Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the most influential philosophers in the history of Western thought. Born and raised in Königsberg, a quaint city in East Prussia, Kant spent almost his entire life in the town, known today as Kaliningrad, Russia. Today we delve into his remarkable life and the profound impact he has left on modern-day philosophy.
Early Life and Education
Kant was born into a modest, working-class family. His father, Johann Georg Kant, was a harness maker, and his mother, Anna Regina, was a homemaker dedicated to raising their nine children. Kant’s parents were devoted followers of Pietism, a sect of Lutheranism that emphasized personal spirituality and morality.
In his formative years, Kant attended the Collegium Fridericianum, where he was influenced by the rationalist teachings of Christian Wolff, a prominent German philosopher. Later, Kant enrolled at the University of Königsberg, where he studied a variety of subjects, including natural science, mathematics, and metaphysics—a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world.
Kant began his academic career as a private tutor. Over nearly a decade, he tutored students in fields ranging from natural science to philosophy. Eventually, in 1755, Kant earned his doctoral degree at the University of Königsberg and began lecturing as an unsalaried professor, a position he held for 15 years.
Kant’s early scholarly work revolved around scientific inquiry. He was particularly fascinated with the theories of Sir Isaac Newton and worked to reconcile Newton’s ideas with those of his other influences, such as German philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Wolff.
The Critical Period
Kant’s philosophical development reached its peak during his “critical period” (1781-1798), which began with the publication of his seminal work, The Critique of Pure Reason (1781). In this groundbreaking work, Kant sought to strike a balance between empiricism and rationalism, defining the limits and capabilities of human knowledge.
Kant’s critical period saw two additional major works: The Critique of Practical Reason (1788), which focused on his moral philosophy, and The Critique of Judgment (1790), which examined aesthetics and teleology, the study of purpose in nature.
Notable Contributions to Philosophy
Kant’s philosophical contributions range across various branches, but for the sake of brevity, let’s focus on his insights into metaphysics and ethics.
Transcendental Idealism: Kant’s metaphysical theory is sometimes referred to as “transcendental idealism.” It posits that our knowledge of the world is limited by our perceptions and mental faculties, which impose structure and order onto the external world. Therefore, we cannot know things as they are in themselves, only as they appear to us. This idea is further explored in our post on Materialism and Idealism: The Great Debate Over Reality.
The Categorical Imperative: In the realm of ethics, Kant famously proposed the Categorical Imperative, a universal moral law. It dictates that we should act only according to maxims (general rules) that could be consistently applied across all rational beings. The Categorical Imperative has three main formulations, but the most well-known is the first: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” For a deeper understanding of this concept, read our explainer on Breaking Down Kant’s Categorical Imperative for Modern Thinkers.
Immanuel Kant’s life and work have left a profound and lasting impact on the field of philosophy. His ideas continue to shape modern thought, particularly concerning metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. By synthesizing the competing views of empiricism and rationalism, Kant laid the groundwork for subsequent philosophers, such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (His Life and Work), Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre, to further probe the limits of human knowledge and understanding.
In honoring his legacy, we remember and appreciate the intellectual curiosity and rigor that led Immanuel Kant to become a shining beacon in the history of Western philosophy. To learn more about Kant and his influential philosophy, check out our post on Immanuel Kant and His Influential Philosophy: From Enlightenment to Modernity.