Summary Of Kants Life Essay

Summary Of Kant’s LifeImmanuel Kant (1724-1804) spent all of his life in K?nigsberg, a
small German town on the Baltic Sea in East Prussia. (After World War II,
Germany’s border was pushed west, so K?nigsberg is now called
Kaliningrad and is part of Russia.) At the age of fifty-five, Kant appeared to
be a washout. He had taught at K?nigsberg University for over twenty
years, yet had not published any works of significance.

During the last twenty-five years of his life, however, Kant left a
mark on the history of philosophy that is rivaled only by such towering
giants as Plato and Aristotle. Kant’s three major works are often
considered to be the starting points for different branches of modern
philosophy: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) for the philosophy of
mind; the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) for moral philosophy; and
the Critique of Judgment (1790) for aesthetics, the philosophy of art.

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The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals was published in
1785, just before the Critique of Practical Reason. It is essentially a short
introduction to the argument presented in the second Critique. In order to
understand what Kant is up to in this book, it is useful to know something
about Kant’s other works and about the intellectual climate of his time.

Kant lived and wrote during a period in European intellectual history
called the Enlightenment. Stretching from the mid-seventeenth century to
the early nineteenth, this period produced the ideas about human rights and
democracy that inspired the French and American revolutions. (Some other
major figures of the Enlightenment were Locke, Hume, Rousseau, and
The characteristic quality of the Enlightenment was an immense
confidence in reason–that is, in humanity’s ability to solve problems
through logical analysis. The central metaphor of the Enlightenment was a
notion of the light of reason dispelling the darkness of mythology and
misunderstanding. Enlightenment thinkers like Kant felt that history had
placed them in the unique position of being able to provide clear reasons
and arguments for their beliefs. The ideas of earlier generations, they
thought, had been determined by myths and traditions; their own ideas were
based on reason. (According to this way of thinking, the French monarchy’s
claims to power were based on tradition; reason prescribed a republican
government like that created by the revolution.)
Kant’s philosophical goal was to use logical analysis to understand
reason itself. Before we go about analyzing our world, Kant argued, we
must understand the mental tools we will be using. In the Critique of Pure
Reason Kant set about developing a comprehensive picture of how our
mind–our reason– receives and processes information.

Kant later said that the great Scottish philosopher David Hume
(1711-76) had inspired him to undertake this project. Hume, Kant said,
awoke him from an intellectual slumber. The idea that so inspired Kant
was Hume’s analysis of cause-and-effect relationships. When we talk about
events in the world, Hume noted, we say that one thing causes another.

But nothing in our perceptions tells us that anything causes anything else. All
we know from our perceptions is that certain events regularly occur
immediately after certain other events. Causation is a concept that we
employ to make sense of why certain events regularly follow certain other

Kant took Hume’s idea and went one step further. Causation, Kant
argues, is not just an idea that we employ to make sense of our
perceptions. It is a concept that we cannot help but employ. We don’t sit
around watching events and then develop an idea of causation on the basis
of what we see. When we see a baseball break a window, for instance, we
don’t need to have seen balls break windows before to say that the ball
caused the window to break; causation is an idea that we automatically
bring to bear on the situation. Kant argued that causation and a number of
other basic ideas–time and space, for instance–are hardwired, as it were,
into our minds. Anytime we try to understand what we see, we cannot help
but think in terms of causes and effects.

Kant’s argument with Hume may seem like hairsplitting, but it has
huge implications. If our picture of the world is structured by concepts that
are hardwired into our minds, then we can’t know anything about how the
world really is. The world we know about is developed by combining
sensory data (appearances or phenomena, as Kant called them) with
fundamental concepts of reason (causation, etc.). We don’t know anything
about the things-in- themselves from which sensory data emanates. This
recognition that our understanding of the world may have as much to do
with our minds as with the world has been called a Copernican Revolution
in philosophy–a change in perspective as significant to philosophy as
Copernicus’ recognition that the earth is not the center of the universe.

Kant’s insights posed a severe challenge to many earlier ideas.

Before Kant, for instance, many philosophers offered proofs of the
existence of God. One argument made was that there must be a first
cause for the universe. Kant pointed out that we can either imagine a world
in which some divine being set the universe in motion, causing all later
events; or we can imagine a universe that is an infinite series of causes and
effects extending endlessly into the past and future. But since causation is an
idea that comes from our minds and not from the world, we cannot know
whether there really are causes and effects in the world–let alone whether
there was a first cause that caused all later events. The question of
whether there must be a first cause for the universe is irrelevant, because it
is really a question about how we understand the world, not a question
about the world itself.

Kant’s analysis similarly shifted the debate over free will and
determinism. (Kant presents a version of this argument in Chapter 3 of the
Grounding.) Human beings believe that they have free will; we feel as
though we may freely choose to do whatever we like. At the same time,
however, the world that we experience is a world of causes and effects;
everything we observe was caused by whatever preceded it. Even our own
choices appear to have been caused by prior events; for instance, the
choices you make now are based on values you learned from your parents,
which they learned from their parents, and so forth. But how can we be free
if our behavior is determined by prior events? Again, Kant’s analysis shows
that this is an irrelevant question. Anytime we analyze events in the world,
we come up with a picture that includes causes and effects. When we use
reason to understand why we have made the choices we have, we can
come up with a causal explanation. But this picture isn’t necessarily
accurate. We don’t know anything about how things really are; we are
free to think that we can make free choices, because for all we know this
might really be the case.

In the Critique of Practical Reason and the Grounding for the
Metaphysics of Morals, Kant applies this same technique–using reason to
analyze itself–to determine what moral choices we should make. Just as we
cannot rely on our picture of the world for knowledge about how the world
really is, so can we not rely on expectations about events in the world in
developing moral principles. Kant tries to develop a moral philosophy that
depends only on the fundamental concepts of reason.

Some later scholars and philosophers have criticized Enlightenment
philosophers like Kant for placing too much confidence in reason. Some
have argued that rational analysis isn’t the best way to deal with moral
questions. Further, some have argued that Enlightenment thinkers were
pompous to think that they could discover the timeless truths of reason; in
fact, their ideas were determined by their culture just as all other people’s
are. Some experts have gone as far as to associate the Enlightenment with
the crimes of imperialism, noting a similarity between the idea of reason
dispelling myth and the idea that Western people have a right and a duty to
supplant less advanced civilizations. As we work through the Grounding
for the Metaphysics of Morals, we will return to such criticisms as they
apply to Kant.



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