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14 Enlightenment, Some Assembly Required BRAD PASANEK AND CHAD WELLMON The main figures that populate accounts of the Enlightenment are human, be they enemies of the Enlightenment, such as the priest or the tyrant; defenders such as the philosophe or Aufklärer; or intellectuals socially assembled in coffeehouses or salons, exercising opinion in rational, critical debate.1 But in his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?,” the first figure Immanuel Kant identifies as an antagonist of the Enlightenment is the book, das Buch: “It is so easy to be immature if I have a book that has understanding for me [das für mich Verstand hat].”2 Personified books and other forms of print dispossess humans of their rational capacities; they alienate thought, just as priests or doctors serve as guardians for those who have yet to emerge from their “self-incurred immaturity.” Kant’s triplet—the book that has understanding for me, the pastor who has a conscience for me, and the doctor who judges my diet for me—shadows his three major critical works of philosophy. But the book, ranked first and aligned with the problem of understanding (with the Critique of Pure Reason), poses a special threat to enlightenment because it appears as an agent or knower in its own right. Standing between its human authors and readers, a book is not simply an inert container of human thoughts. It could, worried Kant, displace or supplant human understanding. Kant’s claims are complicated, of course, by their medium. For the Enlightenment to make progress, what was needed, as Kant put it, was “the freedom to make public use of one’s reason,” that is, “that use which anyone makes of it as a scholar [Gelehrter] before the entire public of the reading world.”3 For late-eighteenth-century German scholars intent on addressing this “reading world,” print was the primary way of using their reason publicly. As a medium of exchange, the printed page separated author and reader even as it put them in contact. Even in the lecture hall, contact between a scholar and his audience was hardly immediate: the intimate tête-à-têtes contrasts sharply with broadcasts and publicity. In Jürgen Habermas’s reconstruction of the bourgeois public sphere, an ideal type, an Enlightenment, Some Assembly Required 15 “audience-oriented subjectivity” nurtured in private, animates the Gelehrter, “whose writings speak to his public, the world.”4 Departing from Habermas and further simplifying for the sake of argument, we might say that to make public use of one’s reason was to do so in print. So Kant relied on books—his metaphor is significant—to help him “think out loud.”5 But books and other print products posed a threat to the activity of thinking (making use of one’s own understanding without guidance ) by which humans might free themselves from their immaturity. Or again, the Enlightenment came to depend on the circulation of printed texts, even as these same printed texts threatened to disorder the process of enlightenment . Kant’s late-eighteenth-century moment witnessed an astonishing expansion of book-based knowledge, in Paul Keen’s words, an “endlessly accelerating, self-regenerating inflation of print” that “threatened to exceed any strategy for its assimilation.”6 This ready availability of printed texts represented a challenge to the core of what Kant claimed was true enlightenment : “thinking for oneself [Selbstdenken].”7 “Thinking for oneself,” wrote Kant, “means seeking the highest touchstone of truth in oneself, that is, in one’s own reason. And the maxim to think for oneself at all times is enlightenment.”8 An overreliance on books threatened the very disposition of the Enlightenment: “Sapere aude! Have courage to make use of your own understanding!”9 Shun books and do one’s thinking oneself. The philosopher Rüdiger Bittner drily remarks, “Booksellers at any rate would find such a maxim of enlightenment uncongenial,” before he bends the Enlightenment imperative to think back on itself in order to cancel it. How could such a maxim even be applied? “You cannot fail to obey the injunction.”10 By invoking “the book,” then, in “What is Enlightenment?,” Kant recasts the question so that his answer must specify what form autonomous thinking will take in an age beset by print. In this essay, we characterize Kant’s media environment by looking to the reading public facilitated and produced by one of the late German Enlightenment’s most important periodicals , the Berlinische Monatsschrift—the site for the original...


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