Immanuel Kant

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Western Philosophers
18th-century philosophy,
Age of Enlightenment
Immanuel Kant in middle age
Immanuel Kant in middle age
Basic Information
Name Immanuel Kant
Dates April 22, 1724February 12, 1804
Place of Birth Königsberg, East Prussia
Place of Death Königsberg, East Prussia
School/Tradition Enlightenment
Major Works Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, Critique of Judgement, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
Main Interests Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ethics
Influences Hume, Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Rousseau
Influenced Everyone who came after him
Famous Ideas Categorical imperative, Transcendental Idealism
Quote Two things fill the mind with ever new, and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
-Epitaph (from Critique of Practical Reason 5:161)
Philosophers By Era
Pre-Socratic, Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance
1600s, 1700s, 1800s, 1900s

Postmodern, Contemporary

Immanuel Kant (April 22, 1724February 12, 1804) was a German philosopher and scientist (astrophysics, mathematics, geography, anthropology) from East Prussia, generally regarded as one of Western society's and modern Europe's most influential thinkers and the last major philosopher of the Enlightenment.


Kant and his philosophy

Kant defined the Enlightenment, in the essay "Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?", as an age shaped by the motto, "Dare to know". This involved thinking autonomously, free of the dictates of external authority. Kant's work served as a bridge between the Rationalist and Empiricist traditions of the 18th century. He had a decisive impact on the Romantic and German Idealist philosophies of the 19th century. His work has also been a starting point for many 20th century philosophers.

The two interconnected foundations of what Kant called his "critical philosophy", of the "Copernican revolution" he claimed to have wrought in philosophy, were his epistemology (or theory of knowledge) of Transcendental Idealism and his moral philosophy of the autonomy of reason. These placed the active, rational human subject at the center of the cognitive and moral worlds. With regard to knowledge, Kant argued that the rational order of the world as known by science could never be accounted for merely by the fortuitous accumulation of sense perceptions. It was instead the product of the rule-based activity of "synthesis". This consisted of conceptual unification and integration carried out by the mind through concepts or the "categories of the understanding" operating on perceptions within space and time, which are not concepts, but forms of sensibility that are necessary conditions for any possible experience. Thus the objective order of nature and the causal necessity that operates within it are products of the mind in its interaction with what lies outside of mind (the "thing-in-itself"). With regard to morality, Kant argued that the source of the good lies not in anything outside the human subject, either in nature or given by God, but rather only in a good will. A good will is one that acts in accordance with universal moral laws that the autonomous human being freely gives itself. These laws obligate her or him to treat other human beings as ends rather than as means to an end.

These Kantian ideas have largely framed or influenced all subsequent philosophical discussion and analysis. The specifics of Kant's account generated immediate and lasting controversy. Nevertheless his theses that the mind itself makes a constitutive contribution to its knowledge (and that knowledge is therefore subject to limits which cannot be overcome), that morality is rooted in human freedom acting autonomously according to rational moral principles, and that philosophy involves self-critical activity irrevocably reshaped philosophy.


Birth and youth

Immanuel Kant was born in 1724. He spent his entire life in and around Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia (now Kaliningrad). His father was a German craftsman. In his youth, Kant was a a solid, albeit unspectacular, student. He was raised in a Pietist household, a then popular Lutheran reform movement that stressed intense religious devotion, personal humility and a literal reading of the bible. Consequently, Kant received a stern Pietist education, one that favored Latin and religious instruction over mathematics and science. Kant would later have few fond memories of his school years.

