April 22, 1724-February 12, 1804
Birth Date: April 22, 1724
Death Date: February 12, 1804
Genre(s): PHILOSOPHY; CRITICISM; FICTION
Table of Contents:
Biographical and Critical Essay
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
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Widely considered the foremost philosopher since classical antiquity, Immanuel Kant effected a revolution in philosophy. His influence on the development of science, theology, and philosophy is virtually incalculable. He offered solutions to problems that have always had the utmost relevance for the thinker: What are morality and duty? What are truth, beauty, and justice? What can and cannot be known? He clarified the difference between knowledge and faith and established the limits of each; in so doing, he liberated science from religion and religion from science. Then he freed individual conscience from outside authority by placing morality in the disposition of the individual heart. In addressing these and other problems, he terminated the one-sided intellectualism of the eighteenth century. Virtually all thinkers since then who have seriously tackled the fundamental principles in science, theology, and philosophy have done so by starting with ideas first developed by Kant.
Kant was born on 22 April 1724 in Königsberg (today Kaliningrad, U.S.S.R.) as the fourth of nine children, of whom five--two younger sisters, an older sister, and a brother--survived infancy. His father, Johann Georg, had learned the craft of harness making from his father and grandfather. His mother, the former Anna Regina Reuter, the daughter of a saddler, was born in Nuremberg. The future philosopher grew up in a blue-collar district on the edge of town among workers, craftsmen, and shopkeepers whose values revolved about hard work and religious piety.
Fortunately for the young Kant the family pastor, Franz Albert Schultz, was struck by his precocity and convinced the family to send him to school at the Collegium Fredericianum, of which Schultz was the principal. There Kant spent eight years--six days a week from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon--studying Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, mathematics, and theology. After graduating second in his class, the sixteen-year-old Kant enrolled at the University of Königsberg, where his interest in philosophy and science was kindled by the talented professor Martin Knutzen. Kant spent seven years at the university but did not graduate, owing to financial hardship: his mother had died in 1737 and his father died in 1746. To support himself he had to drop out of school and serve as tutor to the children of well-to-do families in the vicinity of Königsberg. During these years he devoted his considerable free time to independent study and to writing a dissertation. In 1755 he returned to the university, successfully defended the dissertation, and was given the post of Privatdozent (adjunct assistant professor), a lowly position with little prestige and no salary except for student fees. In these early years he taught about twenty-eight hours a week on a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, pedagogy, mathematics, physics, anthropology, mineralogy, and his favorite, physical geography. After classes he enjoyed reading the newspapers over coffee. In the evening he played cards and billiards, often arriving home after midnight mildly intoxicated. Circumstances forced him to live frugally in a one-room apartment furnished only with a bed, table, and chair; except for a silhouette of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the walls were bare. To supplement his meager income he worked as assistant librarian in the royal castle.
Throughout the 1760s and 1770s he published books and essays on science, philosophy, morality, aesthetics, astronomy, logic, and metaphysics. He was popular with his students not only because his lectures were lively but also because of the many humorous remarks he interjected. Finally, in 1770 he was promoted to the chair of logic and metaphysics with a salary he could live on. As his reputation grew he received offers from other universities; some even promised to quadruple his salary. But in each case his refusal was categorical, imperative as it was for him to remain in the city of his birth: any change in his physical environment, including the arrangement of the furniture, made him uneasy. The following anecdote is typical. In the 1780s he developed the habit of gazing out the window at a distant church steeple as he worked or meditated. After a few years, trees growing in a neighbor's garden obscured the steeple. Kant began to fidget and become restless; he found that he was unable to work. The problem was resolved when the neighbor, who admired the famous man, readily agreed to trim the offending trees. Kant refused to travel. He never saw a mountain or the sea, although the Baltic was only an hour away.
