KANT’S ANSWER to the question “What is Enlightenment?” begins with the foundational definition of Enlightenment as the free and autonomous exercise of one’s rational faculties, independent of what one is told, ordered, or required to think or do. By the “autonomous exercise of one’s rational faculties,” he means basically what he meant in his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), namely, deliberating in accordance with the same principles of reason he had already critically dissected in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Rational deliberation for Kant covers two overlapping areas. First, it involves epistemological investigations into what we can know, how we can know it, and when we are transgressing the limits of what we can know through unverifiable speculation on that which cannot be empirically confirmed. So it is a process of gathering, sorting, and organizing the available information in accordance with the disinterested requirements of logic. Second, this process of cognitive systematization (or synthesis, to use Kant’s technical term) of experience in general supplies the methodological foundation for ethical and prudential reasoning in particular, about what actions would be appropriate under given circumstances.

The core of Kant’s idea of Enlightenment is that it is up to each one of us individually, not anyone else, to ascertain, to the best of our abilities, what in fact is truly the case and what in fact is the right thing to do, through rational deliberation in this double-barreled sense. The importance of rational deliberation is that it determines the answers to these questions solely according to the facts of the matter and the logical criteria we apply in organizing them—not through power, persuasion, popularity, or politics. So although these answers are always subject to rational revision, they are not purely subjective, arbitrary, or perennially susceptible to Cartesian doubt. They have objective validity in the only sense of “objectivity” Kant approves of. This means that even if we are forced by circumstance to speak or act in a way that violates these objective principles, no external power can make us betray our rational recognition of what is in fact true or right. Only we ourselves can do that, when we allow our individual interests and desires to blind or distort the disinterested, rational analyses and conclusions at which we arrive by thinking calmly, clearly, and impartially about the facts.

So we betray the autonomous exercise of our rational faculties when we deceive ourselves about what we are perceiving (for example, when we interpret a mere courteous handshake as an invitation to sex); or when we register it accurately in perception but dismiss it as irrelevant to our interests (for example, when we disregard a mere courteous handshake from a woman as lacking social capital); or when we pretend there is nothing there to perceive (for example, when we fail to acknowledge a mere courteous handshake proffered by a woman of color).

Reality without wishful thinking is brutal: cruel, unyielding, merciless, indifferent, and overwhelming in its complexity.

We similarly betray the autonomous exercise of our rational faculties when we deceive ourselves about what it is we are actually doing (for example, when we purport to engage in friendly conversation while in fact pumping our discussant for usable gossip); or when we register our motives accurately but belittle their significance (for example, when we minimize the boorishness of pumping our discussant for usable gossip as simple interest in her story); or when we act thoughtlessly, failing to register our behavior in consciousness at all (to which, therefore, only a pronounced hostile reaction can awaken us from the slumber of habit). In both thought and action, we sacrifice our freedom to see and think clearly and to act consciously when we allow our interests and desires to cramp, distort, or suppress our impartial awareness of self, action, and world. Thus Enlightenment, for Kant, implies full alertness; respectful attention to what is actually there; and conscious acknowledgment of what it is we are actually doing and why. This cognitive state of full attention and awareness is a dimension of Achtung—respect or reverence for the moral law and for reason more generally—that Kant scholars have been slow to explore.

The importance of full awareness of the facts to Kant’s model of reason is the juncture at which his conception of Enlightenment shades into a much older rationalist conception from different, non-Western traditions, in which Enlightenment is understood as illumination. In fact, these two terms are often used interchangeably within these traditions. They refer to a cognitive state in which full awareness of what is really there completely replaces the influence of individual interests and desires on what we perceive or do. In Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism, the term for this condition of full awareness of self and world is nirvana. In Yoga and Vedanta, the term is samadhi. In Samkhya, the term is moksha. In all of them, a state of enlightenment, or illumination, is one of freedom from the illusory conceptions of self and world constructed by the individual interests and desires that confine us by clouding our ability to think clearly and act rightly. In an enlightened state, our interests and desires would neither lead us to confuse what is actually there with what we want or would prefer to be there, nor to confuse the motives for action we actually have with the ones we would prefer to believe we have. None of these views implies that we do not have interests or desires. But all of them imply that, in an enlightened state, these limiting conditions of the individual self no longer interfere with the free and autonomous exercise of fully conscious rational deliberation. When we disinterestedly perceive, acknowledge, and analyze those limiting conditions themselves, we are no longer dominated or victimized by them.

