Immanuel Kant is considered by some to have been the greatest philosopher of
modern times. He certainly had a deep and lasting influence upon those of his
contemporaries who thought about the meaning of religion.
Kant was born in K�nigsberg, East Prussia, the fourth of nine children. His
chest was deformed and he was only about five feet tall. Despite that, he was a
brilliant speaker, often in great demand. His father was a saddle maker who died
when Kant was twenty-two. Anthony Storr remarks that Kant depicted childhood
as a period when discipline imposed by others must necessarily and
regrettably restrict the child's freedom. Indeed, he thought that infants
cried at birth because they resented as a constraint their inability to make
proper use of their own limbs ... his insistence upon complete autonomy
displayed itself early ... 
Bertrand Russell did not think him the greatest of modern philosophers, but
rated his importance highly. He notes Kant's insistence upon personal autonomy,
reporting that Kant said
... there can be nothing more dreadful than that the actions of one man
should be subject to the will of another .
Storr tells how difficult it seemed to be for Kant to relate closely to
anyone, a trait which may account to some extent for the line his philosophy
took. He remained unmarried though he had a number of loyal friends. He never
travelled further than about 100 kilometres from home. Later in life his
obsessional tendencies (he took pains never to sweat, for example) became more
apparent in a rigid daily routine regulated by the clock. People could set their
watches by him as he passed by on his daily walks. He developed
... a technique of breathing only through his nose ... [and] refused to
take a companion on his daily walk in case conversation forced him to breathe
through his mouth whilst in the open air .
So although Kant lived in troubled times - the European Seven Years' War, the
French Revolution and the early part of Napoleon's career - his life was
uneventful and highly structured.
He thought the French Revolution was a good thing - until the events of the
Terror. His hero was Rousseau. He was missed on his regular walks for several
days once when, as Russell tells, he was reading Rousseau's Emile.
His Perpetual Peace of 1795 addressed political and social matters. He
thought that reason utterly forbids war. The excesses of the Revolution made him
suspicious of democracy which he thought necessarily results in despotism. The
notion of a balance of powers which reduces and, at its best, banishes minority
control did not occur to him. He wrote:
The 'whole people', so-called, who carry their measures are really not all,
but only a majority: so that here the universal will is in contradiction with
itself and with the principle of freedom.
Kant studied physics and mathematics at the University of K�nigsberg. He
taught at the university for 15 years, lecturing first on science and
mathematics, as well as geography, but gradually enlarging his field of
concentration to cover almost all branches of philosophy.
He pored over the works of Isaac Newton and went on to write an early book
entitled General Natural History and Theory of the Heavens
(1755). He wrote on earthquakes, wind and physical geography amongst many other
aspects of science.
Although Kant�s lectures and works written during this period established his
reputation as an original and creative philosopher, he did not receive a chair
at the university until 1770, when he was made Professor of Logic and
Kant�s unorthodox religious teachings, based on reason rather than revelation,
brought him into conflict with the government of Prussia. In 1792 he was
forbidden by Frederick William II, King of Prussia, to teach or write on
Kant obeyed this order for five years until the death of the king and then
felt released from his obligation. In 1798, the year following his retirement
from the university, he published a summary of his religious views.
Kant lived towards the end of the Enlightenment, when the radical changes in the
way people in the West viewed the world were becoming more apparent. In passing
from an age in which authority was the measure, he and others grappled with the
implications of thinking for oneself.
Submission to external authority can be described as heteronomous or
"subject to external controls and impositions" .
This word is much less well known than its antonym autonomous - perhaps
because autonomy is a reigning paradigm of our post-Enlightenment world.
Kant put it like this:
Enlightenment is man's exodus from his self-incurred
tutelage. Tutelage is the inability to use one's understanding without the
guidance of another person.
Dare to know. Have the courage to use your own
understanding; this is the motto of the Enlightenment
His concerns reflected the climate of perceptual change going on at the time.
Before this there had been three major ways of thinking about the world. Greek
philosophy of the Platonic school was fundamentally oriented towards a
priori reasoning. The school of Aristotle looked more towards drawing
conclusions from observation of the world. The Christian stance was that all
ultimate knowledge is revealed to us by God.
The heart of Kant�s philosophy, often called critical philosophy, is in the
Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Kant, in line with the other thinkers of his
times, concentrated on how we think about and know ourselves and the world
around us. He was influenced by few other thinkers.
The purpose of the Critique was to demonstrate that experience is the
source of knowledge but that some of it, once discovered, stands alone as a pure
type. Although our knowledge can't transcend experience, at least some of it is
not inferred inductively from experience but is a priori (knowledge that
is acquired irrespective of experience, that is, by deductive reasoning alone).
"The bird is blue" is an empirical statement, which must be experienced
before it can be understood. Part of that experience is knowledge of colour.
This knowledge is a posteriori.
In contrast, there are a priori
statements such as "two plus two makes four". A child may be helped to
understand that 2 + 2 = 4 by playing with four marbles - but once the
proposition is understood it becomes self-evident.
Russell puts the matter this way:
An 'empirical' proposition is one which we cannot know except by the help of
sense perception, either our own of that of someone else whose testimony we
accept. The facts of history and geography are of this sort; so are the laws of
science, whenever our knowledge of their truth depends upon observational data.
An 'a priori' proposition, on the other hand, is one which, though it may
by experience, is seen, when known, to have a basis other than experience.
Before Kant, Ren� Descartes had argued that all true knowledge is a
priori, while David Hume and John Locke argued that only what comes from
experience (that is, a posteriori) can truly be said to be knowable.
Most religions, and particularly Christianity in Europe thought that the most
important knowledge came from God (or the gods) via revelation. Revelation is a
direct form of communication through the writings, speech and deeds of holy
people and through the medium of special events like natural disasters
or strange phenomena.
So Kant, in order to develop what seemed to some to be a deadlock between
reason and revelation, proposed that thought can be differentiated into
"analytic" and "synthetic" propositions.
An analytic proposition is one in which the predicate is contained in the
subject, as in the statement "birds (subject) have wings (predicate)". To state
the reverse would be to make the proposition self-contradictory, ("wings have
birds"). So this kind of proposition can be called knowledge. They are called
analytic because truth is discovered by the
analysis of the subject itself, in this case, of the concept "bird".
Synthetic propositions, on the other hand, are those that cannot be arrived
at by pure analysis but only by observation or experience. To say "the bird is
blue" is to make a synthetic statement because the colour must be observed
first. The bird could have been yellow. To know that it is yellow one has to
know about other colours and differentiate that of the bird from them. That is,
colour is not something attached specifically to birds.
Similarly, one has to observe that today is a wet day. This type of knowledge
can't be worked out just by thinking about it. All the common propositions
that result from experience of the world are synthetic.
In describing how this type of judgement is possible, Kant regarded the
objects of the world as unknowable at a fundamental level. From the point of
view of reason, they serve merely as the raw material from which perceptions are
formed. Objects in themselves are unknowable since any one object can be
perceived in different ways by different individuals.
If person A sees one thing in a Rorschach test and person B sees something
else, who is to say which is "correct"? The inkblots can't be known in the usual
sense of knowing anything. This example might seem extreme - but in fact the
point relates to anything.
We apply what Kant called "intuitions" (or raw perceptions, which are
intrinsic to the human mind) in order to make sense of the world. This is how
people gain most of their knowledge. It follows that any intelligible experience
will be organized through categories of raw perception.
For example, the fact that we have to organize all our experience through the
category of "cause and effect" can be expressed in the synthetic
a priori judgement that "every event has a cause". This judgement is a
because we can know it simply by reflecting on the fact that the category of
cause and effect is essential to intelligible experience. We do not have to
check whether in our experience every effect does indeed have a cause.
It is also synthetic because the concept "event" does not contain the concept
of "caused" in the way that the concept of "bird" contains the concept of
"winged". Such synthetic a priori judgements form the fundamental
principles of science, according to Kant.
Therefore, knowledge belongs to the mind, and is applied by the mind to our raw
perceptions in order to gain knowledge. Accordingly, our conceptual knowledge
can only be of the world as it is "for us". The opposite view would be that
time, space, and the categories are inherent in the structure of the world as it
is "in itself", independently of its being experienced by people.
In demolishing the ontological, cosmological and teleological proofs for the
existence of God, Kant argued that humans can have no knowledge of God. We can
only propose or suppose God. He wrote: "I have found it necessary to deny
knowledge [of God] in order to make room for faith" - a position taken up in the
20th century by Karl Barth and others who set out to defend orthodoxy from the
inroads of science's synthetic a priori judgements.
In essence, he separated knowledge of God from "pure reason". When we talk of
"knowledge" of God (or anything of that sort) we're not really talking about
knowledge in the normal sense of the word, said Kant. This in turn means that
religious propositions are not the sort that can be supported by reason or
Thus religious propositions are synthetic statements. They don't describe
(analyse) experience but add something to experience which is not really
included in it. Analytic judgements can be checked out against experience.
Religious statements can be checked out only by the law of contradiction, which
is essentially an internal check. Thus it's impossible to "prove" religious
statements in the same way that scientific (analytic) statements can be
For many decades, people had been wondering what might be a satisfactory
basis for deciding what comprises right conduct. If it was no longer credible to
rest upon [a] the God-given laws of good behaviour in the Old Testament and [b]
the God-given authority of the Church, what could take their place?
Kant provided what at first appeared to be a satisfactory basis for human
conduct. Like other idealists, he rejected purely utilitarian ethical
foundations for those which could be demonstrated by abstract argument.
One had only to work out by reason how the world worked - including how
societies work - to perceive clearly an inbuilt moral order. From that vision
could be rationally worked out the best possible ways ahead for both individuals
and societies. One had only to think properly and all would eventually fall into
place. Russell writes of Kant's ideas on morality that
The essence of morality is to be derived from the concept of law; for,
though everything in nature acts according to laws, only a rational being has
the power of acting according to the idea of law ...
In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1795) Kant based his
ethical system on a belief that morality springs from reason. Moral actions, he
believed, must be undertaken from a sense of duty ultimately dictated by reason,
and no action performed out of inclination, for expediency, or solely in
obedience to law or custom can be regarded as moral.
His starting point was his now well-known observation:
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe,
the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens
above and the moral law within .
Kant described two types of ethical command derived from reason.
The "hypothetical imperative" rationally dictates a given course of action to
reach a specific end or goal. It would say, "You must do so-and-so if you intend
to achieve this or that outcome". It is subjective and calculated.
The "categorical imperative" rationally dictates a course of action
independent of whatever goals the agent may have and therefore stands as right
regardless of the "why" of doing it. It is objectively necessary without regard
All moral formulations originate a priori in our reason. Kant stated
his categorical imperative in two key formulations - which are really guidelines
rather than axioms:
- "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a
general natural law";
- "Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of
another, always as an end and never as a means only".
In this sense, Kant's "proof" for God was an argument from morality. Because
we feel free, we feel responsible. This sense of moral obligation drives us to
act constructively. There must be someone or something upon which our obligation
focuses. This is what we term "God".
Kant also argued that it is our goal to meet all the demands which the moral
imperative lays upon us. But life is too short for most of us to achieve this.
It follows that the human soul must be immortal, since only that condition will
allow us to reach the state of moral perfection for which we exist.
Being conscious of deciding for ourselves, practical reason acts on this
consciousness. That is, God is a necessity of practical reason because if there
is no God there is no point in trying to attain the highest reason. God is
therefore necessary as the moral absolute:
... it is only from a morally perfect and at the same time all-powerful
will and consequently only through harmony with this will, that we can hope to
attain the summum bonum which the moral law makes it our duty to take
as the object of our endeavours .
Kant�s ethical ideas are the logical outcome of his belief in the fundamental
freedom of the individual. In his Critique Kant worked out his statement
of the freedom of the individual - that is, the freedom to obey consciously the
laws intrinsic to one�s nature as a rational being.
He believed that the world was progressing towards an ideal society in which
... bind every lawgiver 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 far as he wishes to be a citizen, on the basis of whether he has conformed to
It was hardly surprising that the religious authorities, closely linked as
they were with the secular authorities of the time, should think Kant's ideas
dangerous. It seemed to them a new version of deism, rendered even more suspect
- it made unnecessary a personal redeemer, prayer or miracles as testified
to in the Bible, and
- was based on moral experience instead of revelation.
