Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Immanuel Kant
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant (April 22, 1724 - February 12, 1804) was a Prussian philosopher, generally regarded as the last major philosopher of the Enlightenment period, and having a major impact on the Romantic and Idealist philosophies of the 19th Century, and one of history's most influential thinkers.

Kant is most famous for his view—called transcendental idealism—that we bring innate forms and concepts to the raw experience of the world, which otherwise would be completely unknowable. Kant's philosophy of nature and human nature was both immediately controversial, and very durable in its influence. Kant provided both a summation of many of the currents of his own time, and a challenge for philosophy in the future to connect rational with empirical and moral philosophy.

Table of contents
1 Life
2 Kant's philosophy in general
3 Kant's metaphysics and epistemology
4 Kant's moral philosophy (Kantianism)
5 Further reading
6 German texts on the Internet
7 Works
8 References


Kant was born, lived and died in Königsberg (at the time a town in Prussia; today it is the Russian town of Kaliningrad). He spent much of his youth as a solid, albeit unspectacular, student living more off playing pool than his writings. He lived a very regulated life: the walk he took at three-thirty every afternoon was so punctual that local housewives would set their clocks by him. He never married and he owned only one piece of art in his household, advocating the absence of passion in favor of logic so that he may better serve. He never left Prussia, and rarely stepped outside his own home town. However, despite his reputation of being a solitary man, he was considered a very sociable person: he would regularly have guests over for dinner, insisting that sociable company was good for his constitution, as was laughter. Kant was a respected and competent university professor for most of his life, although he was in his late fifties before he did anything that would bring him historical repute.

He entered the local university in 1740, and studied the philosophy of Leibniz and Christian Wolff under Martin Knutsen, a follower of Wolff. He also studied the then new mathematics of Sir Isaac Newton. In 1746 he wrote a paper on measurement, reflecting Leibniz's influence. He, at the same time, absorbed pietism as a basic part of his make up. Different scholars hold different views on the importance of each of these aspects, for Paul Guyer, and many others, it is rationalism which is the most important element - in this view Kant is seen as a philosopher, like many others, trying to replace Wolffian rationalism with an empiricism drawn from Hume and others.

In 1755 he became a private lecturer at the University, and while there published "Inquiry into the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morals", where he examined the problem of having a logical system of philosophy that connected with the world of natural philosophy, a concern typical of The Enlightenment period, indeed, Kant left one of the most influential definitions of Aufklärung, or enlightenment, in philosophy. In 1763 he wrote The Only Possible Ground of Proof for a Demonstration of God's Existence, which questioned the Anslemic ontological argument for God: essentially, that the idea of the greatest of all possible ideas proves that the idea exists. Rene Descartes had used this argument in his philosophy, as had others after him.

Having questioned both the principle of contradiction - that the seeming opposite of a false idea must be true - and the ontological proof of God - Kant had attacked the fundamental tools of axiomic rational philosophy, but, as yet, he had nothing to replace them with.

He was of the rather curious conviction that a person did not have a firm direction in life until their thirty-ninth year; when this came and passed and he was just a minor metaphysician in a Prussian University a brief mid-life crisis ensued; perhaps it can be credited with some of his later direction. In 1770, he became a full professor, and began reading the works of David Hume. Hume was fiercely empirical, scorned all metaphysics, and systematically debunked great quantities of it. His most famous thesis is that nothing in our experience can justify our assuming that there are "causal powers" inherent in things—that, for example, when one billiard ball strikes another, how can we assume the second one "must" move. Of course, things have always happened this way, and through "custom and habit" we tend to assume they will continue to do so, even though we have no rational grounds for the assumption. He simultaneously found Hume's argument irrefutable and his conclusions unacceptable.

