Maturity instead of playing with marbles

11.08.2021 von Matthias Münch in Science
If we want to talk about the great philosophers of the Enlightenment, we can’t forget Immanuel Kant. A project run by the Philosophy Department at the University of Halle is aiming to explore “Kant in all his glory” and shed light on the less critiqued aspects of his philosophy. An interview with project leader Professor Heiner Klemme
Heiner Klemme stands in front of a depiction of Kant in the city museum – the great philosopher is the subject of an ongoing research project
Heiner Klemme stands in front of a depiction of Kant in the city museum – the great philosopher is the subject of an ongoing research project (Foto: Marian Sorge)

Professor Klemme, Immanuel Kant is considered one of the most influential philosophers of the western world and his “Critique of Pure Reason” marks the beginning of modern philosophy. Can he continue to offer new insights today, 217 years after his death?
Absolutely. Kant has long been rightly recognised as one of the most important philosophers of modern times, but there’s always something new just waiting to be discovered. The aim of our project is to explore “Kant in all his glory”. Dr Gabriel Rivero, Daniel Stader and I are working on different sub-projects that revolve around the concepts of maturity and immaturity. We’re particularly interested in the historical context of Kant’s philosophy and the standalone philosophical content of his ideas. We’re also analysing the critical reception of his Enlightenment philosophy. We want to see whether the commentaries on Kant’s work, such as those written in the 20th century by Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault, stand up to critical scrutiny themselves. Besides, there’s hardly a more suitable place for such a study than Halle.

How come?   
Kant attended the Collegium Fridericianum, a Pietist secondary school in Königsberg that was moulded in the image of the Francke school in Halle. Numerous teachers and professors at the University of Königsberg were educated in Halle. Kant would go on to hold lectures based on textbooks written by professors from Halle and would critique their work, including Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Georg Friedrich Meier, Johann August Eberhard, Wenceslaus Johann Gustav Karsten and, of course, Christian Wolff.

What role does Wolff play in Kant’s philosophy?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Kant had become acquainted with Wolff’s philosophy during his school-days. He valued him as a profound thinker but always distanced himself from Wolff’s understanding of reason, metaphysics and ethics. Wolff believed we should value our understanding above all else.

That doesn’t sound too unreasonable.
Kant wouldn’t completely disagree with Wolff on that point. However, his concept of reason is much more complex and refined than the one proposed by Wolff. Kant argues that some questions cannot be answered with human understanding alone but are nonetheless existential, such as the essence of being human. From a purely rational point of view, we would be happy enough if we remained toddlers all our lives and never stopped playing with marbles. However, Wolff doesn’t make a distinction between reason and understanding, between a concept and a conception, or between the constitutive and regulative use of reason. According to Kant, he failed to understand freedom and duty. Above all, Wolff lacks the idea of critique. The idea that reason has to sit judgement on itself to recognise the limits and limitations of its own use would have been an absurd thought for Wolff, who was a thoroughbred rationalist. If we suppress this internal conflict, which Kant believes is necessary, we remain immature.

So, there’s no enlightenment without human maturity?
That’s right. Kant counters the concept of truth from early modern rationalism with a concept of reason which, according to his own self-criticism, can be a source of certainty and truth but also leads a precarious existence. After all, people are more than reason – and the world in which they live is often inconsiderate towards their intentions. If we don’t have “sound reason” and are unable to think and act appropriately, we’ll fail in the world. We’ll lose ourselves, our understanding, our freedom, our rights, our hope and our sense of the beautiful and sublime.

Is that one of the findings of your project work?
Kant’s concept of maturity is a familiar and fundamental element of his enlightenment theory. But one thing we’ve learned over the course of our work is the fact that this concept of maturity is located at the heart of his philosophy as a whole. Kant doesn’t reduce human faculties to the knowledge at our disposal and our understanding of it. He focuses more on a form of self-knowledge which is a prerequisite for freedom and autonomy and which must be upheld as a faculty through our own thoughts and deeds in the world. In other words, we can only successively overcome our immaturity if we aim to remain rational subjects by using our ability to reason.

With concepts such as self-knowledge and autonomy, much of Kant’s work seems to revolve around oneself.
This is another key finding of our project: The “real human self” aims to mature and preserve its sense of reason. Kant also speaks of independence, self-determination, self-governance, self-control, self-esteem, self-legislation, self-care, common sense and one’s own will. Kant sees the self-preservation of reason and freedom as the answer to authority, coercion and censorship, as well as superstition, idolisation, delusion and prejudice. According to Kant, those who think independently do not imitate foreign reason or blindly submit to authority. Rational people only acknowledge things that could be a product of their own reason.

Does Kant call on all members of society to exercise self-governance and liberate themselves from their immaturity?
In the modern world, it may seem rather strange that Kant identifies gender as the basis for differences in maturity, arguing that certain knowledge and bourgeois business is “completely outside the sphere of women”. According to Kant, members of the “fair sex” are not willing or allowed to use their own reason in such matters and have to submit to foreign reason, namely that of a man. Confident, intelligent and powerful women seemed to be a remarkable exception in Kant’s day – although he lived under two Russian tsarinas between 1758 and 1762. However, Kant was also outspokenly critical of men who claimed to be the “guardians” of the “entire fair sex” and wanted to keep women immature.

Could Kant’s theses and his view of the world and people – apart from his portrayal of women – enrich the way we live together as a society today?
I think there’s a whole range of views that are still relevant to this day. Kant sees enlightenment as an attitude that aims to bring about maturity and humanity. The opposite extremes to maturity are heteronomy, guardianship and lawless authority. Kant taught us that we can’t remain rational beings without a struggle for knowledge and freedom. Those who preserve themselves can also preserve and bring about their ability to communicate and find their place in the world. One example of this is the exchange of different opinions, such as in the fields of science and research. Kant coined the term “dinner party”: a gathering of scholars that “begins with storytelling and ends in laughter” and, perhaps with good food and the odd glass of wine, encourages the free exchange of views between people and allows them to explore new perspectives. Kant doesn’t see enlightenment as a fixed state, but as a never-ending process. It would give him great pleasure to see us keep this process alive. The success of our enlightenment largely depends on us.


The project entitled “Kant’s concept of (im)maturity in a historical and systematic perspective” was launched by the Philosophy Department at the University of Halle in 2018. It will run for a total of 54 months until 2022. It is being funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). The work carried out by the three project members not only includes publications, but also lectures in a range of countries such as Argentina, Brazil, China, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Germany. Heiner Klemme’s book entitled “Self-Preservation: Kant’s Apologia of Modern Reason” will be published by Reclam next year in Stuttgart.

Professor Heiner Klemme
Department for Anthropology and Philosophy
Telephone +49 345 55-24390




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