The most important influences on the genesis of Kant's thought were religious, political, and scientific. He was raised in the Pietist tradition, a Protestant movement that emphasized simple piety, the acceptance of one's position of life, and indifference toward ritual and dogma. Politically, Kant was a man of the Enlightenment who spoke up for human rights, professed the equality of man, and advocated representative government. He was most profoundly influenced in these matters by the Swiss-French thinker and political theoretician Rousseau, who had raised profound questions on the social nature of morality and the problem of individual feeling. In science he studied the works of Sir Isaac Newton, which served as the basis for his lectures in physics and natural philosophy. In 1755 he published his famous vortex theory, which explains the origin of the universe from a rotating nebula. Today this theory is known as the Kant-Laplace hypothesis because in 1796 the French astronomer Pierre-Simon de Laplace published a similar, more-developed model.
Kant's greatest contributions, however, are not in pure science; he was interested in the logic of science, the limits of scientific knowledge, and the relationship of science to morality and religion. Kant opposed all purely abstract speculation. Any philosophy, he said, is suspect if it cannot show how the human mind can have the sort of knowledge that it actually does have. For this reason he was convinced that the major philosophical systems of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries--rationalism and empiricism--were fundamentally flawed. The rationalists René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz claimed that certain knowledge can be had only through pure reason--a priori-not through experience. The empiricists John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume insisted that all knowledge derives from and is bound by experience. When Kant began to develop his philosophical system, philosophy was polarized around this issue. He was convinced that neither view adequately explains scientific knowledge, which has both a priori and experiential components. In their place he offered his own "kritische Philosophie," which is contained in three monumental "Kritiken" (critiques). For eleven years he collected material and worked out his ideas in every detail; then he wrote out the first of these works, Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; translated as Critique of Pure Reason, 1855), in a few months. Such haste explains in large part the difficult and forbidding nature of the book's literary style, as Kant himself later admitted. In 1783 he published the shorter, more carefully composed Prologemena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik (translated as Prologemena to Every Future Metaphysic, 1819), in which he explains the chief ideas of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft in clear terms. The book also serves as a good introduction to his philosophy in general.
In the Kritik der reinen Vernunft Kant argues at length why both rationalism and empiricism are partly right and partly wrong. The rationalists were correct in insisting that reason plays a fundamental role in knowledge, because reason gives form to experience. But they were wrong to exclude sensation, for without it the understanding is devoid of content. The empiricists were right in claiming that knowledge is limited to what can be experienced; but they were wrong to exclude reason, because it is the rational faculty that synthesizes and gives meaning to the material presented to it by the senses. Kant's great contribution to philosophy was to reconcile these views to virtually everyone's satisfaction. Knowledge, he says, is the product of sense and reason: without experience, or sensation, no object can be presented to the mind; without reason, nothing can be thought about. Sensation and understanding operate jointly to combine information and synthesize data into meaningful patterns.
In Kant's scheme the world consists strictly of appearances. That which causes these phenomena, "das Ding an sich" (the thing-in-itself or noumenon), lies beyond the bounds of perception and so is unknowable and incomprehensible. Nor can we arrive at certain knowledge of "das Ding an sich" through reason alone, because the attempt to go beyond the limits of experience leads to insoluable "antinomies," or contradictions, such as the demonstration that time and space are both finite and infinite. The only thing that can be known with certainty is the phenomenal world, the world as we perceive and understand it. Kant's revolutionary insight is that the world conforms to our minds, to our knowing process, not our minds to the world. We cannot know the world unless it is subjected to our patterns of knowing. If any aspect of the world does not restrict itself to our human sensory and intellectual apparatus, it has no existence for us. Metaphysics, therefore, is impossible. Among other things, this anthropocentric explanation makes human beings, rather than divine revelation, the source of the meaning of the world.
