Immanuel Kant: Biography
Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in Königsberg, the capital of Prussia at that time, today the city of Kaliningrad in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast. He was the fourth of eleven children (four of them reached adulthood). Baptized ‘Emanuel’, he changed his name to ‘Immanuel’ after learning Hebrew. In his entire life, he never traveled more than a hundred miles from Königsberg.His father, Johann Georg Kant (1682–1746), was a German harnessmaker from Memel, at the time Prussia’s most northeastern city (now Klaipėda, Lithuania). His mother, Regina Dorothea Reuter (1697–1737), was born in Nuremberg. Kant’s grandfather had emigrated from Scotland to East Prussia, and his father still spelled their family name “Cant.” In his youth, Kant was a solid, albeit unspectacular, student. He was raised in a Pietist household that stressed intense religious devotion, personal humility, and a literal interpretation of the Bible. Consequently, Kant received a stern education – strict, punitive, and disciplinary – that preferred Latin and religious instruction over mathematics and science.
The young scholar
Kant showed a great aptitude to study at an early age. He was first sent to Collegium Fredericianum and then enrolled at the University of Königsberg (where he would spend his entire career) in 1740, at the age of 16. He studied the philosophy of Leibniz and Wolff under Martin Knutzen, a rationalist who was also familiar with developments in British philosophy and science and who introduced Kant to the new mathematical physics of Newton. Knutzen dissuaded Kant from the theory of pre-established harmony, which he regarded as “the pillow for the lazy mind”. He also dissuaded the young scholar from idealism, which was negatively regarded by most philosophers in the 18th century (The theory of transcendental idealism that Kant developed in the “Critique of Pure Reason” is not traditional idealism, i.e. the idea that reality is purely mental. In fact, Kant produced arguments against traditional idealism in the second part of the “Critique of Pure Reason”). His father’s stroke and subsequent death in 1746 interrupted his studies. Kant became a private tutor in the smaller towns surrounding Königsberg, but continued his scholarly research. 1749 saw the publication of his first philosophical work, Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces.
Kant is best known for his transcendental idealist philosophy that time and space are not materially real but merely the ideal a priori condition of our internal intuition. Also, he made an important astronomical discovery, namely the discovery of the retardation of the rotation of the Earth, for which he won the Berlin Academy Prize in 1754. Even more importantly, from this Kant concluded that time is not a thing in itself determined from experience, objects, motion, and change, but rather an unavoidable framework of the human mind that preconditions possible experience.
According to Lord Kelvin
Kant pointed out in the middle of last century, what had not previously been discovered by mathematicians or physical astronomers, that the frictional resistance against tidal currents on the earth’s surface must cause a diminution of the earth’s rotational speed. This immense discovery in Natural Philosophy seems to have attracted little attention,–indeed to have passed quite unnoticed, –among mathematicians, and astronomers, and naturalists, until about 1840, when the doctrine of energy began to be taken to heart. —Lord Kelvin, physicist, 1897
He became a university lecturer in 1755. The subject on which he lectured was “Metaphysics”; the course textbook was written by A.G. Baumgarten.
According to Thomas Huxley
“The sort of geological speculation to which I am now referring (geological aetiology, in short) was created as a science by that famous philosopher, Immanuel Kant, when, in 1775 , he wrote his General Natural History and Theory of the Celestial Bodies; or, an Attempt to Account for the Constitutional and Mechanical Origin of the Universe, upon Newtonian Principles.” — —Thomas H. Huxley, 1869
In the General History of Nature and Theory of the Heavens (Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels) (1755), Kant laid out the Nebular hypothesis, in which he deduced that the Solar System formed from a large cloud of gas, a nebula. He thus attempted to explain the order of the solar system, seen previously by Newton as being imposed from the beginning by God. Kant also correctly deduced that the Milky Way was a large disk of stars, which he theorized also formed from a (much larger) spinning cloud of gas. He further suggested the possibility that other nebulae might also be similarly large and distant disks of stars. These postulations opened new horizons for astronomy: for the first time extending astronomy beyond the solar system to galactic and extragalactic realms.
