Kant and the Fragmentation of Self: Role and Individual in “What is Enlightenment?”


John Donne, a seventeenth century English poet, once wrote:

“And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The Sun is lost, and th’ earth, and no mans wit
Can well direct him, where to look for it.
And freely men confess, that this world’s spent,
When in the Planets, and the Firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his Atoms.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation:
Prince, Subject, Father, Son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a Phoenix, and that there can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.” [1]

This poem resonates with certain common sentiments of our time. While it is always true that humanity is thrown into existence, we find ourselves thrown into a world of pieces: pieces which do not fit together. Even more, a world of pieces in which we are ourselves fractured but do not know what to do in such a state other than propose authenticity as an ethic. The bonds which once held all together (whatever they were) are burst apart: for everyone desires to be a Phoenix and rise from the ashes of their own self-incurred minority. The sense of a lack of coherence is often countered by a generally optimistic view of our modern, or “Enlightened,” age—often also met with a certain kind of optimism towards human nature. It is often said that we have surpassed all our predecessors: that we have left behind their superstition and the horrors they birthed towards an age of tolerance, knowledge, and progress. This is very much the view presented in Immanuel Kant’s essay, “What is enlightenment?” [2] In this essay, he argues that the project of enlightenment is where humanity’s “original vocation lies precisely.” [3] Enlightenment is defined by Kant as “the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority.” (Bondage) [4] That is to say, enlightenment is the use of one’s own reason and understanding without direction from another: it is the modern formulation of sapere aude (meaning, ‘dare to be wise’ or ‘dare to know’). [5] The emphasis upon daring is appropriate, since in Kant’s view the issue is not the mere capacity to use one’s reason per se but rather a “lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another.” [6] Enlightenment is not mere use of one’s reason; no, it is the exercise thereof independently from any other or, as Kant puts it, “without direction from another.” [7] This may be described as an exercise in a form of authenticity wherein one defines (and thereby distinguishes) themselves as an individual by their reason(ing). But what is the connection between these two contrary sentiments? The one expresses as sense of privation: of meaning and meaningfulness. The other expresses a sense of (what seems to be) courage: courage to find that meaning and meaningfulness for ourselves, apart from societal roles or structures. Why is it that we find ourselves commonly able to relate to the phrase, “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone”? Perhaps in seeking to emerge out of self-incurred minority, and establishing an entire society that is predicated on such emergence, we have brought about a mode of existence which fractures the self.

Individual, Role, and Character

Before discussing Kant’s essay, we must first discuss the general relation of individual, role, and character: specifically, how they similarly and dissimilarly embody ideas, beliefs, and morals. Alasdair MacIntyre notes: “Both individuals and roles can, and do, like characters, embody moral beliefs, doctrines, and theories, but each does so in its own way.” [9] It is the difference of in the manner of embodiment that we are here concerned with in relating and distinguishing individual, role, and character.

What is mean by individual is fairly self-explanatory: by this I mean that which belongs to a given personal existent which distinguishes them from other personal existents. While this does include metaphysical components (i.e., such as Duns Scotus’ concept of haecceity for individuation) [8], here I am focused on the “more or less complex, more or less coherent, more or less explicit bodies of beliefs, sometimes moral belief,” which forms the background of their actions. [10] As well as “the chain of practical reasoning [which] is…the individual’s own,” the context of which “is that particular individual’s history of action, belief, experience, and interaction.” [11] The individual, correspondingly, embodies certain ideas and morals thereby giving them a mode of existence, as it were, which originates from and centers upon the self.

Roles similarly assume and embody ideas, beliefs, and morals. What is different about roles from individuals is the locus of the ideas, beliefs, and morals being embodied: they center upon the role itself as ideal and instantiated rather than the individual. The embodiment of ideas and morals with regard role has its origins external to the individual, namely, in the role itself. Role is necessarily societal since it performs a particular function towards a particular end; the individual is also necessarily social in the same way. The difference lies in the origin and primacy of place of the assumed ideas and morals. That these are capable of distinction and difference is evident from experience. MacIntyre gives the example of the Catholic priest: “by virtue of his role officiates at the mass, performs other rites and ceremonies and takes part in a variety of activities which embody or presuppose, implicitly or explicitly, the beliefs of Catholic Christianity. Yet a particular ordained individual who does all these things may have lost his faith and his own beliefs may be quite other than and at variance with those expressed in the actions presented by his role. [In this way,] the belief that he has in his mind and heart are one thing; the beliefs that his role expressed and presupposes are quite another.” [12]

Characters differ from both individuals and roles in that while individuals and roles embody certain ideas and morals, characters “are a very special type of social role which places a certain kind of moral constraint on the personality of those who inhabit them in a way in which other social roles do not.” [13] What distinguishes characters from both individuals and roles is not per se the moral constraint, but rather the certain kind wherein they “merge what usually is thought to belong to the individual man or woman and what is usually thought to belong to social roles.” [14] There is a fusion of role and individual such that the character becomes paradigmatic of the role to which it refers: “Characters…are, so to speak, the moral representations of their culture and they are so because of the way in which moral and metaphysical ideas and theories assume through them an embodied existence in the social world. Characters are masks worn by moral philosophies.” [15] But didn’t I say previously that individuals embody certain ideas and morals and thereby give them a certain mode of existence? The difference between the mode of existence in individual and character is found precisely in the absence or presence of role: an individual embodies ideas and morals without any reference, necessarily to sociality; a character embodies ideas and morals as an individual fused with their role to the point where there is little, if any, distinction between them.