When the volume appeared in 1781 it caused an upheaval in the world of philosophy. It was attacked from all sides. The most embittered reaction came from the powerful Wolffian school of philosophy, founded at Halle by the rationalist Christian Wolff, whose entire system of thought Kant had just demolished; enraged, the Wolffians launched two journals whose sole purpose was to refute Kant. The empiricists also flooded the philosophical journals with rebuttals; meanwhile, the popular philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was vainly trying to rescue the traditional philosophical proofs for the existence of God from Kant's criticism of such attempts to go beyond the limits of experience. A Kant fever swept through the German universities. At Jena in 1786 two students fought a duel over the philosopher. In some university towns the authorities became uneasy; in Marburg the local count pronounced Kantian philosophy subversive and forbade its teaching. Nevertheless, in a few years Kant's victory was complete, owing in no small part to the efforts of Johann Schultze and K. L. Reinhold, who recast the ideas of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft in simple, straightforward language and spread them throughout the European intellectual community.
Years of living frugally, increases in his salary, and honoraria for his publications enabled Kant in 1783 to buy a house on Prinzessinstrae and to hire a cook. (A few years previous he had employed as his footman Martin Lampe, a retired Prussian soldier remembered for his dullness). At this time Kant reorganized his daily routine, which changed little for the rest of his life. He subjected himself to the severest regimen to maintain his health, for he was a small, frail man with a delicate constitution. He arose punctually at five o'clock and drank a few cups of tea while he thought about the day's lectures. At seven he went downstairs to the room reserved as his classroom and taught until nine. Then he wrote until lunch, which always began precisely at one o'clock. He looked forward to this meal with keen anticipation, not only because it was the only one he permitted himself but because it was a social event. Since he thought conversation aided digestion, and he was gregarious by nature, there were always from three to nine guests--never fewer than the graces, never more than the muses, he explained. As he did not like to talk shop in his free time, he selected the guests from a variety of occupations--politicians, doctors, lawyers, officers, merchants, students, colleagues, or anyone who happened to be passing through town and wanted to see him. The food was plentiful, the wine flowed freely, the atmosphere was casual, the conversation was stimulating. Women were not invited. This exclusion, coupled with his lifelong bachelorhood, led to speculation that he disliked women. This notion is incorrect. He often said about himself that when he needed a wife he was too poor to feed one, and when he was at last able to feed one he did not need one anymore.
After lunch came the famous walk, which he took every day regardless of the weather. It lasted precisely one hour, and the route rarely varied. He always walked alone, convinced that breathing through the mouth, which conversation necessitates, was unhealthy. This ritual was not without problems during the summer, for perspiration disgusted him; at the slightest indication he would seek out a shady spot and stand perfectly still until he was dry again. He spent the evening reading or writing. At precisely ten o'clock he went to bed. Unlike the rest of the house, the bedroom was never heated, even during frigid weather. The window was never opened, and he refused to keep a candle in the room; if he had to get up during the night he felt his way along a rope running from the bed to the door. When he was ready to fall asleep he always pronounced the name "Cicero" a few times.
Toward the end of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft Kant says that his entire philosophical system revolves around three questions. Their profundity is exceeded only by their simplicity: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope for? The first question was explored in the first critique. The second and third are subjects of Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788; translated as Critique of Practical Reason, 1956), and the third is taken up again in Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790; translated as Critique of Judgement, 1892). In answering the question of what ought to be, he says that instead of our actions conforming to the facts--the situations in which we find ourselves or the inclinations we happen to have--they should conform to our principles. These principles are derived from reason. A true moral act, he says, depends on the motive of the action, not on the outcome. The only motive that is good in itself, without qualification, is the good will: that is, the desire to act according to duty. Duty is discovered by reason and is the same for everyone at all places and at all times. He formulates the moral law in his famous categorical imperative: "Handle, so da die Maxime deines Willens jederzeit zugleich als Prinzip einer allgemeinen Gesetzgebung gelten könnte" (Act in such a way that the principle of your will could at any time also become the principle of a universal law). In other words, if an action could not be made universal without contradicting itself, that action is immoral.
