The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant is considered by a number of historians to be the greatest philosopher of the Western tradition after Plato and Aristotle. To lack interest in Kant is considered by some to be a mark of ignorance and a lack of genuine intellectualism. Kant was born in Königsberg, now known as Kaliningrad, in 1724 and was of Scottish descent. Königsberg was a highly cosmopolitan place during Kant’s lifetime, and it was home to a wide variety of ethnic and racial communities. The cosmopolitan nature of his birthplace may have been one of the key contributing factors to Kant’s taste for modern philosophy, particularly the philosophy of David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is believed that Kant had even hung a portrait of Rousseau in his home.

Kant never married and he remained single all his life. Nor did Kant ever travel more than ten miles outside of his hometown of Königsberg. His inability to marry stemmed largely from the financial struggles he went through for most of his life. By the time Kant was financially stable enough to get married in his early fifties, he deemed that it was too late to get married. Kant’s bachelor status did have an upside, however, which was that it enabled him to focus on his writing and thus make lasting contributions to modern philosophy.

Arguably, Kant’s most famous contributions to Western philosophy were in the areas of epistemology and moral philosophy, in addition to making significant contributions to other areas of philosophy such as metaphysics and political philosophy. In terms of his epistemological contributions, Kant made a bold attempt to reconcile the empiricist and rationalist viewpoints on epistemology, which ended up being quite successful. Kant’s contributions to epistemology and his synthesis of the empiricist and rationalist traditions are commonly known by most philosophers through his Critique of Pure Reason. As a result of his contributions to epistemology and his synthesis of two opposing philosophical traditions, Kant became an incredibly popular figure in Europe. Visitors would frequent his home on a daily basis, his lectures were always sought out, and calling oneself “Kantian” became a source of pride.

The basic questions of epistemology are for one the question of how we know what we know, as well the question pertaining to the limits of what is knowable. Kant reconciled the empiricist and rationalist views on epistemology by arguing that a posteriori sensory data and experience impresses itself upon a priori concepts of law and reason in the mind which precede data and experience. These a priori concepts in the mind organize the sensory data coming through our senses, thus formulating our experience in the world. In Kant’s view, the ability of the mind to organize sensory data and experience based on a priori concepts in the mind leads to “perfect cognition” when combined with “aesthetic perfection.”

Kant also suggested that an individual’s experience is phenomenal, which means that an individual’s experience shapes the world around them. Phenomenal experience is inseparable from one’s world. However, phenomenal experience is different than noumenal experience, which is the actual nature of the world that is separate from an individual’s experience. Noumenal experience consists of the world in and of itself, whereas phenomenal experience consists of an individual’s experience in the world. God, the soul, and free will were deemed by Kant to be part of the noumenal world and thus were beyond the grasp of human understanding and phenomenal experience.

However, as part of Kant’s moral philosophy, the assumption that God, the soul, and free will exist makes up the basis of morality from a Kantian standpoint. Without the assumption that God, the soul, and free will exist, ethics and morality may not have a leg to stand on. Generally, ethics pertains to character, whereas morality pertains to action. Kant’s epistemology is somewhat linked to his moral philosophy, which in turn leads to the notion of a “Kantian System” that integrates different branches of philosophy. Although the existence of God, the soul, and free will can only be assumed, the mere assumption that these things exist can prompt conformity to what Kant called a “moral law” that is objective, in contrast to the subjective passions of human beings. Due in large part to the influence that Hume had on his philosophy, Kant viewed man as being situated somewhere between animalistic impulses towards hedonism and survival on one hand, and angelic tendencies such as reason and virtue on the other hand.

Freedom, in Kant’s view, is affirmed by man’s ability to conform to an objective “moral law” rather than subjective passions, which in turn leads to the achievement of the summum bonum, or the “greatest good,” which is attainable for all men, regardless of their social status. Kant’s “deontology” meant conformity to a moral law was a duty rather than something that was done for a particular outcome. Nevertheless, the reward for freely conforming to an objective “moral law” was to be part of a moral “community,” which in Kant’s view was the greatest reward one could attain. Aside from being a reward in and of itself, conformity to a moral law, in Kant’s view, would also be rewarded by God.

Freedom is thus largely a Kantian principle, and Kant was staunchly opposed to censorship and despotism in both a political and religious sense, which led Kant to be one of the “founding fathers” of the Enlightenment and modern philosophy in the Western tradition. Although Kant was not religious – despite his religious upbringing – this did not mean that Kant discounted the existence of God. Nor did Kant deny metaphysics, unlike the materialist philosophers who are common in this day and age. In fact, Kant links his moral philosophy with metaphysics, by stating:

“Without metaphysics it might be impossible to determine precisely (for purposes of speculative judgment) the moral element of duty in all actions which accord with duty: nonetheless, it would be impossible to found morality on genuine principles without metaphysics, even for merely common and practical use, particularly for moral training to bring about pure moral dispositions and to graft them onto people’s minds, for the sake of the world’s highest good.”

Arguably, all of the different branches of the “Kantian System” have their roots in metaphysics. Central to Kant’s metaphysics was the principle of cause and effect. Thus, prior to anything else, Kant was a metaphysician of the highest pedigree, which in turn made his work quite dense and obscure.

Kant’s intellectual versatility and the breadth of his system is also demonstrated by his ability to flip the switch from metaphysics to subjects such as politics. Kant’s political philosophy can be summed up by two concepts, namely, liberal democracy based on the principles of freedom and liberty, and international organization based on a legal and moral order. In recent times, free-market economists such as the famous Milton Friedman have pounced on Kant’s political teachings by arguing legitimately up to this point that free societies are more prosperous in an economic sense than unfree societies. But with China’s current annual growth rate of 6.6 percent compared to America’s 2.9 percent, will the free-market argument hold up?

            In Kant’s view, “progress” from a natural state of politics based on animalistic impulses to a civilized state based on a moral and legal order would inevitably close the apparent divide between politics and morality. Commerce and war, according to Kant, could not coexist, and as a result the former would supersede the latter. Kant also argued that “progress” takes on a “mechanical course” in history, through which the world “yields to the moral principle of the good, though in a slow progression.” In a nutshell, Kant’s political philosophy is based on the notion that good will prevail over evil. Thus, Kant’s political outlook was quite optimistic when compared to the outlook of the two philosophers who influenced him the most, namely, Hume and Rousseau. Basically, Kant was an idealist, not a realist.

            Kant would pass away in 1804 after a rather fulfilling and productive life. His shrine is located in his birthplace, Kaliningrad, and it happens to be a popular destination for lovers and newlyweds who seek good fortune and long-lasting luck in their relationships and marriages. Although Kant was known to be very popular among women, there is very little evidence to suggest that Kant had much of a love life, as evinced by his refusal to ever get married during his entire lifetime.

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