German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is considered the most influential thinker of the Enlightenment era and one of the greatest Western philosophers of all times. His works, especially those on epistemology (theory of knowledge), aesthetics and ethics had a profound influence on later philosophers, including contemporary ones.
Besides establishing himself as one of the foremost Western philosophers, Kant also made an important contribution to science and is considered one of the most important figures in the development of modern science despite the fact that he was most interested in philosophy of science and knowledge that science produces. His main contribution to the rise modern science was its liberation from theology.
Immanuel Kant was born to Johann Georg Cant and his wife Anna Regina Cant as fourth of nine children. His (paternal) grandfather was from Scotland where the surname Cant is still relatively common in the north. Immanuel decided to change his surname from Cant into Kant in order for it to meet the German spelling and pronunciation practices.
Kant grew up under the influence of Pietism, a Protestant sect that was very popular in north Germany during the early 18th century. At the age of 8, he enrolled into a Latin Pietist school with an aim to study theology when older. However, he soon developed interest in Latin and the classics. At the age of 16, he entered the University of Königsberg and mainly dedicated himself to study of mathematics but he also began to develop interest in philosophy. In 1746, he was forced to leave the university due to his father’s death. For nearly a decade, he worked as a private tutor for three influential families in order to help his younger siblings.
Later life and Death
In 1755, Kant returned to the University of Königsberg to continue his education. Within the same year, he received a doctorate from philosophy. He spent the next 15 years working as a lecturer and made a living from fees that were paid by the students attending his classes. But he also devoted a lot of his time to writing on various topics although his greatest masterpiece – the Critique of Pure Reason was published only in 1781. A decade earlier, he finally became a professor at the University of Königsberg and taught metaphysics and logic until 1797. During the last years of his life, he became embittered due to loss of memory which severely affected his ability to work but he continued to write nearly until the very end of his life. He died in 1804, aged 80.
Kant was only 5 feet tall, thin and of fragile health. Nevertheless, he reached at the time extremely old age which he attributed to his strict daily routine. He got up at 5 o’clock every day and spent the next hour drinking tea, smoking his pipe and meditating. From 6 to 7 o’clock, he prepared for lectures he gave at home until 9 o’clock. He then worked in his study room until 1 o’clock and spent the next three hours dining, usually with his friends. After his only meal, he took a one hour walk and spent the afternoon and evening for reading and writing. The renowned German philosopher was completely dedicated to his work and never married.
Work and Philosophy
Kant’s philosophy is often described as the golden middle between rationalism and empiricism. He didn’t accept either of both views but he gave credit to both. While rationalists argue that knowledge is a product of reason, empiricists claim that all knowledge comes from experience. Kant rejected yet adopted both, arguing that experience is purely subjective if not first processed by pure reason. Using reason while excluding experience would according to Kant produce theoretical illusion.
German philosopher published his first work – Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces in 1747. Explaining the nature of space, Kant rejected post-Leibniz rationalists, arguing that metaphysic methods can prove the existence of essential force. Afterwards, Kant mainly focused on philosophical issues although he continued to write on science and similarly as Leibnizian also criticised Newton’s views.
First notable Kant’s philosophical works were published only in the 1760s:
- The False Subtlety of of the Four Syllogistic Figures (1762)
- Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy (1763)
- The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God (1763)
- Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764)
- Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality, also known “the Prize Essay” (1764)
After taking the office of a professor at the University of Königsberg, Kant wrote inaugural dissertation – On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible Work (1770), after which he didn’t publish anything for more than one decade. But his next work, Critique of Pure Reason (1781) was followed by nearly a decade of original and influential works which turned the philosophical thought in a whole new direction. Kant’s most influential mature works include:
- Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)
- Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786)
- Critique of Practical Reason (1788)
- Critique of Judgement (1790)
After the so-called critical period (named after his three Critiques, published between 1781 and 1790), Kant’s health began to deteriorate rapidly but he continued to write. The most important works of the post-critical period include Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793) and Metaphysics of Morals (1797).