Human Enlightenment: a Comparison of Kant and Newman Essay

The pursuit of human enlightenment has been the object of learned men in every age and in every culture. Though the methods of such men have varied in time and space, those who have achieved any notable plateaus of illumination have done so through systematic and unbiased reasoning. This organization of rational progression has been called many things, though for the sake of uniformity within this composition, it shall be given the label “scientific investigation. The steps used in a scientific investigation are ordered to follow a universally logical and coherent process, which can be applied not only to the sciences but also to logic, philosophy, mathematics, and all other pursuits that require a solid cognitive basis. To be worthy of the status attributed to scientific investigation, the execution of such methods must include clarity of mind, openness to refutation, patience, and review, though the exact phases of different applications may vary.

Two perspectives on the role of scientific investigation in human enlightenment that hold evidence of truth but present seemingly conflicting theses are those of Immanuel Kant and John Henry Newman. These great thinkers respectively maintain the opposing positions that the achievement of enlightenment is possible if one is allowed to utilize reason to explore a subject freely and publically and, conversely, that enlightenment can only be attained through careful analysis and a limitation of deference to human involvement.

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The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant stated in his essay, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? , “nothing is required for this enlightenment…except freedom…namely, the freedom to use reason publically in all matters (Kant). ” The initial freedom of which Kant speaks is, no doubt, the ability of Man to engage his senses, intellect, and will towards the attainment of truth through a proven method, such as scientific investigation.

The freedom of public reasoning pertains to the ability to express openly any insight, doubt, or confusion on a topic that is under examination. While this lack of restrictions on public cognition can be illuminating not only to the one presenting it but also to those being consulted, this must be done with caution so as not to cause further confusion or doubt. The spread of uncertainly to matters that have been previously examined through a scientific method of inquiry and whose bases in solid logic and reason have been proven would be a regression of understanding.

Kant gives the example of a pastor whose duty it is to instruct and guide his flock in accordance with the symbol of the church he serves, although he may have reservations about the interpretation of that symbol or the execution of certain religious and church matters (Kant). It would be acceptable and, arguably, the duty of the cleric to bring such issues to the attention of others, so long as it was done in a manner that facilitates the search for truth, rather than one that simply publicizes his dissatisfaction with certain aspects of his office or the material he is bound to impart on his congregation (Kant).

An issue that correlates with this particular example is the claim of illegitimate restrictions of knowledge from one generation – or in this case, religious authority – to the next. Religious institutions have faced some of the most vehement accusations of illicit spiritual and intellectual restraint because of their reluctance to allow for unguided exploration of other religions, or even certain disciples of science and philosophy.

Yet according to Kant, such accusations are invalid insofar as the restrictions have been put in place to eliminate backtracking over issues which have been methodically explained, and insofar as the conclusion of such questions are imparted to those searching for the truth (Kant). He clearly states that, One age cannot bind itself, and thus conspire, to place a succeeding one in a condition whereby it would be impossible for the later age to expand its knowledge…to rid itself of errors, and generally to increase its enlightenment.

That would be a crime against human nature, whose essential destiny lies precisely in such progress (Kant). If the restrictions fall under the terms described above, they are far from permissible and must be reformed. It is universally agreed upon that, as a higher being with a rational soul and the power of free will, the purpose of Man’s possession of such faculties is to gain knowledge and through it, truth. Any object or institution that inhibits this pursuit stands in opposition to this essential destiny” of human nature and must therefore be redirected or done away with (Kant). Blessed John Henry Newman also addresses the subject of human enlightenment through scientific investigation in The Philosophical Temper, First Enjoined by the Gospel. Though he approaches it differently than Kant, his arguments are no less valid. Midway through his dissertation, Newman asserts that, when forming a theory regarding nature, one must begin with empirical investigation, to the exclusion of speculation or reference to human authority (Newman, §8).

In the next section, he elaborates on the importance of a scientific approach when pursuing enlightenment: Indulgence of the imagination…has misled the noblest among the ancient theorists, who seemed to think they could not go wrong while following the natural impulses and suggestions of their own minds, and were conscious to themselves of no low and unworthy motive influencing them in their speculations (Newman, §9).

Newman’s caution in regards to giving free reign to the mind without practical restrictions is legitimate; despite the gift of higher intellect, all Men are subject to flaws in unexamined cognitive processes, as well as in weakly based insights that can result in error. For example, a common fault of those fixedly pursuing the end of some hypothesis is that they can fall prey to confirmation bias, or the tendency to perceive information as supportive of one’s premise, even though it might not actually endorse it under logical and impartial scrutiny.

Thus, total “freedom to use reason publically” can be useful when held within the boundaries of the neutral and logical processes of scientific investigation, and harmful when allowed to wander down the paths of speculation and unsubstantiated claims. In regards to the Church’s apparent aversion to progress in scientific and philosophical thought, Newman’s sermon addresses the rigidity within the institution as it pertains to these matters.

Because of its unwavering claim of infallibility, the Church has earned the reputation for being well-informed in the issues and concepts of the age in which it was introduced, but archaic in comparison to the advancements of more enlightened times (Newman, §2). Whereas rapid progressions in science and philosophy have achieved wide publication and acceptance, Christianity has taken a somewhat more circumspect approach to such claims in order to scrutinize their validity and significance more carefully.

Though this tactic is executed for the sake of a thorough and systematic examination, it is often viewed as a stubborn lack of complacency with modern thought. Whereas an unexamined view of this stance may appear to inhibit learning, a closer assessment reveals its true goal of releasing Man’s mind from the constraints of its own limitations. Another related condemnation frequently made against the religion is the commonly demonstrated tendency of many Christians to give more regard to ancient works of literature than to modern promulgations of innovative ideas and discoveries (Newman, §3).

According to Newman, this can occur under many circumstances, including, “Admiration of the genius displayed in its writings, an imagination excited by the consideration of its very antiquity, [and] not unfrequently the pride of knowledge…which the many do not enjoy (Newman, §3). ” The role of scientific methods of investigation as it pertains to the enlightenment of Man is fundamental in that, without the level of organization and analysis required of such guidelines, the validity and reliability of new schools of thought would be haphazard at best.

Immanuel Kant and John Henry Newman both acknowledge this, though in different ways. Kant favors a more personal approach in which an objection is raised by an individual who is then free to express his concern to the public. Once the concern has been raised, it can then be scrutinized in a systematic manner and explained in logical and impartial terms. The mode of thought that Newman supports leans more heavily on the study of empirical evidence, to the minimization of human input. While he certainly values the power of collective reflection, he cautions against a broader exploration of emotional conviction and feedback in favor of the relative safety of unaffected analysis.


1. Kant, Immanuel. 1784. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? ” Konigsberg, Prussia. Accessed November 12, 2012. http://theliterarylink. com/kant. html 2. Newman, John Henry. 1826. “Sermon 1. The Philosophical Temper, First Enjoined by the Gospel. ” The National Institute for Newman Studies, 2007. Accessed November 12, 2012. http://www. newmanreader. org/works/oxford/sermon1. html


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