Immanuel Kant: Why His Philosophy Is Needed More Than Ever
“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” – Immanuel Kant
Pause for a second and let that quote wash across your synapses.
Trying to find ways to reconcile ourselves to our need for self-transcendence and our duty for moral reasoning is at the epicenter of the thinking mind’s existential angst.
Imanuel Kant possessed such a mind. His ideas were so progressive and potent that he is considered a very central figure in modern philosophy.
His interests were multifarious and his philosophical repertoire included areas like empiricism, rationalism, reason, morality, metaphysics, and aesthetics. He was a very curious mind that attempted to make sense of the world around him in the most plausible way.
People like Kant were rare. Especially during the times wherein he existed.
Back then religion was a strong and dogmatic societal force, enlightenment started to pose a threat to morality, and science was still at an embryonic stage.
Yet, he considered it an intellectual and moral obligation to occupy himself with the big questions of the human condition.
From reason and morality to metaphysics and aesthetics, the core of his belief system was the fundamental idea of human autonomy – How to unshackle ourselves from our delusions and limitations, cultivate self-awareness and self-ownership and eventually allow humanity to move forward with less distress and less conflict.
It takes a lot of courage and audacity to even scratch the surface of such topics.
Kant not only scratched the surface, but he “eroded” it and went deeper than almost anyone.
Immanuel Kant – A short biographical sketch
Immanuel Kant was born April 22, 1724 in Königsberg, Prussia. Today Königsberg has been renamed Kaliningrad and is part of Russia.
His family was artisans of modest means but never destitute.
As a child, Kant was sent to a deeply religious Lutheran school where he was subjected to an intense soul-searching regime that included the study of the Bible, prayer, immersion in religious practices, and reliance on divine grace.
He reacted strongly against this dogmatic and emotional approach to personal development and this was portrayed throughout his life via his extensive promulgation of reason and human autonomy.
After school, he attended college at the University of Königsberg, known as the Albertina. There, his curriculum encompassed various courses like mathematics, physics, logic, ethics, and natural law. He was exposed to various philosophers and scientists but his main influences were Wolff, Leibniz, Newton, Aristotle, Locke, and Hume.
Following his graduation, he worked as a personal tutor for children, to make ends meet, and it wasn’t until 1754, at the age of 30, that he started to lecture in Albertina.
Kant represents the archetype of the quintessential scholar. He was an avid reader and an avid writer. His devotion to his intellectual work was so intense that he spent 16 years teaching as an unsalaried lecturer and working since 1766 as a sublibrarian to supplement his income.
Throughout this time he wrote numerous books and essays on various topics, but the year that stigmatized his life was the year 1781 when he published his Magnus opus, the “Critique of Pure Reason.”
Kant spent many years in isolation to finish this groundbreaking work. The book wasn’t really recognized upon its initial publication. It was dense, difficult to understand, and full of contradictions.
But Kant worked hard to improve his image and, in the upcoming years, published a series of books that clarified his theories and established him as one of the greatest philosophers of all time.
He died in Königsberg on the 12th of February 1804.
The inception of the Critique of pure reason
The “Critique of Pure Reason” is a difficult book to read. Kant uses intimidating vocabulary in his attempt to create concepts that haven’t been encountered before. However, it is one of the most profound books I have ever read.
First off, let’s start with the use of the term “pure.”
This is very crucial because Kant starts from a basis where reason is stripped from every scientific analysis and relies only on what is presupposed by the human mind, or a priori knowledge as he calls it.
The motivation behind his decision to delve into this idea was the crisis of enlightenment during his time.
Reason was the holy grail of enlightenment since it motivated people to think for themselves and also to criticize traditional authorities like the church and the state.
But this paradigm shift engendered different kinds of issues. Reason alone is not a panacea. Helping people think for themselves does not necessarily lead to progress.
Unaided reasoning encourages fatalism, materialism, debauchery, and even authoritarianism.
Even when it came to morality, enlightenment, due to its support of science, could not entirely justify free will, since it is jeopardized by the mechanistic laws of nature.
We must be free in order to choose what is right over what is wrong because otherwise we cannot be held responsible.
So, these mind-boggling conundrums, which gave rise to the intellectual crisis of the Enlightenment, led Kant to the inception of the Critique of Pure reason.
The core of his thinking
During Kant’s time, a very dominant philosophical school of thought was empiricism, according to which, knowledge derives from sensory experience and experimentation; that is we are born, we have experiences, we measure data, and our mind translates that experience and data into knowledge. In a nutshell, the mind is a tabula rasa or a blank slate.
One of the main proponents of this idea was the great Scottish philosopher David Hume.
Hume, based on empiricist ideals, rejected causality and embraced the idea of constant conjunction.
By causality, we mean that every event must have a cause. Hume didn’t like the necessity included in that statement.
When a billiard ball hits another billiard ball, you hear a sound and you see the motion of the two balls. There is a causal sequence, but where in that causal sequence did you perceive necessity? You didn’t perceive it. All you perceived was a succession of changes in the state of the two balls. We saw one event and then another event in conjunction.
Hume’s central argument was that the future is not obligated to mimic the past and that there is no reason to believe in metaphysical, pre-existing knowledge.
Immanuel Kant himself has stated that by reading David Hume, he was awakened by his dogmatic slumbers, meaning that he gave him a different perspective to look at the world.
However, the idea of constant conjunction bothered Kant, who, after intense thinking, came up with the following revelation: In order to support the idea of constant conjunction, you need to presuppose the existence of time and space. So there needs to be some pre-existing knowledge there after all.
This is called Kant’s Copernican revolution in philosophy, for Kant managed to achieve something akin to what Copernicus achieved with astronomy when he questioned the assumption that the earth is the center of the solar system and claimed that the sun is the center instead.
So, Kant postulated that some concepts, like time, space, or numbers, are built in our operational system, so to speak. Our brains are hardwired to perceive time and space without the need to understand them.
He called these concepts, synthetic a priori concepts.
I don’t want to get into the nuts and bolts of why he uses the terms “synthetic” and “a priori.”
But, for the sake of clarity, consider the following:
Synthetic and analytic are used to distinguish between two forms of judgment or argumentation.
Synthetic contradicts analytic in that the subject and the predicate in a judgment are independent.
An example: “Golden retrievers are dogs.” is analytic. “Dogs enjoy chasing squirrels.” is synthetic.
In the first argument, the predicate, “are dogs,” is contained in the subject “Golden retrievers.”
In the second argument, the predicate,“enjoy chasing squirrels,” is distinct from the subject “dogs.”
A priori, which is Latin for “from the former,” means that a judgment is independent of experience.
Example: 2+5=7, or “All bachelors are unmarried.”
The synthetic a priori concepts form the basis for his transcendental argument.
As Immanuel Kant states:
“I call all knowledge *transcendental* which deals not so much with objects as with our manner of knowing objects insofar as this manner is to be possible *a priori*. A system of such concepts would be called *transcendental philosophy*.”
Synthetic a priori concepts are concepts whose truth is known independently of any experience of the world. He uses the term transcendental because the knowledge we have for these truths goes beyond our empirical understanding of the world.
The reason it was important for Kant to make this statement was that he wanted to emphasize the distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal world
The phenomenal world is the world as we experience and perceive it.
The noumenal world is the world as it really is, independent of anybody’s experience.
It was very crucial for Kant to make that distinction for it laid the groundwork for his ideas about morality, belief in God, freedom, and immortality.
Morality and the Categorical Imperative
For Immanuel Kant, morality constituted a central notion in human experience.
Especially in an age where most moral judgments originated from religious dogmas, Kant attempted to find a way to somehow merge morality with reason in his monumental work “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.”
In order to do that, he viewed morality through the prism of what he called “categorical imperatives.”
Categorical means absolute, something unambiguously explicit and direct.
Imperative means something crucial or of vital importance.
Kant’s terms might seem a bit indecipherable at first, but, in that case, using a term with such gravity puts more emphasis on the importance of how we should view morality.
Categorical imperatives are our moral obligations and Kant believed that they derived from pure reason.
You don’t need to have a religion to tell you what is right and what is wrong. You can use your intellect to figure that out by yourself.
So, Kant came up with different formulations of the categorical imperative in order to elucidate his stream of reasoning.
In his first formulation he states:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
Before acting, one should ask oneself, “what’s the maxim of my action?” In other words, how do I act as if my behavior or action can be universalized and how do I add more clarity to the intent behind everything that I do?
This is a great thought experiment that can lead one to the proper evaluation of his or her actions.
Before you do something morally questionable, ask yourself: “would I want that act to be espoused by every soul on this planet?”
In his second formulation he states:
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
Here he tries to raise awareness of how the way we treat each other impacts our understanding of morality.
A means to an end means a thing that is not valued or important in itself but it is useful in achieving an aim.
When you meet someone and instead of identifying the humanity in them, you try to exploit them, benefit from them, or just use them, then you treat them as means.
Instead, he suggests that we should identify that each human is a peculiar idiosyncratic figure and we should treat them always as ends in themselves.
In another formulation he states:
“Act according to maxims of a universally legislating member of a merely possible kingdom of ends.”
Here Immanuel Kant discusses his vison for the future of societies – a future predicated on value and dignity as he writes:
“In the kingdom of ends everything has either value or dignity. Whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.”
The kingdom of ends is an imaginary state whose laws protect individual autonomy.
In this kingdom, morality is not just a matter of how individuals behave, but it forms the foundation of a healthy society.
Of course, there will be people that will view Kant’s ideas as utopian, unrealistic, or inapplicable on a global scale. And they are right. Some people will always succumb to their irrationality and be victims of their own delusions.
However, attempting to understand Kant’s ideas is refreshing for the human mind and they constitute a worth-pursuing step towards the redefinition of our vision for humanity.
Right before his last breath, Kant uttered “Es ist gut (It is good).”
Wittgenstein, in a similar fashion, uttered “tell them I had a wonderful life.”
That is a similar pattern between philosophers.
They dedicate their lives to the search for meaning and, in the end, they experience relief after their journey finishes.
They try hard.
Facing harsh criticism.
Occupying themselves with topics so dear to the human condition but also so challenging for the human cognition.
It is a personal responsibility for all of us not only to respect their work but also to try to understand them, even to some degree.
Just for the sake of showing appreciation.
Just for the sake of injecting a little bit more meaning to our lives.
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Featured Image Copyright: Ahmad Taufiq.
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