Kant’s “What is enlightenment?”

Kant’s essay “What is enlightenment?” is a seminal text in modern philosophy: it presents the project of enlightenment as an emergence from self-incurred minority towards free use of one’s own reason without direction from another or interference from the state. But what are its implications for individuals, roles, and characters? Kant’s proposal of enlightenment requires freedom of the public use of one’s reason as opposed to private use: the former refers to “that which someone makes of it as a scholar before the entire public of the world of readers,” while the latter refers to “that which one many make of it in a certain civil post or office with which he is entrusted.” [16] Here there is an opposition between the public and private use of one’s reason, as evident from his examples. However, it is worth noting that his examples (especially, officer of the law and clergyman) are not merely roles but are characters: they involve a level of fusion between role and individual such that the ideas and morals embodied in and particular to the role is precisely what is embodied in and particular to the individual. Let’s focus on his example of the clergyman. The individual who is in the role of clergyman “is bound to deliver his discourse to the pupils in his catechism class and to his congregation in accordance with the creed of the church he serves, for we was employed by it on that condition.” This Kant considers to be a private use of one’s reason since “a congregation, however large a gathering it may be, is still only a domestic gathering; and with respect to it he, as a priest, is not and cannot be free, since he is carrying out another’s commission.” [17] Despite this, “as a scholar he has complete freedom and is even called upon to communicate to the public all his carefully examined and well-intentioned thoughts about what is erroneous in that creed and his suggestions for a better arrangement of the religious and ecclesiastical body.” [18] Here the clergy is reduced from character to a strained relation of individual and role. there is, even, a degree of legitimacy to present such a mode of existence as duplicitous, though Kant counters, “there is nothing in this that could be laid as a burden on his conscience…. [since] there is at least nothing contradictory to inner religion present in them.” [19]

A Fractured Self?

In regard to Kant’s understanding of the project o enlightenment, the question is not (in my opinion) how does this result in a fracturing of the self but rather how does it not? A whole self, which is opposed and contrary to a fractured one, is predicated upon a certain coherence in their existence. To be put in a role which requires them to act in a way contrary to who they are as individual destroys that sense of coherence. They are, at this point, torn between two embodied modes of existence: one according to their role, another according to their individual or another role they function according to. This incoherence of one’s existence means two things: first, the diminishing of characters; second, the fracturing of the self. While characters are still present in contemporary American society, there is a true sense in which certain modernizing projects tend towards the deconstruction of characters, such that an individual is always at some distance from their role, either due to the ruthless impersonality of legality or some other aspect of their role which requires of them something that they would otherwise object to.  This diminishment of characters amidst the various modes of being which an individual takes on, removes any thoroughgoing sense of coherence or cogence. The self is, here, at odds with itself because of the activities into which its is pressed. This accounts for this sense in our time that the self is fractured, that our society is fractured. The seeds of this fracturing were there, planted deep within the soil of his word’s meaning and the project of enlightenment, and now they have blossomed for us—into thorns and thistles.

Picture Credit

Photo by Nghia Le on Unsplash

Works Cited

[1] John Donne, Complete English Poems (Rutland, VT: Everyman, 1994), 255-256.

[2] Immanuel Kant, “What is enlightenment?” in Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 11-22.

[3] Kant, “What is enlightenment?” in Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Gregor, 20.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Note that the phrase originally comes from Horace’s Epodes and is cited by Kant in his essay. Ibid., 17.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] For an explanation of haecceity, see Thomas Williams, “John Duns Scotus,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/duns-scotus/, 3.3; cf. Jeffrey Hause, “John Duns Scotus,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://www.iep.utm.edu/scotus/, section 5.

[9] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd Ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 28.

[10] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd Ed., 28.

[11] Ibid., 28-29.

[12] Ibid., 29.

[13] Ibid., 27.

[14] Ibid., 28.

[15] Ibid., 28.

[16] Kant, “What is enlightenment?” in Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Gregor, 18.

[17] Ibid., 19.

[18] Ibid., 19.

[19] Ibid., 19.

3 thoughts on “Kant and the Fragmentation of Self: Role and Individual in “What is Enlightenment?”

  1. So Far, I can follow your meaning. Your article is very relevant for today’s society. I have to finish reading the rest of your article. But, I feel like as I read your article that you understand me, the deepest wishes and thoughts that each of us undergoes in each of our little worlds. Thank you my son. Mrs. Hall


    • It use to be on Myspace.com that one could post a recording. For example a musical track. How about a Facebook page where one could record and post an audio version of one’s articles. And written articles as well. One could build a following this way, very easily.


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 )

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s