Who was Immanuel Kant?

01 Apr 2012

This is not a blog about Immanuel Kant. But for a short while, we need to talk about him; otherwise how should anyone understand the namesake of this work?

Before he became a professional philosopher, Kant was a lecturer on various scientific and philosophical concepts and he crafted several important hypotheses in the “hard” sciences. In many ways Kant understood the modern turn to evolutionary thinking - he anticipated Darwinism in it’s various forms as the most important intellectual trend of the last few centuries, along with a complementary understanding of the age and size of the universe. Among the most interesting of his early scientific conjectures is his formulation of the Nebular Hypothesis.

“…in which he deduced that the Solar System formed from a large cloud of gas, a nebula… These postulations opened new horizons for astronomy: for the first time extending astronomy beyond the solar system to galactic and extragalactic realms.” (Wikipedia)

The point is not that nobody had ever thought of the universe in that way before - certainly some people had. The “Copernican turn” in science and physics had already happened. Kant took his theory of science to a challenging depth for his era, but what makes this fact important is it’s place in Kant’s worldview: he did not just get the facts of the age of the universe and the evolution of life, but he put those facts into the “modern” worldview that he created for morality and metaphysics. He described himself as extending that “Copernican turn” into the mind. When you think about the tremendous kind of insight it took to think about the formation of the universe and our relation to it as rational beings in basically the contemporary fashion (at least the mainstream scientific one) 200 years before the rest of us, you cannot help but be awed.

This speaks to the depth and breadth of Kant’s originality. Classical philosophy as he presented it was divided into 3 parts: Physics, Ethics, and Logic. Most of what we consider physics, chemistry, and even sub-cellular biology and organic chemistry is what falls into the first category. Ethics is what it sounds like, generally the science of judgement. Logic is formal philosophy; it is what we might call the study of the rules under which our judgement is constrained. Kant made his trademark “Copernican turn” when he divided ethics and physics into a theoretical part and an empirical part. In doing so he created a faceted “metaphysics” of both ethics and nature. The metaphysics of ethics he called morality, and it is here where he theorized his famous “Categorical Imperative.” The metaphysical part of physics is where Kant formalized the study of what might be behind the “aether,” a study that has blossomed in the 20th century with such advances as relativity and our observations of quantum mechanics. This was a deceptively important insight, into the very nature of the modern world. Once there was a distinction between things-in-themselves and the things as we understand them, the door to improving our understanding was open once again. Free will and imperfect knowledge, the opposition of which our deepest modern crises have stemmed from, were made to be compatible under the Kantian metaphysics, in a way that became foundation for the work of future generations.

Kant’s central thesis was simple. He argued that everyone needs to think for themselves, to have the intention of becoming their own master. Just as we can observe that the earth is not the center of the universe, we also need to see that we do not know things in themselves; rather we are only privileged to our own interpretation of them. In short, rationality means that we need to realize our own limits if we want to fully realize ourselves.

“Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.” (Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason, 1781).

Of course, it is our knowledge of ourselves that burdens us with our ignorance, for we cannot ever know our true measure from the outside. This is as true of our species as it is of our selves. And that is why it is worth writing about Kant today. Never has the need to see ourselves clearly been more apparent. From the dangers of atomic weapons and endless war to the eternal dangers of famine and disaster, things are as dangerous today as they have been throughout the rest of human history. As we have done before, we need to look deep within our collective creativity to invent the future.

Kant is meaningful because he guides the way. Before him, space and time were just properties of matter. After him they were the foundation of physics. And on the “big questions” - on the heritage of our species and the scale of the universe, he was both perceptive and ground-breaking. We should all try to stand on the shoulders of giants when we can.