Kant illustrates this principle with the example of the false promise. To get himself out of a financial difficulty, a person proposes to borrow some money. He knows that he will never be able to pay the money back, but he also knows that he will not receive the loan unless he promises to repay the lender. Should he, then, falsely promise to pay the money back? A moment's reflection shows that if such an action were made universal--if everyone made false promises-the institution of promising would go out of existence, because no one would accept a promise anymore. Thus the false promise would, if made universal, negate or contradict itself; and self-contradiction is the epitome of irrationality. Immorality, then, is equivalent to irrationality. From this first formulation of the categorical imperative Kant derives a second: we should treat all human beings--including ourselves--as ends in themselves, never merely as means. From the categorical imperative follows the moral condemnation of slavery and war, and the demand for equality and representative government. Kant also says that the moral will must be autonomous-that is, no behavior can be moral unless it is the result of free choice. If a person is induced or compelled to act in accordance with duty--such as through the promise of reward or punishment--he is not acting through a sense of self-legislation. When we act for purposes outside ourselves, we are not free. Only when the will operates in harmony with universal principles that it has created for itself is it self-ruling. Morality makes no sense unless we are free; thus, even though as phenomena we are part of nature and therefore subject to universal physical causation, we are entitled to believe that as 'Dinge an sich we are free.
Kant argues that we do not need religion to act morally; the categorical imperative is enough. Whatever is done merely to please God is false virtue. Yet we need the idea of God to make the concept of moral perfection thinkable. Also, our moral sense demands that virtue and happiness be conjoined, but we see that this conjunction rarely occurs in this life; thus our moral sense demands that there be a life to come and a God to effect the conjunction of virtue and happiness in that life. Finally, the moral person strives to bring his desires into perfect harmony with his duty; but this is a process that can only be accomplished in an infinite amount of time. Thus, again, morality makes no sense unless there is immortality. Hence, morality leads to religion in that it is the moral law which justifies belief in God and immortality. In the Kritik der reinen Vernunft Kant had demonstrated that we can have no certain knowledge of the immortality of the soul or proof of the existence of God, because these matters lie beyond experience. But the Kritik der praktischen Vernunft asserts that we have the right, even the duty, to have faith in a supreme being and a life to come if we intend to take morality seriously.
The last of the major works on which Kant's fame rests is Kritik der Urteilskraft. In the first part he discusses aesthetic judgment, in the second mechanistic and teleological judgment. When we call something--a painting or a sunset, for example--beautiful, it is because the object creates a pleasurable sensation, which derives from the harmonious interplay of the sensate and rational faculties. This condition can arise only if the object is devoid of purpose, transcending any notion of usefulness or gain on the part of the beholder. A sunset cannot be bought, sold, eaten, or traded in on a new model. Beauty is pure "Wohlgefallen ohne Interesse" (disinterested pleasure). Whereas beauty is based on harmony between the rational and the sensate, the sublime is based on their conflict. This conflict occurs when ethical principles collide with and defeat such deterministic forces as fear, inclination, or even self-preservation, as, for example, when we contemplate a violent storm or a raging sea. The victory over these forces evokes in the spectator the pleasurable awareness of the superiority of his reason and the dominion it has over the senses.
In the second part of the critique Kant distinguishes between two kinds of judgment, the mechanistic and the teleological. Man is both Ding an sich and phenomenon and so lives both in the world of freedom and in the world of determinism. Since man has the capacity to conceive of goals and direct his actions toward them, he is telic; but man is also part of nature and so is determined, subject to mechanistic forces beyond his control. These diametrically opposed facts can be reconciled through "zweckmäige Urteile" (purposive judgments). Science seeks to systematize its findings so as to reflect a unity and purpose in nature, as if it were designed by a creator; it is impossible to know if there really is a purpose in nature, but it is necessary to ascribe one to it if we are to make sense of it. Yet Kant rejects the notion that purpose is one of the categories by which we understand the world: teleological explanations are prescientific, typical of the Middle Ages (it rains so that the plants will grow). The notion of purposiveness in nature finds its most satisfying explanation in God, though this does not prove His existence. Kant regards man's need to see purpose in nature and to have faith in God as a moral one: if man can regard the world as a stage for his actions, then he is able to view both himself and the world as having been created for some higher purpose and therefore as meaningful. Only in this way can man feel at home in nature.
