Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was a German philosopher whom many say was the greatest philosopher of the Modern Era. A lifelong citizen of Königsberg in East Prussia, Kant had a major impact on the areas of knowledge, metaphysics, and ethics.
Kant both studied and taught at the University of Königsberg. As a professor there he was well-liked by his students. A punctual man, it is said that the people of Königsberg set their watches according to his daily walk schedule.
Kant says the writings of David Hume awoke him from his “dogmatic slumber.” In regard to epistemology (the study of knowledge), Kant was revolutionary in that he synthesized two competing schools of thought—rationalism (knowledge comes from innate ideas in the mind) and empiricism (knowledge comes only from experience). In agreement with the empiricists, Kant held that all our knowledge comes from experience, but he also claimed that all our knowledge does not arise out of experience. Unlike the empiricists, Kant claimed that our minds are not passive; instead, our minds actively sort, organize, and synthesize the sense data that come through our five senses. Thus, our minds are programmed to interpret the physical data we experience.
Also important to Kant’s philosophy was his distinction between phenomena andnoumena. For Kant, phenomena are things as they appear to us. Noumena are things as they are in themselves. According to Kant, each person views things in the world through their own Forms of Intuition and Categories of Understanding. As a result, no person is able to understand objects perfectly as they really are. Even in the material realm, no one is able to truly understand objects. Kant’s philosophy was even more skeptical in regard to metaphysical issues like God, the soul, and freedom. According to Kant, these types of issues are beyond the limits of reason. Thus, the human mind cannot obtain any rational knowledge of anything beyond the physical world. Kant’s theory would have an important influence on philosophy of religion since he asserted that concepts like God and the soul could not be known through reason. His theories have led some to claim that he is the father of agnosticism. Interestingly, Kant did believe in God and originated a form of the moral argument for God’s existence.
Kant also impacted the area of ethics. For him, “motive” is the most important factor in determining what is ethical. More specifically, Kant argued that a moral action is one that is performed out of a “sense of duty.” Thus, for Kant, a moral action is not based upon feelings or pity. Nor is it is not based on the possibility of reward. Instead, a moral action is one based on a sense of “This is what I ought to do.” Another important aspect of Kant’s ethical system is his “Categorical Imperative” which declares: “Act on a maxim [principle] that you would rationally want to apply to everybody.” Thus, for Kant, a person should act in such a way that, if possible, his or her action would become the universal law by which everyone else in the world should act under similar circumstances.
Kant wrote several significant works including his Critique of Pure Reason (1787). Ironically, Kant never left Königsberg for any significant length of time, but his philosophy has had a worldwide impact.