Study Guide

Immanuel Kant Biography

Basic Information

Name

Immanuel Kant

Nickname

The Old Jacobin; The Königsberg Kantortionist; Academic Kant; Kant (just the one name, like Sting and Flea)

Sex

Male

Home town

I was born on April 22, 1724 in Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia. I am pretty much the original hometown boy. I went to school in Königsberg, and then I went to college at the Albertus University—of Königsberg. After, I did go to neighboring villages for nine years to work as a private tutor, but that was a lonely gig—after all, I was several miles from home.

In my early 30s, I finally returned to Königsberg and never left. Literally: in my whole life, I have never been more than 10 miles from my hometown. I think it's safe to say that travelling is not a driving passion for me.

Work & Education

Occupation

What is my occupation? I am Immanuel Kant, arguably the greatest philosopher the world has ever seen—what do you think my occupation is?

All right, if you want to get technical about it, I have held a few different positions that have enabled me to earn an income. After my father died in 1746, I was poverty-stricken and worked as a private tutor for a number of years. Then, beginning in 1755, I became a Privatdozent, a lecturer in physics and philosophy at the University of Königsberg.

You think adjunct lecturers these days have it bad? That's luxury compared to what I endured. A Privatdozent got paid nothing, that's zero marks, by the university. The only money we earned came from what the attendees at the lectures paid. Now, it turns out that I was a fairly competent lecturer and so was able to sustain myself.

Finally, in 1770, I was given the chair of logic and metaphysics at Königsberg. Then, in 1781, my Critique of Pure Reason—the first in the series of books with which I am most associated—was published. I confess that from then on I became rather well known. Nevertheless, I continued to teach until 1797.

Education

My education is pretty much what you would expect from a thinker of the highest rank (I describe myself in that way not at all boastfully, but simply as a report of objective fact). I entered the University of Königsberg at the ripe old age of 16. I studied philosophy and physics, and at age 22, I published my first work, "Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces."

Even then I had a knack for snappy titles.

While my genius was duly noted, my studies were interrupted for a number of years due to the death of my father. There was no graduate funding in those days, so I had to leave the university and get a job. After a nine-year absence, I returned to the University of Königsberg in 1755 and received my doctorate the following year. It was all teaching and writing from then on.

Beliefs

Political views

Yes, it is true that I strongly defended the French Revolution (hence my nickname "The Old Jacobin"), which was a surprisingly daring position given my staid reputation. But to me, all such talk about one's political beliefs is little better than gossip, and I will not indulge in it.

If, however, it is my political theories in which you are interested, I can give you a very brief taste.

The most important concept in politics, as in ethics, is freedom. I hold that the state cannot be a hindrance to the freedom of its citizens. The state must have laws, of course, but these must serve to restrict only those actions that will restrict the freedom of others. All the citizens must agree to these laws, at least in principle.

(Notice, by the way, that we philosophers love to use the phrase "in principle." That means we can just talk about how things work in the ideal case, without having to worry too much about all those messy details that you find in that zone I believe they call "reality.")

So, anyhow, this is all to say that I espouse a version of social contract theory: the sovereign (the ruler) must legislate laws that the citizens can have enacted as part of a social contract. This is not to say there must an actual contract or even a vote, but only a possible one. In this way, a just state respects and preserves the autonomy of its citizens.

Religious views

I am sure the popular interest here is in such vulgar ideas as my "upbringing," or in what "religion" I am, and so forth. Shudder. But if you must know, I was raised in a strict Pietist household. Pietism is a form of Lutheranism that stresses the importance of one's inner attitude more than rigid adherence to dogma.

I suppose you could say that this background had a teensy-weensy influence on my philosophical views on religion. You will find the essence of that view stated succinctly (and, I might add, quite beautifully) at the beginning of the Critique of Pure Reason, where I remark: "I have found it necessary to deny knowledge to make room for faith" (source).

You see, I have never gone in for these rationalist proofs of the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the like. In fact, I explicitly argue that such concepts are beyond the scope of theoretical reason. I do not believe you can definitely prove or disprove the existence of God using reason. The problem is much more complicated than that.

No: these are matters of faith. I describe belief in God and the immortality of the soul as "postulates of practical reason." By that, I mean that although we cannot know that God exists or that the soul is immortal, these ideas—or "postulates of reason"—serve as something like guides to our moral behavior. So, in other words, I cannot prove that attaining the highest good is actually possible, but these postulates of reason allow me to act as if that were the case.

It is sort of funny: I am known as the great philosopher of the Enlightenment, the age of reason. But what you see in my view of religion, and of almost everything else, is my overriding interest in placing a limit on reason. It just goes to show you.

(I'm not sure what exactly you are shown, but it seemed like the right thing to say.)

Activities & Interests

Likes

Building elaborate philosophical systems
Specifying conditions of the possibility of things
Grimly doing what is right
Late afternoon casual walks (say, from 3:02 to 3:32)
The French Revolution
Invariable routines
Whatever everyone else likes (otherwise it might lead to a contradiction)
Obsessive carefulness
Obsessive carefulness (just in case you couldn't read it the first time)

Dislikes

Germs
Disease
Jokes about short people
Arriving home 30 seconds later than usual
The Bachelor (how can anyone decide in such a short time?)
Excitement
Novels
Folk music
Leaving out a step in an argument
Leaving out a possible step in an argument
Possibly leaving out a step in an argument

Interests

Metaphysics
Epistemology
Ethics
Aesthetics
Logic, especially of the transcendental variety
Physics

Groups

Transcendental Idealists
Most Important Thinkers of the Enlightenment
Deontologists
Verbose Incomprehensible German Philosophers
Least Traveled Club