5 Quotes by Kant Explained

What are Kant's teachings, and how does he emphasize reason, morality, intentionality, and universal ethical principles in our lives?

Jul 7, 2024By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy

quotes immanuel kant explained


In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant became the link between two eras–Enlightenment and Romanticism. The founder of classical German philosophy refuted dogmatic methods of cognition, believing that the method of critical philosophizing should be taken as a basis for research.


In 1781, Kant produced one of his main and most famous works–Critique of Pure Reason, which explored the cognitive capabilities of the human mind.


Many quotes from Immanuel Kant’s writings took on a life of their own and turned into aphorisms. What are the most popular ones?


1. “Two Things Fill the Mind With Ever New and Increasing Admiration and Awe, the More Often and Steadily We Reflect Upon Them: The Starry Heavens Above Me and the Moral Law Within Me.”

Cafe Terrace at Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The first quote we want to analyze offers an excellent demonstration of how Kant is interested in both natural and moral philosophy and his ideas about transcendental idealism and practical reason.

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Kant believed that the human mind has innate structures that shape our understanding of reality. He argued that our perception of the world is not directly a reflection of external objects but rather something created by our mental faculties organizing sensory input.


According to Kant’s transcendental idealism, we can never know things as they are in themselves because what we perceive is always filtered through these mental structures.


The “starry heavens above me” symbolize the wonders of nature; for Kant, contemplating the vastness and complexity of the universe could evoke awe because it showed how little we knew about it–they represent something beyond comprehension: something sublime.


But Kant also wants to highlight another thing worth admiring: “the moral law within me.” Ethics dominates his philosophy, which seeks to create a system based on rationality without recourse to religious or consequentialist justifications.


For him, inherent in every individual is a sense of duty derived from practical reason. Moral law refers to universal principles guiding human actions and behavior.


By asking us to reflect on these two things–nature’s enormity and beauty (“the starry heavens”) and our capacity for moral reasoning (“the moral law”)–Kant invites us to think about what’s amazing both in terms of ourselves and how small humans are compared with everything else around them.


These two realms, he thinks, showcase human cognitive abilities most strikingly and offer a framework for understanding humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Kant’s quote also helps illustrate his belief in an aesthetic–ethical connection. Captivation by “the starry heavens” and recognizing “the moral law within me” provoke similar feelings: wonder, admiration, and reverence. Both experiences go beyond mere sensory perception, aiming for something deeper–transcendence.


2. “Act Only According to That Maxim Whereby You Can at the Same Time Will That It Should Become a Universal Law.”

An Allegory (‘Vision of a Knight’), Raphael, 1504, Source: the ART.UK


The next quote highlights Kant’s core moral principle, the categorical imperative. According to this principle, our actions should be based on maxims that we can will to become universal laws for all rational beings.


To understand the quote, imagine a person facing a moral choice about lying or telling the truth. They might feel tempted to lie because it would avoid bad consequences for them.


But if they apply the categorical imperative, they must examine their maxim–“I will lie whenever it suits me.” Kant would argue that such a maxim could not possibly be willed as a universal law because if lying became universalized, trust and communication would collapse. Without communication, lying becomes impossible.


Now consider someone considering stealing from an employer: their maxim might be, “I will steal when I want something I cannot afford.”


Once again, Kant’s categorical imperative kicks in by urging us to think of such a maxim as being universally applied. Property rights would collapse if stealing were considered morally permissible for personal gain, and society would be in chaos. More importantly, without property rights, stealing would no longer be possible!


Kant grounds ethics in rationality rather than subjective desires or situations by insisting we act only on principles that can withstand universalization. This is why he refers to rational beings as autonomous agents capable of making ethical choices purely on reason alone.


This quote also brings out another aspect of what is distinctive about Kantian ethics–its idea of human dignity and worth. According to the categorical imperative, every individual has inherent worth and deserves equal moral consideration and respect.


Treating others fairly and recognizing their intrinsic value as rational creatures with autonomy helps uphold the universality of ethical principles.


3. “In Law a Man is Guilty When He Violates the Rights of Others. In Ethics He is Guilty if He Only Thinks of Doing So.”

Village Lawyer, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 1621, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In this quote, Kant distinguishes between two realms: law and ethics. It suggests that someone can be legally guilty of violating the rights of others, but they can also be morally guilty even if they only think about doing so.


Guilt concerning law comes about when an individual’s actions cross over established legal boundaries and impinge on the rights of others. This could involve stealing from another person or harming them physically–these activities are observable and objective, with legal consequences such as fines or imprisonment.


But Kant goes beyond legality into the realm of ethics–the internal framework of principles and moral reasoning that guides our behavior. According to his philosophy, true moral guilt is not solely down to external actions but also to any intentions (or inclinations) we harbor internally.


As an example, consider someone who is considering cheating on a test. They have all the knowledge required to succeed honestly but are tempted by laziness or personal gain. Even though they haven’t done anything wrong yet, their thoughts alone would make them morally guilty under Kant’s philosophy.


