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Open Use of Reason: Socrates and Kant



Kant is compared with Socrates because the two philosophers have much in common. Both thinkers were central figures in their time. Kant revolutionised the philosophy of the modern period dealing with questions of ethics and epistemology; Socrates brought about a similar revolution in ancient Greek philosophy. The image of Socrates continues to inspire modern scholars, the main features of this image being rationality and publicity. Socrates is seen as an arch-rationalist and the founder of science and philosophy as a whole. Besides, he practised philosophy publicly, being an antipode of another ancient Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, whose doctrines were secret. Coming together in the image of Socrates, publicity and rationality mutually condition each other. This again is a feature shared with Kant who put forward the concept of the public and private use of reason. Today, the term “publicity” should be replaced by the more accurate term “openness.” Like publicity, openness implies accessibility of knowledge to the largest possible number of people. However, openness is a broader concept: it makes it possible both to explain the interconnection between the freedom of reason and its publicity advocated by Kant and to draw a demarcation line between Socrates and the Sophists who were also public intellectuals. Whereas the Sophists sought personal gain and popularity, Socrates viewed the practice of philosophy as a form of self-sacrifice for the good of society; this led the Sophists to relativism and Socrates to the discovery of rational thinking. The conclusion is that openness, interpreted as accessibility of knowledge and the possibility of its development, constitutes the key component of rationality.


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