Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Immanuel Kant - Philosopher of the Enlightenment

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
On February 12, 1804, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant passed away. He is widely considered to be a central figure of modern philosophy. He argued that human concepts and categories structure our view of the world and its laws, and that reason is the source of morality. His thought continues to hold a major influence in contemporary thought, especially in fields such as metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics. The problem with such a giant as Kant is that one small blog post is always absolutely insufficient to cover the subject adequately. OK, so why not writing several blog posts then? I think, this is the way to go and Kant will not be the only person with more than just one blog article. Others like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Albert Einstein, or Galileo are other prominent examples. So just let us focus on Kant's life today and a general acknowledgment of his works. We will focus on particular achievements of Kant hereinafter.

Immanuel Kant was born on April 22, 1724, in Königsberg, today the city of Kaliningrad, Russia, as the fourth of nine children. And there, he remained for the entire rest of his life. Actualy, he never traveled more than ten miles from Königsberg. In his youth, Kant was a solid, albeit unspectacular, student. He was brought up in a Pietist household that stressed intense religious devotion, personal humility, and a literal interpretation of the Bible. Kant received a stern education. From early age on, he showed a great aptitude to study. He was first sent to Collegium Fredericianum and then enrolled at the University of Königsberg in 1740, at age of 16. Kant studied the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz and Christian 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 Isaac Newton. His father's stroke and subsequent death in 1746 interrupted his studies and Kant became a private tutor in the smaller towns surrounding Königsberg. Nevertheless, he continued his scholarly research. In 1747, he published his first philosophical work, Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces.

Of course Kant is best known for his work in the philosophy of ethics and metaphysics, but he also made significant contributions to other disciplines. Among them, he made an important astronomical discovery, namely a discovery about the nature of the Earth's rotation, for which he won the Berlin Academy Prize in 1754. 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 1770, at the age of 45, Kant was finally appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Königsberg.

After a period of silence, Kant published his seminal Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. 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 a convoluted style. Kant was rather 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. 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?". Actually, we read this essay (partly) in school. Kant defined the Enlightenment as an age shaped by the Latin motto Sapere aude ("Dare to be wise"). He maintained that one ought to think autonomously, free of the dictates of external authority. With this work he reconciled many of the differences between the rationalist and empiricist traditions of the 18th century. It had a decisive impact on the Romantic and German Idealist philosophies of the 19th century and also served as a starting point for many 20th century philosophers.

Kant published a second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1787, heavily revising the first parts of the book. Most of his subsequent work focused on other areas of philosophy, such as his moral philosophy, notably in 1788's Critique of Practical Reason and 1797's Metaphysics of Morals. The 1790 Critique of Judgment applied the Kantian system to aesthetics and teleology. But despite his success, philosophical trends were moving in another direction. Many of Kant's most important disciples transformed the Kantian position into increasingly radical forms of idealism. Kant opposed these developments and publicly denounced Fichte in an open letter in 1799, which should be one of his final acts. There is so much more to say about Kant and his work that doe not fit into a tiny blog post. Kant died at Königsberg on 12 February 1804, uttering "Es ist gut" ("It is good") before expiring.


At yovisto you can learn more about the philosophy of enlightenment in the talk of Bernard Stiegler, director of IRI (Innovation and Research Institute) at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris entitled 'The Aufklaerung in the Age of Philosophical Engineering'.

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