This philosopher is considered the founding father of classical German philosophy. Unlike Spinoza, he put the self-evidence of Nature in doubt and for the 1st time in the philosophy of the Modern Era, deliberately posed the question of Subject.
Immanuel Kant was born on April 22nd, 1724, in Königsberg, the capital of the Prussian Kingdom’s eastern province, into a modest, simple, but pious family of a harness-maker. His paternal ancestors had come from Scotland. At baptism, he was given the name “Emmanuel”, which was Hebrew for “God (is) with us”. This name is originally mentioned in the Old Testament’s book of Isaiah, meaning Jesus Christ. Subsequently, when Kant had learned Hebrew, he changed his Christian name’s first letter, apparently, to make it closer to the original.
The Kant family had their good genius, who was their parish priest. He noted the boy’s outstanding mental abilities and taught him the first lessons in theology and Latin. It was not without his assistance that the philosopher-to-be, at the age of 8, was enrolled in one of the city’s best gymnasiums.
After brilliantly finishing the gymnasium in 1740 at the age of 16, Kant entered the University of Königsberg. There, apart from other disciplines, he intensely studied physics, where I. Newton‘s teaching was dominating at the time, and philosophy, which was largely influenced by G. W. Leibniz.
In 1746, Emmanuel’ father died. Kant terminated his studies at the university, and during the next decade he made his bread and supported his family working as a private tutor. In parallel, however, he was engaged in some research work. Carried away by the discovered laws of mechanics and also by the latest breakthroughs in astronomy, the young philosopher raised the question of the origin of the Solar System. Kant came to the conclusion that the Solar System had originated from the “primeval nebula,” that is, a huge accumulation of Matter in the vacuum state.
Kant was not inclined to extend this hypothesis into the entire Universe. Yet, his hypothesis, to some degree, revived the notions put forward by ancient philosophers, who had tried to deduce Nature from some primeval Substance. Compared to the ancients, however, Kant’s task appeared to be more complex, since those sages had imagined Substance to be a primordially living and rational Being. In the meantime, Kant tried to explain the emergence of a planetary system out of the “primeval nebula” by the operation of the laws of mechanics.
But here the following questions immediately arise. Where does “Matter”, that is, corporality, deprived of any life and reason, come from? Why does this Matter appear to be primordially sparse? Who imparts laws of mechanics to It? Why does the operation of these laws result exactly in the emergence of a planetary system, and not in something else? Why does it result in anything at all? And why does not the nebula stay the same? Then insuperable difficulties arise in explaining the emergence of life and mind out of Matter. True, when trying to explain motion, Kant, tended to believe in some “Vital Force” being inherent in Matter, that is, admitted a certain presence of Soul in It. But this assumption was not sufficient to solve all the questions raised.
In 1755, at the age of 31, Kant defended his thesis, and over the following 40 years he taught at the University of Königsberg. Interestingly, during his professorship there, East Prussia, including Königsberg, was captured for some time by the Russian Empire. For Professor Kant, however, it only meant that he was then supposed to submit his most important applications not to the King of Prussia, but to the Russian empress Elizabeth Petrovna.
As to Nature, not everything proved to be so simple with It. The time of the impetuous ardour for It was now over; the time came to turn to the Cognizing Subject. So, after many years of relentless research, Kant became seized by doubt: is Nature really such an unconditionally obvious Thing? The philosopher was becoming more and more convinced that the obviousness of Nature was deceptive, and “in reality” It was not quite such (and, maybe, not at all such) as It seemed to us. He returned to Descartes’ “doubt”. Now, he pursued this principle more consistently and repudiated not only Descartes’ “confidence” in in the true existence of God, but also Spinoza’s “confidence” in the true existence of “Substance”. So, the “Self”, the reality of the Cognizing Subject, became for him the solely trustworthy. From then on, Kant regarded as “dogmatism” recognition of anything, except It, as truly existent.
Thus, what truly exists is the Cognizing Subject and His “sensual experience”, which He collates using certain a priori forms of sensuality and thinking (e. g. “space” and “time”). In this way, Nature arises. In other words, Nature arises not because It exists “in reality”, but because the Cognizing Subject can only perceive something in such a way. That is exactly why, in particular, Man can get an idea of any science, however complex, only if it can be reduced to mechanics. And He cannot do otherwise.
The philosopher was becoming more and more convinced that the obviousness of Nature was deceptive, and “in reality” It was not quite (and, maybe, not at all) the way It appeared to us. Maybe, It is not at all “Nature”. To perceive something as “Nature”, or “Object”, one must first have a certain mode of perception. That is to say, to discern Nature, one should be Human. The presence of Human – that’s what makes Nature such, and, without Him, Nature is no one knows what, a “Thing-in-Itself”. So, Nature ceased to be the Primary Substance to Kant, and he, from a “philosopher of Nature”, turned into a “transcendental idealist”. It is accepted to date the period of “criticism” in the work of Kant starting from 1771, when he wrote his “Critique of Pure Reason”.
If Human Mind transcends beyond the sensually perceived Nature, it, according to Kant, falls into contradictions, and any propositions concerning supersensual objects may be considered to be equally true and false. In particular, this is the case, when Man tries to quest for such vital “metaphysical” issues as “the freedom of will”, “the immortality of the soul”, and ‘the existence of God”. Such issues remain out of reach for Human Reason.
