Sunday, February 22, 2015

Immanuel Kant

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe: the starry heavens above me, and the moral law within me.”

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) was a Prussian rationalist and moral philosopher. He was a short, thin introvert with a malformed back, who never married and never traveled more than forty miles from the backwater town in East Prussia where he was born. But he is also ...
widely considered the most important figure in modern philosophy.

In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), he argued (against Hume) that knowledge does not arise from the senses, but from reason, which is grounded in the structure of the mind itself. Concepts like space, time, and causality are an irreducible feature of the human mind, and therefor determine what it is to be human.

However, because space, time, and causation are properties of the mind, we might reasonably doubt whether they are properties of the world beyond the senses. He distinguished between the Noumenon, “the thing itself,” and Phenomenon, the mere appearance of things. We do not and cannot know what lies beyond our senses – therefor we cannot know reality, but only our thoughts about it. This is the fundamental premise of Idealism, the dominant tradition in German philosophy, just as Empiricism is in the English.

According to Kant Morality arises from these features of cognition, not from experience. In consequence every human is subject to the same moral law, called the Categorical Imperative, which is not context dependent. In other words they are always applicable. “We should live,” he said, “as though we might will our every act to become the universal law.” Or, put another way, “treat people as an end, never as a means to an end.” This moral theory has the advantage of rescuing morality from relativism. It has the disadvantage that it forbids us to consider the foreseeable consequences of our actions, however dire. 

  Because knowledge of the thing in itself is impossible, we are justified in entertaining hypotheticals about it on other grounds. Reason cannot say anything about these hypotheticals, because they concern that about which we cannot possibly know anything. According to Kant, three beliefs are necessary to a moral life: free will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God. We cannot know that these beliefs are accurate, but we are at liberty to believe in them if we choose. We are, in other words, justified in having faith.

In What Is Enlightenment? (1784) Kant argued that Enlightenment was the end of mankind’s childhood. Tradition and superstition had ruled the minds of men in past ages because, being immature, his reason was deficient, and he could not exercise the power of full moral autonomy responsibly. In his own lifetime, however, his reason was reaching maturation, and the shackles of tradition and superstition were being thrown off. “Dare to think!” he said, was the motto of the Enlightenment. As Enlightenment political philosophy became increasingly radical, the monarchs of Europe were becoming nervous about the directions it might lead. Kant argued that the thinking portion of mankind was so small and so little appreciated that their opinions, however radical, posed no practical danger to the state. Monarchs had power – they did not need to dispute with philosophers.

They might, then, take as their maxim, that men should be permitted to think and say whatever they like so long as they obey - a controversial notion at the time, and the essential victory of the Enlightenment. This argument preceded the French Revolution by five years.

What is Enlightenment? Essay by Immanuel Kant

Part of a series on the Enlightenment. (IX of XVII)

No comments:

Post a Comment