Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804

Biographical note

Kant defined the Enlightenment, in the essay "Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?", as an age shaped by the motto, "Dare to know". This involved thinking autonomously, free of the dictates of external authority. Kant's work served as a bridge between the Rationalist and Empiricist traditions of the 18th century. He had a decisive impact on the Romantic and German Idealist philosophies of the 19th century. His work has also been a starting point for many 20th century philosophers.

The two interconnected foundations of what Kant called his "critical philosophy" of the "Copernican revolution" which he claimed to have wrought in philosophy were his epistemology (or theory of knowledge) of Transcendental Idealism and his moral philosophy of the autonomy of reason. These placed the active, rational human subject at the center of the cognitive and moral worlds. With regard to knowledge, Kant argued that the rational order of the world as known by science could never be accounted for merely by the fortuitous accumulation of sense perceptions. It was instead the product of the rule-based activity of "synthesis". This consisted of conceptual unification and integration carried out by the mind through concepts or the "categories of the understanding" operating on perceptions within space and time, which are not concepts, but forms of sensibility that are necessary conditions for any possible experience. Thus the objective order of nature and the causal necessity that operates within it are products of the mind in its interaction with what lies outside of mind (the "thing-in-itself"). With regard to morality, Kant argued that the source of the good lies not in anything outside the human subject, either in nature or given by God, but rather only in a good will. A good will is one that acts in accordance with universal moral laws that the autonomous human being freely gives itself. These laws obligate her or him to treat other human beings as ends rather than as means to an end.

These Kantian ideas have largely framed or influenced all subsequent philosophical discussion and analysis. The specifics of Kant's account generated immediate and lasting controversy. Nevertheless, his theses that the mind itself makes a constitutive contribution to its knowledge, which is therefore subject to limits that cannot be overcome, that morality is rooted in human freedom and acting autonomously is to act according to rational moral principles, and that philosophy involves self-critical activity, irrevocably reshaped philosophy.


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