The young scholar

Kant enrolled in the University of Königsberg in 1740, at the age of 16. He studied the philosophy of Leibniz and Wolff under Martin Knutsen, a rationalist who was also familiar with the developments of British philosophy and science and introduced Kant to the new mathematical physics of Newton. His father's stroke and subsequent death in 1746 interrupted his studies. Kant became a private tutor in the smaller towns surrounding Königsberg, but continued his scholarly research. 1749 saw the publication of his first work, Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces. Kant published several more works on scientific topics and became a university lecturer in 1755. From this point on, Kant turned increasingly to philosophical issues, although he would continue to write on the sciences throughout his life. In the early 1760s, Kant produced a series of important works in philosophy. The False Subtlety of the Four Syllogistic Figures, a work in logic, was published in 1762. Two more works appeared the following year: Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy and The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God. In 1764, Kant wrote Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and then was second to Mendelssohn in a Berlin Academy prize competition with his Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality (often referred to as the Prize Essay). In 1770, at the age of 45, Kant was finally appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Königsberg. Kant wrote his Inaugural Dissertation in defense of this appointment. This work saw the emergence of several central themes of his mature work, including the distinction between the faculties of intellectual thought and sensible receptivity.

The critical turn

At the age of 46, Kant was an established scholar and an increasingly influential philosopher. Much was expected of him. But, surprisingly, Kant would not publish another work in philosophy for the next eleven years. In response to a letter from his student, Markus Herz, Kant came to recognize that, in the Inaugural Dissertation, he had failed to account for the relation and connection between our sensible and intellectual faculties. Kant spent his silent decade working on a solution to this problem. When he emerged from his silence in 1781, the result was the Critique of Pure Reason. Although now uniformly recognized as one of the greatest works in the history of philosophy, the first Critique was largely ignored upon its initial publication. The work was long, over 800 pages in the original German edition, and written in a dry, scholastic style. It received few reviews, and these failed to recognize the Critique's revolutionary nature. Kant was disappointed with the work's reception. Recognizing the obscurity of the original treatise, he wrote the Prolegomena in 1783 as a summary of its main views and he encouraged his friend, Johann Schultz, to publish a brief commentary of the Critique.

Kant's reputation gradually rose through the 1780s, sparked by a series of important works: the 1784 essay, Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?; 1785's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (his first work on moral philosophy); and, from 1786, Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science. But Kant's fame ultimately arrived from an unexpected source. In 1786, Karl Reinhold began to publish a series of public letters on the Kantian philosophy. In these letters, Reinhold framed Kant's philosophy as a response to the central intellectual controversy of the era: the Pantheism Dispute. Friedrich Jacobi had accused the recently deceased Lessing (a distinguished philosopher of the period) of Spinozism. Such a charge, tantamount to atheism, was vigorously denied by Lessing's friend Mendelssohn, and a bitter public dispute arose between them. The controversy gradually escalated into a general debate over the values of the Enlightenment and of reason itself. Reinhold maintained in his letters that Kant's Critique of Pure Reason could settle this dispute by defending the authority and bounds of reason. Reinhold's letters were widely read and made Kant the most famous philosopher of his era.

Kant's later work

Kant published a second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1787, heavily revising the first parts of the book. But most of his subsequent work focused on other areas of philosophy. He continued to develop his moral philosophy, notably in 1788's Critique of Practical Reason (known as the second Critique) and 1797's Metaphysics of Morals. The 1790 Critique of Judgment (the third Critique) applied the Kantian system to aesthetics and teleology. He also wrote a number of semi-popular essays on history, religion, politics and other topics. These works were well received by Kant's contemporaries and confirmed his preeminent status in eighteenth century philosophy. There were several journals devoted solely to defending and criticizing the Kantian philosophy. But despite his success, philosophical trends were moving in another direction. Many of Kant's most important disciples (including Reinhold, Beck and Fichte) transformed the Kantian position into increasingly radical forms of idealism. This marked the emergence of German Idealism. Kant was against these developments and publicly denounced Fichte in an open letter in 1799. It was one of his final philosophical acts. Kant's health, long poor, turned for the worst and he died in 1804. His unfinished final work, the fragmentary Opus Postumum, was (as its title suggests) published posthumously.

