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Immanuel Kant

What You Need to Read Before You Read Kant

22nd April 2024 is the 300th birthday of Immanuel Kant. Anja Steinbauer introduces the man and gets you ready for his three Critiques.

When asked by students to recommend a good introductory book to philosophy, my old philosophy professor used to growl “Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason”. At first glance this seems absurd: Kant’s texts, in particular his late work, are notoriously difficult to read and put the fear of philosophy in many who try. Even Kant’s friend Moses Mendelson, one of the greatest thinkers of the 18th Century, declared that the Critique of Pure Reason was “wearing away the nervous juices.” Yet, I think my old professor had a point. Once you have found a way into reading Kant, his texts can teach you how to philosophise well. They are satisfyingly complex, systematic and critical, they stimulate you to wrestle and disagree with them. So, how to get started? It helps to know a little about his background, his interests and way of thinking as well as the concepts that he uses.

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant by Johann Gottlieb Becker 1768

Unlike many great Enlightenment philosophers we still talk about, Immanuel Kant, fourth of nine children, was not born into wealth and privilege. His father was a bridle maker, economically and socially significantly below the station and prospects of a saddler. The family were pietists, part of a religious movement which emerged in the 17th Century intended to revitalise Protestant life and bring about a reform of the church. Though Kant was not religious as an adult – so famously so that many pointed an accusing finger at the influential philosopher for the increasingly deserted churches in Königsberg – he forever cherished the calmness of mind and positivity that dominated the pietist life style, reminiscent to him of the Stoic sage. All his life he warmly acknowledged the early influence of his mother’s ‘natural’ rational way of thinking as well as her strong moral principles. Supported by friends and neighbours who recognised a talent in Kant, tuition fees were scraped together to send him to a good, albeit overly strict, school. Although the teaching was so dry that it seemed designed to “snuff out any interest” in even the most exciting ideas and questions, Kant remained intellectually curious. He registered as a student at the university, which he financially managed by working as a private tutor as well as by winning at billiards – the latter a skill that helped him support himself through much of his early life. At the age of 46 he finally attained the professorship for Logic and Metaphysics he had been craving, bringing with it financial security.

Kant lived in Königsberg all his life, at his time the bustling commercial centre of Prussia. His friends were diverse – his best friend was an English merchant immigrant called Green, his students international, coming from Prussia and German states beyond it, but also from Russia, the Baltic and Poland. As much as Kant was dedicated to academia, the second half of each day was for socialising: lunch with friends, billiards, cards, salons and the theatre. This fun life was partly facilitated by a cultural shift during the Russian occupation of Königsberg 1758-62, which made it more liberal, less rigidly socially stratified and prejudiced and open to luxuries.

On the cutting edge of the natural sciences as well as metaphysics, Kant anonymously published The General Natural History and Theory of the Heavens as early as 1755. In it, he proposed a purely mechanical explanation of the beginning of the universe, which for a long time served as a serious foundation for astronomical discussions. By the time Kant’s critical writings on religion were due to be published, the reign of the two consecutive liberal Enlightenment rulers Friedrich Wilhelm I and Frederick the Great had ended and the new king Friedrich Wilhelm II had reintroduced stricter measures, which meant that Kant got into trouble with censors. For an extended period of time, there were rumours that he might be exiled or at least gagged, losing the right to ever publish again. While this didn’t happen, Kant received a stern warning from the King personally, who accused him of abusing his position as an educator of young minds to turn them against the teachings of the Church. Far from intimidated, Kant wrote back rejecting all accusations but promising not to publish any more writings on religion for as long as the King lived. Indeed, soon after the King’s death Kant published more critical reflections on religion. In 1796, at the age of 73, Kant gave his last lecture.

The Three Critiques

Only after decades of immersion in and writing on science, philosophy and many related subjects, did Kant begin his work on his ‘Critical’ project. As soon as he started researching his most famous work, the Critique of Pure Reason, his lifestyle changed. He turned from a gallant, sociable intellectual into the withdrawn professor who followed a strictly regimented lifestyle, ruled by precision and increased self discipline. Kant’s ‘critical philosophy’ is also referred to as ‘transcendental’. This is not synonymous with ‘transcendent’: It does not mean ‘beyond’, or in some way otherworldly. Rather, the word has a technical meaning here. It denotes the enquiry into ‘the conditions necessary for the possibility of’. In other words, in the Critique of Pure Reason Kant is asking: what needs to be in place for knowledge to be possible? Other philosophers had asked: What is the content of our knowledge? What can we know? By contrast, Kant asks about the preconditions of human knowledge. Similarly, in the Critique of Practical Reason Kant asks about the conditions for morality, in the Critique of Judgement about the conditions of aesthetics and other applications of judgement.

