The first philosopher to write his principal works in German, Kant spent his entire life in Königsberg, East Prussia, and he taught at the university there. Under Frederick the Great Prussia was governed by a form of enlightened absolutism that allowed Kant to write freely on whatever he pleased. Indeed, his essay What Is Enlightenment? (1784) defended absolutism as a means of reconciling the potentially conflicting demands of political stability and free inquiry. He suggested that the watchword of Prussia should be: “Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey!”
Frederick’s successor, Frederick Wilhelm II sought to impose religious orthodoxy. In 1788 his minister of justice and head of the state department of church and schools, Johann Christoph Wöllner, issued edicts on religion and censorship that effectively prohibited publication of unorthodox writings on religion. Three years later Kant and his publisher, J. E. Biester, sought permission to publish the four parts of his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. The first part received the censor’s imprimatur, but the other parts did not. Kant then submitted the entire manuscript to the theological faculty of the University of Königsberg, which affirmed that it was principally a philosophical, not a theological, work. Under laws governing publication of books, Kant was entitled to seek approval from the philosophy faculty of another university,...
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