely to have with Kant’s discussion have much to do with the examples he picks — particularly the first one. History has not been kind to his essay: any discussion by a German philosopher of the need for soldiers to follow orders without arguing is bound to sound rather different in 2014 than it did in 1784.

Prompted by a recent exchange of emails with Robert Louden, who has also been working on Kant’s essay, I thought it might make be worth spending some time exploring Kant’s account of the private use of reason.

The Distinction Between Public and Private Uses of Reason

In the fifth paragraph Kant distinguishes public and private uses of reason this way:

Ich verstehe aber unter dem öffentlichen Gebrauche seiner eigenen Vernunft denjenigen, den jemand als Gelehrter von ihr vor dem ganzen Publikum der Leserwelt macht. Den Privatgebrauch nenne ich denjenigen, den er in einem gewissen ihm anvertrauten bürgerlichen Posten oder Amte von seiner Vernunft machen darf.

Here’s my translation:

I understand, however, under the public use of his own reason, that use which anyone makes of it as a scholar before the entire public of the reading world. The private use I designate as that use which one makes of his reason in a certain civil post or office which is entrusted to him.

Kant would seem to offer two different ways of framing the difference between public and private uses of reason:

  1. As a difference in the role of the agent: the private use of reason is associated with holders of “civil posts” while the public use of reason is associated with “scholars.”
  2. As a difference in the addressee: an agent is engaged in a “public use” of reason when addressing “the entire public of the reading world,” while the addressees of private uses of reason are not (for reasons that will become clear in a moment) immediately specified.

In what follows I will try to work out how these two distinctions work.

Office Holders and Scholars

Like much else in the essay, the distinction between “scholars” and “office holders” seems straightforward enough until one attempts to unpack it. It strikes me that there is a certain asymmetry in the way in which Kant goes about drawing the position: the public use of reason is exercised by those who act as a scholar while the private use is exercised in a certain position. The reader would be well-advised to wonder what’s up with the “as” and the “in”.

What seems to be at work here is a distinction between the various roles that individuals take up and the positions that they occupy in society. Kant’s military officer, for example, occupies a certain position within the Prussian military but, outside of the responsibilities associated with that office, may also act as a scholar by writing articles that are addressed to a broader reading public.

Judge Richard G. Kopf

Judge Richard G. Kopf

For a more recent example, consider the case of Richard George Kopf, who has, since 1992, held the office of Judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska and, since February 2013, has also written posts for his blog, Hercules and the Umpire. If we apply Kant’s distinction to Kopf, we can say that when discharging the responsibilities associated with his position as a Federal District court judge, Judge Kopf is engaged in a “private use of reason,” while — in his capacity as a blogger at Hercules and the Umpire — he is engaged in a “public use of reason.”

While the particular terms that Kant uses to describe the different actitivites in which Mr. Kopf is engaged will undoubtedly strike us as strange, the distinction itself shouldn’t. In 2004 Judge Kopf wrote a decision that overturned the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 (a Federal statute barring the medical procedure known as “intact dilation and extraction”) on the grounds that it did not include an exemption for those cases when the procedure would be “medically necessary to preserve the health of the woman.” While the norms governing legal argumentation are not entirely clear (and one of the concerns of Hercules and the Umpire is to try to talk about how judges go about their work), there is no reason to suppose that Kopf’s decision in this case is simply a reflection of his views on the moral status of abortion.  Nor should we assume that it represents his assessment of the soundness of the Partial Birth Abortion Act as a matter of public policy. We expect that the decisions reached by Federal Judges on the cases before them will turn on something other than their particular moral or political beliefs.  To put this another way, we expect Federal Judges to reason like judges (though we may well disagree on what exactly that may mean).  This does not mean that they will not also be capable of holding moral or political views on the issues that come before them, but it does mean that we should have a reasonable expectation that the judgments they offer represent something more than their moral and political preferences.

