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Kant Immanuel(1724-1804) pre-eminent German philosopher, whose major works include Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and Critique of Judgement (1790). He argued that our minds structure our experience of the world; we can never know the ‘things-in-themselves’ (Dinge-an-sich), only the ‘things-as-they-seem’; never ‘noumena’, only ‘phenomena’ (see also RATIONALISM). He went on to suggest that certain CATEGORIES (particularly substance and causality) may not be in the world-as-it-is, but conditions of our knowing it at all. These ‘pure percepts of the understanding’ were ‘synthetic A PRIORI’ truths, because without them it would be impossible to make any sense of the world. Kant's ‘critical philosophy’, described by him as a ‘Copernican Revolution in philosophy’, saved knowledge from scepticism, but only by jettisoning traditional claims to absolute knowledge.
As a social and moral philosopher Kant is best known for:
- his concept of the person in which determinism in the phenomenal realm is not seen as incompatible with freedom to act; and
- his concept of categorical imperative - a method to guide free human action – which can be paraphrased as ‘act as if your actions should be taken as indicative of a general law of behaviour’ or ‘think what would happen if everyone did this’.
Kant's immense influence has a number of sources:
- it can be seen to result from his attempt to straddle both EMPIRICISM and IDEALISM;
- his distinction between phenomenal and noumenal realms, and his concept of the person, provides a basis for numerous distinctions between natural and social science (see NEO-KANTIAN, RICKERT, WINDELBAND, WEBER).
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000