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Immanuel Kant

Updated on August 22, 2009

Kant had studied theology, mathematics and physics, but after reading the philosophy of David Hume woke from his 'dogmatic slumbers'. He spent 12 years looking for answers to the questions posed by Hume's skepticism. The result was the 'Critique of Pure Reason' followed by the 'Critique of Practical Reason' - in which Kant combined elements from the rival schools of rationalism and empiricism which he found to be true.

In his last major work, the treatise on Perpetual Peace, which he wrote at the age of 71, he put forward the idea of a world confederation of free states, bound together by an agreement forbidding war.

Kant spent most of his life in his birthplace, Konigsberg, in East Prussia. It was said that the local people set their watches by the regular time that he passed their doors on his daily walks. The only time he let them down was when he read Emile, by Jean Jacques Rousseau, and was so excited by it that he could not put it down.

Analytic is the name Aristotle gave to his system of logical analysis. Immanuel Kant also used the term for the analysis which discovered the function of pure reason. Used as an adjective, the term 'analytic' describes a judgment whose truth is discovered by analyzing the concepts involved. This use was introduced into philosophy by Kant. In Logical Positivism, an analytic statement is a sentence of statement whose truth is discoverable by analysis of the words involved - for example 'all black cats are black'.

Ethics

In his second great work, The Critique of Practical Reason (Kritik der yraktischen Vernunft, 1788), Kant developed an ethical theory based on both reason and the desire for good. Influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition of Western civilization and by such 18th-century humanist philosophers as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Kant maintained that a man should judge the moral value of his actions by reasoning out their potential effect on the welfare of all men. For example, when one person reproaches another for doing something, he might say, "How would you like it if everyone did that?" According to Kant, if a person reasons in this manner before even the slightest decision is made, he will invariably know how to act virtuously. Kant expressed his rule in a categorical imperative, or moral command, by saying, "So act that you can will that the maxim of your conduct will become a universal law."

Kant also declared that men must freely have goodwill toward others, rather than use others as a means to personal gain. He stated this version of his categorical imperative when he said, "So act as always to treat humanity as an end and never as a means only." Kant felt that man's ability to choose good and to imagine a universal moral law implies the existence of free will and of God, although these cannot be perceived through either reason or the senses.

Philosophy of Kant

Kant's major contribution was in epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with theories of knowledge. In his early years, Kant was influenced by the German rationalists, particularly Christian von Wolff and G. W. von Leibniz, who represented the tradition of the great French philosopher Rene Descartes in their belief that man uses an inborn reason to become aware of the true nature of reality. According to such rationalists, philosophers, the laws of mathematics, for example, are self-evident principles that can be understood through reason without checking against any observation involving the senses. British philosophers of Kant's period, on the other hand, held the empirical view that man is born with no knowledge at all and that he learns by drawing reasonable conclusions based on data received through sense experiences. British empiricism was developed into skepticism, or radical doubt, by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. He declared that, because all man knows is w at he experiences, universal laws cannot be proved. Hume's position was a serious challenge to the growing science, and much of the philosophy of the 18th century. Kant was greatly impressed by Hume's argument and, by his own account, was awakened by it from his "dogmatic slumbers." He set to work to combine rationalism and empiricism into a theory that would provide a firm basis for knowledge, while taking into account Hume's doubt.

In his Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781), Kant agreed that man can know only what he experiences, but he developed a new and dynamic concept of the nature of experience. He held that the mind has an inborn tendency to shape experience by imposing on external things such organizing ideas as space and time.-For example, man can never be sure that he knows the true relation between two objects or events, but his mind may define one object as being a few inches nearer than the other or one event as happening a few seconds before the other. Kant declared that the mind's propensity to think in terms of space produces the laws of geometry, or spatial forms, and that its propensity to think in terms of a time sequence produces the laws of mathematics. Kant concluded that all noumena, or things in themselves, which may never be truly known, are made to conform to mentally created laws of experience as phenomena, or things as they appear.

Thus, for Kant the study of phenomena became a legitimate activity for both science and philosophy. However, his theory implied that metaphysics, a branch of philosophy that attempts to understand the ultimate nature of reality through reason, cannot be successful. For example, Kant held that man inevitably fails when he tries to determine with his reason the existence of such unobservable things as God, the immortality of the soul, or the freedom of the human will. Because Kant's theory was a modified form of idealism, which stresses the central importance of the mind in reality, his philosophy is known as critical idealism or transcendental idealism.

Aesthetics

In his third major work, Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urtheilskraft, 1789-1793), Kant analyzed man's aesthetic sense, or awareness of beauty. He held that beauty arises in the mind when a man intuitively senses the harmony between the things he sees and the order his mind imposes on them. Thus, for example, the judgment that the conclusion of a play harmoniously flows out of its earlier events will give rise to a feeling of beauty.

Life of Kant

Kant came from a middle-class family of devout Pietists, Protestants who advocated the simple and austere practice of religion. He spent his entire life in Konigsberg in the province of East Prussia. He was associated with the University of Konigsberg first as a student, then as a private tutor, and finally as a professor of logic and metaphysics. Kant never married. His life was well ordered and outwardly uneventful. It was said that the citizens of Konigsberg could set their clocks by his afternoon walks.

Despite long hours of disciplined work, Kant was a sociable man with a large circle of friends. During his later years, many of the great writers and scholars of Europe journeyed to Konigsberg to meet and talk with him. In the last decade of Kant's life the Prussian government prohibited him from writing on religion because he held that nationally organized religions restrict man's freedom to develop beliefs and morals based on universal standards. Kant ceased lecturing, retired from social life, and failed to finish his last work. Immanuel Kant died in Konigsberg on 12th February 1804.

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    • kimh039 profile image

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      this is a very informative and well written hub. I attempted to understand and explain nihilism in as simple terms as possible in a recent hub and learned a little about how Kant contributed to nihilism. I can't believe I'm getting interested in philosphy now. Feel free to critique my primitive grasp of nihilism if you get a chance. voted up. thanks.

    • GGarza profile image

      GGarza 

      8 years ago

      What made the Critique of Pure Reason important was the answer it formulated to David Hume.

      Hume attacked the Cartesian model of the mind by showing that Descartes could not account for the concept of cause and effect, causality. Hume postulated that Descartes could not organize empirical observations into knowledge because there was nothing linking them together.

      Kant answered Hume by postulating that the mind is made up of 12 categories that function to organized empirical reality into knowledge. These categories link empirical observations together. So the mind is actively creating the knowledge that we understand.

      For Descartes, the mind is passive. For Kant the mind is active.

    • Alexander TG profile image

      Alexander TG 

      9 years ago

      A great philosopher who I think does need some more exposure in this modern world. Cool hub.

    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 

      9 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Very good! I personally think that Kant's work should be taught to everyone ... it is "the categorical imperative" we should all strive for. Thank you for a much needed post.

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