Born in 1724 in the East Prussian town of Königsberg (now the Russian city of Kaliningrad), Immanuel Kant was one of the most influential philosophers of all time. Kant’s fusion of rationalism and empiricism placed ethical and natural laws on a foundation of human understanding. Kant wrote extensively, but he is best remembered today for his three seminal critiques. Feel like you can’t get a handle on Kant? Let’s figure him out together!
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CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON Kant wrote Critique of Pure Reason with a specific goal in mind: an explanation of how human reasoning can attain a priori knowledge. A priori knowledge is knowledge that is independent of experience. In the Critique, Kant develops his theory of Transcendental Idealism. In simplified terms, transcendental idealism states that, while we cannot know objects in themselves, certain knowledge does exist in our mind independently of experience. This knowledge takes the form of categories such as time and space, categories that structure our ability to perceive the world. In the work Kant likens this sea change in philosophy to the Copernican Revolution.
GROUNDWORK OF THE METAPHYSIC OF MORALS Kant’s foundational work on ethics, which would later be expanded in his Critique of Practical Reason, began with his 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. In the Groundwork Kant formulated his famous categorical imperative (more on this later). The Groundwork articulated Kant’s deontological ethics. Deontological ethics attempt to differentiate between what’s right and wrong based on following rules. This contrasts with other theories of ethics, such as consequentialism, which attempt to subjectively differentiate between good and bad actions based on their outcomes.
CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE Kant’s categorical imperative is essential to his deontological ethics. The categorical imperative is an absolute law for determining the morality of an action, independent of circumstances. The categorical imperative essentially states that you should only act a certain way if you would want everyone else in the world to act the same way. Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative added the further condition that you should treat individuals not as means to an end but as ends in themselves. This theory was notably criticized while Kant was still alive by Benjamin Constant, who argued that the categorical imperative would oblige someone to tell a murderer the location of their victim if asked.
CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT Kant’s third critique—after Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason—the Critique of Judgment discusses aesthetic judgment and teleological judgment (the judgment of things by their ends). Kant’s discussion of aesthetic judgment introduces his concept of the sublime, something that cannot be fully comprehended by our aesthetic faculties. In the Critique’s second portion Kant posits that the telos, or goal of nature can be understood as its relation to man. Man, by dint of his reason, is separate from the rest of nature according to Kant’s schema.
WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT What is Enlightenment? is an essay by Kant that emphasizes the importance of free, unrestricted reason. Kant refers to this as the public use of reason. It is through the use of public reason, essentially “thinking for oneself,” that can enable one’s “emergence from self-imposed immaturity.”
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Maria von Herbert was a noblewoman and Kant enthusiast whose letters put his ethical philosophy on the spot.
Kant admired Frederick the Great, and the admiration was mutual. Learn more about their relationship here!
Kant’s memory is still capable of causing passionate reactions. Read more here about some strong feelings he caused in Germany.
Kant’s aesthetic theories have relevance even today! Watch this video about how he influenced game design, among other things.
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