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Anja Steinbauer introduces the life and ideas of Immanuel Kant, the merry sage of Königsberg, who died 200 years ago.
“Have the courage to use your own reason!”, (in Latin sapere aude!) is the battle cry of the Enlightenment. It was articulated by Immanuel Kant in his famous article ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1784). Obstacles that can stand in our way in achieving ‘maturity’, i.e. thinking for ourselves, are manifold and have to do with: the self, politics and society, as well as culture. These are problems that concern academics as much as anyone else: In a letter to his sovereign Kant declared freely that he believed Rousseau to be correct in saying that rulers only tolerate those intellectuals who are happy to simply “adorn our chains with flowers” – as many do. The greatest difficulty lies in motivating people to shake off immaturity: “It is so easy not to be of age. If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if only I can pay – others will easily undertake the irksome work for me.”
Heinrich Heine once said sarcastically that “the history of Immanuel Kant’s life is hard to describe, because he had neither a life nor history.” In many ways, Immanuel Kant seems to have been exactly what you’d expect a German professor to be like, a parody of himself, so to speak: pedantic, punctual, rigid. All of these are true of him, but clichés are just clichés and not real people. There is a bit more to the ‘Chinaman of Königsberg’, as Nietzsche cynically called him. Who was this man who could be driven to despair by a chair in his flat being out of place?
If you had rung his doorbell in Koenigsberg it would almost certainly have been his old servant Lampe who would have answered the door for you. If you had then made it into the inner sanctuary of the house, you might have been disappointed to find that the great thinker, of whom Coleridge said that his words had gripped him with “a giant’s fist”, was in fact a small and very slight person, puny even, and of fragile health. However, his lively blue eyes might have betrayed something of his great wit and sense of fun, which made him very popular, especially with women. Apart from being a famous philosopher he seems to have been a bit of a party animal, and was an all-the-rage regular at social events in Koenigsberg. He loved playing pool and talking with friends.
One of these friends reports that the old philosopher was an early riser: he had instructed Lampe to wake him at five. This is an early start by anybody’s standards, and so Kant would often be reluctant to get up, but had to since he had given Lampe strict orders not to let him oversleep by even a minute, no matter how much he’d beg him. Kant would then spend some time writing until his early morning lectures. One must not imagine Kant as a leisurely scholar with lots of time on his hands for navel-gazing and beautiful thoughts. He was a full-time lecturer, with a schedule of twenty hours of class contact a week. However, Kant was very happy with his post which it had taken him so long to acquire. His career path is not unfamiliar to academics seeking tenure today: After years as a private tutor to rich kids and then as an hourly paid lecturer, Kant, fourth of the nine children of the saddler Cant, was finally given a chair of philosophy at the age of forty-seven. He could not afford the luxury of specialising in only one field, such as philosophy, but was required to lecture on natural law, mechanics, mineralogy, physics, mathematics and geography. The image that many people have of him as a sour-faced, boring little man stands in stark contrast to the reports of his contemporaries who proclaim him to have been an inspiring and witty speaker, with a natural sense of humour.
After the morning lectures, Kant had an elaborate luncheon for which he was joined by many friends. This was his only meal of the day. After a long conversation Kant went for his afternoon walk along the river followed by his servant carrying an umbrella in case it might rain. Then Kant spent some more time studying before retiring at exactly ten o’clock. Even going to bed involved a special ritual: Kant had a special technique for rolling himself up completely in the sheets so that they fitted tightly around him. In this cocoon he would sleep.
Kant could get very upset if well-meaning acquaintances disturbed his routines. Accepting on one occasion an invitation to an outing into the country, Kant got very nervous when he realised that he would be home later than his usual bedtime, and when he was finally delivered to his doorstep just a few minutes after ten, he was shaken with worry and disgruntlement, making it at once one of his principles never to go on such a tour again. This is just one example of many rules by which Kant led his life. If he was convinced to the value of a particular maxim he would adhere to it without exception. Examples of this concern ethics as well as the practicalities of everyday living, and extend even to considerations about health. Kant had very strong views on health, and he would adjust his lifestyle accordingly, even if it caused him displeasure. An example is Kant’s love of coffee: he adored the taste and smell of it but persistently resisted drinking it (making do with extremely dilute tea instead), because he was convinced that the oil of coffee beans was unhealthy. Kant even wrote a little book about the subject of physical wellbeing, detailing for instance how one must not sleep too much because he believed that each person had a certain measure of sleep allotted to them, and if all of it was used up too soon it meant an early death.