More recently, writing on Hercules and the Umpire, Kopf had this to say about the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case:

The Hobby Lobby cases illustrate why the Court ought to care more about Alexander Bickel’s “passive virtues” — that is, not deciding highly controversial cases (most of the time) if the Court can avoid the dispute. What would have happened if the Supreme Court simply decided not to take the Hobby Lobby cases?  What harm would have befallen the nation? What harm would have befallen Hobby Lobby family members who would  have been free to express their religious beliefs as real persons? Had the Court sat on the sidelines, I don’t think any significant harm would have occurred. The most likely result is that one or more of the political branches of government would have worked something out. Or not. In any event, out of well over 300 million people, who would have cared if the law in different Circuits was different or the ACA’s contraception mandate was up in the air?

Even before arriving at the final line of Kopf’s post — “As the kids say, it is time for the Court to stfu” — it should be obvious that Kopf is speaking, not in his capacity as a judge, but instead a scholar/blogger. In carrying out this discussion, he may appeal to certain arguments (e.g., those of Alexander Bickel) that will be more familiar to those in the legal profession than to lay readers, but there is nothing here that, in principle at least, could not be understood by a lay reader interested in learning something about the implications of the work that judges do.1 Kant would score this as an example of a holder of a civil post stepping out of that post and engaging in a public use of reason.

Citizens and Cosmopolitans

Another way of getting at the distinction between public and private uses of reason is to consider the addressee. In Kopf’s case, it should be obvious that the audience reading Hercules and the Umpire differs from the audience for his 474 page decision on the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. The former consists of anyone with access to a computer, an internet connection, and an interest in the subjects addressed on his blog. The latter consists, first of all, of the particular litigants in the case (who can be expected to read the decision with an eye towards framing a possible appeal) and whatever U.S. Court of Appeals (in this case, the Eighth Circuit) will be dealing with the appeal. The decision, of course, is also available — as what we would call a “public document” — to anyone who wants to read it, but as anyone who has spent much time reading court decisions comes to realize, reading them is a bit like listening in on someone else’s conversation.

Translating this into Kant’s terminology, it should be obvious that the audience for Hercules and the Umpire is, potentially, the “ganzen Publikum der Leserwelt.” But, at least at this point, Kant does not characterize who (or what) is the target of private uses of reason. The explanation for this is straightforward enough: while it’s easy enough to say that those who are involved in public uses of reason are, in principle, addressing anyone, the audiences for private uses of reason are discrete and varied. Confining ourselves to the three examples he uses:

  1. the officer makes private use of his reason when he translates the orders he receives from his superiors into actions that will be performed by those under his command
  2. The citizen makes private use of his reason when he take whatever steps are necessary to pay the levy demanded by the tax collector
  3. The clergyman makes private use of his reason when he instructs his congregation in the teachings of his particular faith.

Posed in this way, it would appear that not only are the particular audiences different inPrussian each of these cases, but that the character of the reasoning involved also differs significantly. Without knowing more than I do about eighteenth-century Prussian military practice, it is risky to specify what exactly is involved in the first example, but presumably it involves determining how orders (e.g., “set up defensive positions at location X”) are best executed. In other words, it rests on a combination of military training, previous combat experience, and the officer’s familiarity with the capacities of his troop. While it would be easy to find present-day parallels to the taxpayer (e.g., each year I spend quite a bit of time using Quicken and spreadsheets to pull together the information that I need to pay my Federal and state taxes), I suspect that the Prussian system was a good deal more straightforward, but there are, nevertheless, certain skills that Prussian taxpayers needed to have in order to go about doing what they need to do to pay their taxes.

In contrast to the taxpayer and the soldier, what Kant had in mind with the example of the clergyman is easier to comprehend (this is no accident: I’m inclined to think that the example of the clergyman is the only example that really mattered to Kant). Among other things, clergy are responsible for conveying the general principles of their faith to members of the congregation who differ greatly in their familiarity with church doctrine, life situations, capacity for understanding the finer points of scriptural interpretation, and so on. Clergy have considerable latitude in how they carry out this task, but there is a general expectation that they will not stray to far from the general principles that define their faith (e.g., Lutheran clergy may have rather different ways of explicating certain points of church doctrine, but it is reasonable to expect that their interpretations will coalesce around recognizably “Lutheran” interpretations of the main points of the faith).

