Kant, Immanuel

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Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804): German Philosopher.

Immanuel Kant was the foremost philosopher of the Enlightenment in Germany. He was born to a devoutly Pietist and relatively poor family in the city of Konigsberg in East Prussia, now known as Kaliningrad. As a youth, he was raised with a Pietist emphasis on faith expressed through ethical practice and inner devotion, as opposed to theological dogma and church ritual, an upbringing that profoundly influenced his mature philosophical position.

Kant studied philosophy at the University of Konigsberg, where he was instructed in the rationalist metaphysics of Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz and Christian Wolff that dominated German philosophy at that time. After graduation, Kant become a private tutor to several aristocratic families and later a lecturer at the University, teaching courses in metaphysics, logic, ethics, mathematics, and the natural sciences.

Kant began a productive scholarly career in 1747, and his early writings spanned a broad range of topics, including strictly scientific ones. In 1755, he published his General Natural History and Theory of the Heavens in which he propounded a nebular theory of the origin of the solar system based on the forces of attraction and repulsion, which has since become known as the Kant-Laplace (Laplace, Pierre Simon de) Theory. His other famous works from this period include the Observations on the Sublime and the Beautiful (1764) and Dreams of a Spirit Seer (1766), the latter being a criticism of the mystic Swedenborg, Emanuel.

In 1770, Kant was appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Konigsberg. As was customary upon such an occasion, he delivered an extended piece, which has come to be known as his Inaugural Dissertation. In that work, Kant sought to reconcile the mathematical philosophy of Isaac Newton with the metaphysical philosophy of Leibniz by arguing that the empirical truths of physics applied to the sensible world of appearance whereas the rational truths of metaphysics applied to the intelligible world of reality. Shortly thereafter, Kant was provoked by the skeptical arguments of Hume, David to reconsider this solution by questioning whether one can have a priori knowledge of the independently real. This was followed by a decade of intense philosophical reflection without significant publishing activity.

In 1781, Kant published his seminal work the Critique of Pure Reason, which was followed by a revised second edition in 1787. In this work, the first of his three great Critiques, Kant initiated what he termed a “Copernican Revolution” by synthesizing the Continental Rationalist and British Empiricist traditions in philosophy. Kant reformulated the central issue of modern epistemology by asking whether there are any synthetic truths known a priori. In doing so, Kant provided a technical vocabulary that is still standard within the field.

For Kant, “critique” was reason’s own self-examination that sought to discover the basis and limits of its knowledge. This critique led Kant to reject the solution of the Inaugural Dissertation, while still distinguishing between appearance and reality. Basing his theory on a distinction between noumena (things as they are in themselves) and phenomena (things as they appear to us), Kant argued that the mind knows a priori certain truths about the world because the mind is active in constructing that world. In short, the world we experience depends for its structure on the synthesizing activity of the mind according to fundamental categories, without which consciousness would not be possible.

By arguing in this fashion, Kant limited human knowledge to the range of possible experience and denied that we can have any knowledge of things as they are in themselves entirely independent of us. Since traditional metaphysical claims about the immortality of the soul, the existence of God, and the freedom of the will exceed the bounds of possible experience, we cannot claim knowledge of such matters, though it is still open to us to believe as a matter of faith.

The publication of the Critique of Pure Reason initiated what is known as the “critical” period of Kant’s philosophy. Over the ensuing two decades, Kant produced a truly remarkable output of writings in which he made significant contributions in every major field of philosophy. His Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783) popularized the doctrines of the first Critique, and in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786), he applied those doctrines to the empirical concept of matter, defined in terms of attraction and repulsion.

In his writings on ethics, the most important of which were the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Kant extended the Copernican revolution by arguing that morality is grounded on reason, rather than on an independent standard of the good. In his famous Categorical Imperative, he formulated and defended an analysis of the fundamental moral principle as the consistent willing of universal law. On the basis of this, he maintained the dignity of all persons to be treated as ends, rather than as mere means, and elaborated a conception of autonomy as the self-legislative capacity of reason.

In matters Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793) and other writings on religious belief, Kant argued for a rational faith based on the moral law, as opposed to doctrines based on claims of theoretical knowledge or divine revelation. He defended the immortality of the soul and the existence of God as postulates of practical reason, belief in which is required for our efforts to achieve the summum bonum, or highest good. After the death of Frederick II, the Great, Kant ran into difficulties with Prussian authorities over his writings on religion and was forced to cease publishing his views from 1794-1797. He returned to this topic in his last published work The Conflict of the Faculties (1798), where he argued for the academic freedom of the Philosophy Faculty and the intellectual authority of rational argumentation.

In the Critique of Judgment (1790), his third Critique, Kant developed an aesthetics that emphasized the formal arrangement of materials in the work of art and its inherent fitness for apprehension. In a beautiful work of art, one perceives purposiveness without a purpose, a design that serves no useful function. Accordingly, this perception stimulates the harmonious free play of the imagination and understanding.

Finally, Kant produced a substantial body of writings on history and politics. Beginning in 1784 with his Idea of a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View and extending through a series of short essays, Kant developed a teleological conception of history as the progressive, though unwitting, development of human reason in the species as a whole. Deeply influenced by Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Kant produced the last great statement of classical social contract theory in the first part of the Metaphysics of Morals and other shorter pieces. In these works, he defended republicanism and sought to reconcile the moral autonomy of the individual with the political authority of state on the basis of the practical necessity of property. As a committed republican and advocate of the rights and dignity of all persons, Kant defended the French Revolution, which he saw as evidence of the moral progress of the humanity. Finally, in his essay Perpetual Peace (1795), Kant proposed the establishment of a federation of states to secure peace among nations, thereby inspiring such efforts in the twentieth century.

In philosophy, Kant’s work laid the basis for the subsequent development of the Idealism of Fichte, Johann Gotlieb, Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Beyond philosophy, his influence extended to such literary figures as Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von and Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.

Further Reading:

Paul Guyer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Kant, 1992.

Ottfried Höffe, Immanuel Kant, 1994.

Stephan Körner, Kant, 1982.

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University

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