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Kant 200 Years On

by Rick Lewis

Our cover model this month is gorgeous pouting Immanuel Kant (age 280), who has been dead for exactly two hundred years last February. Kant is certainly among the five most influential philosophers in history.

A curious case, this Kant. They say that travel broadens the mind, but Kant never in his whole life travelled more than ten miles from his home city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). He scraped a living for years as a private tutor before eventually becoming a hardworking professor at the university. He lived a life of disciplined regularity, taking the same walk around Königsberg at the same time each day, with such regularity that it was said that the inhabitants set their watches by him. And then, in his fifties,he started writing a series of books which profoundly shook our views of space, of time, of the nature of human beings and of how we should behave towards one another. After Kant, nothing was ever quite the same again. Hence the Superman outfit. What a remarkable testament to the power of imagination. and of careful, disciplined reasoning. Kant may never have strayed far from home or far from his routines but he was a cosmopolitan nonetheless, and put forward drafts of schemes for international co-operation and ‘perpetual peace’.

It would be wrong of me to imply that Kant’s books are a rattling good read. The ideas may be exciting, but the Critique of Pure Reason (for instance) requires weeks of careful sustained attention and much coffee. So why not start your acquaintance with Immanuel by reading the first three articles in this bicentennial issue?

Some people like their great philosophers to have a few memorable eccentricities. Kant had cartloads. For example, he had a string running from his bed to the bathroom, so that if he got up in the night he could find his way to the bathroom without having to light a candle. To find out more about his life and his ideas, read Anja Steinbauer’s excellent introduction. She also touches on his ethics based on duty and his famous categorical imperative. This says that we should act so that we could will our actions to be a universal law. So for example, don’t steal, because if everyone went around stealing things we’d be in a right state. In fact ‘Kantian ethics’ has become one of the three main philosophical approaches to ethics along with consequentialism and virtue ethics.

Stuart Greenstreet looks at the fundamental effect David Hume had on Kant’s ideas, and explains where they differ. Pinhas Ben-Zvi explains Kant’s revolutionary view of the relationship between the human mind and the world, and thinks he spots an inconsistency in Kant’s view of the nature of space. And finally, our reviewer Ivan Brady looks at Kant’s earlier years before he wrote the Critiques and ... well, read it and find out.

• • • • •

As the Electric Light Orchestra once sang, “It’s over, it’s over, all over, it’s all over now.” The 2004 Presidential Election steams majestically away into history, leaving a churning wake of emotions – anger, jubilation, apprehension, mistrust. Some American friends have said that they found it hard to discern a silver lining in an election campaign characterised by lies, attack ads and the deliberate exploitation of fear. However, they seem to me to have overlooked something surprising and hopeful. This is that a massive 22% of the voters told exit pollsters that the most important consideration for them in casting their votes had been ‘moral values’. So Americans should be congratulated at least on the way their countrymen focus on the serious issues of how we should behave towards one another. You might disagree with the specific views of some of the people with whom the pollsters spoke, but at least they have moral views that they care about. If you disagree with your fellow citizens over issues such as stem cells and gay marriage, over welfare or warfare or abortion or the place of religion in public life, it is up to you to engage them in debate. It is up to you to expose faulty logic, uncover hidden assumptions, challenge misconceptions while remaining always open to the possibility that the other person might have a point. As Ken Knisely put it to me recently, “What an opportunity for philosophers!”

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