Can a work be overread? Can it be so thoroughly picked over by generations of readers that it is replete with its own interpretations, drained of contemporary pertinence, debarred from a future? If so, one such text might be Kant’s brief essay, ‘An Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?”’1 Its main claim, that people should think for themselves rather than simply accepting the doctrines they inherit and inhabit, seems so obvious today that it is difficult to imagine it as ever having been controversial, and therefore difficult to see why anyone should return to Kant for instruction on this point. Even worse, when one does return to Kant, one finds that the summons to reason is nested in other notions that have become scandalous. Crystallized in the notorious injunction to ‘argue as much as you like, but obey’, a chilling emphasis on civil order is backed up by ominous references to the ‘numerous and well disciplined armies’ that properly secure the stability of a disputatious culture. Moreover, Kant’s fawning deference to his sovereign seems a relic of a pre-democratic era, a mark of what he himself characterized as ‘immaturity’, a political and intellectual position from which we can learn nothing. In short, Kant’s essay is both contemporary to the point of banality, and immured in its own relatively unenlightened context.
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