--Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."
This could only have been written by a man who did not travel the world and deeply absorb the vast and diverse history of actions that are out there in the history of mankind. While long-term and far-reaching principles may be agreed to, the actions to get there will never be universally agreed upon. Especially as our knowledge is so limited about all the future consequences of our actions within the complex systems we interact with. Anyway, sure enough, in his entire life Kant "never traveled more than 10 miles from Königsberg. 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. He never married, but did not seem to lack a rewarding social life—he was a popular teacher and a modestly successful author even before starting on his major philosophical works. Although fond of company and conversation with others, Kant isolated himself. He resisted friends' attempts to bring him out of his isolation. In 1778, in response to one of these offers by a former pupil, Kant wrote: 'Any change makes me apprehensive, even if it offers the greatest promise of improving my condition, and I am persuaded by this natural instinct of mine that I must take heed if I wish that the threads which the Fates spin so thin and weak in my case to be spun to any length. My great thanks, to my well-wishers and friends, who think so kindly of me as to undertake my welfare, but at the same time a most humble request to protect me in my current condition from any disturbance.''"
For all that limitation in his physical constitution, Kant still thought hard and deserves a deep consideration of his words. Let's look at a few admirable quotes before delving into the philosophy.
The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing. Only through their unison can knowledge arise.
A public can only arrive at enlightenment slowly. Through revolution, the abandonment of personal despotism may be engendered and the end of profit-seeking and domineering oppression may occur, but never a true reform of the state of mind. Instead, new prejudices, just like the old ones, will serve as the guiding reins of the great, unthinking mass.
Reason in a creature is a faculty of widening the rules and purposes of the use of all its powers far beyond natural instinct; it acknowledges no limits to its projects.
Reason itself does not work instinctively, but requires trial, practice, and instruction in order gradually to progress from one level of insight to another. Therefore a single man would have to live excessively long in order to learn to make full use of all his natural capacities.
Religion is too important a matter to its devotees to be a subject of ridicule. If they indulge in absurdities, they are to be pitied rather than ridiculed.
It is because of laziness and cowardice that it is so easy for others to usurp the role of guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor!
Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804 CE) was a German philosopher during the Enlightenment. Kant created a new widespread perspective in philosophy that has continued to influence philosophy through to the 21st century. One of his most prominent works is the Critique of Pure Reason, an investigation into the limitations and structure of reason itself. It encompasses an attack on traditional metaphysics and epistemology, and highlights Kant's own contribution to these areas. The other main works of his maturity are the Critique of Practical Reason, which concentrates on ethics, and the Critique of Judgment, which investigates aesthetics and teleology.
Kant defined the Enlightenment as an age shaped by the Latin motto Sapere aude - Dare to Know. Kant maintained that one ought to think autonomously, free of the dictates of external authority. Sapere aude, indeed!
Kant's "Copernican revolution," placed the role of the human subject or knower at the center of inquiry into our knowledge, such that it is impossible to philosophize about things as they are independently of us or of how they are for us. Yes, but our senses and our tools and our reasoning can tell us very much about reality.
Kant invented critical philosophy, the notion of being able to discover and systematically explore possible inherent limits to our ability to know through philosophical reasoning. Yes. The limitations of our senses within the size and scope of a changing universe do entail limits to our ability to know.
Kant created the concept of "conditions of possibility," that is that things, knowledge, and forms of consciousness rest on prior conditions that make them possible, so that to understand or know them we have to first understand these conditions. From Plato to Descartes, what was presented by the senses was deemed illusory and denigrated. It was believed that the perceptions ought to be overcome to grasp the thing-in-itself, the essential essence, a la Plato’s allegory of the cave. With Kant comes a transition in philosophy from this dichotomy to the dichotomy of the apparition/conditions-of-appearance. There is no longer any higher essence behind the apparition. It is what it is, a brute fact, and what one must now examine is the conditions that are necessary for its appearance. Yes. And an understanding of these conditions necessary for appearance comes from the natural sciences. We must know them all in order to understand reality.
