JUSTDOLIT: a single tool to analyse all texts

Individuality Deferred II: Kant and Orwell

Immanuel Kant’s “Was ist Aufklärung?” (What is Enlightenment?) is one of the most important documents about freedom. Initially Kant sees enlightenment as individualizing, as freeing the individual from the authority of society by making independent use of reason. In a seeming paradox, however, Kant defines the aim of freedom as “to make public use of one’s reason in all matters” (2003, my translation). In doing so he defines freedom in social terms, for it may be one’s reason that is communicated, but that reason is only really reasonable in so far that it can be understood by others (if not, it would not be rational), and secondly the use of reason is a “public”, social use. Individuality is thus, through the detour of freedom, first separated from (despotic, vertical) society, then joined to (a horizontal) society.

George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” (2007) provides the narrative equivalent to Kant’s philosophical statement. In this autobiographical text the narrator, a reluctant representative of British imperialism in India, has to decide between asserting his individuality and not killing an elephant gone wild and now tame again, or bowing to the naturalized will of the native population, which is baying for blood. Orwell’s individuality is described in terms of common sense; he knows an elephant is “a costly piece of machinery” and that “his attack of ‘must’ was already passing off”, and so “It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him”. This leads to the preliminary decision not to kill the animal, and this is not just Orwell’s decision, but also the reader’s, who has followed Orwell’s reasoning, and can only agree with him. In the end, however, Orwell does kill the elephant, pressed by the Burmese, and this prompts him to the following meditation:

when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy […] For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. (2007, my italics) 

Thus the loss of individuality in this text entails the loss of freedom, and both terms depend on enlightenment reason for their fulfillment. Moreover, this reason is on the one hand opposed to the naturalized will of the Burmese, and on the other hand connected to the social dimension of reality, as its aim in the text is to convince the reader about Orwell’s reasons. The reader and Orwell thus partake of the same common sense.
daniel.candel@uah.es ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann