Immanuel Kant was born on April 22nd, 1724. He was born in Konigsberg near the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea.1 At the time, Konigsberg was the capital of East Prussia. German was the language predominantly spoken in the city. Though geographically remote from the rest of Prussia, it was a key commercial center, military port, and a cosmopolitan university town.2 Kant grew up to become a renowned tutor, teacher, lecturer, and one of the most respected philosophers of his time. He published many papers during his academic career. One of them was The Critique of Pure Reason, an enormous volume, and one of the most important texts on western thought.3 He published more critiques in the years preceding his death on February 12th, 1804.
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Background and Early Years
Kant was born into a humble family of modest means. His father, Johann Georg Kant (1683-1746), was a master harness maker in Konigsberg. On her part, his mother, Anna Regina Kant (1697-1737), was the daughter of a harness maker.4 Immanuel Kant was the fourth child of Kant’s. However, at his birth, his only surviving sibling was a five-year-old sister. Many children did not survive early childhood in the eighteenth century. The death of the children took a toll on Anne Kant. As such, he was naming her son Emmanuel during his baptism answered a real concern and heartfelt sentiment for him. However, Kant changed his name to Immanuel later on after learning Hebrew.5
Johann Georg Kant had moved to Konigsberg from Tilsit.6 At the time, all craftsmen belonged to a specific guild. As such, Georg Kant was unable to break into the trade as an outsider with no guild affiliation. However, his marriage to Anna Regina (the daughter of a master tradesman) on November 13th, 1715, opened the way for him to make a living as an independent tradesman.7 Immanuel Kant’s mother was better educated than most women in the eighteenth century.
She took note of Kant’s attention to objects in nature and admired his keen understanding of things and advanced comprehension of his surroundings. The family lived fairly well during Kant’s early childhood. However, things became worse as he grew older. The death of his grandfather on 1st March 1729, left Johann George as the sole provider for the whole family. The family had to relocate to their grandmother’s house to be able to offer comfort and take better care of her. The new business location was not as profitable as the old one. As a result, there was a steady decline in income. In spite of all this, Johann Georg and Anna Regina did all they could to provide a safe environment for their children.
Kant’s Grandmother died in 1735.8 Though sad for the family, the death took some pressure off the family with one less mouth to feed. There was also less work for the mother and more room for the children. In November of the same year, Kant’s mother gave birth to another child, a son named Johann Heinrich.9 Anna Regina died at the age of forty on 18th December 1737. Her death was as a result of constant strain. Her ninth pregnancy had also taken a toll on her body and general health. Immanuel Kant was largely affected by the death of his mother as he was only 13 years old at the time of her death.
Kant was a solid and unspectacular student. He was brought up in a pietist household that emphasized religious devotion, humility, and literal interpretation of the Bible.10 Pietism was an evangelical Lutheran society that focused on conversion, dependence on divine grace, the experience of religious emotions, and personal devotion. It involved regular Bible study, prayers, and meditation.11 Kant’s education was strict, punitive, and disciplinary.
The boy expressed his aptitude for studies at an early age. He first attended school at the Collegium Fridericianum. Kant sought refuge from the strong and forced soul searching that students were subjected to at the school by enrolling in Latin classics, which were central to the school’s curriculum. His later emphasis on reason and autonomy, rather than emotion and dependence on either authority or grace at an older age, may have been informed by his experience of pietism at school.12 However, his hatred of pietism did not make him respect his pietist parents any less. Kant graduated from Collegium Fridericianum at the end of summer in 1740.
Immanuel joined college at the University of Konigsberg.13 His earlier interest in classics was quickly replaced by a thirst for knowledge in philosophy. At the university, philosophy encompassed mathematics, logic, physics, ethics, natural law, and metaphysics.14 When teaching philosophy at the university, most of the lecturers applied the approach of Christian Wolff. Wolff’s critical synthesis of the philosophy of Leibniz (1679-1750) was popular and influential in German universities at the time.
However, Kant was also exposed to a wide range of people who criticized the teachings of Wolff. There were also strong followers of Aristotelianism and Pietism in the school’s Philosophy Department, who heavily influenced Kant’s thinking. For instance, Knutzen’s (1713-1751) teachings of Isaac Newton are largely present in Kant’s first work, ‘Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces’. The text was published in 1747.15 The book was a critical attempt to mediate on a dispute in natural history between the supporters of Leibniz and those of Isaac Newton over the proper measurements of force.16
Knutzen dissuaded Kant from the theory of pre-established harmony, which he regarded as “the pillow for the lazy mind17 He also discouraged Kant from adhering to idealism, the idea that reality is purely mental. Idealism was negatively regarded by most philosophers in the 18th century. His father’s stroke and subsequent death in 1746 greatly affected his studies.18 He left school shortly after in August 1748 to become a private tutor for young children outside Konigsberg. It was mainly because after the death of his father, his finances were no longer secure enough for him to continue with an academic career. However, Kant finally returned to Konigsberg in 1754, where he taught at Albertina.
