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"The people will be led"

The freedom of philosophy
Forfatter: Immanuel Kant
Forlag: Oversatt fra tysk av Øystein Skar
Pax Forlag (Norge)
PHILOSOPHY / Is freedom of speech a matter for scholars? Are Trump and QAnon entitled to free speech? There is much to suggest that Kant would answer no to this question.


In an age where the big technology companies and political correctness are increasingly lowering the ceiling on what is safe to say in public if you want to keep your friends, see Pax Forlag appeared to have hit the target. They are currently publishing the German philosopher Immanuel Kant's book The dispute of the faculties (The dispute between the faculties) from 1798, where he defends freedom of expression on a principled basis. In Norwegian, the title has become The freedom of philosophy, and it is apt enough, because Kant believes that philosophy is in a special position in society, as it has unlimited freedom to express itself in public.

Freedom of expression as a scholar

Kant himself had problems with the censorship in Prussia in the 1790s, and the king ordered him not to speak publicly about religion after he wrote Religion within the limits of reason from 1793 had argued that religion had to be subordinated to reason, and that a literalist Christianity was the same as superstition. Kant promised to keep his mouth shut, like the obedient citizen he was, but when the king died in 1797, Kant thought he was absolved of his promise and remonstrated.

The heads of Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft might have applauded.

Kant's argument i The freedom of philosophy is that since philosophy is committed only to truth and reason, and man's freedom and dignity lie in his sense, a free and sensible critique of society will be for the good of humanity. The other "faculties" – law, theology and medicine – are not only committed to reason alone, but also to the Bible, the law book and established medicine, which are not necessarily rational. They therefore have a lower rank and must find themselves being corrected by philosophy.

At the same time, Kant introduces some important restrictions on freedom of expression – which the bosses for Big Tech (Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft) might have applauded. Kant is now considered a central figure within Liberal social theory, and perhaps these limitations are an integral part of the liberal social view that does not usually come to light. But it shows when people riot, such as during the storming of Capitol Hill in early January this year. Then the road to censorship of social media is short.

Objections and doubts

Is this something Kant anticipated? Maybe. At any rate, he says that "the public use of human reason" must be free at all times, but by public use of our own reason he understands "the use that is made of it in the capacity of a scholar towards the public of the reading world". Freedom of expression is therefore a matter for the scholars, it is a matter for the "reading world". We are therefore talking about a public that includes very few people. This undemocratic tendency in Kant is confirmed by his emphasis on obedience as a central civic virtue. To practice freedom of speechone is actually a good basis for creating obedience. In the preface, Kant praises the Prussian government for being so enlightened as to publish his book, and for the fact that it will in general free "the spirit of man from its chains", and precisely through its "freedom of thought" the government is " apt to produce an all the greater will to obedience".

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant

The logic is straightforward enough: As man is a fundamentally reasonable being, he will obey the state the more reasonable the state is, and the purpose of using freedom of speech is precisely to make the state more reasonable. So far so good. But isn't Kant biting his tail here? What about those who want to blow up this entire structure? Do Trump, Steve Bannon and QAnon have a right to free speech? Much suggests that Kant would have answered no to that question. Or in his own words:

"For example, preachers and legal officials would stir up rebellion against the government, if they yielded to the desire to present to the people their objections and doubts concerning the ecclesiastical or secular legislation. The faculties, on the other hand, direct such objections and doubts only to each other, as scholars, which the people – even if they have knowledge of what the faculties undertake – take no notice of purely practicality. The people impress upon themselves that rational speculation is none of their business and therefore feel obliged to stick only to what is made public through government officials.”

Yes, beware of "preachers" who present their objections and their doubts about the legality of the legislation to the people! Far better then for the philosophers to be in charge. The public, or the "civil common arena", must by all means not become a "court of the people", because the people "do not have the competence to make any judgments in matters of learning". If this should nevertheless happen, then a state of "unlawful conflict" occurs where "the seeds of rebellion and factions are sown, while the government is put in danger".

Long-term effect

In the famous scripture Answer to the question: What is information? from 1784, which is printed to the last in The freedom of philosophy, Kant gives a brief and easy-to-understand presentation of his view on public relations and freedom of expression. He starts by formulating the oft-cited electoral language of "enlightenment", namely: "Saper hears! Have the courage to use your own common sense!". But towards the end of the scripture comes a more apt clarification: "Reason as much as you want, and about what you want: But obey!" Perhaps in extension of this we could formulate the electoral language of the modern liberal order: "... But obey the liberal order!"

Literal Christianity was the same as superstition.

Law and order are at least important to Kant. Philosopher Lars Fr. H. Svendsen points out in the concise and instructive preface that Kant takes the opposite point of view of the English philosopher John Locke, who in the 1600th century had claimed that citizens have the right to revolt. Svendsen quotes from Kant's writings About the saying: It may be right in theory, but it doesn't work in practice: "All intent against the supreme legislative power, all incitement to translate the discontent of the subjects into action, all insurrection that breaks out into rebellion is the most serious and punishable crime in the community."

Kant is thus no Mr. Nice Guy. But despite his pessimistic view of most people – “the people will is led» – he sees hope in the long-term impact of freedom of expression. Free thinking is a germ that eventually "reacts on the people's disposition" so that it "step by step better masters the freedom to act". But perhaps we should add that this freedom has its limits. Yes, the lack of free speech has its obvious costs, but neither does free speech – or rather: the liberal ideology of free speech – come free. In a way, Kant reminds us of that.


See also about freedom of expression: Why promote political satire?

Lars Holm-Hansen
Lars Holm-Hansen
Philosopher and publishing manager at the publishing house Eksistenz.

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