In the 1790s Kant felt secure enough to attack some ideas long cherished by the state and church. "Über den Gemeinspruch: Das mag in der Theorie richtig sein, taugt aber nicht für die Praxis" (1793; translated as "On the Popular Judgment: That May Be Right in Theory, But Does not Hold in the Praxis," 1798) is concerned with morality, right, and the condemnation of despotism. The state, he says, has no right to decide for its subjects what happiness is and how to pursue it; each person must decide these issues for himself. Even more provocative is "Das Ende aller Dinge" (1794; translated as "The End of All Things," 1798), a masterpiece of philosophical irony that pokes fun at such dogmas as the Last Judgment: to believe in this doctrine is to believe that all creation has been without purpose. Kant parodies the Garden of Eden myth, comparing Earth to a latrine where the offal from other worlds is sent. Such essays infuriated and frightened the authorities. Across the Rhine the French Revolution was raging. The French king had been guillotined, the Church was being destroyed, institutions heretofore thought timeless were being swept away. The Prussian authorities had every reason to fear that Kant and other popular German thinkers who had made no secret of their admiration for the French Revolution might ignite a similar situation in their own country. The problem for the government was how to silence the world-famous man without appearing ridiculous. After much hesitation it was decided that Kant would receive a secret letter from King Friedrich Wilhelm II threatening him with unpleasant consequences if he did not desist from ridiculing the Church. The philosopher felt it was his duty to obey the sovereign and promised not to publish any more about religion. But when the king died in 1797, Kant felt free to resume his criticism, since the promise had been made to Friedrich Wilhelm alone.
In 1796, at the age of seventy-two, Kant gave his last lectures. He continued to write and publish until 1800, when the disabilities of old age made work impossible. His hearing and sight began to fail. Judging from contemporary descriptions of his health, the philosopher was also suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He displayed the classic symptoms of the malady: short-term memory loss and the inability to recognize relatives and close friends. His health and mind deteriorated steadily until his death on 12 February 1804.
Contrary to Kant's wishes for a simple funeral, the entire city took part. He lay in state for sixteen days. Twenty-four students served as pallbearers; they were followed by thousands of citizens, including the entire officer corps of the garrison. At the cathedral the procession was received by the university senate. After the eulogy Kant was buried in the north wall of the cathedral.
The most prominent German philosophers of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries--Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich von Schelling, Georg W. F. Hegel, and Arthur Schopenhauer--all based their systems on Kant's philosophy but modified it considerably. In literature, Kant's most apparent influence is found in Friedrich von Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Heinrich von Kleist. Thanks to the efforts of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kant was widely recognized and studied in England and later in North America. In the middle of the nineteenth century interest in him decreased, only to rise even higher toward the end of the century when Neo-Kantian movements arose in Marburg and Heidelberg. Unlike the idealists Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, the Neo-Kantians strove to work only within the philosophical limits set by Kant and to use his system primarily as a means for elucidating Newtonian physics. In 1896 an international Kant society was established; its journal, Kant-Studien, is devoted to the study of his thought and influence.
During the first half of the twentieth century interest once again declined, owing to developments in logic instigated by Alfred North White-head and Bertrand Russell. The philosophy of science veered toward positivism, while the ethics of William James, G. E. Moore, and John Dewey were at odds with the moral theory of the German philosopher. After World War II interest in Kant increased once again. He is now studied with an intensity accorded few other philosophers.
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