Immanuel Kant

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Kant, Immanuel

(ĭmän`o͞oĕl känt), 1724–1804, German metaphysician, one of the greatest figures in philosophy, b. Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia).

Early Life and Works

Kant was educated in his native city, tutored in several families, and after 1755 lectured at the Univ. of Königsberg in philosophy and various sciences. He became professor of logic and metaphysics in 1770 and achieved wide renown through his writings and teachings. His early work, reflecting his studies of Christian Wolff and G. W. Leibniz, was followed by a period of great development culminating in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781, tr. Critique of Pure Reason). This work inaugurated his so-called critical period—the period of his major writings. The more important among these writings were Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik (1783, tr. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics), Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785, tr. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals), Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788, tr. Critique of Practical Reason), and Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790, tr. Critique of Judgment). His Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (1793, tr. Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone) provoked a government order to desist from further publications on religion.


According to Kant, his reading of David Hume awakened him from his dogmatic slumber and set him on the road to becoming the "critical philosopher," whose position can be seen as a synthesis of the Leibniz-Wolffian rationalism and the Humean skepticism. Kant termed his basic insight into the nature of knowledge "the Copernican revolution in philosophy."

Instead of assuming that our ideas, to be true, must conform to an external reality independent of our knowing, Kant proposed that objective reality is known only insofar as it conforms to the essential structure of the knowing mind. He maintained that objects of experience—phenomena—may be known, but that things lying beyond the realm of possible experience—noumena, or things-in-themselves—are unknowable, although their existence is a necessary presupposition. Phenomena that can be perceived in the pure forms of sensibility, space, and time must, if they are to be understood, possess the characteristics that constitute our categories of understanding. Those categories, which include causality and substance, are the source of the structure of phenomenal experience.

The scientist, therefore, may be sure only that the natural events observed are knowable in terms of the categories. Our field of knowledge, thus emancipated from Humean skepticism, is nevertheless limited to the world of phenomena. All theoretical attempts to know things-in-themselves are bound to fail. This inevitable failure is the theme of the portion of the Critique of Pure Reason entitled the "Transcendental Dialectic." Here Kant shows that the three great problems of metaphysics—God, freedom, and immortality—are insoluble by speculative thought. Their existence can be neither affirmed nor denied on theoretical grounds, nor can they be scientifically demonstrated, but Kant shows the necessity of a belief in their existence in his moral philosophy.

Kant's ethics centers in his categorical imperative (or moral law)—"Act as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law." This law has its source in the autonomy of a rational being, and it is the formula for an absolutely good will. However, since we are all members of two worlds, the sensible and the intelligible, we do not infallibly act in accordance with this law but, on the contrary, almost always act according to inclination. Thus what is objectively necessary, i.e., to will in conformity to the law, is subjectively contingent; and for this reason the moral law confronts us as an "ought."

In the Critique of Practical Reason Kant went on to state that morality requires the belief in the existence of God, freedom, and immortality, because without their existence there can be no morality. In the Critique of Judgment Kant applied his critical method to aesthetic and teleological judgments. The chief purpose of this work was to find a bridge between the sensible and the intelligible worlds, which are sharply distinguished in his theoretical and practical philosophy. This bridge is found in the concepts of beauty and purposiveness that suggest at least the possibility of an ultimate union of the two realms.

The Impact of Kantian Philosophy

The impact of Kant's work has been incalculable. In addition to being the impetus to the development of German idealism by J. G. Fichte, F. W. Schelling, and G. W. F. Hegel, Kant's philosophy has influenced almost every area of thought. Among the major outgrowths of Kant's work was the Neo-Kantianism of the late 19th cent. This movement had many branches in Germany, France, and Italy; the two chief ones were the Marburg school, founded by Hermann Cohen and including Ernst Cassirer, and the Heidelberg school, led by Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert.

The Marburg school was primarily concerned with the application of Kantian insights to the understanding of the physical sciences, and the Heidelberg school with the application of Kant to the historical and cultural sciences. Closely connected with the latter group was the social philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. Kant influenced English thought through the philosophy of Sir William Hamilton and T. H. Green, and some Kantian ideas are found in the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey. In theology, Kant's influence can be seen in the writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl; his ideas in biology were developed by Hans Driesch and in Gestalt psychology by Wolfgang Köhler. All of Kant's important works have been translated into English.