"It was this that roused me from my slumber", he would later write. For the next 10 years he worked on the architecture of his own philosophy, beginning with what he called "the scandal of reality", that there was no philosophical proof of the outside world. During this period he published nothing, and then, in 1781, he released the massive Critique of Pure Reason, one of the most widely argued over, widely cited - and widely influential works in Western Philosophy. He followed this with Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, and then in 1785 Critique of Practical Reason and in 1790, Critique of Judgement. The effect was immediate in the German speaking world, with readership including Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Wolfgang Goethe. But the attention was far from universally approving: on the contrary, almost every aspect of the works were attacked and criticized fiercely, particularly his ideas on categories, the place of free will and determinism and particularly on the knowledge of the outside world. His early critics included Johann Schaumann, Friedrich Hienrich Jacobi and Hermann Pistorius. Pistorius' criticisms were particularly influential and are still cited in contra-Kantian arguments.

The Critique of Practical Reason dealt with morality, or action, in the same way that the first Critique dealt with knowledge, and the Critique of Judgement dealt with the various uses of our mental powers that neither confer factual knowledge nor determine us to action, such as aesthetic judgment, for example of the beautiful and sublime, and teleological judgment , that is construing things as having "purposes".

As Kant understood them, aesthetic and teleological judgment connected our moral and empirical judgments to one another, unifying his system.

Two shorter works, the Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics and the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals treated the same matter as the first and second critiques respectively, in a more cursory form—assuming the answer and working backward, so to speak. They serve as his introductions to the critical system. The epistemological material of the first Critique was put into application in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science; the ethical dictums of the second were put into practice in Metaphysics of Morals.

Aside from this Kant wrote a number of semi-popular essays on history, politics, and the application of philosophy to life. When he died he was working on a projected "fourth critique", having come to the conviction that his system was incomplete; this incomplete manuscript has been published as Opus Postumum. Kant died in 1804.

Kant's philosophy in general

Though he adopted the idea of a critical philosophy, the primary purpose of which was to "critique" or come to grips with the limitations of our mental capacities, Kant was one of the greatest of system builders, pursuing the idea of the critique through studies of metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics.

One famous citation, "the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me", sums up his efforts: he wanted to explain in one systematic theory, those two areas or realms. Isaac Newton had developed a theory of physics that Kant wanted to build his philosophy upon. This theory involved the assumption of natural forces that humans cannot sense, but are used to explain movement of physical bodies.

His 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 solar system formation and is the ancestor to current theories of stellar formation.

Kant's metaphysics and epistemology

Kant's most widely read and most influential book is Critique of Pure Reason [1] (1781) - his attempt to work past what he saw as the unacceptable conclusions of David Hume.

Hume's conclusions, Kant realized, rested on the premise that knowledge is empirical at its root. The problem that Hume identified was that basic principles like cause and effect cannot be empirically derived. Kant's goal, then, was to find some way to derive cause and effect without relying on empirical knowledge. Kant rejects analytical methods for this, arguing that analytic reasoning can't tell you anything that isn't already self-evident. Instead, Kant argued that we would need to use synthetic reasoning. But this posed a new problem - how can one have synthetic knowledge that is not based on empirical observation - that is, how can we have synthetic a priori truths.

Kant did not have any trouble showing that we do have synthetic a priori truths. After all, he reasoned, geometry and Newtonian physics are synthetic a priori knowledges and are fundamentally true. The issue was showing how one could ground synthetic a priori knowledge for a study of metaphysics. This led to his most influential contribution to metaphysics - the abandonment of the quest to try to know the world in itself, instead acknowledging that there is no way to determine whether something is experienced the way it is because that's the way it is, or because the faculties we have with which to perceive and experience are constructed such that we experience it in a given way. He demonstrated this with a thought experiment, showing that we cannot meaningfully conceive of an object that exists outside of time and has no spatial components. Although we cannot conceive of such an object, Kant argues, there is no way of showing that such an object does not exist. Therefore, Kant says, metaphysics must not try to talk about what exists, but instead about what is perceived, and how it is perceived.

This insight allows Kant to set up a distinction between phenomena and noumena - phenomena being that which can be experienced, and noumena being things that are beyond the possibility of experience - things in themselves. Kant then discussed and expanded on the faculties of experience we have, and thus was able to come up with a system of metaphysics that applied to the world as we perceive it.