Kant published widely, on a large number of subjects, including science, resulting for instance in the Kant-Laplace theory, or the ‘nebular hypothesis’ concerning the origin of the solar system. In philosophy, his interests were also manifold, and since Kant was very widely read so were the influences on his thought. Famously, he declared in the Critique of Pure Reason that David Hume had awoken him from his “dogmatic slumber”. Another important influence was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Emile fascinated Kant so much that he even gave up his daily walks for a few days.
So what does Kant want to do in his philosophising? Kant himself declares: “it is metaphysics which it is my fate to be in love with” because on it rests “the true and enduring welfare of humanity.” Therefore we cannot be indifferent to it. There are three respects in which metaphysics is important to Kant: Is there something in human beings that transcends their contingent existence? Is the world a realm of pure causality, or is there the possibility of uncaused acts? Is there anything on which the world is ultimately based? These considerations lead Kant to ask the questions which he believes metaphysics cannot avoid: the questions of immortality, freedom and God. It is no secret that these questions are difficult to answer, and Kant acknowledges that there has been much “tapping in the dark” by philosophers who have tried to find answers. Therefore, we cannot simply begin by straightforwardly answering these questions, but there is a lot of philosophical preparation that has to be carefully worked out beforehand: Why is metaphysics so elusive, what makes it so? This is the question to which Kant dedicates the Critique of Pure Reason. Finally Kant discovers that there cannot be any certain answers. His approach is that of ‘transcendental’ philosophy, i.e. the enquiry into the conditions necessary for the possibility of something, such as knowledge or morality. What has to be in place for us to be able to acquire knowledge, or to make moral judgements?
Kant believes critique to be the true task of his era, including criticism of religion and legislation. Kant extends this approach to his own philosophical tradition, Rationalism, which he significantly calls ‘dogmatism’, as well as Empiricism, which he calls ‘scepticism’. The Critique of Pure Reason reveals that both approaches have merit but need to be put in perspective: We need experience to acquire knowledge but process the information experience gives us through human faculties. No matter how hard we try, we are therefore never going to know what the world is like per se but only how it presents itself from a human perspective. The idea that our minds shape our world rather than vice versa was a significant reversal of what had previously been assumed – a ‘Copernican revolution’.
Kant’s 856-page tour de force went unnoticed for a few years before it became clear what an epochal work he had produced. Kant’s contemporaries, such as Fichte, seem to have grasped the enormity of the Critique’s importance. However, this does not mean that it was welcomed by all with open arms: Mendelson called Kant an “all-mincer”, and Herder believed it was a book full of innumerable fictions, which would lead to the “ruin of young minds.” Schopenhauer, not usually known as a thinker full of happy praise for anyone or anything, held it to be “the most important book ever written in Europe”. Believe it or not, the Critique of Pure Reason, despite its many virtues so dry a book that it is not usually seen as easily exiting any passions, made emotions flare up on a few occasions: One philosophy student at the time said to another that Kant’s book was so difficult to understand, that the other would have to study it for another thirty years before understanding any of it. He must have hit a nerve, since the other student was so enraged that he challenged the insulter to a duel – the continuation of a philosophical argument by other means…
My old philosophy professor who was once asked which book he would recommend as an introduction to philosophy, answered “Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason”. On the one had this is obviously absurd: trying to read a book like this without a good deal of philosophical training is like going on an Arctic expedition in jeans, t-shirt and flip-flops. On the other hand this is quite sensible: what Kant can definitely teach us is – how to think philosophically.
As we have seen, Kant posits the human being as caught up in an insoluble tension: Wanting to know and yet by our very nature being unable to know. This is the dilemma which we see portrayed in Goethe’s Faust. Faust seeks knowledge with such passion that his insight that true human knowledge is impossible distresses him to the degree of contemplating suicide (and ultimately entering into a contract with the devil). It was a tension that the Idealist philosophers of the 19th century could not bear, hence for instance Hegel’s hope of overcoming in history by means of the dialectic. Kant, however, tells us that we have to live with this conflict, it is the human condition.