Kant was the inspiration for the school known as Idealism, whose chief
representatives were Johann Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and G W F Hegel.
They were united in aiming to salvage Kant�s basic insights while overcoming the
oppositions in his philosophy between the "thing in itself" and the "thing for
us" - that is, the clash between those who think that we can know physical
reality as it actually is, and those who think that while we may agree about
some aspects of physical reality (say by using the scientific method or some
other) we all perceive reality in our own unique way.
Kant�s so-called "transcendental dialectic" was the immediate predecessor of
the dialectical methods used by Hegel and Marx.
Of course, every thinker rests upon a foundation of those who went before.
But there is a sense in which Kant both formulated and channeled a current of
thought which had been flowing for some time.
Newton had shown (as far as most people of the time were concerned) that the
universe operates according to immutable rules of physical behaviour. The world
and the planets go round the sun on precise orbits. Once one knows the
mathematics, one can calculate these orbits exactly. In the same way, it will
only be a matter of time before humankind has worked out all the other immutable
laws which govern our existence.
Not long after Kant's death, Darwin was to elucidate the "laws" of natural
change and development of all living things. This demonstrated an order "red in
tooth and claw" in which the fittest survive. Far from having been created by
God, both we and the world are the result of forces which, by the power of our
reason, have become or will become clear to us.
All this indicated to people of nineteenth century Europe that there were
laws, immutable over time and derived from nature, which could be followed with
certainty. Some also proposed that as their perceptions of right and wrong
improved, humans were in the process of getting better at being good.
This accounts, I think, for what may seem to us today as ruthless
exploitation by Western countries of less-developed societies. It also accounts
for the huge sense of disillusionment experienced by many during and after the
so-called First World War. If we are improving, how could it be that we embarked
upon so blind and cruel an adventure? it was asked.
In the 20th century, Kant�s influence has been extraordinarily widespread.
Among the thinkers who have developed and adapted Kant�s ideas in their thought
are the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Popper, Peter Strawson, and John
Followers of Hegel and Marx will recognise thesis and synthesis in Kant's
"antinomies" - mutually contradictory propositions which, despite the
contradiction, each seem to be provable. So, for example, there are proofs
both for the existence of necessary Being (Hegel's "absolute being") and for its
non-existence. Another might be (to modify Kant's second antinomy somewhat) that
objects are both complete in themselves and made up of parts, each also
Kant both typified and advanced progress towards personal autonomy. The sense
many in the West have today of personal identity and accountability is, in terms
of the far reaches of human history, entirely new. Some remark today that
autonomy has been taken too far. They propose that it has resulted in an
overblown individualism which denies a necessary social interdependence.
We should recall that Kant lived in times not far removed from the medieval
social dispensation. Those times reflected the ancient paradigm that the
individual derives worth from membership of a group. That membership dictated
that right and wrong derived from its leaders. In the final analysis, therefore,
authority was vested not in reason but in an auctor or leading authority
Writing of the origins of European culture, for example, C S Lewis says that
... you absorb your culture, in part unconsciously, from participation in
the immemorial pattern of behaviour, and in part by word of mouth, from the
old men of the tribe ...
Kant's emphasis upon reason and upon the responsibility of the
individual to exercise reason was to be a powerful and lasting influence upon
many thinkers in the West for over a century.
His influence is now fading as we gradually become more and more aware of
the uncertainties both of our perceptions and our role in the natural order. The
more we work out how to think, the more do we realise that our thinking is
fragile and limited in its capacity to imagine the "real" world.
Having said that, it remains true that Kant represents a decisive step away
from medieval concepts. We all make our own realities. That is, our world is not
a given which we set out to discover. Rather it exists by and through us,
through our knowledge and experience of it. We are autonomous.
 Solitude, A Storr, 1988
 The History of Western Philosophy, 1946
 Christian Faith at the Crossroads, Lloyd Geering, 2001
 Critique of Practical Reason. The phrase "Dare to know" comes from
Latin poet Horace.
 The Discarded Image, 1964
 Stephen Trombley, Fifty Thinkers Who Made the Modern World, 2012