A distinction of this sort would seem to be what Kant has in mind in the sentences that immediately follow the passage I quoted at the start of this post, though the way in which he frames the distinction is likely to raise additional confusions:

Nun ist zu manchen Geschäften, die in das Interesse des gemeinen Wesens laufen, ein gewisser Mechanism notwendig, vermittelst dessen einige Glieder des gemeinen Wesens sich bloß passiv verhalten müssen, um durch eine künstliche Einhelligkeit von der Regierung zu öffentlichen Zwecken gerichtet oder wenigstens von der Zerstörung dieser Zwecke abgehalten zu werden. Hier ist es nun freilich nicht erlaubt zu räsonnieren; sondern man muß gehorchen. Sofern sich aber dieser Teil der Maschine zugleich als Glied eines ganzen gemeinen Wesens, ja sogar der Weltbürgergesellschaft ansieht, mithin in der Qualität eines Gelehrten, der sich an ein Publikum im eigentlichen Verstande durch Schriften wendet, kann er allerdings räsonnieren, ohne daß dadurch die Geschäfte leiden, zu denen er zum Teile als passives Glied angesetzt ist.

Here’s my translation:

Now a certain mechanism is necessary in many affairs which are run in the interest of the commonwealth by means of which some members of the commonwealth must conduct themselves passively in order that the government may direct them, through an artificial unanimity, to public ends, or at least restrain them from the destruction of these ends. Here one is certainly not allowed to argue; rather, one must obey. But insofar as this part of the machine considers himself at the same time as a member of the entire commonwealth, indeed even of a cosmopolitan society, who in the role of a scholar addresses a public in the proper sense through his writings, he can certainly argue, without thereby harming the affairs in which he is engaged in part as a passive member.

Without, I hope, doing too much violence to the text, perhaps we can reformulate Kant’s argument this way:

  1. There are various ends that cannot be achieved unless individuals put aside their disagreements.
  2. The pursuit of these ends is best carried out when the government directs the actions of citizens.
  3. When engaged in the pursuit of these ends, citizens should not question the commands they have been given.
  4. During those periods when citizens are not engaged in pursuing these ends they should be free to raise objections in writing.
  5. Governments must respect their citizens’ right to raise these objections, subject to the conditions specified in #4.

Many readers, I suspect, may regard the second point as the red herring in Kant’s argument. While granting that there are some collective undertakings that require government direction, there are any number of others (e.g., running a restaurant, an academic department, or a professional baseball team) that don’t (though their successful pursuit may profit from the government enforcement of certain restraints on the actions of other individuals and other collective enterprises). It would appear that Kant — either out of conviction or for the sake of convenience — has simply accepted the enlightened absolutist program: the monarch holds the reins of power.

Readers might also note Kant’s characterization of the goals pursued by the government as “public ends” (öffentlichen Zwecken), which means that the “public ends” are achieved only when those who pursue them engage in a “private” use of reason. Even for someone as fond of paradoxes as Kant, this may be a bit much. But it does help to clarify what a peculiar world he seems to be constructing.

As a citizen (Bürger) individuals take up positions in the vast machinery that is “civil society” (bürgerliche Gesellschaft), a machinery whose proper functioning requires them to act “passively” — i.e., to carry out the instructions they receive without (then and there) initiating arguments about their propriety. But during those hours when they are not fulfilling their roles as part of the machinery, they are members of a broader society (i.e., the ganzen gemeinen Wesens) or, indeed, members of a cosmopolitan community (Weltbürgergesellschaft). In this role, they are something more than “passive” parts of the machine: they are cosmopolites — or, as we sometimes like to call ourselves, “scholars.”