Another conflict that makes us human is the conflict between culture and nature, between our rational insight into the moral law and our natural desire to act in our self-interest. As human beings we have to constantly check and correct our own behaviour. Kant faced the same problem Plato had faced. Why had the Sophists been so successful? Was it because people were too stupid to see through them? Plato might have thought so. But Kant didn’t. The Sophists had been successful because they met with the expectations that people had, with the wishes they wanted fulfilled. Kant admits that as an academic he was tempted to be sceptical about the abilities of “ordinary” human beings, but reading Rousseau had taught him very powerfully that morality was not the exclusive field of expertise of philosophers but that there could not be any experts in this area: Human beings act morally quite independently of philosophers philosophising about it. What moral philosophy can do is help us achieve clarity about what motivates us in our moral behaviour and can give us reasons and confidence. This is what the critical method is designed to do in the field of ethics. Reason, common to all human beings, must be properly controlled: Reason itself is not an unqualified good but must be employed critically to lead to moral principles.
One of his main arguments in Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason is that people can understand the moral law without the aid of organised religion. It is simply redundant as a moral aid. He goes even further: There is an inherent tension between morality and religion because there is a danger that people may act morally not because it is the right thing to do but because their religion prescribes it. This would take away the value of a good act: Kant is convinced that we can do the right thing for the wrong reasons, which would be devoid of moral merit. Achieving desirable outcomes is not enough; moral merit lies in the right intentions that are freely willed. Freedom is the necessary ground for the existence of the moral law.
In his Critique of Practical Reason (and no, the slimmer Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is not going to give you the full picture on Kant’s ethics), Kant elaborates on his ideas about how moral judgements can be made. A maxim, a moral belief, must stand the test of the ‘categorical imperative’ before it can become a moral law. Moral laws, thus believes Kant, are not contingent, they are not ‘hypothetical’ imperatives, but universal principles, ‘categorical’ imperatives. Pure reason fails in the area of knowledge but comes into its own in the area of moral judgements. We can rationally figure out what to do by identifying the principle that lies behind a proposed course of action: What do I commit myself to by doing x? Next, we need to find out whether the principle can be a categorical imperative by asking ourselves if we could will it to be a universal law, as unbreakable as a natural law. The categorical imperative is strongly bound up with a belief in the dignity of the human individual. It would be absurd to deny that all human beings are moral lawgivers, and as such merit our respect. It is therefore rational to treat them accordingly, i.e. never to simply use others for our own ends but to respect that they too have ends.
Kant once said that in philosophy we are interested in three great questions: “What can I know?”, “What should I do?” and “What may I hope?” These three, however, can be subsumed under one great question: “What is a human being?” If making a contribution to this project is the aim of all philosophising, we must go further than talking only about knowledge and ethics. Kant therefore writes a third Critique, the Critique of Judgement, concerned with the areas of aesthetics and religion. After all, the question of the human being would be very inadequately answered if we didn’t for instance examine the fact that we can appreciate things from an aesthetic point of view. Kant’s critical philosophy is not opposed to system-building, and the three Critiques constitute a system of a kind.
What has Kant ever done for us? Let’s see… In the case of many thinkers of the past we’d now have to try so hard to find good reasons for reading them today, the strain might make the veins stand out on our foreheads. In the case of Kant there is so much to say, it’s hard to make a choice of what to mention. Apart from his enduring groundbreaking contributions to the philosophical fields of epistemology, ethics and aesthetics, Kant demonstrates that there are definite limits to what philosophy can do, and so asks us to give up on a number of pet projects, such as attempts to prove the existence of God. Kant’s short but important essay on ‘Perpetual Peace’ acquires more and new relevance in the light of events today and continues to inspire many contemporary thinkers. Kant’s thought contributes in important respects to our globalised world: it paved the way for our contemporary understanding of human rights, the United Nations and human freedom.
The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant makes it very clear that he believes his age to be one of enlightenment, where a process of emancipation has become possible, but not an enlightened age. Two hundred years further on – where are we now?
© Dr Anja Steinbauer 2005