Kant had a burst of publishing activities in the years that followed his return from working as a private tutor. He made an important astronomical discovery about the nature of the rotation of the earth. His discovery won him the Berlin Academy Prize in 1754.19 The Universal Natural History and Theory of the heavens in 1755 was a major book in which he developed what later became known as the nebular hypothesis about the formation of the solar system.20
He tried to explain the formation of the solar system from a cloud of gases as opposed to the creation theory, where the solar system was created by God. To become qualified to teach at the university, Kant also wrote two dissertations. The first was the ‘Concise Outline of Some Reflections on Fire’. The second was the ‘New Elucidation of the First Principles of Metaphysical Cognition’. He published the two works in 1755.21 In 1756, he published yet another Latin work, ‘The Employment in Natural Philosophy of Metaphysics Combined with Geometry’.22
After several years of relative calm, Kant released another burst of publications between 1762 and 1764. They included five philosophical works. In 1762, he published ‘The False Subtlety of the Four Syllogistic Figures: A Work in Logic’.23
Two more works were released the following year. They were ‘The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God’ and ‘Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy’.24 In 1762, Kant submitted an essay titled ‘Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality’ to a prize competition by the Prussian Royal Academy.25 His submission took second place to Moses Mendelssohn’s essay.
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The essay was not published until 1764. In 1766, Kant published his first work in metaphysics, ‘Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics’. The publication was heavily influenced by Kant’s fascination with the Swedish visionary, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772).26 On March 31st, 1770, at the age of 45, Kant was finally appointed Full Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Konigsberg. The appointment came after teaching for 15 years as an unsalaried teacher. To cement and defend this new position, he wrote his last Latin dissertation, ‘Principles of the Sensible and the Intelligible World’.27 The publication was also popularly known as the inaugural dissertation.
Kant spent a decade working on the critique of pure reason and never published any other significant work between 1770 and 1781. Although fond of company and conversations with others, he isolated himself and resisted his friends’ attempts to bring him out of his eleven-year long isolation. He never surrendered his view that sensibility and understanding are distinct powers of cognition.28
He was also of the view that space and time are independent forms of human susceptibility. In addition, he believed that moral judgments are based on pure understanding. His embrace of Platonism in the Inaugural Dissertation was short-lived. He soon denied that our understanding is capable of insight into an intelligible world.29 The understanding cleared the path for his mature position in the critique of pure reason.
When he finally emerged from his silence in 1781, the result was the critique of pure reason. In this work, Kant tries to ascertain the scope and limits of pure reason. He formulated his critique in terms of questions. The first question was, “How are synthetic a priori judgments possible?”.30 He argued that judgment is synthetic if it has substantive content. It is ‘more formal’ if the process of the predicate is not already contained in the concept of the subject. Otherwise, it is analytic.31
According to this critic, a judgment can either be prior or posterior. It is prior if it can be known independently of experience. On the other hand, it is posterior if it can only be known through experience. As such, the practical dictates of pure reason, if any, must be expressed in synthetic a priori judgments. The question of the power of reasons is one that deals with ‘how much’ judgments can be established. It is the major question in Kant’s critique.32
The philosopher believed that principles of understanding could be established only for phenomena or things as they appear to us. As a result, the principles of understanding are recognized as conditions of the possibility of our experience.
The work was largely ignored upon its initial publication. It was mainly as a result of the lengthy nature of the book’s original edition and the complex style in which it was written. It received a few reviews, which gave it little importance. However, Kant’s former student, Johann Gottfried, criticized it for placing reason as an entity worth of criticism instead of considering the process of reasoning within the context of language and one’s entire personality. As such, he rejected Kant’s position that space and time possessed a form that could be analyzed.33
Disappointed by his work’s reception, Kant wrote ‘The Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics’ in 1783. It was a summary of his main views in the critique of pure reason.34 His reputation was later rekindled, sparked by a series of important works. In 1784, he wrote an essay titled ‘Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’. Later on, in 1785, he wrote his first paper on moral philosophy, ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals35 In this paper, Kant’s purpose was to seek out and establish the supreme principle of morality. The work was divided into two sections. In the first part, Kant analyzes what we suppose to know and uncovers what that knowledge presupposes.
