In June, 2001, University of Washington psychology professor David Barash published an intriguing essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Kant Isn’t Just for Kindergartners.” Observing how frequently children are taught to behave by being asked, “How would you like it if everybody did that?” Barash claims that “most of us are intuitive Kantians.” While few are able to work through Kant’s dense prose, his “categorical imperative” has become the standard for describing ideal moral behavior. Humans should always act, Kant says, in a way that they would expect everyone else to act in the same circumstances. Though he may be difficult to comprehend, Barash says, Kant’s elucidation of the principle that the moral man lives by universally applicable maxims of conduct has been accepted and practiced by millions who may have no idea who Kant was.
Barash’s essay is telling in two ways. First, it highlights the permanence and the continuing importance of Kant’s work in setting out the terms for judging human behavior. Second, it perpetuates stereotypes about his life that have come to be accepted as fact. Like Barash, most students of philosophy or the history of ideas believe Kant “lived a life of almost painful regularity,” so much so that the inhabitants of Königsberg could set their watch by his movements. It is almost as though Kant has become the living trope to personify the mechanical universe that so many of his Enlightenment contemporaries came to celebrate in all forms of scholarly investigation.
Manfred Kuehn’s Kant: A Biography does much to dispel this notion. As he explains in his prologue, Kuehn is concerned that Kant’s earliest biographers did not always present their subject objectively, and subsequent life studies have often repeated the distorted judgments that are detrimental to appreciating both the man and his work. Kuehn’s aim is to write “an intellectual biography of Kant that shows how Kant’s intellectual concerns were rooted” in the eighteenth century, specifically in the concerns of fellow citizens of Prussia and of Europe as a whole. Using letters, memoirs, and official documents from the period, as well as the massive compilation of Kant’s work, Kuehn assembles a comprehensive biography that expertly combines the story of the philosopher’s life with an explanation of the philosophical system for which he became notorious during his lifetime, and famous after his death.
Kuehn takes great pains to show the human side of Kant. The received view of the philosopher as a robotic, clock-driven automaton living quietly in a backwater town near the Polish border is simply not accurate. It is true that Kant spent nearly all his life in Königsberg, a city in what is now northeastern Germany that had been for years the capital of Prussia; even when the government moved to Berlin, Königsbergers continued to consider themselves a special set. It is also true, Kuehn admits, that Kant was a man of regular habits. Especially later in his life, he was given to establishing and following a daily schedule that fellow citizens of Königsberg found so rigid that they laughed good-naturedly about it. What this impression fails to account for, however, is the fact that Kant was a gregarious individual who had many friends with whom he socialized regularly. He was close to a number of friends and students, especially the English merchants Joseph Green and Robert Motherby and fellow professors Johann Hamann and Christian Kraus. For decades he either met for hours with associates at their homes or entertained them in his. Kuehn’s account of Kant’s physical infirmities (he suffered from stomach problems for years) and his decision to purchase his first house in 1783—when he was nearly sixty—add particularly humanizing touches to his life story.
Kuehn also emphasizes the importance Kant gave to his duties as a teacher. From the time he joined the faculty at Königsberg as...
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