Kantian myths

A variety of myths have arisen concerning Kant's biography and legend. It is often held, for instance, that Kant was a late bloomer, that he only became an important philosopher in his mid-50s after rejecting his earlier views. While it is true that Kant wrote his greatest works relatively late in life, there is a tendency to underestimate the value of his earlier works. Recent Kant scholarship has devoted more attention to these "pre-critical" writings and has recognized a degree of continuity with his mature work.

Another common myth concerns Kant's personal mannerisms. It is often held that Kant lived a very strict and predictable life, leading to the oft-repeated story that neighbors would set their clocks by his daily walks. Again, this is only partly true. While still young, Kant was very gregarious and, though he never married, he remained fond of dinner parties through most of his life. Only later in his life, under the influence of his friend, the English merchant Joseph Green, did Kant adopt a more regulated lifestyle.

Kant's moral philosophy

Kant developed his moral philosophy in three works: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals [1] (1785), Critique of Practical Reason [2] (1788), and Metaphysics of Morals [3] (1798).

Kant is known for his theory that there is a single moral obligation, which he called the Categorical Imperative, from which all other moral obligations are generated. He believed that the moral law is a principle of reason itself, and is not based on contingent facts about the world (e.g., what would make us happy). Accordingly, he believed that moral obligation applies to all and only rational agents.

A categorical imperative is an unconditional obligation; that is, it has the force of an obligation regardless of our will or desires. (Contrast this with hypothetical imperative.) Kant's categorical imperative was formulated in three ways, which he believed to be roughly equivalent (although many commentators do not):

  • The first formulation (Formula of Universal Law) says: "Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature."
  • The second formulation (Formula of Humanity) says: "Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means."
  • The third formulation (Formula of Autonomy) is a synthesis of the first two. It says that we should so act that we may think of ourselves as legislating universal laws through our maxims. We may think of ourselves as such autonomous legislators only insofar as we follow our own laws.

Example of the first formulation:

The most popular interpretation of the first formulation is called the "universalizability test." An agent's maxim, according to Kant, is his "subjective principle of volition" — that is, what the agent believes is his reason to act. The universalizability test has five steps:

  1. Find the agent's maxim.
  2. Imagine a possible world in which everyone in a similar position to the real-world agent followed that maxim.
  3. Decide whether any contradictions, or irrationalities, arise in the possible world as a result of following the maxim.
  4. If a contradiction or irrationality arises, acting on that maxim is not allowed in the real world.
  5. If there is no contradiction, then acting on that maxim is permissible, and in some instances required.

There are two types of contradiction that Kant thinks may arise with impermissible maxims. The first type he calls "contradictions in conception." Kant uses the example of a false promise to illustrate this. His imagined agent has the maxim: "I am going to lie so that someone will lend me money, because I am in need." Kant argues that universalizing this maxim would lead to a contradiction — that is, if everyone were to follow this maxim, and were to lie whenever in need, promises would mean nothing. So it would be contradictory or irrational in the possible world to make a false promise to secure money, since your promise would simply be laughed at. Thus, acting on such a maxim in the real world is impermissible, which means we have a duty not to make false promises just to satisfy our needs. Incidentally, Kant believed that any maxim involving lying would lead to a contradiction, leading to his commitment to the view that we have a perfect (i.e. inviolable) duty not to lie.

The second type of contradiction Kant calls "contradictions in will," which arise when a universalized maxim would contradict something the agent would have to will as a rational being. Kant's example involves a self-reliant person who thinks everybody should mind their own business, and thus acts on the maxim: "Don't help others." In the imagined world where this is universalized, Kant thinks that this would necessarily contradict something any rational agent must will, namely that if one is in great need and could easily be helped by another, as a rational being he would have to will that the other person help him — but this universalized maxim contradicts that, thus leading to a contradiction in will, and showing that the policy, "Don't help others" is impermissible.