Kant termed his critical philosophy "transcendental idealism While the exact interpretation of this phrase is contentious, one way to start to understand it is through Kant's comparison in the second preface to the "Critique of Pure Reason" of his critical philosophy to Copernicus' revolution in astronomy. Kant writes: "Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge" [Bxvi]. Just as Copernicus revolutionized astronomy by changing the point of view, Kant's critical philosophy asks what the a priori conditions for our knowledge of objects in the world might be. Transcendental idealism describes this method of seeking the conditions of the possibility of our knowledge of the world.

Kant's "transcendental idealism" should be distinguished from idealistic systems such as Berkeley's. While Kant claimed that phenomena depend upon the conditions of sensibility, space and time, this thesis is not equivalent to mind-dependence in the sense of Berkeley's idealism. For Berkeley, something is an object only if it can be perceived. For Kant, on the other hand, perception does not provide the criterion for the existence of objects. Rather, the conditions of sensibility - space and time - provide the "epistemic conditions", to borrow a phrase from Henry Allison, required for us to know objects in the phenomenal world.

Kant had wanted to discuss metaphysical systems but discovered "the scandal of philosophy"—you cannot decide what the proper terms for a metaphysical system are until you have defined the field, and you cannot define the field until you have defined the limit of the field of physics first. 'Physics' in this sense means, roughly, the discussion of the perceptible world.

Kant's moral philosophy (Kantianism)

Kant develops his moral philosophy in three works: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals [1] (1785), Critique of Practical Reason [1] (1788) and Metaphysics of Morals [1] (1798).

Under this heading Kant is probably best known for his theory about a single, general moral obligation that explains all other moral obligations we have: the Categorical Imperative.

A categorical imperative, generally speaking, is an unconditional obligation, or an obligation that we have regardless of our will or desires (contrast with hypothetical imperative).

Our moral duties can be derived from the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative can be formulated in three ways, which he believed to be roughly equivalent (although many commentators do not):

Example of the first formulation: If I breathe air, and I can will it so that everyone breathes air, we can see that breathing air is a moral obligation.

Example of the second formulation: If I steal a book from you, I am treating you as a means (to get a book) only. If I ask to have your book, I am respecting your humanity (or ability of rational thought).

The theory that we have universal duties, which hold despite one's subjective (and thus, merely hypothetical) imperatives that seek to fulfill one's own inclinations or happiness instead of these duties, is known as deontological ethics. Kant is often cited as the most important source of this strand of ethical theory (in particular, of the theory of conduct, also known as the theory of obligation).

Kant's moral philosophy has come under some criticism as his lectures on anthropology have become further studied. A small minority of critics have argued that statements such as "All races will be exterminated except for that of the Whites" and that Africans are born for slavery (Reflexionen, 878) indicate that he does not consider non-whites to be persons in any meaningful ethical sense. This interpretation is by no means dominant, and the most accepted interpretation is that these lectures represent prejudices rather than serious philosophical thought.

Further reading

The amount of literature on Kant is ever-growing. Often, the best places to start are the introductions of his translated works. Modern translations usually suggest a variety of secondary literature, the purpose of which is both to explain and to interpret Kant's philosophy. For an example, see Christine Korsgaard's introduction to Mary Gregor's translation of the Groundwork, which not only provides a concise overview of Kant's moral philosophy, but also places his ethics within the framework of the larger critical system. Kant wrote for an audience that was familiar with medieval philosophy and the philosophy of Leibniz. The reader of today who happens not to be familiar with these parts of the philosophical tradition can be greatly hampered by lacking an adequate knowledge of technical vocabulary and historical context. A very valuable key, in this regard, is Kant's Metaphysics and Theory of Science by Gottfried Martin. The English translation was published by the University of Manchester, University Press, 1955.

One of the best pieces of secondary literature on Kant's moral philosophy is a work by Korsgaard called Creating the Kingdom of Ends. In this collection of essays, Korsgaard attempts to organize Kant's ethics into a coherent interpretation that may respond adequately to the modern defenders of ethical systems contrary with Kant's, such as Aristotle's, Hume's, and Hegel's.

Another good starting point of investigation is John Rawls' book of published lecture notes, titled Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. The work is particularly useful in its investigation of Kant's moral philosophy within the vicissitudes of ethical systems from Hume to Leibniz to Hegel. Two other important scholars of Kant are Henry Allison and Onora O'Neill. Both authors have written books about Kant's moral philosophy.

