Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher of the late 18th and early 19th century, whose work constitutes arguably one of, if not the, most important contributions to modern philosophy. This article offers a brief biography of Kant, and summarizes his contributions to metaphysics and ethical theory. It will also discuss Kant’s impact on the development of philosophy and consider whether his philosophy was a break with pre-existing ways of thinking, an extension of a tendency latent in European culture, or both.
Immanuel Kant: Life and Reputation
Kant was born, lived and died in Königsberg, Prussia (now called Kalingrad in Russia). He came from a modest background, as his father was a harness maker. Kant’s parents emphasized discipline, hard work, and education. Kant attended the Collegium Fridericianum, a Pietist school in Königsberg. There he received a solid education in mathematics, science, and the classics. During his time here, he developed a strong interest in philosophy and began studying the works of philosophers such as Descartes and Leibniz. After completing his secondary education, Kant enrolled at the University of Königsberg in 1740. He initially studied theology, but he soon shifted his focus to philosophy, physics, and mathematics.
Kant was deeply influenced by the ideas of Christian Wolff, a prominent German philosopher of the time who sought to reconcile rationalism and empiricism. Although Kant’s academic career wasn’t seamless – he had to spend some period of time as a private tutor to make ends meet – Kant was a well-respected academic by the 1760s, well before any of Kant’s mature philosophical work was written. It is important to stress here that Kant’s posthumous reputation, more than for many philosophers, depends for the most part on his latest works: especially his Critiques (of Pure Reason, Practical Reason and Pure Judgment) and his major ethical works The Metaphysics of Morals, and the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals.
Immanuel Kant and Metaphysics
It is difficult to summarize a philosopher’s work when it traverses so many different areas, and when much of this work is extremely systematic, in the sense that it must be understood as a whole if it is to be understood thoroughly. That said, in Kant’s case it is worth drawing a distinction between his metaphysics and his ethics for our purposes. Kant’s approach to metaphysics was revolutionary, and remains exceptionally influential for philosophers both analytic-Anglophonic and theoretical-continental.
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Perhaps he was the last metaphysician of whom that was true. His metaphysics turns on what has come to be known as the Copernican revolution in philosophy. This label is due to his analogy to the world of Copernicus, who in order to make sense of his observations of the cosmos, denied the consensus view that the sun moves around the Earth and held (correctly) that the Earth moves around the Sun. In a similar way, Kant’s philosophy holds that, rather than our faculties of perception and intellection allowing us to understand things as they are independently of us, it is these faculties which constitute the things which appear to us.
For Kant, such elements of perception as space and time are a function of the way in which we process reality, rather than indelible parts of that reality. At best, we can make partial inferences about them, at worst we cannot know much (or anything) at all. Various interpretations and adaptations of Kant have taken a more optimistic or pessimistic view on this point.
Kant’s view that what we can know is best understood by analyzing our faculties, especially our faculty for reason, is an important similarity between his metaphysics and his ethics. Kant’s ethics are one of the three most prominent schools of ethical thought today, along with utilitarianism and virtue ethics. His approach is in deontological ethics, meaning that it is based on following certain rules. In order to articulate the basis of this rules based system, Kant argues that all rules are dependent on a certain rule, which is the Categorical Imperative.
All other rules can be derived from this, and – unlike many of the rules which we might take to order our lives – the Categorical Imperative is pre-eminent precisely because it is the law which an ‘autonomous will’ adopts. In other words, morality is both a system of rules and a mirror of human rationality.