Kant suggested that metaphysics can be reformed through epistemology. He suggested that by understanding the sources and limits of human knowledge, we can ask fruitful metaphysical questions. He concluded that all objects about which the mind can think must conform to its manner of thought. Therefore if the mind can think only in terms of causality – which he concluded that it does – then we can know prior to experiencing them that all objects we experience must either be a cause or an effect. However, it follows from this that it is possible that there are objects of such nature which the mind cannot think, and so the principle of causality, for instance, cannot be applied outside of experience: hence we cannot know, for example, whether the world always existed or if it had a cause. And so the grand questions of speculative metaphysics cannot be answered by the human mind, but the sciences are firmly grounded in laws of the mind. Kant believed himself to be creating a compromise between the empiricists and the rationalists. The empiricists believed that knowledge is acquired through experience alone, but the rationalists maintained that such knowledge is open to Cartesian doubt and that reason alone provides us with knowledge. Kant argues, however, that using reason without applying it to experience will only lead to illusions, while experience will be purely subjective without first being subsumed under pure reason. Kant’s thought was very influential in Germany during his lifetime, moving philosophy beyond the debate between the rationalists and empiricists. Yes. Senses are understood through reason. And the limits on our senses place limits on what we can know. We have developed tools to aid our understanding of the universe all the way back to the Big Bang, but we may not be able to conduct research into the metaphysical origins of the universe beyond that. We will try of course, but in the meantime, we should not allow speculations about gods that hide behind our knowledge to rule our lives in any way when there is no evidence for their existence, benevolence, or usefulness.
Kant divides the feeling of the sublime into two distinct modes - the mathematical sublime and the dynamical sublime. The mathematical sublime is situated in the failure of the imagination to comprehend natural objects that appear boundless and formless, or that appear absolutely great. This imaginative failure is then recuperated through the pleasure taken in reason's assertion of the concept of infinity. In the dynamical sublime, there is the sense of annihilation of the sensible self as the imagination tries to comprehend a vast might. This power of nature threatens us but through the resistance of reason to such sensible annihilation, the subject feels a pleasure and a sense of the human moral vocation. This appreciation of moral feeling through exposure to the sublime helps to develop moral character. Given that the meaning of life is to perpetuate the long-term survival of life, it follows that we should feel awe when contemplating infinity and extinction. Exposure to both of these concepts does aid our judgment and moral character in choosing actions that comport with the meaning of life.
Needs to Adapt
Kant is known for his theory that there is a single moral obligation, which he called the "Categorical Imperative," and is derived from the concept of duty. Categorical imperatives are principles that are intrinsically valid; they are good in and of themselves; they must be obeyed by all in all situations and circumstances if our behavior is to observe the moral law. Regardless of recent relativist trends in philosophy, universality is essential to any viable moral philosophy. Yes, but Kant did not discover it. The single Categorical Imperative is that life must act to perpetuate the long-term survival of life.
Kant asserted that because of the limitations of argumentation in the absence of irrefutable evidence, no one could really know whether there is a God and an afterlife or not. For the sake of society and morality, Kant asserted that people are reasonably justified in believing in them, even though they could never know for sure whether they are real or not. An enlightened approach and use of the critical method required that, "If one cannot prove that a thing is, he may try to prove that it is not. And if he succeeds in doing neither (as often occurs), he may still ask whether it is in his interest to accept one or the other of the alternatives hypothetically, from the theoretical or the practical point of view. Since we cannot know the entirety of the universe at one time, it is impossible to prove that something does not exist. This does not mean we should run our lives based on anything that might exist. The natural basis for morality (that which is good promotes the long-term survival of life) has been discovered. Society should be organized around this principle. It should not be based on any purported divine revelations that arose prior to scientific methods. As Kant said, we may ask which of the alternatives is in our best interest. Clearly, a rational society based on the natural laws of the universe is better than an irrational one split into irreconcilable camps by faith in unknowns.
Kant states that beauty is not a property of an artwork or natural phenomenon, but is instead a consciousness of the pleasure that attends the free play of the imagination and the understanding. A pure judgment of taste is in fact subjective insofar as it refers to the emotional response of the subject and is based upon nothing but esteem for an object itself: it is a disinterested pleasure, and we feel that pure judgments of taste, i.e. judgments of beauty, lay claim to universal validity. It is important to note that this universal validity is not derived from a determinate concept of beauty but from common sense. Emotional responses were evolved to aid in the decision making of an animal so that it can better perpetuate the long-term survival of life. Given this objective fact, the apprehension of beauty is not entirely subjective. The relative strength of the emotional responses to beauty are relative to the emotional makeup of the individual and the cognitive appraisals the individual is focusing on, but it is true that that which promotes survival can be said to be beautiful. Objects and ideas can be said to contain greater or lesser beauty in relation to their power to promote survival to a greater or lesser extent. Physical beauty is fleeting. Beautiful knowledge lasts.