Why are Kant’s famous three Critiques known as such? What are they critical of and why? They are a critical reflection on the limits of the application of reason, and at the same time, of Kant’s own philosophical tradition. Kant was educated into Rationalism, more precisely the philosophy of Leibniz as revised by Christian Wolff. Rationalists believed that knowledge stems from reason. Doubts about the accuracy of this basic idea had begun to arise for Kant years before his Critical period, but when he read David Hume he was fully awakened from his “dogmatic slumber”. ‘Dogmatism’ became Kant’s way of referring to Rationalism, while he referred to Hume’s tradition, Empiricism, as ‘scepticism’. Empiricists, in contrast to Rationalists, believed that knowledge came from experience alone. One distinction is particularly useful to be clear about, that between reason and understanding. ‘Reason’ is the ability of humans to think logically. It has nothing to do with being particularly intelligent or educated. While there are ways in which you can improve your reasoning skills, Kant believes that is an ability we all have, so nobody is excused from thinking rationally. It means being able to infer a conclusion from reasons and to avoid fallacies such as holding mutually contradictory beliefs. So, ‘reason’ is what we use to think well; it is independent of experience. ‘Understanding’, by contrast, has to do with the way we make sense of the world, so it has everything to do with experience. This distinction also takes the form of a priori – ‘before experience’ and a posteriori – ‘after experience’. Spoiler alert: Kant is going to say that reason is an insufficient condition for knowledge. He thinks that we need input from the world to hold knowledge, so it is the understanding and the complex ways in which reason works and interacts with the senses and the external world that gives us knowledge. Knowledge is a posteriori and any attempt to attain knowledge by reason alone is only going to plunge us into “darkness and contradictions”. It is in the field of ethics, covered in the Critique of Practical Reason, that reason really comes into its own: Kant believes that we employ reason to be free in our thinking about moral principles, they are a priori.

Why are there three Critiques? Why not just those two? The difference in focus between the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason is easy to see. In the first Critique, Kant had explored what we need to acquire knowledge. However, looking at the way we think about moral values, it soon became clear that moral thinking works in a different way. This is what he expressed in the second Critique. So, what does the third Critique, the Critique of Judgement do? It is there to mediate between the realms of the first two Critiques. Reading them, the realm of sense experience and the moral realm, nature and freedom, appear disconnected. Judgement is a human capability which combines both. A good case study is aesthetics. An aesthetic statement is different from a statement of knowledge: “The rose is red” is different to “the rose is beautiful”. However, a judgement of beauty is also different from a moral statement. Aesthetic judgements require both attention to nature, sense experience, and use of human freedom, subjective imagination.

Why are the Critiques so important, and why do they remain so? Why did Schopenhauer think the Critique of Pure Reason “the most important book ever written in Europe”? Why did Coleridge, when reading it, feel “gripped by a giant’s hand”? Is it because Kant is right in everything he says in the three Critiques? Of course not. But that would be the wrong thing to look for in any philosophy. For example, many have – justifiably – taken issue with Kant’s conclusion in the Critique of Practical Reason that morality is built on rules which each person has to freely choose for themselves, and that they must then ‘categorically’ obey. These so-called ‘categorical imperatives’ are a priori binding no matter what the situation. This highly formal way of looking at ethics is difficult to live by. However, there is much to be said for it, because Kant expresses something important about the nature of morality and moral thinking. By doing this he has significantly advanced philosophical discussion. While we may say that we cannot follow his system in our lives, at the same time we cannot ignore it in philosophical ethics. The same is true of the Critique of Pure Reason, whose insights forever changed the way we think about both metaphysics and epistemology. Finally, the Critique of Judgement does outstanding pioneering work in laying the foundations for a philosophical aesthetics, which still ring true today. Therefore, instead of expecting any philosophy book to give us final answers, it is more useful to read it as a contribution which opens up new perspectives and makes more philosophy possible.

Now You’re All Set!

Now you have some basic idea of Kant’s background and projects, so you’re in a good enough place to start reading him, even his difficult Critiques. Everything else you need you will have to bring to the party yourself. Reading philosophy is and should always be a slow process, so patience is one thing you can’t do without here. Kant, like many great philosophers, invites us to critically engage with his ideas, so be prepared to actively think along. Finally, make up your own mind about the value of his contribution in our time. But do it in an informed and well reasoned way. Do the work. That’s how Kant philosophised, and so should we.

© Dr Anja Steinbauer 2024

Anja Steinbauer studied philosophy, sinology and history at the universities of Hamburg, Taiwan (NTNU) and London (SOAS and King’s College London). She is president of London’s vibrant philosophy organisation Philosophy For All.

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