Example of the second formulation:

If I steal a book from you, I am treating you as a means only (to obtain a book). If I ask to have your book, I am respecting your right to say no, and am thereby treating you as an end-in-yourself, not as a means to an end. However, if I only ask you to be perceived by you as a nice person and to induce you to do things for me in the future, then again I am treating you as a means only.

Kant applied his categorical imperative to the issue of suicide in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, writing that:

[I]f a man is reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes and feels wearied of life, but is still so far in possession of his reason that he can ask himself whether it would not be contrary to his duty to himself to take his own life, he should ask himself a question. He should inquire whether the maxim of his action could become a universal law of nature. His maxim is: From self-love I adopt it as a principle to shorten my life when its longer duration is likely to bring more evil than satisfaction. It is asked then simply whether this principle founded on self-love can become a universal law of nature. Now we see at once that a system of nature of which it should be a law to destroy life by means of the very feeling whose special nature it is to impel to the improvement of life would contradict itself, and therefore could not exist as a system of nature; hence the maxim cannot possibly exist as a universal law of nature, and consequently would be wholly inconsistent with the supreme principle of all duty.

The theory that we have universal duties, which hold despite one's own inclinations or the desire to pursue one's own happiness instead, is known as deontological ethics. Kant is often cited as the most important source of this strand of ethical theory; in particular, of the theory of conduct, also known as the theory of obligation.


Kant's most powerful and revolutionary effect on philosophy, which changed forever its meaning, modes of thinking, and language(s), was not "positive" in the sense of producing specific assertions about the world that have become accepted truths, as in the positive sciences. Rather it was "negative" in the sense of restricting the areas about which such knowledge was possible — by making philosophy "critical" and self-critical. Kant's idea of "critique" was to examine the legitimate scope of the mind or of knowledge. In this regard the "critique of pure reason", which was also the title of his most important work (see below and Critique of Pure Reason), meant examining what certain and legitimate knowledge human beings could arrive at simply by thinking about things independently of experience and perception, with his conclusion being: not very much. Prior to Kant, the entire mode of functioning of most philosophy was drawing conclusions about the nature of the universe, of God, or of the soul simply by logical thinking about them, by what seemed to make sense through "a priori" thinking, i.e. thinking on purely logical grounds. For this sort of thinking it must be the case that God or the universe is this way or that way, because it makes sense logically. But, in the history of philosophy, for every philosophical theory that God or the universe or the mind must be one way, some philosopher arrived at another theory stating that it must be precisely the opposite way. Kant called this unproductive, unresolvable, back-and-forth, dogmatic thinking the "dialectic of pure reason". That is, it was an inevitable consequence of trying to arrive at knowledge on purely logical grounds independently of experience or of scientific knowledge based on the evidence of the senses. For Kant, this entire style of pursuing knowledge was bankrupt and must be abandoned. According to Kant, philosophy must henceforth operate within the narrow "limits of pure reason" and recognize that most positive knowledge could come only through the sciences based on sense perception and not through metaphysics, which was about things of which we could never have direct sense perception.

Some important philosophers and schools of thought, such as German Idealists, neo-Thomists and other theologically oriented philosophers, and Heidegger's "fundamental ontology" have refused to accept the limitations that Kant imposed upon philosophy and attempted to come up with new metaphysical systems about "the Absolute", "God", or "Being" , although even these philosophers have generally tried doing so by taking Kant into account. Over-all, however, post-Kantian philosophy has never been able to return to the style of thinking, arguing, and asserting conclusions that characterized philosophy before him. In this way, Kant was correct in asserting that he had brought about a "Copernican revolution" in philosophy. According to Kant, Copernicus's revolution in the understanding of the cosmos lay in taking the position of the observer into account. This explained why it looks as though the sun revolves around the earth even though in reality the earth revolves around the sun. Taking the observer's position into account prevents the unaware projection of the observer's perception or point of view onto the picture of the universe. Kant saw his own Copernican revolution in philosophy, analogously, as consisting in taking the position of the knower into account and thereby preventing the unaware projection of the knower's way of thinking ("pure reason") onto the philosophical map of reality. According to Kant, it was philosophers unawarely doing this that had created the illusions of metaphysics that dominated the prior history of philosophy. Kant saw this revolution, in turn, as being part of "Enlightenment" (as conceived of in the Age of Enlightenment) and the creation of an enlightened citizenry and society freed from dogmatism and irrational authority.