Kant is known for his transcendental idealist philosophy that time and space are not materially real but merely the ideal a priori condition of our internal intuition. Kant never concluded that one could form a coherent account of the universe and of human experience without grounding such an account in the "thing in itself.” Exactly how to interpret this concept was a subject of some debate among 20th century philosophers. Schopenhauer described transcendental idealism as a "distinction between the phenomenon and the thing in itself, and a recognition that only the phenomenon is accessible to us because "we do not know either ourselves or things as they are in themselves, but merely as they appear. Opposing Kantian transcendental idealism is the doctrine of philosophical realism, that is, the proposition that the world is knowable as it really is, without any consideration of the knower's manner of knowing. Modern physics investigates the nature of time and space. Modern neurosciences are helping to tease out the manner in which we gain knowledge of reality. Transcendental idealism fades away. See more below.
Before discussing his theory of transcendental idealism, it is necessary to explain Kant's distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions. Analytic propositions are those that are true by definition; e.g., all bachelors are unmarried. Synthetic propositions are those whose predicate concept is not contained in its subject concept; e.g., all bachelors are happy. Analytic propositions require no further knowledge than a grasp of the language to understand them. On the other hand, synthetic statements are those that tell us something about the world. The truth or falsehood of synthetic statements derives from something outside of their linguistic content. Before Kant's first Critique, empiricists (e.g. Hume) and rationalists (e.g. Leibniz) assumed that all synthetic statements required experience in order to be known. Kant, however, contests this: he claims that elementary mathematics, like arithmetic, is synthetic a priori, in that its statements provide new knowledge, but knowledge that is not derived from experience. This becomes part of his over-all argument for transcendental idealism. Kant argues that once we have grasped the concepts of addition, subtraction, or the functions of basic arithmetic, we do not need any empirical experience to know that 100 + 100 = 200, and in this way it would appear that arithmetic is in fact analytic. However, that it is analytic can be disproved thus: if the numbers five and seven in the calculation 5 + 7 = 12 are examined, there is nothing to be found in them by which the number 12 can be inferred. Such it is that "5 + 7" and "the cube root of 1,728" or "12" are not analytic because their reference is the same but their sense is not - the mathematic judgment "5 + 7 = 12" tells us something new about the world. It is self-evident, and undeniably a priori, but at the same time it is synthetic. And so Kant proves a proposition can be synthetic and known a priori. No!! All 5’s plus 7’s are 12’s. Kant is being too reductionist here. He misses the point that the entire mathematical system of numbers and operations is analytic or understood by definition alone. Speaking in definitions alone does not get you to a reality beyond those definitions. Kant proves nothing about synthetic and a priori knowledge. Transcendental idealism rests on a falsehood. Sometimes one must dig deeper to uncover the inconsistencies behind an abstruse belief.
Kant posited that objective experience is actively constituted or constructed by the functioning of the human mind. Objective experience is grasped by the human mind. Reality occurred long before the human mind came into existence and it would blindly continue on without us.
Kant believed moral autonomy - which is generally understood to refer to the capacity to be one's own person, to live one's life according to reasons and motives that are taken as one's own and not the product of manipulative or distorting external forces - was central to humanity. Morality arises from nature. They are the rules that allow life to survive. That is not a manipulative or distorting force. We must use our reason to discover which actions allow life to survive in the long term, and our judgment to balance the needs of the short-term with the needs of the long-term. Moral conformity is central to life and therefore happiness.
Kant asserted the principle that human beings should be treated as ends rather than as means. This is a dangerous belief that leads to selfish and relativistic individualism. Life is the end. Humans are a means for the existence of life. If, for example, it were known that human actions would destroy all other life, which would of course then end humanity, it would be necessary to stop humans. Life can go on without humans. Humans cannot go on without life. We serve life. And we would be happier if we understood that, instead of perpetuating the selfish viewpoint of the individual as if it were disconnected from life. Interior consciousness allows this myth to survive, but the bodily origins of consciousness and the worldly origins of the body show that it is a fallacy. Reason and understanding show us that this is a fallacy. Given this, it is important to stress that within a society, individuals are still ends. All members must be treated equally and with respect in order for all of society to cooperate, thrive, and survive.
Good for you if you managed to get through all that. I wouldn't wish that my struggles through this field became a universal law, but sometimes to survive...we have to persist. That's a pretty universal principle, so good luck sticking to it wherever you need to go.