Immanuel Kant Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111207232-Kant.jpg Immanuel Kant (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Kant vindicated the authority of science while preserving the autonomy of morals by means of a new system of thought called critical or transcendental philosophy.

Early Life

Immanuel Kant was the son of a harness maker and the grandson of a Scottish emigrant. As a child, Kant was especially close to his mother, a serene woman who possessed an incisive curiosity about the natural world and a great native intelligence. As one of nine children in a devout Lutheran Pietist family, Kant was reared to respect inner tranquillity, industry, truthfulness, godliness, and order as the highest goods in human life. Kant’s mother died when he was thirteen, but he remembered her throughout his life with deep devotion; he told his friends that she had planted and nurtured the first seed of good in him and that her teachings had both opened his mind and provided a healing influence on his life.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Kant’s life, especially in the light of his profound and pervasive influence on the history of Western thought, is his provinciality. Kant never left the environs of the town of Königsberg in which he was born. He was educated in the local high school, the Collegium Freidericianum, and later at the University of Königsberg. After completing his baccalaureate studies in 1746, he worked as a tutor for a number of local families. He was able to maintain his studies while working as a tutor and so was able to take his master’s degree at Königsberg in 1755. That same year, he was appointed to the post of privatdocent (private lecturer) in the university. He gave regular courses of lectures, which continued through his 1770 appointment to the professorship of logic and metaphysics. Kant’s early lectures and writings covered diverse topics, including physical geography, anthropology, mathematics, and theoretical physics, as well as logic, metaphysics, and moral philosophy.

Life’s Work

Kant did his most original and important work quite late in his life. His project of critical philosophy began with Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; The Critique of Pure Reason, 1838), on which he worked between 1775 and 1781. This work aimed to resolve the disputes of all contemporary and traditional metaphysics by reinterpreting the conditions for human knowledge. Kant viewed the whole history of metaphysical inquiry as a series of failures to establish conclusive truths of first principles concerning God, human freedom, and immortality. In particular, he observed that rational cosmology (that is, metaphysical speculation concerning the nature of the world and its origin) was prone toward generating conflicting demonstrations which appeared to be equally valid. Kant named these conflicting arguments “antinomies,” and he found them to be in a sense inherent in reason itself. In Kant’s view, the preponderance of antinomies in the history of thought cast doubt on the whole enterprise of metaphysics.

Juxtaposed to his preoccupation with the self-contradictory nature and uncertainty of metaphysics were Kant’s deep convictions about the value and trustworthiness of Isaac Newton’s mathematical science. Mathematics and natural science yielded genuine knowledge. Kant took this as a clue to the sort of reformation that was called for in metaphysics. By inquiring into what made mathematical science possible, Kant hoped to uncover the conditions under which true metaphysical knowledge is possible.

Here is Kant’s seminal discovery: What makes knowledge possible in mathematics or physics is man’s possession of necessarily true propositions which are universally recognized as correct without any reference to experience. An example of such a proposition in mathematics is, “The sum of the angles in a triangle are equal to two right angles.” The possession of such truths proves that man’s cognition of the world is not necessarily a product of experience or the functioning of his senses. From one’s senses one obtains raw intuitions, but these intuitions do not constitute authentic cognitions. Raw intuitions become substantive cognitions only when they are processed actively by the mind. The mind organizes and synthesizes the raw intuitions according to innate rules. Without the raw intuitions given by the senses a person could not be aware of any object, but without the active participation of the mind that person could form no conception of any object.

Kant reasoned that the certainty of science rested on the purity of its truths, that is, their independence of sensation. Nothing that was given to sense experience from the outside could be guaranteed even by science, for an additional observation might reveal an alternate sequence which would prove the scientist’s first conclusion to be neither always nor inevitably true—neither universal nor necessary. If observational science was to be certain, it must proceed from propositions that were pure of sensation, that were a priori, or “present from the very first.”

From this discovery, Kant devolved a new, chastened metaphysics, free of the liabilities of all previous metaphysical inquiry. He had determined...

(The entire section is 2144 words.)