He infers that an agent who does something out of duty sees doing the action or promoting its purpose as something that is required of him, while a person who acts out of good will sees his maxim as having the form of law.36 As such, he concludes that the principle of good will is ‘the principle of adopting those maxims that you can only to be laws.’ The work was heavily criticized by Hegel. His contention was that the formula developed by Kant was empty and did not yield substantial and morally correct results.37
Kari Leonhard’s letters in 1786 on Kantian philosophy made Kant’s critique of the pure reason more famous. In the letters, Leonhard argued that Kant’s critique of pure reason could settle the debate on the value of reason by defending the authority and bounds of this concept.38 In 1787, Kant published a heavily revised second edition of ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’.39 In the edition, the philosopher tried to explain his critique in fewer details and from a less complex point of view. He continued to develop moral philosophies, notably ‘The Critique of Practical Reason’ in 1788 and ‘The Critique of Judgment’ in 1790.40
With these works, Kant secured international fame and came to dominate German philosophy in the late 1780s. In 1790, he announced that ‘The Critique of the Power of Judgment’ would be the end of his critical originality. However, he continued publishing other important works shortly after the announcement. In 1792, he rubbed shoulders with the authorities after publishing the second of the four pieces on ‘Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason’.41
The work was met with fierce opposition from the king’s Censorship Commission. The organization had been established for theological censorship. Kant arranged for the pieces to be published through the philosophical department. As a result, he avoided the need for theological censorship. Following the defiance, the king ordered him never to publish or speak of religion in public. Kant published ‘The Conflict of Faculties’ in response to the king’s reprimand.42 He also wrote a number of semi popular essays on history and politics in the late 1790s. They included the ‘Doctrine of Virtue’ and the ‘Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View’ in 1797 and 1798 respectively.43
Kant retired from teaching in the late 1790s.44 For nearly two decades, he had lived a highly disciplined life, focused primarily on completing his philosophical system. The system had taken shape in his mind since his early childhood. At the time of his retirement, he believed that there was a gap in the system separating the metaphysical foundations of natural sciences from physics itself.45 He set out to close this gap in a series of notes that suggest the existence of an ether or caloric matter.46 The late notes, which are known as ‘Opus Post Mum’, were never published. They showed signs of his declining mental health. His health worsened at the start of 1800. The philosopher died on 12th February, 1804, just short of his eightieth birthday.47
Immanuel Kant is without doubt one of the most significant philosophers in the history of western philosophy. His contributions to metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and epistemology will have a lasting and profound impact on people in these fields. His criticism of major theories, such as utilitarianism, will continue affecting how these frameworks are interpreted and used throughout the course of history. Many lessons can be learnt from the simple but dedicated life that Immanuel Kant lived.
Burnham, Douglas. Kant’s Philosophies of Judgement. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
Kant, Immanuel. Toward Perpetual Peace and other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Kuehn, Manfred. Kant: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Kul-Want, Christopher, and Andrzej Klimowski. Introducing Kant: A Graphic Guide. London: Icon Books Ltd., 2011.
Uleman, Jennifer. An Introduction to Kant’s Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Wood, Allen. Kant. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell Pub., 2004.
Bozzo, Alexander. “The Cambridge Companion to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.” Kant-Studien 106, no. 1 (2015): 136-142.
Dulce, Maria, Castro Granja, and Gustavo Martinez. “Biblioteca Immanuel Kant.” Kant Studien 106, no. 1 (2015): 165-168.
Friedrich, Paulsen, James Creighton, and Albert Lefevre. “Immanuel Kant, His Life and Doctrine.” The Philosophical Review 11, no. 5 (1902): 542-543.
Stark, Werner. “Immanuel Kant- Ein Dichter?.” Kant-Studien 91, no. 1 (2000): 143-147.
- Paulsen Friedrich, James Creighton, and Albert Lefevre, “Immanuel Kant, His Life, and Doctrine,” The Philosophical Review 11, no. 5 (1902): 542.
- Manfred Kuehn, Kant: A Biography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 34.
- Ibid., 44.
- Christopher Kul-Want and Andrzej Klimowski, Introducing Kant: A Graphic Guide (Icon Books Ltd., 2011), 12.
- Ibid., 45.
- Friedrich et al., 543.
- Kuehn, 88.
- Werner Stark, “Immanuel Kant- Ein Dichter?,” Kant-Studien 91, no. 1 (2000): 145.
- Ibid., 146.
- Friedrich et al., 543.
- Maria Dulce, Castro Granja, and Gustavo Martinez, “Biblioteca Immanuel Kant,” Kant Studien 106, no. 1 (2015): 165.
- Ibid., 167.
- Ibid., 165.
- Allen Wood, Kant (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell Pub., 2004), 99.
- Kul-Want and Klimowski, 34.
- Kul-Want and Klimowski, 12.
- Friedrich et al., 543.
- Dulce et al., 168.
- Kuehn, 40.
- Kul-Want and Klimowski, 22.
- Alexander Bozzo, “The Cambridge Companion to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason,” Kant-Studien 106, no. 1 (2015): 136.
- Kul-Want and Klimowski, 43.
- Ibid., 44.
- Friedrich et al., 543.
- Jennifer Uleman, An Introduction to Kant’s Moral Philosophy (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 90.
- Douglas Burnham, Kant’s Philosophies of Judgment (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 122.
- Immanuel Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 9.
- Kuehn, 71.