See H. W. Cassirer, A Commentary on Kant's Critique of Judgment (1938, repr. 1970) and Kant's First Critique (1954); L. W. Beck, Studies in the Philosophy of Kant (1965) and (ed.) Kant Studies Today (1969); H. Arendt, Lectures on Kant's Philosophy (1989); J. K. Uleman, An Introduction to Kant's Moral Philosophy (2010).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Kant, Immanuel


Born Apr. 22, 1724, in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad); died there Feb. 12, 1804. German philosopher and scholar; founder of German classical philosophy.

Kant lived his whole life in Königsberg, where he graduated from the university in 1745. He was a docent there from 1755 to 1770 and a professor from 1770 to 1796. Two periods are distinguished in Kant’s philosophical development: a precritical period that lasted until 1770 and a critical period. In his precritical period Kant admitted the possibility of speculative knowledge of things as they are in themselves (or of “metaphysics,” in the language of the age). In his critical period he rejected the capacity for such knowledge on the basis of preliminary research into the forms of cognition and the sources and limits of our cognitive capabilities.

During his precritical period Kant wrote his General Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755), in which he elaborated a “nebular” cosmological hypothesis on the formation of the planetary system from an original nebula, that is, from a huge cloud of diffuse matter. In the estimation of F. Engels, this theory “was the greatest advance made by astronomy since Copernicus. For the first time the conception that nature had no history in time began to be shaken” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20, p. 56). At this time Kant also proposed the existence of a “great system of galaxies” outside our galaxy; he demonstrated the slowdown in the Earth’s daily rotation on its axis as a result of tidal friction; and he also developed the idea of the relativity of movement and rest. In biology Kant presented the idea of a genealogical classification of the animal world. In his research on anthropology, he advanced the notion of the natural development of the human races. Along with his works in the natural sciences, Kant wrote a number of philosophical works during his precritical period. Under the influence of the empiricism and skepticism of the English philosopher D. Hume, he distinguished real and logical foundations and mocked the infatuation of some of his contemporaries with “spirit visions.”

Kant’s dissertation The Forms and Principles of the Sensible and the Intelligible Worlds (1770) marked the beginning of his transition to the views of his critical period, the chief works of which were the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and Critique of Judgment (1790). Fundamental to all three Critiques was Kant’s theory of appearances and things as they are—of “things-in-themselves.” According to Kant, our cognition begins when things-in-themselves affect our external sense organs and produce our perception. This premise in his theories would make Kant a materialist. But his theories on the forms and limits of cognition showed Kant to be an idealist and agnostic. He affirmed that neither the data of sense perception nor the concepts and judgments of our understanding could give us any theoretical knowledge of things-in-themselves. These things cannot be known. To be sure, empirical knowledge of things can become broader and more profound without limit, but this does not bring us one iota closer to cognition of things-in-themselves.

Kant introduced a distinction between ordinary, or general, logic, which investigates the forms of thought and abstracts from questions of subject matter, and transcendental logic, which investigates in the forms of thinking that which imparts to knowledge an a priori, universal, and necessary character. Kant formulated his fundamental question—the sources and limits of knowledge—as the question of the possibility of a priori synthetic judgments (that is, judgments producing new knowledge) in each of the three chief forms of knowledge: mathematics, theoretical natural science, and metaphysics (speculative knowledge of the truly real). Kant attempts to resolve these three questions, posed in his Critique of Pure Reason, by investigating the three basic capacities of cognition: sensibility, understanding, and reason.

The foundation of mathematics lies in the perception of space and time, whose forms cease in Kant’s thinking to be forms of existence of the things themselves and become only a priori forms of sensibility. The basis of these perceptions lies in “pure” forms of space and time, that is, forms independent of and preceding experience (a priori). This assures the universality and necessity of mathematical truths.