Kant's wider influence not only in philosophy but in the humanities and social sciences generally lies in the central concept of the Critique of Pure Reason, namely that it is the synthesizing, unifying, constitutive activity of the subject of knowledge that is at the basis of our having an ordered world of experience and of the objects of knowledge themselves. This idea has spread out through many intellectual disciplines in which it has manifested itself in different forms, for example from Marx's notion, in social theory, of the constitutive role of human labor in the creation of history and society through Freud's notion, in psychology, that the activity of the ego produces the reality principle through Durkheim's notion, in sociology, that society creates collective consciousness through social categories through Chomsky's notion, in linguistics, of transformational grammar, to current notions, in several of the humanities and social sciences, of the "social construction of reality". In this way Kant's conception of synthesizing, ordering mental activity has become central to modern intellectual culture.


The inscription upon Kant's tomb near the Kant Russian State University.
The inscription upon Kant's tomb near the Kant Russian State University.

His tomb and its pillared enclosure outside the cathedral in Königsberg are some of the few artifacts of German times preserved by the Soviets after they conquered East Prussia in 1945. A replica of a statue of Kant that stood in front of the university was donated by a German entity in 1991 and placed on the original pediment. Near his tomb is the following inscription in German and Russian, taken from the "Conclusion" of his Critique of Practical Reason [5:161-2]:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and perseveringly my thinking engages itself with them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.

Works and links to texts, in English and German

External links

See also

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References and further reading

Any suggestion of further reading on Kant has to take cognizance of the fact that his work has dominated philosophy like no other figure after him. Nevertheless, several guideposts can be made out. In Germany, the most important contemporary interpreter of Kant and the movement of German Idealism which he began is Dieter Henrich, who has some work available in English. P.F. Strawson's "The Bounds of Sense" (1969) largely determined the contemporary reception of Kant in England and America, but his positions have been challenged by a number of recent thinkers including Henry Allison, Paul Guyer, Robert Pippin, Terry Pinkard, and Béatrice Longuenesse. This body of work has begun to lessen the divide between academic interpretations of Kant in the English speaking world and in Europe. John Rawls' Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, is particularly useful in its investigation of Kant's moral philosophy within the vicissitudes of ethical systems from Hume to Leibniz to Hegel. More recently, Gary Banham has published a key interpretation of Kant's practical philosophy that has corrected exclusive focus on the categorical imperative in favour of an inclusive comprehension of right and virtue. John McDowell is perhaps the most important contemporary analytic philosopher who explicitly builds upon Kantian themes. Howard Caygill's dictionary of Kantian terms is an excellent guide to the overall terrain of the influence and nature of Kant's concepts.

General introductions to Kant's thought

Biography and historical context

  • Beck, Lewis White. "Early German Philosophy: Kant and his Predecessors." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.
a survey of Kant's intellectual background
  • Beiser, Frederick C. "The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Kuehn, Manfred. Kant: A Biography. Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 0521497043
  • Pinkard, Terry. German philosophy, 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism. Cambridge, 2002.
  • Sassen, Brigitte. ed. Kant's Early Critics: The Empiricist Critique of the Theoretical Philosophy, 2000.