From this point on, Kant turned increasingly to philosophical issues, although he continued to write on the sciences throughout his life. In the early 1760s, Kant produced a series of important works in philosophy. The False Subtlety of the Four Syllogistic Figures, a work in logic, was published in 1762. Two more works appeared the following year: Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy and The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God. In 1764, Kant wrote Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and then was second to Moses Mendelssohn in a Berlin Academy prize competition with his Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality (often referred to as “the Prize Essay”). In 1770, at the age of 45, Kant was finally appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Königsberg. Kant wrote his Inaugural Dissertation in defence of this appointment. This work saw the emergence of several central themes of his mature work, including the distinction between the faculties of intellectual thought and sensible receptivity. Not to observe this distinction would mean to commit the error of subreption, and, as he says in the last chapter of the dissertation, only in avoidance of this error will metaphysics flourish.
The issue that vexed Kant was central to what twentieth century scholars termed “the philosophy of mind.” The flowering of the natural sciences had led to an understanding of how data reaches the brain. Sunlight may fall upon a distant object, whereupon light is reflected from various parts of the object in a way that maps the surface features (color, texture, etc.) of the object. The light reaches the eye of a human observer, passes through the cornea, is focused by the lens upon the retina where it forms an image similar to that formed by light passing through a pinhole into a camera obscura. The retinal cells next send impulses through the optic nerve and thereafter they form a mapping in the brain of the visual features of the distant object. The interior mapping is not the exterior thing being mapped, and our belief that there is a meaningful relationship between the exterior object and the mapping in the brain depends on a chain of reasoning that is not fully grounded. But the uncertainty aroused by these considerations, the uncertainties raised by optical illusions, misperceptions, delusions, etc., are not the end of the problems.
Plaque on a wall in Kaliningrad, in German and Russian, with the words taken from the conclusion of Kant's Critique of Practical Reason: Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. (The wall is next to where the southwest part of Königsberg Castle used to be.)
Kant saw the mind could not function as an empty container that simply receives data from the outside. Something had to be giving order to the incoming data. Images of external objects have to be kept in the same sequence in which they were received. This ordering occurs through the mind’s intuition of time. The same considerations apply to the mind’s function of constituting space for ordering mappings of visual and tactile signals arriving via the already described chains of physical causation.
The silent decade
At the age of 46, Kant was an established scholar and an increasingly influential philosopher. Much was expected of him. In response to a letter from his student, Markus Herz, Kant came to recognize that in the Inaugural Dissertation, he had failed to account for the relation and connection between our sensible and intellectual faculties, i.e., he needed to explain both how humans acquire data and how they process data—related but very different processes. He also credited David Hume with awakening him from “dogmatic slumber” (circa 1770). Kant did not publish any work in philosophy for the next eleven years.
Kant spent his silent decade working on a solution to the problem mentioned above. Although fond of company and conversation with others, Kant isolated himself. He resisted friends’ attempts to bring him out of his isolation. In 1778, in response to one of these offers by a former pupil, Kant wrote “Any change makes me apprehensive, even if it offers the greatest promise of improving my condition, and I am persuaded by this natural instinct of mine that I must take heed if I wish that the threads which the Fates spin so thin and weak in my case to be spun to any length. My great thanks, to my well-wishers and friends, who think so kindly of me as to undertake my welfare, but at the same time a most humble request to protect me in my current condition from any disturbance.”
When Kant emerged from his silence in 1781, the result was the Critique of Pure Reason. Although now uniformly recognized as one of the greatest works in the history of philosophy, this Critique was largely ignored upon its initial publication. The book was long, over 800 pages in the original German edition, and written in what some considered a convoluted style. It received few reviews, and these granted no significance to the work. Its density made it, as Johann Gottfried Herder put it in a letter to Johann Georg Hamann, a “tough nut to crack,” obscured by “…all this heavy gossamer.” Its reception stood in stark contrast to the praise Kant had received for earlier works such as his “Prize Essay” and other shorter works that precede the first Critique. These well-received and readable tracts include one on the earthquake in Lisbon which was so popular that it was sold by the page. Prior to the change in course documented in the first Critique, his books sold well, and by the time he published Observations On the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime in 1764 he had become a popular author of some note. Kant was disappointed with the first Critique’s reception. Recognizing the need to clarify the original treatise, Kant wrote the Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics in 1783 as a summary of its main views. He also encouraged his friend, Johann Schultz, to publish a brief commentary on the Critique of Pure Reason.