For Kant, ethical responsibility means recognizing one’s duty towards other people and acting out of respect for universal moral laws. In this case, simply thinking about cheating would mean failing in one’s duty and contravening the principle of treating others with respect/fairness.


Kantian philosophy prioritizes intentionality and draws attention to inner disposition as something important in ethical decision-making processes. It requires individuals to examine the motives behind their actions and evaluate whether those motives align with moral principles that can be universally willed.


4. “Rules for Happiness: Something to Do, Someone to Love, Something to Hope For.”

Dance (La Danse), Henri Matisse, 1909, Source: The Museum of Modern Art


This quote from Kant is all about his understanding of happiness and gives a sense of what he reckoned were the essentials for a fulfilled or meaningful existence. These were having “something to do, someone to love,” and “something to hope for.”


Kant’s take on happiness isn’t about pleasure or getting what you want. It’s about flourishing as a person based on moral worth. True happiness comes from living according to moral principles and doing your duty rather than pure self-interest.


The first bit of the quote is about having something to do–goals, purposes, tasks that have meaning. Examples might include working towards a career, taking up hobbies, volunteering–anything that features in people’s lives with purpose and contributes positively towards their well-being.


Having someone to love speaks for itself–this is essential in Kant’s view: genuine human connections are vital for happiness. Loving relationships provide emotional support, companionship, and identity–fundamental aspects of leading a fulfilling life.


Lastly, there is having something to hope for. This helps people stay optimistic during difficult times because they can see beyond their present circumstances. Aspirations for personal growth or societal progress motivate individuals and help them find purpose outside their current situation. Envisioning improvement could give them reasons to improve themselves and work towards improving society over time.


Throughout this interpretation, we see that Kant understands “happiness” much more than subjective contentment aligned with his wider philosophical framework concerning morality (doing one’s duty), rationality (by adopting universal ethical principles), and worthwhile goal-orientated pursuits such as those described above.


5. “Science Is Organized Knowledge. Wisdom Is Organized Life.”

The Doctor’s Visit, Jan Steen, 1658-1662, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Finally, Kant’s quote draws a line between science and wisdom, pointing out the nature of each as well as their repercussions. According to him, science is organized knowledge; wisdom is organized life.


Science consists of accumulating and systematizing knowledge through observation, experiment, and logical reasoning. This is how we obtain an understanding of how things work: the scientific method.


It provides us with empirical facts and theories that testing can objectively verify. Physics gives us laws governing motion; biology tells us about living organisms; psychology describes human behavior.


But scientific knowledge alone does not lead to wisdom, according to Kant. Wisdom involves more than just intellectual understanding. It includes using your knowledge for practical purposes.


Wisdom means applying what you know about the world when considering what you should do–acting on it–in a way that matches up with moral principles or values.


For example, a scientist whose research specialism was medicine could have vast amounts of knowledge about diseases, treatments, or pharmaceuticals from doing scientific studies. But just because they have this information doesn’t mean they are “wise.”


What if we said, “…a doctor who has accumulated years of clinical experience…?” Could such a doctor really be said to “know” any less than a medical scientist? The point here is that acquiring lots of facts doesn’t automatically give someone wisdom: understanding some abstract proposition isn’t the same thing as being able to put it into practice responsibly (as opposed to irresponsibly), for instance.


Kant thought cultivating wisdom meant acting consistently with universal moral principles rather than personal desires or societal norms.


To be wise, you need to use reason to work out what these principles are–they shouldn’t change depending on who you are or where and when you happen to live. Then, once you’ve done that, your choices should reflect this–as opposed to reflecting self-interest.


So, wisdom involves making ethical (as opposed to immoral) choices. It means leading a moral life and being the kind of person whose decision-making is guided by principles such as respecting the autonomy of others, promoting justice, and striving for the greater good.


So, What Does Kant Teach Us?

Immanuel Kant, Author unknown, c. 1790, Source: Wikimedia Commons


To prioritize reason and morality in our actions and decisions is, in essence, the core of what Kant teaches. Acting out of duty rather than self-interest or external influences, guided by universal moral principles, is the key to Kantian ethics.


Our internal moral compass has a part to play because intentionality matters when it comes to ethical behavior. True moral guilt arises not just from wronging someone externally but also from having thoughts or inclinations toward harming them.


Kant’s ideas reach beyond legality into ethics–what it means to live a morally responsible life. We are invited to reflect on our intentions and maxims: can they be willed as universal laws that apply to all rational beings?


Happiness should not come solely through personal pleasure or satisfying desires but via meaningful pursuits, loving relationships, and hopeful aspirations. True happiness lies in living a life grounded in moral duty and embodying ethical values.


Ultimately, we’re taught by Kant to engage in critical self-reflection, align our actions with reason and morality, cultivate wisdom (that is, organize our lives around ethical principles), and strive for a society based on justice and compassion.

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By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.