Summary Of Kant’s LifeImmanuel Kant (1724-1804) spent all of his life in K?nigsberg, asmall German town on the Baltic Sea in East Prussia. (After World War II,Germany’s border was pushed west, so K?nigsberg is now calledKaliningrad and is part of Russia. ) At the age of fifty-five, Kant appeared tobe a washout. He had taught at K?nigsberg University for over twentyyears, yet had not published any works of significance. During the last twenty-five years of his life, however, Kant left amark on the history of philosophy that is rivaled only by such toweringgiants as Plato and Aristotle. Kant’s three major works are oftenconsidered to be the starting points for different branches of modernphilosophy: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) for the philosophy ofmind; the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) for moral philosophy; andthe Critique of Judgment (1790) for aesthetics, the philosophy of art.
The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals was published in1785, just before the Critique of Practical Reason. It is essentially a shortintroduction to the argument presented in the second Critique. In order tounderstand what Kant is up to in this book, it is useful to know somethingabout Kant’s other works and about the intellectual climate of his time. Kant lived and wrote during a period in European intellectual historycalled the Enlightenment. Stretching from the mid-seventeenth century tothe early nineteenth, this period produced the ideas about human rights anddemocracy that inspired the French and American revolutions. (Some othermajor figures of the Enlightenment were Locke, Hume, Rousseau, andLeibniz.
)The characteristic quality of the Enlightenment was an immenseconfidence in reason–that is, in humanity’s ability to solve problemsthrough logical analysis. The central metaphor of the Enlightenment was anotion of the light of reason dispelling the darkness of mythology andmisunderstanding. Enlightenment thinkers like Kant felt that history hadplaced them in the unique position of being able to provide clear reasonsand arguments for their beliefs. The ideas of earlier generations, theythought, had been determined by myths and traditions; their own ideas werebased on reason. (According to this way of thinking, the French monarchy’sclaims to power were based on tradition; reason prescribed a republicangovernment like that created by the revolution. )Kant’s philosophical goal was to use logical analysis to understandreason itself.
Before we go about analyzing our world, Kant argued, wemust understand the mental tools we will be using. In the Critique of PureReason Kant set about developing a comprehensive picture of how ourmind–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 Kantwas Hume’s analysis of cause-and-effect relationships. When we talk aboutevents in the world, Hume noted, we say that one thing causes another. But nothing in our perceptions tells us that anything causes anything else. Allwe know from our perceptions is that certain events regularly occurimmediately after certain other events.
Causation is a concept that weemploy to make sense of why certain events regularly follow certain otherevents. Kant took Hume’s idea and went one step further. Causation, Kantargues, is not just an idea that we employ to make sense of ourperceptions. It is a concept that we cannot help but employ.
We don’t sitaround watching events and then develop an idea of causation on the basisof what we see. When we see a baseball break a window, for instance, wedon’t need to have seen balls break windows before to say that the ballcaused the window to break; causation is an idea that we automaticallybring to bear on the situation. Kant argued that causation and a number ofother 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 helpbut think in terms of causes and effects. Kant’s argument with Hume may seem like hairsplitting, but it hashuge implications. If our picture of the world is structured by concepts thatare hardwired into our minds, then we can’t know anything about how theworld really is.
The world we know about is developed by combiningsensory data (appearances or phenomena, as Kant called them) withfundamental concepts of reason (causation, etc. ). We don’t know anythingabout the things-in- themselves from which sensory data emanates. Thisrecognition that our understanding of the world may have as much to dowith our minds as with the world has been called a Copernican Revolutionin philosophy–a change in perspective as significant to philosophy asCopernicus’ 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 theexistence of God.
One argument made was that there must be a firstcause for the universe. Kant pointed out that we can either imagine a worldin which some divine being set the universe in motion, causing all laterevents; or we can imagine a universe that is an infinite series of causes andeffects extending endlessly into the past and future. But since causation is anidea that comes from our minds and not from the world, we cannot knowwhether there really are causes and effects in the world–let alone whetherthere was a first cause that caused all later events. The question ofwhether there must be a first cause for the universe is irrelevant, because itis really a question about how we understand the world, not a questionabout the world itself. Kant’s analysis similarly shifted the debate over free will anddeterminism. (Kant presents a version of this argument in Chapter 3 of theGrounding.
) Human beings believe that they have free will; we feel asthough 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 ownchoices appear to have been caused by prior events; for instance, thechoices 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 freeif our behavior is determined by prior events? Again, Kant’s analysis showsthat 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 usereason to understand why we have made the choices we have, we cancome up with a causal explanation. But this picture isn’t necessarilyaccurate. We don’t know anything about how things really are; we arefree to think that we can make free choices, because for all we know thismight really be the case. In the Critique of Practical Reason and the Grounding for theMetaphysics of Morals, Kant applies this same technique–using reason toanalyze itself–to determine what moral choices we should make. Just as wecannot rely on our picture of the world for knowledge about how the worldreally is, so can we not rely on expectations about events in the world indeveloping moral principles.
Kant tries to develop a moral philosophy thatdepends only on the fundamental concepts of reason. Some later scholars and philosophers have criticized Enlightenmentphilosophers like Kant for placing too much confidence in reason. Somehave argued that rational analysis isn’t the best way to deal with moralquestions. Further, some have argued that Enlightenment thinkers werepompous to think that they could discover the timeless truths of reason; infact, their ideas were determined by their culture just as all other people’sare. Some experts have gone as far as to associate the Enlightenment withthe crimes of imperialism, noting a similarity between the idea of reasondispelling myth and the idea that Western people have a right and a duty tosupplant less advanced civilizations.
As we work through the Groundingfor the Metaphysics of Morals, we will return to such criticisms as theyapply to Kant.Philosophy