Biography of Immanuel Kant / Биография Иммануила Канта


KANT, IMMANUEL (1724-1804). Immanuel Kant was born and spent his life in Konigsberg, Prussia, now Kaliningrad, Russia. Although his family was poor, Kant was educated in a good Pietist school and attended the University of Konigsberg from 1740- 1747. From 1747-1755 he worked as a private tutor for various families in the Konigsberg area. From 1755 -1770 he was a Privatdozent at the University, lecturing on subjects as diverse as logic, mathematics, metaphysics, ethics, anthropology, and geography. In 1770 he became Professor of Logic and Metaphysics. He taught until 1796, and died in 1804. Restricted to a quiet life by a modest income, delicate health, and a demanding workload, Kant never married or traveled. Popular tradition portrays Kant as rigid and moralistic, as devoted to system and rule in his life as he was in his work.

This picture must be tempered by the less familiar set of images handed down to us by his friends and students: of a genial host famous for his powers of conversation; of an immensely popular teacher whose students claimed that they “never left a single lecture in his ethics without having become better men”; and of “the Old Jacobin” whose passionate defense of the French Revolution astonished and inspired his contemporaries.
EARLY VIEWS AND THE CRITICAL PROJECT. Kant was educated in the predominant “Leibniz-Wolffian philosophy,” an extreme form of dogmatic rationalism, but its influence on him was mitigated by his interest in British philosophy and science. A disposition to question the power of pure reason shows up even in his “pre-critical” works, those written before he made the discoveries that led to the three Critiques. It is evident in the ethical views he expresses in the “Enquiry Concerning the Clarity of the Principles of Natural Theology and Ethics” (1763). There Kant argues that reason is the source of the Wolffian ethical principle that one ought to do the action which realizes the most perfection, but also that this principle is an empty formalism, whose content may have to be supplied by feeling. The moral sense, as described by Hutcheson, is proposed as a possible source for that content.

This eclectic position resulted from Kant’s interest in the contemporary philosophical debate between the ethical rationalists and sentimentalists. The sentimentalists posed serious challenges to their rationalist opponents, and Kant greatly admired the work of Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith. But they were unable to produce a satisfactory account of obligation, which Kant regarded as the primary moral concept. The dogmatic rationalists did treat obligation as central, but believed that the concept is self-evident and unanalyzable, a view that would later become unacceptable to Kant. Kant found the key to explaining obligation in the works of Rousseau, another major influence on his ethical views. Rousseau’s remark, in The Social Contract, that “to be governed by appetite alone is slavery, while obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is freedom” may be the source of Kant’s leading idea: that obligation is grounded in autonomy. In the 1760’s Kant wrote that it was Rousseau who taught him the value of humanity. Sometime during the 1760’s and 70’s Kant undertook his critical project: the attempt to ascertain the scope and limits of pure reason. Kant formulates his project in terms of the question: “How are synthetic a priori judgments possible?” A judgment is synthetic if it has substantive content — more formally, if the concept of the predicate is not already contained in the concept of the subject; otherwise, it is analytic.

A judgment is a priori if it can be known independently of experience; a posteriori if it can only be known through experience. The substantive dictates of pure reason, if there are any, must be expressed in synthetic a priori judgments. The question of reason’s power is the question how such judgments can be established; this is the question of Kant’s Critiques. The Critique of Pure Reason (1781; 2nd. ed., 1787) attempts to answer this question about the principles of the understanding (e.g., Every event has a cause) and the claims of speculative metaphysics (God exists, the will is free, the soul is immortal). Kant believed that we can establish the principles of the understanding, but only for phenomena, or things as they appear to us. The principles of the understanding are established as conditions of the possibility of our experience. The claims of speculative metaphysics, which are based on the extension of these principles to noumena, or things as they are in themselves, are therefore unfounded: we cannot know whether they are true or false.

These conclusions make room for Kant’s more positive account of the powers of pure practical reason. Practical principles are a priori because “ought” expresses rational necessity. Already in the early essay mentioned above, Kant had observed that it is not difficult to establish conditional rational necessity, that is, the necessity of taking the means to an end. As he later argues, conditional necessity is expressed by hypothetical imperatives, which have the form: If you would achieve end-E, you ought to do action-A. Hypothetical imperatives derive their necessity from the principle that whoever wills an end, insofar as reason governs his conduct, also wills the necessary means to that end. This principle is analytic for the will, since willing something is deciding to cause it, and deciding to cause it is deciding to use the means to bring it about.

Moral principles, however, express the unconditional necessity of doing certain actions or adopting certain purposes. They are categorical imperatives, which have the form: You ought to do action-A; or adopt purpose-P. Here the imperative clause is not arrived at by analyzing a previously given act of the will. Kant believed that the fundamental moral principle is therefore synthetic a priori, and must be established by critique.