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Immanuel Kant (1724—1804)

Immanuel Kant (1724—1804) was a great Enlightenment philosopher of the eighteenth century. He was born in the East Prussian city of Konigsberg on the Baltic Sea on 22 April 1724. Kant’s family background was Lutheran. He received a strict education and had a traditional Protestant upbringing. At 16, he enrolled at the University of Konigsberg to study philosophy. Later, Kant accepted a lectureship at the same university, but the position was unpaid. His fifteen years of voluntary service led to the university appointing Kant to a position in logic and metaphysics in 1770.

During Kant's time, two main schools of thought, rationalism and empiricism, greatly influenced intellectual discussions. Proponents of rationalism believed that truth couldn't solely be based on individual life experiences, as human senses are inherently fallible and cannot be fully trusted. They argued that empirical investigations couldn't reveal the true nature of the world, making knowledge derived solely from experience doubtful due to its ties to individual perspectives. On the other hand, proponents of empiricism believed that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. Therefore, the individual perspectives of observers can never be entirely ignored. According to this viewpoint, attempts to rely solely on reason, bypassing the senses, are likely to be unsuccessful.

Immanuel Kant's philosophy sought to bridge the gap between rationalism and empiricism. His innovative approach revolved around two fundamental questions: What can we know (metaphysics), and what should I do (moral philosophy)?

Kant argued that neither experience nor reason alone can provide knowledge. Experience provides us with content, while reason gives form to that content. True knowledge is only possible when these two are synthesised in the human mind. For Kant, the mind is not merely a passive recipient of information but has an innate capacity to impose order and structure through the categories of space, time, and causation on the raw experiences it receives. Kant maintained that we do not experience the world directly but rather through the categories or a priori concepts in our minds. And so, in answer to his first question, Kant posited that knowledge is predicated on an interaction between our experience in the world and the innate concepts in our minds by which we order and interpret our experience. Our minds create a picture of the world based on what we perceive through our senses. Knowledge is not a representation of the world but a construction. To quote Kant, “Percepts without concepts are blind; concepts without percepts are empty”.

Kant's ideas stirred controversy and challenged the prevailing beliefs of his time. His philosophy made it difficult to assume any form of knowledge, including that of God, possible beyond our senses. This was a bold departure from the norm, implying that since we cannot experience God through the senses, we cannot know that God exists. Kant, unflinchingly, maintained that neither reason nor experience could prove the existence of God. These radical ideas were met with censure in predominantly Christian Europe. In 1793, the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II even threatened Kant with punishment if he continued to publish on religion.

Despite questioning the existence of God, Kant never claimed to be an atheist. He famously argued, “I have found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” According to Kant, faith in God equips us to access a moral law that tells us what to do. He called this idea the "categorical imperative," meaning that human beings should act in a way that their actions could be generalised as a universal law for everyone. We should always treat people as ends in themselves, never merely as means. Treating other human beings merely as a means to our ends would lead us into contradiction, for we would have to accept that others also possess the right to mistreat us solely as means.

For Kant, moral action involves following one’s duty for duty’s sake rather than based on the consequences of our moral choices. This classic explanation of moral duty is widely recognised as deontological ethics. According to this ethical framework, moral obligations are not dependent on personal desires, perspectives, cultural identity, or other individual factors. In other words, if it is universally wrong to commit violence, then there can be no justification for anyone to claim that this rule doesn't apply to them because of their profession, their cultural background, or the specific circumstances they faced.

As the world celebrates the 300th anniversary of Kant’s birth in 2024, his legacy continues to resonate globally. A multitude of events around the world are dedicated to honouring his intellectual contributions, a testament to the enduring relevance of his ideas. Perhaps his philosophy could be summed up in his most famous statement: “Have the courage to use your own reason.”

*First Published in Touchstone June 2024

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