Since I know a bit more about them, I’ll have more to say about scholars next time, especially scholars who spend some of their time in classrooms where they are engaged in what Kant would characterize as a private use of reason and some of their time at keyboards where they change, as if by magic, from functionaries in the machinery of the higher-education branch of the carceral-educational complex into members of the cosmopolitan community of readers and writers.

to be continued …


  1. That Kopf is well aware of potential tensions between these two roles is clear from his account of the restrictions on what he is willing to discuss. See http://herculesandtheumpire.com/the-who-and-why-of-this-blog/

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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6 Responses to Kant and the “Private” Use of Reason

  1. Moervos says:

    Reblogged this on Filosoferen in Knokke-Heist and commented:
    Kant – Aufklärung

  2. Pingback: The Soldier, the Citizen, and the Clergyman, with a Postscript on Professors: Kant on Private Reason (Part II) | Persistent Enlightenment

  3. sandvick says:

    Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    James Schmidt at Persistent Enlightenment has written two outstanding blog posts on Kant’s “distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ uses of reason.” This is first of Schmidt’s two posts.

  4. Pingback: The Soldier, the Citizen, and the Clergyman, with a Postscript on Professors: Kant on Private Reason (Part II) | Persistent Enlightenment

  5. Will Thomas says:

    This is a really interesting subject to me for reasons that I’ll get to at the end. Not really being an expert on Kant and his essay, I was inspired to go back and read it to see what role the public/private distinction seems to play within the larger scope of the essay. The thing that jumps out at me is that Kant seems interested in denoting private uses of reason to, in fact, be uses of reason, rather than, say, merely behaving in a totally automated manner. One might put the more recent term “local” in place of “private” — even if one cannot justify one’s actions as in some sense universally rational, there is still a local (i.e. “public”) purpose to them. In this sense, Kant’s private reason bears a resemblance to Weber’s “Zweckrationalität”.

    While private reason has an imperative to it, it does not seem to be absolute, and therein reason seems to play a role. This is clearest in his discussion of clergy:

    “He speaks as one who is employed to speak in the name and under the orders of another. He will say: ‘Our church teaches this or that; these are the proofs which it employs.’ Thus he will benefit his congregation as much as possible by presenting doctrines to which he may not subscribe with full conviction. He can commit himself to teach them because it is not completely impossible that they may contain hidden truth. In any event, he has found nothing in the doctrines that contradicts the heart of religion. For if he believed that such contradictions existed he would not be able to administer his office with a clear conscience. He would have to resign it.”

    Someone can go along with a “party line” so long as the party line satisfies a certain criterion of value. But, if it does not, then there is a point where “clear conscience” is crossed, and the enterprise must be abandoned. (Perhaps he was more appreciative of the post-Nuremberg mentality on order-following than we might initially suppose.) The project, of course, is to offer a safe path to reform without undermining effective institutions, and that safe path is public scholarship.

    Anyway, the reason why this piques my attention is because in my own work on the planning of World War II combat operations, Curtis LeMay (of all people) recognized essentially the same problem. He was adamant that orders had to be followed precisely, without exception, for the reason that “a poor plan well executed is better than poor execution of a good one.” However, following bombing missions he held meetings of officers to “critique” mission plans. Here is his foreword to a manual of tactical doctrine:

    “In its present form, the Tactical Doctrine reflects the overall combat experiences of very heavy bombardment units. . . . As more experience is obtained and as the tactics employed by the
    enemy are modified, new precepts will be involved and must be incorporated. Organization commanders are encouraged to suggest revisions and new techniques which will improve the
    doctrine. Recommendations will be embodied immediately, following the establishment of the value and need for change.”

    Anyway, again, interesting stuff. I’ve had a post on deck at EWP for quite some time on Simon Schaffer’s article “Enlightened Automata” wherein he discusses the place of automata and higher reason in Enlightenment thought; Kant’s distinction between public and private reason figures in his discussion. Hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

    • Thanks for the comment and apologies for taking so long to respond. As you’ll see from the second part of this post (which is now available), we’re thinking along similar lines.

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