Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804
The greatest member of the idealist school of German philosophy, Immanuel Kant was born at Königsberg, where he spent his entire life, the son of a saddler, reputedly of Scottish origin. Raised in relative poverty and the puritanical strictness of Pietism, Kant studied at the university and after some years as a private tutor in 1755 obtained his doctorate and was appointed privatdozent. His lectures, unlike his written work, were often witty and humorous. The same year he published an essay in Newtonian cosmology in which he anticipated the nebular theory of Laplace and predicted the existence of the planet Uranus, before its actual discovery by Herschel in 1781.
At first a rationalist, Kant became more skeptical of metaphysics in his "pre-critical" works as in Dreams of a Ghost-Seer (1766) against Swedenborg's mysticism. But Kant was dissatisfied with David Hume's reduction of knowledge of things and causation to mere habitual associations of sense-impressions. How for example was it possible for mathematics to apply to the objects of our sense-impressions? From 1775 he labored on an answer to Hume, which materialized in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 2nd ed., 1786), a philosophical classic, in which he shows that the immediate objects of perception are due not only to the evidence provided by our sensations but also to our own perceptual apparatus which orders our sense-impressions into intelligible unities. Whereas the former are rightly empirical and synthetic, the ordering is not dependent upon experience, i.e., a priori. Hence, Kant's famous claim that "though our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it arises out of experience." This has the corollary which Kant likened to a Copernican revolution in philosophy, that instead of presuming that all our knowledge must conform to objects, it is more profitable to suppose the reverse.
Knowledge of objects as such, "things in themselves" or noumena, is impossible since we can only know our ordered sense-impressions (phenomena). Space and time are subjective particulars, a priori intuitions. All ordering of sense-impressions takes place in time, with the appropriate application of general concepts. Antinomies arise when general concepts (or categories) are misapplied to non-experiential data or space and time are treated as if they were categories. hence, we cannot prove the existence of God, but Kant recognizes three principle ideas of reason -- God, freedom and immortality -- which pure reason leads us to form for practical, i.e., moral considerations. These are developed in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic (1783), the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and the Critique of Practical Reason (1788).
The Groundwork contains his ethical theory based on the good will, enshrined in the famous "Categorical Imperative" -- "act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." This important rendering or moral obligation was criticized by Jacobi as "the good will that wills nothing." The Critique of Judgment (1790) completes the Kantian system. It comprises a remarkable treatment of the basic philosophical problems in esthetics, not least the claim that the esthetic judgment is independent of personal, psychological and moral considerations, yet singular and universally valid.
Kant lived an extremely ordered life, possible because of his delicate constitution, and it has been said that the people of Königsberg set their watches by his daily walks. He never traveled more than one hundred miles from Königsberg. Kant was an ardent admirer of J. J. Rousseau (a portrait of Rousseau hung in Kant's study) and the French Revolution (though not the Terror). He was liberal in his politics and theological lectures although the latter were deemed anti-Lutheran by the Prussian government. In his Perpetual Peace (1795), Kant advocated a world federation of free states.
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copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis