An Overview Of Immanuel Kant Essay, Research Paper
An overview of Immanuel Kant
By Scott Haywood
Harold McSwain, Ph.D.
The exploration into Immanuel Kant?s thought is one of, insight, perception, and open-mindedness. His work in the field of philosophy and intellectual development spanned over thirty-five years. He wrote on virtually all philosophical topics but his love was in the branch of metaphysics. His role in the evolvement of modern thought is vast and profound. Immanuel Kant was born, lived, and died in Konigsberg, East Prussia. Although he never left East Prussia, he is one of the most highly regarded philosophers of modern times. This paper will be an overview of his thoughts.
We can divide Kant?s career into four phases. The First of which stems from 1746 to 1759, this is referred to as the ?period of infatuation?. During this time, his main propose was to provide a foundation for metaphysics. Correspondingly, he developed a rationalist epistemology that could justify the possibility of the knowledge of God and what Kant refers to as, the first causes of nature.(1)
The second phase from, 1760 to 1766, is called the, ?period of disillusionment?. In this phase he broke from his earlier epistomolgy and was prone towards a more, Cartisain, skeptical, view point. Kant rejected the possibility of metaphysics transcending the limits of experience.(1)
The third phase, 1760 to 1766, was called ?partial reconciliation?, he returned to metaphysics in the belief that he could finally provide a solid foundation for it. He also sketched plans for his thoughts on ontology.(1)
The fourth and final phase of Kant?s career, 1772 to 1780, is referred to as the, ?period of divorce?. At this point in his career, he had realized that his renewed confidence in metaphysics could not solve one fundamental problem: ?How are synthetic a priori principles valid experiences if they are not derived from it??(1)
Between 1771-1780, Kant published virtually nothing, he spent most of his time reflecting and studying. The end of this silent decade was closed by the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) in the 1780?s he published five dissertations. He published many other essays and lectures until the late 1790?s when he revised of some of his basic views on science and metaphysics, his work remains unfinished due to his death at eighty years of age in 1804. His final work, although not completed, was edited and published under the title, Opus Postumum.(3)
The main idea of what most call, Kant?s greatest work, the Critique of Pure Reason, is with the possibility of metaphysics, understood as the philosophical knowledge that transcends the bounds of experience. For Kant, such knowledge claims to be both synthetic and a priori, which is knowledge attained only from operations of the mind, therefore he sirmises that God exists and that every event has a cause, much like St. Thomas Aquinas. Kant also belived that all mathematical propostions are of the same nature (synthetic a priori).(5) The second concern with Kant?s metaphysics in the Critique of Pure Reason is with the antinomies or pairs of contradictory propositions. Because of his reflections on the concept of a world, he became convinced that reason inevetably falls into contradiction with itself when it endeavors to ?think the whole?. For example, does the universe have a beginning? Has the universe been around for an infinite amount of time? This would lead to hopeless skepticism, Kant came to see that the ?fate of metaphysics? is crucially dependent on a successful resolution of the antinomies as well as an account of the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge.(3)
To solve this problem Kant came to a ?Copernican revolution in philosophy?, since he compared his innovation to Copernicus? first thoughts. The way his thoughts were conjectured was, to reverse the usual way we think of our knowledge conforming to the realm of objects, instead we should think of objects conforming to our ways of knowing. Therefore, he thought that human knowledge was limited to appearances or phenomena, whereas things-in-themselves are thinkable but not actually knowable. Kant termed this way of thought as ?transcendental idealism? so both pairs of the contradiction could be proved true.(4)
In the Metaphysics of Ethics (1797) Kant described his ethical system, which is based on a belief that the reason is the final authority for morality. Actions of any kind, he believed, must be undertaken from a sense of duty dictated by reason, and no action performed for expediency or solely in obedience to law or custom can be regarded as moral.(4) Kant described two types of commands given by reason: the hypothetical imperative, i.e. ?If you practice playing the piano, you will become a good pianist.? The other being the categorical imperative stated in Kant?s words as: ?Act as if the maxim (principle) of your action were to become through your will a general natural law.? (2)
The categorical imperative is based on a thought experiment: you have to imagine what the world would be like if everyone else acted on that principle. If such a world is conceivable to you, and you would be willing to live in it, then it is morally permissible. To be moral, Kant believes that the maxim must be universalizable, that is to say, if everyone could act on it. In addition, the maxim must be reversible, that is, if you are willing to have everyone act on it.(2)
An example of Kant?s categorical imperative is of one who borrows money, knowing he cannot pay the loan back, promises to pay it back. He argues that it is not universalizable nor is it reversible (you could not will all to act on that maxim). Consequently, says Kant, you cannot act on it. The categorical imperative is similar to the Golden Rule, which states, ? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.? However, the thought experiment is different: put yourself in the other person?s shoes and decide whether you would want them to do to you what you are about to do to them. If you would be willing to have that done to you, then it is moral. The difference between the categorical imperative and the Golden Rule is that the categorical imperative focuses on the principle, rather than the people, involved. Kant?s theory also avoids utilitarianism, which would permit lying, murder, stealing, and the like, if it produces happiness. His theory is for capital punishment(2). Kant writes:
Even if a civil society resolved to dissolve itself with the consent of all its members- as might be supposed in the case of a people inhabiting an island resolving to separate and scatter through the whole world- the last murder lying in prison ought to be executed before the resolution was carried out. This ought to be done in order that every one may realize the desert of his deeds, and that bloodguiltiness may not remain on the people; for otherwise they will all be regarded as a public violation of justice.(6)
There are certain exceptions to Kant?s categorical imperative, these exist in our duties as human beings. For example, if we promised to meet someone at a specific time and in doing so many innocent people would die. Therefore, he wrote ?Act in such a way that you always treat humanity?never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.? He called this the, categorical imperative II. This is the idea that what makes an action right is if it treats people as ends in themselves and not merely as means. The decision to the right action is a two-step process: 1. Determine whether the principle to be acted on is universalizable and reversible, and 2. Determine that it treats everyone as ends in themselves, not merely as a means. If the action passes both tests, it is then morally permissible.(2)
The second categorical imperative was written because, under the premise of the first version, it would be morally permissible to kill many people. An example of this would be the slaughter of the Jewish community in so far as the holocaust was concerned. Using the first categorical imperative you could justify the killings under the premise that a nazi would be willing to have himself killed if he were Jewish (reversible) and if he is willing to have everyone act in the same manner (universalizable). However with the inception of the categorical imperative II, this would not be permissible because it would be using the Jewish people as a means, and therefore not admissible.(2)
The insight behind the second categorical imperative is that all people are inherently valuable. The value stems from the fact that they are self-conscious, rational, and free. These ideas are an outcome of the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). This freedom was not regard as the lawless freedom of anarchy, but rather as the freedom of self-government, the freedom to consciously obey the laws of the universe as revealed by reason. Kant?s ideal world would consist of reason that would ?bind every law giver to make his laws in such a way that they could have sprung from the united will of an entire people, and to regard every subject, in so for as he wishes to be a citizen, on the basis of whether he has conformed to that will.?(4)
Kant?s influence on modern times is evident throughout Europe and much of western thought. His philosophy, particularly as developed by G.W.F. Hegel, was the backbone of which the structure of Marxism was built. Johann Fichte, a pupil of Kant, rejected his teacher?s division of the world into objective and subjective parts and developed an idealistic philosophy of his own that had a great influence on the 19th-century socialists. One of Kant?s successors at the University of Konigsberg, J.F. Herbart, incorporated some of Kant?s ideas in his system of education.(4)
I believe Kant to be a revolutionary thinker because of what he brought to the world of philosophy, the power of human reason to think objects a priori. Although I find certain ideals I am conflicted with in his work. For example, the ?census cummunis? which is the common sense that every fair-minded human has. An example of this would be a three-sided object being called a triangle, therefore you could go forth and identify all three sided objects as a triangle. It is used to judge what is beautiful, what is right, and all other ?common sense? issues. In so far as that is concerned, there are loopholes in his thought, as far as what is moral and ethical. There are many issues that his categorical imperative does not deal with, I cannot help but think it is because the man never traveled more than forty miles from his home town. One of the many issues is that of female circumcision which takes place in Africa. This is the centuries old tradition of cutting off the clitoris on a pre-adolescent girl, usually done with a piece of glass in an unsterile environment with no anesthesia. She must have this done in order to wed and it is also done in order to prevent over population. This tradition is moral to this tribe of people, it is universalizable, reversible, and they are not using the person to be circumcised as a means. What would the census communis say? In my opinion, who are we to change a way life that has been going on before the white man ever had knowledge of these acts. This is the conflict I have with Kant?s work
As far as the rest of what I have studied and researched about Kant?s work, I believe it to be profound, introspective and genius. With the negation of the loopholes in the census communis, I believe that if everyone live by the amalgamation of the two categorical imperatives, this world would be a much better place.
Note: Works cited are by number. The number will precede the reference below.
(1)Guyer, Paul, et.al. The Cambridge Companion to Kant.
Cambridge University Press, 1992
(2)Schick Jr., Theodore and Vaughn, Lewis. Doing Philosophy: An Introduction through Though Experiments. Mayfield Publishing Company, 1999
(3)Allison, Henry E., (no title), pgs1-6, accessed 8 May 2000
(4)?Ron?, Immanuel Kant, pgs 1-3, accessed 8 May 2000
(5)McSwain, Ph.D., Harold. Class Lectures, Scottsdale Community College, fall 1999 Semester
(6)Kant, Immanuel,The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, trans. John Ladd, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1965, page 107