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Immanuel Kant

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edit index Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant


Immanuel Kant (22 Apr 1724 - 12 Feb 1804) was a Prussian (German) philosopher, generally regarded as the most major figure in Modern Philosophy, put alongside Plato and Aristotle from Ancient Philosophy. This makes Kant one of history's most influential thinkers. Known for his highly articulated "Transcendental Idealism", Kant's theory of Epistemology states that Reason applies "innate" Forms and Concepts to our Experience, inputs from the world coming through our Senses. Thus, the world would be unknowable without either experience or concepts, each working to project knowledge gained into future possible experiences. This is Kant's "Copernican Revolution", proposing that instead of concepts conforming to our experiences, it is our experiences which conform to our concepts. We experience the world in the way we are built to experience it. Kant's groundbreaking philosophy of Nature and Humanity literally dominates much of the subsequent inquiries which followed, from Metaphysics to Science to Ethics, where Kant is known for proposing the "Categorical Imperative". He defined moral, ethical actions as those which can only be seen as universally acceptable, as those which promote Humanity. Kant also proposed the first modern theory of the how the Solar System formed, which became the the Kant-Laplace Hypothesis.

Life and Works

While Kant is reported to have lived all his life never leaving the vicinity of Königsberg in East Prussia (since 1945, the city has been Kaliningrad, port and administrative city of Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian State between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea). Kant spent much of his youth as a solid, better than average student, and lived off winnings at billiards as much as his writings. He had a conviction that a young man did not find a firm direction in life until the age of 39, and when Kant reached 39 as a student of Metaphysics in the Prussian University, a brief mid-life crisis ensued. To this episode we may credit for Kant's later work.

Eventually a respected and competent university professor throughout his remaining years, Kant's writings published before his late 50s would have gained him little notoriety. He was a creature of habit, and the walks he took at 3:30pm every single afternoon were so punctual, so regular, that it was said the local wives and housekeepers checked and set their clocks upon his passing by. Kant was also a very sociable person, and regularly had dinner parties when he entertained varied guests, insisting agreeable sociable company was good for his constitution.

In 1770, Kant was 46, and read work of the Scottish philosopher, David Hume. Hume was a fierce proponent of Empiricism who scorned all Metaphysics, systematically debunking the accepted thinking on the subject at the time as based upon mere habit and custom. Hume's famous thesis was that nothing in our experience can justify our assumption of "causal powers" inhering within things. For example, we assume as one billiard ball strikes another on a pool table, the second one simply must move. Because it has always happened this way, we tend to assume through custom and habit things will happen the same way every time. Yet, we have no rational grounds for so believing.

Kant was profoundly troubled by Hume's conclusion, which Kant reported had "woke him from his dogmatic slumber." At the same time, Kant found Hume's argument irrefutable and his conclusion unacceptable. For ten years, Kant did not publish any writings, and worked quietly and diligently on a grand new theory of Metaphysics. By 1781, he released the first edition of his massive, dense, and groundbreaking "Critique of Pure Reason," arguably the most significant single book in all of Modern Philosophy.

In this first Critique, Kant developed the transcendental argument, showing that, although we cannot know the necessary truths about the world, as it is in itself, we are nonetheless constrained into perceiving and thinking about that world in certain pre-configured ways. We can know with any certainty how a great number of things about the world as it appears to us really are in themselves. For example, every effect is connected with its causes, such that the resulting appearances within Space and Time will always obey the laws of Geometry and Arithmetic, but this does not imply what is truly beneath those appearances.

Over the following two decades until his death, Kant's literary output was unceasing, and continually groundbreaking. His edifice of Critical Philosophy continued with the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, then the Critique of Pure Practical Reason, and then the Critique of Judgement. Kant's works on the "practical" Reason argued for a cosmopolitan morality, in the same way the first Critique had dealt with relative knowledge. The Critique of Judgement dealt with the essence of the Sublime, and the aesthetic use of our mental powers which neither confer factual knowledge, nor determine us to particular action. Aesthetic judgement of the beautiful and sublime, and teleological judgement which construes things as having a purpose, is a crucial component of the full Kantian Philosophy, already established in the Critique of Pure Reason.