For an introductory account to many aspects of Kant's theoretical and practical philosophy, see The Cambridge Companion to Kant, ed. Paul Guyer. Henry Allison's book, Kant's Transcendental Idealism, provides a thorough and sympathetic account of Kant's theoretical philosophy, arguing for the centrality of "transcendental idealism" for understanding Kant. Beatrice Longuenesse's Kant and the Capacity to Judge, provides a careful, well-argued, though difficult, argument for the importance of the metaphysical deduction of the categories as well as reinterpretations of many of the central doctrines of the first Critique.

German texts on the Internet

(Kant himself) (More at Project Gutenberg)

English translations

Other external links



This article is part of the Influential Western Philosophers series
Presocratics | Socrates | Plato | Aristotle | Epicureans | Stoics | Plotinus | Augustine of Hippo | Boethius | Al-Farabi | Anselm | Peter Abelard | Averroës | Maimonides | Thomas Aquinas | Albertus Magnus | Duns Scotus | Ramón Llull | Occam | Giovanni Pico della Mirandola | Marsilio Ficino | Michel de Montaigne | René Descartes | Thomas Hobbes | Blaise Pascal | Baruch Spinoza | John Locke | Nicolas Malebranche | Gottfried Leibniz | Giambattista Vico | Julien Offray de la Mettrie | George Berkeley | Baron de Montesquieu | David Hume | Voltaire | Jean-Jacques Rousseau | Denis Diderot | Johann Herder | Immanuel Kant | Jeremy Bentham | Friedrich Schleiermacher | Johann Gottlieb Fichte | G. W. F. Hegel | Friedrich von Schelling | Friedrich von Schlegel | Arthur Schopenhauer | Søren Kierkegaard | Henry David Thoreau | Ralph Waldo Emerson | John Stuart Mill | Karl Marx | Mikhail Bakunin | Friedrich Nietzsche | Vladimir Soloviev | William James | Wilhelm Dilthey | C. S. Peirce | Gottlob Frege | Edmund Husserl | Henri Bergson | Ernst Cassirer | John Dewey | Benedetto Croce | José Ortega y Gasset | Alfred North Whitehead | Bertrand Russell | Ludwig Wittgenstein | Ernst Bloch | Georg Lukács | Martin Heidegger | Rudolf Carnap | Simone Weil | Maurice Merleau-Ponty | Jean-Paul Sartre | Simone de Beauvoir | Georges Bataille | Theodor Adorno | Max Horkheimer | Hannah Arendt

This text is part of the Liberalism series (IV): Liberal thinkers
Liberalism I - Liberalism in countries II - Liberal parties III - Liberal thinkers IV Introduction article

These thinkers had an important influence on the development of liberal thinking:
Baruch Spinoza | John Locke | Voltaire | Benjamin Franklin | David Hume | Jean-Jacques Rousseau | Denis Diderot | Adam Smith | Charles de Montesquieu | Immanuel Kant | Thomas Paine | Thomas Jefferson | Marquis de Condorcet | Jeremy Bentham | Benjamin Constant | Wilhelm von Humboldt | James Mill | Johan Rudolf Thorbecke | Frédéric Bastiat | Alexis de Tocqueville | John Stuart Mill | Herbert Spencer | Thomas Hill Green | Ludwig Joseph Brentano | Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk; | Émile Durkheim | Friedrich Naumann | Max Weber | Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse | Benedetto Croce | Walther Rathenau | William Beveridge | Ludwig von Mises | John Maynard Keynes | José Ortega y Gasset | Salvador de Madariaga | Wilhelm Röpke | Bertil Ohlin | Friedrich August von Hayek | Karl Raimund Popper | John Hicks | Raymond Aron | John Kenneth Galbraith | Isaiah Berlin | James M. Buchanan | John Rawls | Ralf Dahrendorf | Karl-Hermann Flach | Ronald Dworkin | Richard Rorty | Amartya Sen | Hernando de Soto | William Kymlicka | Dirk Verhofstadt

Edit this template