Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant (German pronunciation: [ɪˈmaːnu̯eːl ˈkant]) (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) was a professor of philosophy at Königsberg, in Prussia, researching, lecturing and writing on philosophy during and at the end of the 18th Century Enlightenment.

At the time, there were major successes and advances in physical science (for example, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Edmund Burke) using reason and logic. But this stood in sharp contrast to the scepticism and lack of agreement or progress in empiricist philosophy.

Kant’s magnum opus, the Critique of Pure Reason, aimed to unite reason with experience to move beyond these failures of traditional philosophy and metaphysics. He ended an age of speculation where objects outside experience were used to support what he saw as futile theories, while also giving sound arguments against the scepticism and idealism of thinkers such as Descartes, Berkeley and Hume.

He said that ‘it always remains a scandal of philosophy and universal human reason that the existence of things outside us … should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a satisfactory proof’ Kant proposed a ‘Copernican Revolution’, saying that ‘Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but …let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition.’.

He showed that this was possible through analysing the necessary conditions and features of our mental make up. These, he said, underlay and justified our knowledge and experiences of an objective world. This was parallel to Copernicus’ view that the observer’s state of motion affected how he saw the state of motion of external bodies.

Kant published other important works on religion, law, aesthetics, astronomy and history. These included the Critique of Practical Reason (Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788), which deals with ethics, and the Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790), which looks at aesthetics and teleology. He aimed to resolve disputes between empirical and rationalist approaches. The former asserted that all knowledge comes through experience: the latter maintained that reason and innate ideas were prior. Kant argued that experience is purely subjective without first being processed by pure reason. He also said that using reason without applying it to experience will only lead to theoretical illusions. The free and proper exercise of reason by the individual was both a theme of the Enlightenment, and of Kant’s approaches to the various problems of philosophy.

His ideas influenced many thinkers in Germany during his lifetime. He settled, and moved philosophy beyond, the debate between the rationalists and empiricists. The philosophers Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Schopenhauer amended and developed the Kantian system, thus bringing about various forms of German idealism. He is seen as a major figure in the history and development of philosophy. German and European thinking progressed after his time, and his influence still inspires philosophical work today.

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