Shorter works, among them the Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics, Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, and the aforementioned Metaphysics of Morals, serve as excellent introductions to the Kantian critical system, where the dense epistemological material of the first Critique was put into application and more supple explanation. Aside from these, Kant wrote a number of popular essays on History, Politics, and the application of philosophy to life, including his influential essay, What is Enlightenment? At the time of his death, Kant worked on a series of ideas surrounding Mysticism, which were theoretically complete, but lacked a finished prose. The incomplete manuscript was published as Opus Postumum. Immanuel Kant died in 1804.

Kantian Philosophy

Though he adopted the idea of a Critical Philosophy, the primary purpose of which was to "critique" established ideas, or come to grips with the limitations of our mental capacities, Kant was also one of the greatest of "system builders", pursuing the idea of his critique through studies of Metaphysics, Ethics, Aesthetics and Teleology. One of his famous citations, that "...two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe...the starry heavens above and the moral law within..." (CPPR), sums up his efforts: Kant wanted to explain, in one systematic theory based in Transcendental Idealism, the support for realms of Morality and Judgement. Kant's most general aims were to establish a system by which individuality triumphed over collectives, and where morality was based upon each of us realizing that others are individuals just like ourselves, rather than objects to be used.

Kant was greatly inspired by Isaac Newton, whose theory of Physics and natural forces beyond our senses explains the movements of physical bodies. This gave Kant a basis upon which to build his Idealism. Kant was also influenced by many other philosophers, including, but not limited to Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Descartes, Christian Woolf, Liebniz, Locke, Berkeley, and as detailed above, Hume. Kant's interest in Science also led him to propose in 1755 that the Solar System was created out of a gas cloud in which objects condensed due to Gravity. This hypothesis is widely regarded as the first modern theory of stellar formation, and is in fact the ancestor to the current science.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

Kant's most widely read, studied, argued over, and most influential book is the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), which proceeds from a remarkably simple thought experiment. Let's try and imagine something which could exist outside Time and which has no Extent within Space. Try as we might, we cannot produce such an idea, and we must concede that Space and Time are just fundamental forms of our Perception, forms which exist as innate structures of the Mind. Nothing can really be perceived except through these forms, and as such, the limits of Physics are really only the limits of the fundamental structure of the Mind.

Like the "innate ideas" of Descartes, this a priori (before experience) knowledge of things is within Space and Time. Since the Mind must likely possess further Categories through which to order, arrange and understand the jumbled mass of raw, uninterpreted sensory experience presenting itself to our Consciousness, Kant thus married the concepts of "Rationalism" and "Empiricism", or more accurately, Descartes' "innate ideas", Locke's "blank slate", Berkeley's "material idealism" and Hume's "custom and habit", among other ideas. Any remaining notion of "objective reality" Kant described as part of the noumenal world, one made up of noumena, or appearances, wholly unknowable through the arena of Perception.

Everything we perceive, therefore, is a series of appearances filtered through Forms, Space and Time, ordered and arranged through Categories, and thus, we can never "know" the real world as it really is. We can never develop true knowledge about things-in-themselves, such as trees or books, or even, Kant argued, larger concepts like "Self", "World" or "God". Kant had thus discovered the "scandal of philosophy", whereby we cannot decide on the proper terms for a metaphysical system until we have defined what the field of perception can present to us, but one cannot define the field of perception until first defining the limits of Physics, and thus having already decided the proper terms for a metaphysical system. In his works, Kant frequently and cheerfully exposes such traditional conundrums.

Ethics and Humanity

Kant developed his Ethics in three principal works, the basis of which was already present in the first Critque, but which was more fully explained in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), Critique of Pure Practical Reason (1788), and Metaphysics of Morals (1798). Probably best known for the general moral obligation, the "Categorical Imperative", Kant explained that in all moral obligations to each other we would have an unconditional obligation. This would remain, regardless of our will or desires to fulfill or avoid it.

Our moral duties to each other are derived from this imperative, which Kant formulated in three ways:
  • Formula of Universal Law: Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.
  • Formula of Humanity: Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.
  • Formula of Autonomy: Act that we may think of ourselves as legislating universal laws through our maxims. We may think of ourselves as such autonomous legislators only insofar as we follow our own laws.


For example, if we wish to steal, and we can will it so that everyone should steal as normal behaviour, then stealing becomes a moral obligation for us all. If someone steals a book from you, they are treating you merely as a means to get that book, while if they had asked to be given your book, they would be respecting your humanity and ability for rational thought. Lastly, these relate to universal duties, which hold despite our subjective or hypothetical imperatives, and to fulfill them, our inclinations toward happiness becomes "deontological", or moral by virtue of our inner nature. Kant is the most important source of "Deontological Ethics", a theory of conduct, or theory of obligation, and what is remarkable for Kant's time, is that he clearly limited the types of our daily actions which should be considered in such moral terms. Put simply, murder is an action to be considered in moral terms, while wearing dark clothes is not.