Kant’s reputation gradually rose through the 1780s, sparked by a series of important works: the 1784 essay, “Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”; 1785s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (his first work on moral philosophy); and, from 1786, Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science. But Kant’s fame ultimately arrived from an unexpected source. In 1786, Karl Reinhold began to publish a series of public letters on the Kantian philosophy. In these letters, Reinhold framed Kant’s philosophy as a response to the central intellectual controversy of the era: the Pantheism Dispute. Friedrich Jacobi had accused the recently deceased G. E. Lessing (a distinguished dramatist and philosophical essayist) of Spinozism. Such a charge, tantamount to atheism, was vigorously denied by Lessing’s friend Moses Mendelssohn, and a bitter public dispute arose among partisans. The controversy gradually escalated into a general debate over the values of the Enlightenment and the value of reason itself. Reinhold maintained in his letters that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason could settle this dispute by defending the authority and bounds of reason. Reinhold’s letters were widely read and made Kant the most famous philosopher of his era.
A variety of popular beliefs have arisen concerning Kant’s life. It is often held, for instance, that Kant was a late bloomer, that he only became an important philosopher in his mid-50s after rejecting his earlier views. While it is true that Kant wrote his greatest works relatively late in life, there is a tendency to underestimate the value of his earlier works. Recent Kant scholarship has devoted more attention to these “pre-critical” writings and has recognized a degree of continuity with his mature work.
Many of the common myths concerning Kant’s personal mannerisms are enumerated, explained, and refuted in Goldthwait’s introduction to his translation of Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. It is often held that Kant lived a very strict and predictable life, leading to the oft-repeated story that neighbors would set their clocks by his daily walks.
Immanuel Kant's tomb today
Kant published a second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft) in 1787, heavily revising the first parts of the book. Most of his subsequent work focused on other areas of philosophy. He continued to develop his moral philosophy, notably in 1788’s Critique of Practical Reason (known as the second Critique) and 1797’s Metaphysics of Morals. The 1790 Critique of Judgment (the third Critique) applied the Kantian system to aesthetics and teleology. He also wrote a number of semi-popular essays on history, religion, politics and other topics. These works were well received by Kant’s contemporaries and confirmed his preeminent status in eighteenth century philosophy. There were several journals devoted solely to defending and criticizing the Kantian philosophy. But despite his success, philosophical trends were moving in another direction. Many of Kant’s most important disciples (including Reinhold, Beck and Fichte) transformed the Kantian position into increasingly radical forms of idealism. The progressive stages of revision of Kant’s teachings marked the emergence of German Idealism. Kant opposed these developments and publicly denounced Fichte in an open letter in 1799. It was one of his final acts expounding a stance on philosophical questions. In 1800, a student of Kant, named Gottlob Benjamin Jäsche, published a manual of logic for teachers called Logik, which he had prepared at the request of Kant. Jäsche prepared the Logik using a copy of a text book in logic by Georg Freidrich Meier entitled Auszug aus der Vernunftlehre, in which Kant had written copious notes and annotations. The Logik has been considered to be of fundamental importance to Kant’s philosophy, and the understanding of it. For, the great nineteenth century logician Charles Sanders Peirce remarked, in an incomplete review of Thomas Kingsmill Abbott’s English translation of the introduction to the Logik, that “Kant’s whole philosophy turns upon his logic.” Also, Robert Schirokauer Hartman and Wolfgang Schwarz, wrote in the translators’ introduction to their English translation of the Logik, “Its importance lies not only in its significance for the Critique of Pure Reason, the second part of which is a restatement of fundamental tenets of the Logic, but in its position within the whole of Kant’s work.” Kant’s health, long poor, took a turn for the worse and he died at Königsberg on 12 February 1804 uttering “Genug” [enough] before expiring. His unfinished final work, the fragmentary Opus Postumum, was (as its title suggests) published posthumously.
Kant never concluded that one could form a coherent account of the universe and of human experience without grounding such an account in the “thing in itself.” Many of those who followed him argued that since the “thing in itself” was unknowable its existence could not simply be assumed. Rather than arbitrarily switching to an account that was ungrounded in anything supposed to be the “real,” as did the German Idealists, another group arose to ask how our (generally reliable) accounts of a coherent and rule-abiding universe were actually grounded. This new kind of philosophy became known as Phenomenology, and its preeminent spokesman was Edmund Husserl.