In theoretical natural science the possibility of a priori synthetic judgments is conditioned by 12 categories of understanding that, as “pure” concepts, are a priori: for example, unity, plurality, totality, reality, and negation. But for genuine knowledge to arise, there must be a joining or synthesis of sense perception with the categories of understanding. The highest condition of such a synthesis is the unity of our consciousness. In Kant’s opinion, to the extent that universal and necessary laws of experience belong not to nature itself but only to understanding, which imposes them on nature, natural science constructs its own subject-matter as far as its logical form is concerned.

Kant reduces the question of the possibility of synthetic judgments in “metaphysics” to an investigation of reason, which gives birth to “ideas”—concepts of the absolute totality or unity of conditioned phenomena (such concepts as the soul, the world, and god). Kant concluded that all three speculative sciences of traditional philosophy treating these ideas (“rational psychology,” “rational cosmology,” and “rational theology”) are only pseudosciences. Realizing that his critique tended to limit the competence of reason, Kant proposed that where cognition lost, faith gained. Since god cannot be found in experience and does not belong to the world of phenomena, his existence can neither be proved nor disproved. Religion thus becomes an object of faith and not of science or of theoretical philosophy. According to Kant, it is not only possible but necessary to believe in god, because without this faith one cannot reconcile the demands of moral conscience with the indisputable facts of evil ruling in human life.

The Kantian critique of rational cosmology played a great role in the development of philosophy. According to Kant, the claims of rational cosmology necessarily lead to the appearance of antinomies in reason, contradictory but equally provable answers to the questions of rational cosmology: the world is finite and has no limits; there are indivisible particles (atoms) and there are no indivisible particles; all processes are causally conditioned and there are processes (actions) that are accomplished freely. Thus, reason is by nature antinomic and dialectic. However, according to Kant this dialectic of cosmological statements remains only subjective. It does not express the contradictions of the things themselves and does not violate the logical prohibition on contradictions. According to Kant, all the contradictions of the cosmological “dialectic” fall away when the false assumption at their base falls away: that the world as an absolute totality can be the object of theoretical cognition by reason.

Kant constructed his ethics on the basis of his critique of theoretical reason. His initial assumption showed the influence of the French philosopher J. -J. Rousseau: the conviction that every individual is an end in himself and should in no way be seen as the means for carrying out any task whatever, even one for the general good. Kant declared the fundamental law of ethics to be the internal directive or “categorical imperative” requiring that one be guided by the purely formal rule: to act always according to a maxim that could become a universal law; or, in another formulation, to act in such a way that you always behave toward humanity—in both your own person and the person of others—as an end and not only as a means.

In aesthetics Kant reduced the beautiful to “disinterested” pleasure that does not depend on whether the object portrayed in the work of art exists or does not exist but that is conditioned only by its form. However, Kant could not consistently maintain his formalism: despite the formal character of the categorical imperative, in his ethics he advanced the principle of the value as an end in himself of every man; and despite the formalism of his conception of the beautiful, in his aesthetics he declared the highest form of art to be poetry, since it ascends to the portrayal of the ideal.

Kant’s ideas on the role of antagonisms in the historical process of the life of society were progressive. According to Kant, the attainment of the greatest goal of humanity, universal legal civil status, was possible only through the action of forces that seem to be the source only of struggle and enmity. Along with this, a state of perpetual peace among all states was to be attained. Kant considered the means for establishing and preserving peace to be the development of international trade and contacts, with their mutual advantages for various states.

Although Kant’s theories contained abundant contradictions, they exerted an enormous influence on the later development of scientific and philosophical thought. By his theories on the antinomies of reason, Kant played an outstanding role in the development of dialectics. Philosophers of the most diverse tendencies have both criticized Kant and tried to develop his ideas. Neo-Kantianism, which arose in the 1860’s, tried to elaborate a system of idealism on the basis of Kant’s ideas. The dual character of Kant’s philosophy, which allowed it to be criticized both from the right and from the left, was noted by the classical writers of Marxism-Leninism, who highly valued its positive aspects while criticizing its subjective idealist and agnostic tendencies (see V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. sock, 5th ed., vol. 18, pp. 202–14). Karl Marx considered that in terms of its social content Kant’s philosophy was a German theory of the French bourgeois revolution (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Sock, 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 184).


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In Russian translation:
Sock, vols. 1–6. Moscow, 1963–66.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.