Aesthetics and Teleology

Kant's moral theory leads directly into his theory of Aesthetics and Teleology, allowing for the full expression of subjectivity. His theories on these topics can found in many of his works, but principally in the Critique of Judgement, where the Kantian Philosophy was completed. Because our reason is constrained as to what it can perceive and what a priori concepts it can bring to bear on that perception, and because our moral law is limited to those actions which can be sanctioned for all, Kant's "Theory of the Beautiful and the Sublime" opened up a whole new path of expression for Reason.

The Sublime is that awe we feel when looking up at a densely starry sky, or when surveying a vastly wide open beach or mountain range. Kant had this firmly in mind in describing how the Sublime dominates Reason. Without this component, the Critical Philosophy would not have been complete, and even in the first Critique, as Kant argued, within the solution to the Antinomies, supporting Human Freedom was the absolute key to his entire transcendental project. It is Human Freedom which allows for Aesthetic Beauty, not to mention awe of the Sublime. Without Freedom, we could never feel such emotions, because such emotions and properties are not present in the things-themselves - they're in us.

Teleology is the study of and construction of the causes of things, and ultimately, the supreme cause of all things. Reasoning about that Supreme Cause, which some call the Creator, or God, or Allah, or many other names, gives us the same awe as that starry sky, in Kant's view. Such was the basis for the quote above in the section, Kantian Philosophy, that nothing so filled Kant with awe as the starry heaven above and the moral law within. However, few could argue that Kant's Philosophy was religious or God-fearing. In fact, Kant was possibly the first major Atheist, in that he was very careful to argue about how God was an appearance to us, like all others, but that a Supreme Cause formed for us a "necessary illusion".

Further Reading

Works by Kant

  • (1746) Thoughts on the True Estimation of Vital Forces (Gedanken von der wahren Schätzung der lebendigen Kräfte)
  • (1755) A New Explanation of the First Principles of Metaphysical Knowledge (Neue Erhellung der ersten Grundsätze metaphysischer Erkenntnisse; Doctoral Thesis: Principiorum primorum cognitionis metaphysicae nova dilucidatio)
  • (1755) Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven (Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels)
  • (1756) Monadologia Physica
  • (1762) The False Subtlety of the Four Syllogistic Figures (Die falsche Spitzfindigkeit der vier syllogistischen Figuren)
  • (1763) The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God (Der einzig mögliche Beweisgrund zu einer Demonstration des Daseins Gottes)
  • (1763) Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy (Versuch den Begriff der negativen Größen in die Weltweisheit einzuführen)
  • (1764) Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen)
  • (1764) Essay on the Illness of the Head (Über die Krankheit des Kopfes)
  • (1764) Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality (the Prize Essay) (Untersuchungen über die Deutlichkeit der Grundsätze der natürlichen Theologie und der Moral)
  • (1766) Dreams of a Spirit Seer (On Emmanuel Swedenborg) (Träume eines Geistersehers)
  • (1770) Inaugural Dissertation (De mundi sensibilis atque intelligibilis forma et principiis)
  • (1775) On the Different Races of Man (Über die verschiedenen Rassen der Menschen)
  • (1781) First edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft)
  • (1783) "Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics" (Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik)
  • (1784) "An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?" (Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?)
  • (1784) "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose" (Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht)
  • (1785) Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten)
  • (1786) Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft)
  • (1787) Second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft)
  • (1788) Critique of Practical Reason (Kritik der praktischen Vernunft)
  • (1790) Critique of Judgement (Kritik der Urteilskraft)
  • (1790) The Science of Right
  • (1793) Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft)
  • (1795) Perpetual Peace (Zum ewigen Frieden)
  • (1797) Metaphysics of Morals (Metaphysik der Sitten)
  • (1798) Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht)
  • (1798) The Contest of Faculties (Der Streit der Fakultäten)
  • (1800) Logic (Logik)
  • (1803) On Pedagogy (Über Pädagogik)
  • (1804) Opus Postumum


Kant in German

(More at Project Gutenberg)

Kant in English Translation



Further Links

Note: The range and amount of study on Kant is far too vast to fully list here...




Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article "Immanuel_Kant" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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