Immanuel Kant Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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Immanuel Kant 1724-1804

German philosopher.

Considered one of the most important and influential figures in Western philosophy, Kant developed a comprehensive philosophical system in which he analyzed the foundations of metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. The most important exposition of his ideas can be found in his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason), Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788; Critique of Practical Reason), and Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790; Critique of Judgment). In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant decisively altered the development of modern philosophy by insisting on a separation of the "sensible" and "intelligible" worlds, that which can be perceived by the senses and that which can be ascertained only by the intellect. He applied this distinction to the ethical realm in the Critique of Practical Reason, wherein he argued that an individual's moral decisions are based on rational precepts that are independent of experience in the world and therefore display the exercise of free will. In his study of the basis of aesthetic discrimination, the Critique of Judgment, Kant continued this line of thinking, suggesting that nature, like humanity, has an ideal purpose—a moral end that is revealed by the overall "fitness of things." While Kant is best known for these three central works, his writings on history, politics, and religion are also considered vital contributions to the development of Western thought.

Biographical Information

Kant was born in Königsberg in East Prussia in 1724. His family belonged to the Pietist branch of the Lutheran church, a sect that placed great emphasis on austerity and virtue. Kant's father, a saddler, was of modest means, but through the influence of a local pastor, Kant acquired an excellent formal education. From 1732 to 1740 Kant studied at the local Gymnasium, a Pietist school offering intensive study in Latin. Thereafter he entered the University of Königsberg, where he studied philosophy, mathematics, and the natural sciences under a young instructor named Martin Knutzen, who first introduced him to the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christian von Wolff. Kant's father died in 1746, leaving him without income. Kant found employment as a private tutor for the children of distinguished families, which enabled him to acquire the social graces expected of men of letters at that time. During this period, he published an impressive series of papers on natural history, beginning with Gedanken von der wahren Schätzung der lebendigen Kräfte (1746; Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces), a study of kinetic forces. After completion of his degree in 1755, he spent fifteen years as a non-salaried lecturer, his income derived entirely from modest student fees, and he continued to write prolifically on scientific subjects. In 1764 he published Untersuchung über die Deutlichkeit der Grundsätze der natürlichen Theologie und der Moral, a critique of traditional metaphysics as defined by Leibniz, which is considered his most important work of this formative period.

Kant was appointed to the chair of logic and metaphysics at the University of Königsberg in 1770. His inaugural thesis, De mundi sensibilis atque intelligibilis forma et principiis dissertatio (Dissertation on the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible Worlds), published the same year, is important for its distinction between sense and understanding, a key concept in his philosophical system. Kant published little while he composed his Critique of Pure Reason, which appeared in 1781, initiating the series of extraordinary works that ultimately brought him widespread recognition for his Critical Philosophy. For the next twenty years, Kant's reputation as a leading spokesman of Enlightenment thought increased as he continued to write prolifically on philosophy, religion, and political theory. A treatise on theology, Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (1793; Religion within the...

(The entire section is 1,384 words.)