Immanuel Kant is considered the most influential philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment and one of the greatest Western thinkers of all times. His contribution to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics had a substantial influence almost on every philosophical movement that followed him. Also, Kant was one of the most important figures in the development of modern science. His main contribution to the rise of modern science was its liberation from theology.
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Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in Königsberg, which was the capital of Prussia at that time. His parents were Pietist, and Kant went to a Pietist school, the Collegium Fridericianum (“Immanuel Kant”). Pietism was related to a strict Lutheran movement that emphasized arduous religious devotion, introspection, and a literal interpretation of the Bible. Although Kant disliked Pietist schooling, he respected and admired his parents, whose hard work, honesty, and independence influenced him a lot.
When Kant studied at the University of Königsberg, he got interested in philosophy. At that time, he was introduced to the works of Christian Wolff, John Locke, G.W. Leibnitz, and Isaac Newton. Kant’s first work Thought on True Estimation on Living Forces, published in 1747, was evidently influenced by the work of Isaac Newton (“Immanuel Kant”). When his father died, Kant was left without income and had to interrupt the studies. He worked as a private tutor for about six years outside Königsberg. In 1754, Kant returned and started teaching philosophy at the Albertina, where he worked for the next forty years until his retirement in 1796.
In 1755, Kant published Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heaven. In the work, he developed a theory that later was called the nebular hypothesis (“Immanuel Kant”). The theory explained the formation and evolution of the Solar System and became the most widely accepted model in the field of cosmogony. A New Elucidation and The Physical Monadology were his first works related mainly to metaphysics, in which Kant continued developing his view on the interaction of finite substances.
Both works demonstrated the influence of Christian August Crusius (“Immanuel Kant”). Since Kant was a non-salaries lecturer, and he was paid by the students who came to his lectures, he had to work a lot to earn his living. At that period, Kant was interested in the works of British sentimentalist philosophers, especially, Davis Hume and Francis Hutcheson, and the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“Immanuel Kant”). Kant was popular among the students and established a reputation of intellectual in the local society.
In 1763, Kant published a major work The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God. In the book, he developed “an argument for God’s existence as a condition of the internal possibility of all things,” whereas he criticized other arguments on the matter (“Immanuel Kant”). In his another work, published in the same year, The Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy, Kant observed that the real opposition of conflicting forces could not be reduced to the logical relation of contradiction (“Immanuel Kant”).
Besides, he argued that “the morality of an action is a function of the internal forces that motivate one to act, rather than of the external (physical) actions or their consequences” (“Immanuel Kant”). The next work Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime focused on the connection between finer feelings and humanity. Kant claimed that individuals with different temperaments and dispositions cannot have the same senses for the finer feelings.
In 1766, Kant published Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics, his first publication regarding the possibility of metaphysics. In this work, which was caused by Kant’s interest to the Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg, he satirically paralleled Swedenborg’s visions to the idea of rationalist metaphysicians about the immortality of an incorporeal soul (“Immanuel Kant”).
He concluded that due to the limited experience of the human reason, philosophical knowledge about these questions is impossible. However, Kant noted that “moral faith” supports the belief in an immortal and immaterial soul, although it is impossible to get metaphysical knowledge in this sphere.
When Kant got a promotion, he included new subjects to his lectures such as anthropology, rational theology, pedagogy, and natural right. He wrote a Latin dissertation, known as The Inaugural Dissertation. In this work, Kant differentiated between two basic powers of cognition: sensibility and intelligence. He viewed sensibility separately from intelligence and stated that sensibility provides sensory representations. All the representations through sensibility are structured by two subjective forms of space and time, but moral judgments are caused by reason alone.
According to Kant’s views, sensibility enables the access to the sensible world, whereas intelligence helps human beings to understand a distinct intelligible world (“Immanuel Kant”). Later, he rejected the idea that human reason can have insight into an intelligible world, and concluded that the reason together with sensibility “supplies forms that structure our experience of the sensible world, to which human knowledge is limited, while the intelligible world is strictly unknowable to us” (“Immanuel Kant”). Kant worked on The Critique of Pure Reason from 1770 to 1781. Another major work that followed was The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, which became his first mature work on moral philosophy.
In 1790, Kant published The Critique of the Power of Judgment, the book on aesthetics and teleology (“Immanuel Kant”). In the work the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant discussed the possibility of metaphysics. He defined metaphysics as “the cognitions after which reason might strive independently of all experience” (qtd. in “Immanuel Kant”). In the book, he aimed to reach a “decision about the possibility or impossibility of a metaphysics in general, and the determination of its sources, as well as its extent and boundaries, all, however, from principles” (qtd. in “Immanuel Kant”). Therefore, metaphysics for him related to a priori knowledge, which is the knowledge that comes pure from reasoning, independent of experience.
In both works The Critique and The Inaugural Dissertation, Kant tried to reunite science with morality and religion, referring them to sensible and intelligible worlds. He attempted to clarify the probability of a priori knowledge about the world that does not depend on the human mind, however, he reached a deadlock. Nevertheless, The Critique had another important view that people can have a priori knowledge about the general structure of the sensible world as it is not completely dependent on the mind.
The human mind builds the sensible world from a combination of sensory experience that people get passively and a priori forms supplied by the cognitive faculties of a human being (“Immanuel Kant”). The central thesis of the work is that human experience is appearances, not things in themselves. According to the book, “space and time are only subjective forms of human intuition that would not subsist in themselves if one were to abstract from all subjective conditions of human intuition” (“Immanuel Kant”). Kant called the thesis transcendental idealism.
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Human autonomy is a fundamental idea in Kant’s philosophy. According to his works, human reason does not supply the content of the experience, although it arranges the content received through the senses. Kant argued that it is a condition of self-consciousness that human intelligence builds experience in such a way. Since human a priori knowledge about the structure of nature is based on self-consciousness, it can be called the highest principle of Kant’s philosophy.
“Immanuel Kant.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016. Web.