Before we can evaluate the Declaration of Independence as mature or immature, we must first examine Kant’s work that provides this distinction to see if Kant’s ideas hold up to his own theory. At first glance, Immanuel Kant’s “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” does fulfill Kant’s own theory of enlightenment thinking in that it demonstrates maturity by promoting further independent thought and allowing for criticism of established institutions such as religion. However, viewed from a modern perspective, Kant’s ideas seem somewhat less radical, liberal, independent, mature, or enlightened, in that they conform to certain established institutions and ways of thinking that have since been extensively criticized, and in fact were questioned in the Declaration of Independence.
To begin with, Kant seems to lack the “maturity” to entirely walk away from institutions such as monarchy— for instance, when he refers to his king, Friedrich, as “the monarch whom we admire” (23). Though this was probably self-preservationist in some measure and served to promote Friedrich’s permission of free discourse as a good example, other documents of the Enlightenment—such as the Declaration of Independence— rejected the very concept of monarchy. In this way, though Kant’s uncritical treatment of his royalty is understandable, it is a safe position that does not show “emancipation from… self-incurred immaturity” (17), because he cleaves to certain established modes of thinking about government. In this way, the writers of the Declaration of Independence showed a courage that Kant did not or could not.
More significantly, Kant shows a lapse in his own ideals of enlightenment-as-maturity in his discussion of the public versus private use of one’s reason. He does this by adhering to established concepts of top-down progress. By advocating gradual change via scholarly expression in the public sphere, Kant ignores those who cannot act as scholars due to lack of resources, education, etc. Though he speaks as if including all of society, he basically only allows for the intellectual elite to initiate change. He declares, “there will always be some independent thinkers even among the appointed guardians of the great masses who, after they themselves have thrown off the yoke of immaturity, will spread the spirit of rational appreciation of one’s own worth and the calling of every human being to think for himself” (18). Not only does Kant fail to provide for the non-scholar an alternative to “scholarly” criticism, he also does not acknowledge the fact that he puts the responsibility of enlightenment solely in the hands of the elite, and solely in conceptual, rather than actionable, terms. His lack of consideration of the non-intellectual as well as his hesitancy to disrupt the “mechanism” of society through action in the private sphere demonstrate what one could call an “immature” adherence to established intellectual hierarchies and societal functions. On the other hand, the writers of the Declaration of Independence were immersed in the pre-Revolutionary civil disobedience and severed ties with England in practice, not just in scholarly theory.
However, though a modern perspective may render Kant’s ideas comparatively conservative (especially when held up to the more practical and radical Declaration), there are ways in which viewing Kant’s theories from a contemporary point of view almost makes them more applicable. These days, the public sphere has expanded so that nearly all members of a developed society can participate in scholarly debate (take, for example, this very blog). Since the times of Kant and the “Founding Fathers,” the world has continued progressing so that intellectual independence is the potential domain of an enlightened public, not just an enlightened few. Does this mean we are indeed in the process of fulfilling Kant’s ideas about the “age of enlightenment”?