How did Kant find the way out? The point is that Kant’s Cognizing Subject, after all, does not stay alone with Nature. He had to interact not only with the “Thing-in-Itself”, but with other “cognizing subjects”. Here, other regularities are valid, and the “Practical Reason” comes into force, which deals not with what “exists,” but with what is “due”.
For Kant, the sphere of “what is due” is of no less importance than that of “what exists.” Here, too, one cannot do without “a priori forms,” the principal of which is the sense of duty. This is where Kant sets out the moral law, based on this inherent sense, which basically appears to be the same as the “golden rule”, preached, in particular, by Jesus Christ: “Act to others in such a way that you would like others would act to you.” This law is largely necessitated by Man’s becoming conscious of the fact that other people are the same “cognizing subjects” as He Himself.
“Duty”, according to Kant, is the major regulator of inter-human relations, and he tended to consider emotional relationships between people to be a kind of pathology. Moreover, he would attach to Duty “existential” significance, asserting that Man lives not because He gets much enjoyment out of it, but, rather, out of a sense of duty.
For Christ, the freedom of will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God were evident things, so the moral law was ensuing from them in a natural way. For Kant, however, it was the moral law that was only evident, and it was exactly the presence of the moral law in Man that was pointing to the need for the above “metaphysical” things to be existent. They have to exist, because the moral law exists; they are needed to keep it operating. Otherwise, one cannot explain why Man has to be “good” and why He should avoid committing evil deeds. In the end, Human Mind does not embrace the entire Reality, and, if those things are unattainable for It, it does not mean that there are no such things at all. There must be something that Man has to believe in.
And yet, the faith Kant was suggesting ran very much counter to the conventional religious beliefs. In the meantime, because of the French Revolution, censorship toughened in the Prussian Kingdom. As a result, Kant failed to publish his work “Religion within the limits of Reason alone” in one of the journals. So, he decided to publish it in contravention of censorship. Consequences did not take long to appear. In 1794, Kant received a letter from the King of Prussia Wilhelm-Friedrich II, in which the monarch accused the philosopher of abusing his teaching to distort and depreciate some fundamental tenets of the Holy Script and Christian faith, and also of having bad influence on the youth. The king ordered Kant to refrain from publishing his works and delivering lectures relating to religious issues. In his reply letter, Kant politely rejected king’s accusations and confirmed that the religion of Reason remained for him the supreme basis of any true religion, and his Conscience had always been for him the divine judge. However, Kant observed etiquette: he assured the monarch of his loyalty and promised to obey. Another “condemnation of Socrates” came to nothing more than the above exchange of letters and passed off without casualties.
Interestingly, Wilhelm-Friedrich II was a nephew and the successor of the enlightened monarch Friedrich the Great, a philosopher and musician, who had met with J. S. Bach, whom K. F. E. Bach had served, and who had once had Voltaire as his guest. Wilhelm-Friedrich II was not as talented as his uncle had been, but, apparently, was not a bad guy: he played cello and did much to promote arts in the kingdom. He was largely bound to take “reactionary” measures by force of circumstances and also under pressure from the inveterate bureaucracy, which even the king was unable to resist. There are reasons suggesting that the notorious letter to Kant was incited by the then culture minister of Prussia.
That same year, 1794, a more joyous event happened in Kant’s life – he was elected member of the Imperial Russian Academy.
In 1795, Kant’s last work was out titled “Toward perpetual peace”, which came as his response to the conclusion of the Basel peace treaty between Prussia and France (despite the treaty, enmity between the two countries stayed on). Kant proposed to create a federation of European states and renounce violence in resolving conflicts. Politically, such a union would become possible, if republican rule was established in all the member countries (monarchy would also do, provided it is constitutional). Militarily, considering weapon upgrading, such a union would be not only possible, but necessary for self-preservation. “Progressive community” welcomed Kant’s writing enthusiastically. French newspapers wrote that Kant had accomplished in Germany a spiritual revolution resembling the one that had crushed the old regime in France. The philosopher was even invited to the revolutionary France to help draw up a new Constitution. Having declared his skepticism towards “metaphysical” issues, Kant effectively supported the victorious “religion of Reason”.
But Kant was already over 70 by then. Since childhood, he was noted for poor health. Only keeping to a very strict routine, he managed to maintain high capacity for work and to live until he was 79. He died on February 12th, 1804, in the same city of Königsberg.
Kant’s “critical” philosophy certified the only obvious Reality available, that of Subject transforming the data of His sensual experience into “Nature”. That was a fair statement of the situation Human found Himself in. Unfortunately, Kant did not tend to represent Human’s dynamics, and did not try to look at Him as a stage in some larger-scale development. The philosopher fails to pose a question of Who was Human before He has become Such, and Whom He will become after He has been Human. Neither did he try to interpret cognition as Human’s way of evolution. And yet, the quest for What Truly Exists, even within the distinctly delineated framework of “Human–Nature”, did not stop at that point. Man would nevertheless be striving to deify something, and God would take any occasion to become incarnate.