Kant emphasized the autonomous exercise of our rational faculties because he was concerned to break the habit of mass obedience to external authority that he saw around him. He aimed to lead readers of his texts to an awareness of the internal authority of reason that is latent in all of us, and to convince us that all external authorities, regardless of their force or bombast, are subject to the demands of reason—our reason—for their legitimacy. In this way, he hoped to weaken the credibility of authoritarian exercises of power, encourage the habit of critical interrogation, and awaken the human potential for rational self-government.

By contrast, most of the philosophers in these older, non-Western traditions were not primarily concerned with breaking the mass habit of mindless obedience to the hypnotizing and intimidating power of external authority. (The Bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism would be one exception; Swami Vivekananda of the Ramakrishna Order in Vedanta would be another.) Most believed that only the workings of karma could do that. They saw the enabling conditions for rational autonomy—systematic inquiry, critical reflection, self-control—as too remote and inaccessible to the vast majority of humanity around them. Instead they focused on cultivating these dispositions in themselves, because they realized that it was within their grasp to do this. They practiced diverse forms of rational deliberation, reflection, and habits of behavior as means of achieving the illumination of full and impartial awareness. Participants in the early African American Civil Rights Movement put these practices in the service of liberating the entire American community.

Although illumination is a liberation from the illusory world fashioned from the imprisoning constraints of interest and desire, it is also, therefore, an entry into the real world, in which wishful thinking plays no part. But reality without wishful thinking is brutal: cruel, unyielding, merciless, indifferent, and overwhelming in its complexity. The facts do not care what you think. And they rejoice in frustrating your desires. Although our individual interests and desires blind us to reality, they also protect us from its ego-crushing power. Here is the way Arjuna describes that reality in the Bhagavad Gita, after Krishna has given him just a brief glimpse of what it looks like when Arjuna’s petty preoccupations are momentarily suspended:

All around I behold thy infinity: the power of thy innumerable arms, the visions from thy innumerable eyes, the words from thy innumerable mouths, and the fire of life of thy innumerable bodies. . . . I see the splendour of an infinite beauty which illumines the whole universe. . . . I see thee without beginning, middle, or end; I behold thy infinite power. . . . I see thine eyes as the sun and the moon. And I see thy face as a sacred fire that gives light and life to the whole universe in the splendour of a vast offering. Heaven and earth and all the infinite spaces are filled with thy spirit; and before the wonder of thy fearful majesty the three worlds tremble. . . . When I see thy vast form, reaching the sky, burning with many colours, with wide open mouths, with vast flaming eyes, my heart shakes in terror: my power is gone and gone is my peace, O Vishnu! . . . The flames of thy mouths devour all the worlds. Thy glory fills the whole universe. But how terrible thy splendours burn!*

In these passages, Arjuna is not reacting merely to an abstract, universal “theory of everything.” What terrifies him is the unbearable concreteness and multiplicity, the intensely vivid particularity, of cosmic reality; the all-encompassing and all-absorbing immediate presence of each and every one of its infinitely varied individual elements. Arjuna expresses here the feebleness and fragility of the human mind in its direct encounter with the full breadth, depth, and detail of timeless and limitless reality, and his cognitive inability to tolerate even a passing moment in unmediated contemplation of it. The real compels his surrender. That is the fear that insulates us from it.

Whereas the enslaving grip of our interests and desires cushions us against the full force of this disruptive and terrifying reality, the autonomous exercise of reason strengthens our cognitive capacity to withstand and absorb it. So we always have a choice—between protecting our interests and connecting with the facts; between shielding our egos from the overwhelming reality that threatens to devour them and defending the exploration of that reality against the subjective fixations that invariably repress it. The more of the facts we can tolerate, the more firmly we anchor ourselves in that reality, the more disinterested we become, and the nearer we draw to illumination. That is where Enlightenment is to be found.

Adrian Piper is an artist and philosopher based in Berlin.

The Bhagavad Gita, trans. Juan Mascaró (London: Penguin Classics, 1962), 90–92.

Adrian Piper, The Color Wheel Series, First Adhyasa: Annomayakosha, #32, 2000, 300-dpi digital image for print reproduction, 10 × 6 3/8". Photo: Collection of the Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.