In “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”, Immanuel Kant ascribes enlightenment the status of an individual, autonomous accomplishment that can only be realized through co-dependent and social means. Although superficially contradictory, I explicate how this relation is possible and why, within Kant's system, it in fact must be the case. To illustrate my thought, I find in Victor Hugo's nineteenth-century novel Les Misérables a case through which to observe and explain the distinctions Kant draws between the public and private uses of reason and their role in civic enlightenment.

The antagonist of Les Misérables, Inspector Javert, struggles to reconcile his compassion for the fugitive Jean Valjean with his professional duty to arrest him, a dilemma that ultimately drives him to suicide. His last act is to write an administrative missive entitled "A FEW OBSERVATIONS FOR THE GOOD OF THE SERVICE", after which he drowns himself in the Seine. By Kant's lights, Javert has failed to emerge from his own self-incurred minority (or, in other words, to become enlightened). Kant's special use of the term 'enlightenment' requires some explanation. "Minority" here, that from which we must emerge, is defined as the inability to apply one's reason without external guidance, in Javert's case from the legal code. Javert affirms this intellectual subjugation in the text, styling himself the law's "slave".

In itself, this 'slavery' does not thwart enlightenment; in fact, Kant believes the worker is obligated to enact his superiors' will insofar as he is officially their emissary, setting his own concerns aside. Priests necessarily promote church doctrine when addressing a congregation, for instance. Kant alludes to this privation of personal judgment by styling this the private use of reason. However extreme Javert's professional obedience, then, it alone does not preclude his enlightenment. The culprit is rather his inability to engage in the public use of reason, the state in which one brings one's own reason to bear on matters in a free public forum.

In the public use of reason, individuals are answerable to themselves, as opposed to any higher authority. While reasoning in this manner, one may dictate one's own ends and question established modes of thought without threat of censor or discipline. While 'off duty', a priest may question church doctrine in the capacity of a scholar. Although this use of reason operates within the public sphere, it is still an individual's use of reason and not that of the collective in toto. To return to our example, Javert qua Inspector is bound by a standard of obedience. To achieve enlightenment, he must acquire a second, civic persona through which to analyze the methodologies and ends he privately promotes. Only through this public use of reason could Javert have critically assessed his charge to arrest Valjean, a process by which he might have rectified or reconciled with his alienation from his private service. Deprived of this persona, however, he is unable to do this. Enlightenment, then, seems to rely on the freedom to address an idealized community that scrutinizes and responds to one's findings. In allowing the single self to articulate his singular will and see it acknowledged, this freedom – and the public use of reason in general – is integral to one's emergence from minority.

Javert's final "OBSERVATIONS" are paradigmatic examples of the public use of reason. The letter constitutes Javert's bureaucratic misgivings, formerly stifled by the incompatibility of reason's public use with his solely private existence. Its contents are mostly mundane1, belying Javert's larger reluctance to incarcerate a man to whom he owes his life. Writing "in his calmest and most correct chirography, not omitting a single comma", Javert seems also to approximate the idealized, unmuddied interpersonal communication Kant envisions in his account. As the social conditions of the novel are such that Javert cannot formally reconcile with Valjean's goodness, or even comfortably question higher authorities on these more minor points of policy, his path to enlightenment is obstructed, his solitary use of public reason permissible only in the shadow of his own death.

In this, Javert is proof positive of Kant's claim that "it is difficult for any single individual to extricate himself from the minority that has become almost nature to him". Although it is localized within the individual, few persons will attain enlightenment under current conditions, and those that hold within Hugo's novel. Individuals are, however, members of the public and the practicable enlightenment of the majority of society (instead of a small clique of privileged thinkers) becomes possible only when the public sphere neither precludes nor inhibits enlightenment, but acts to induce its realization.

These civic preconditions for enlightenment across a society of individuals characterize Kant's relation of selves to societies. Minority betokens not only the intellectual subjugation of individuals but also the social restriction of enlightenment. Minority is possible in individuals only by virtue of larger societal tendencies to privilege dogma over independent reason. It is, therefore, a social status quo that Kant argues must transform in order for individuals to transcend their subjugated state; his call for societal innovation does not contradict his interest in individual advancement, but is rather its prerequisite. Though enlightenment is intrapersonal in its genesis, its realization requires the fulfilment of certain interpersonal conditions, namely access to the public use of reason. Although Javert's rational development occurs internally, it is his experience as a public servant and a citizen that defines its nature and its limitations.

1For instance: "It is inexplicable," Javert writes, "why the special regulation of the prison of the Madelonettes interdicts the prisoner from having a chair".