On this day in 1724, the highly influential German philosopher Immanuel Kant was born in Konigsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). He was one of the foremost thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment, the 18th century movement that emphasised the power of reason.
Kant’s parents were devout Lutherans. His father was a saddler by profession and his mother an uneducated housewife. At the age of 8, Kant started studying at the pastor’s Latin school, and was very well educated. In 1740, he enrolled as a student of theology at the University of Konigsberg, but rather than becoming a theologian he became very interested in mathematics and physics. After graduating, Kant twice applied, and twice failed, to obtain a professorship at the University of Konigsberg, and even though he was offered posts elsewhere—such as a professorship in poetry at the University of Berlin—Kant chose to stay in his hometown. He liked the peace and quiet there, and found it very conducive to developing his own philosophy.
Kant’s thinking was a synthesis of Rene Descartes’ rationalism (which stressed the importance of reason) and Francis Bacon’s empiricism (which stressed the importance of experience). His fundamental idea of human autonomy is explored and explained throughout his three hugely influential works: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgement (1790). He suggests that human understanding is the source of all the laws of nature that structure our experience, and that human reason is the source of all the laws of morality, including our belief in God and freedom and immortality. Thus, according to Kant, morality, religious belief, and scientific knowledge all rest on the same foundation of human autonomy.
Kant’s breakthrough, in the Critique of Pure Reason, was articulated thus: “Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but… let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition.” Kant’s ideas changed the world. He moved philosophy past the arguments between empiricists and rationalists, and into the modern world.
Credit: © Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy
Caption:A portrait of philosopher Immanuel Kant.