Collections of essays

an excellent collection of papers that covers most areas of Kant's thought
  • Mohanty, J.N. and Robert W. Shahan. eds. Essays on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. ISBN 0806117826
  • Proceedings of the International Kant Congresses. Several Congresses (numbered) edited by various publishers.
  • Förster, Eckart ed. "Kant's Transcendental Deductions: The Three 'Critiques' and the 'Opus Postumum.'" Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.
includes an important essay by Dieter Henrich'
  • Cohen, Ted and Paul Guyer eds. Essays in Kant's Aesthetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
essays on Kant's Critique of Judgment

On Kant's theoretical philosophy

very influential defense of Kant's idealism, recently revised
  • Ameriks, Karl. "Kant's Theory of Mind: An Analysis of the Paralogisms of Pure Reason." Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
one of the first detailed studies of the Dialectic in English
  • Gram, Moltke S. The Transcendental Turn: The Foundation of Kant's Idealism. Gainesville : University Presses of Florida, 1984. ISBN 0813007879
  • Guyer, Paul. "Kant and the Claims of Knowledge." Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
a modern defense of the view that Kant's theoretical philosophy is a "patchwork" of ill-fitting arguments
  • Henrich, Dieter. The Unity of Reason: Essays on Kant’s Philosophy. Edited and with an introduction by Richard L. Velkley ; translated by Jeffrey Edwards ... [et al.]. Harvard University Press, 1994. ISBN 0674929055
  • Kemp Smith, Norman. "A Commentary to Kant's ‘Critique of Pure Reason.’" London: Macmillan, 1930.
a somewhat dated, but influential commentary on the first Critique, recently reprinted
  • Kitcher, Patricia. "Kant's Transcendental Psychology." New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Longuenesse, Béatrice. Kant and the Capacity to Judge. Princeton University Press, 1998. ISBN 0691043485
argues that the notion of judgment provides the key to understanding the overall argument of the first Critique
  • Melnick, Arthur. "Kant's Analogies of Experience." Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.
an important study of Kant's Analogies, including his defense of the principle of causality
  • Paton, H. J. "Kant’s Metaphysic of Experience: A Commentary on the First Half of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft." Two volumes. London: Macmillan, 1936.
an extensive study of Kant's theoretical philosophy
  • Pippin, Robert B. Kant's Theory of Form: An Essay on the Critique of Pure Reason. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
an influential examination of the formal character of Kant's work
  • Strawson, P.F. The Bounds of Sense: an essay on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Routledge, 1989.
the work that revitalized the interest of contemporary analytic philosophers in Kant
  • Wolff, Robert Paul. Kant's theory of mental activity: A commentary on the transcendental analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.
a detailed and influential commentary on the first part of the Critique of Pure Reason

On Kant's practical philosophy

  • Banham, Gary. Kant's Practical Philosophy: From Critique to Doctrine Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Michalson, Gordon E. Fallen Freedom: Kant on Radical Evil and Moral Regeneration. Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Michalson, Gordon E. Kant and the Problem of God. Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
  • Rawls, John. Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, 2000.
  • Wolff, Robert Paul. The Autonomy of Reason: A Commentary on Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. New York: HarperCollins, 1974. ISBN 0061317926

On Kant's aesthetics

  • Guyer, Paul. Kant and the Claim of Taste. Cambridge MA and London, 1979.
  • Crawford, Donald. Kant's Aesthetic Theory. Wisconsin, 1974.
  • Makkreel, Rudolf, Imagination and Interpretation in Kant. Chicago, 1990.
  • McCloskey, Mary. Kant's Aesthetic. SUNY, 1987.
  • Schaper, Eva. Studies in Kant's Aesthetics. Edinburgh, 1979.

Other work on Kant

a very useful resource

Contemporary philosophy with a Kantian influence

  • Korsgaard, Christine. Creating the Kingdom of Ends. Cambridge ; New York, NY, USA : Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0521496446, ISBN 0521499623 (pbk.)
not a commentary, but a defense of a broadly Kantian approach to ethics
  • McDowell, John. Mind and World. Harvard University Press, 1994. ISBN 0674576098
offers a Kantian solution to a dilemma in contemporary epistemology regarding the relation between mind and world

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