immanuel kantOverview

Much of nineteenth century philosophy, as indeed our own, is a development of Kant's insights into the nature of reality and human reasoning. Beauty as disinterested pleasure is broadly accepted by the Anglo-American schools of aesthetics, but not by the continental, which stress intention and so the wider social and political dimensions.

The divide is fundamental, and underlies the war that Postmodernism wages on the settled categories of academic thought.


Immanuel Kant was born in Königsberg, East Prussia in 1724, the son of a saddle-maker. From 1740 to 1746 he studied philosophy at the University of Königsberg, worked afterwards as a private tutor, and then returned to the University where he stayed until retirement in 1796. He died in 1804, universally admired as among the greatest of modern philosophers, a reputation not seriously questioned since. Throughout his university life, as lecturer and professor, Kant gave lectures on a wide range of subjects — not only philosophy but political theory, natural sciences, law and history: a true son of the Enlightenment. He was also keenly interested in the events of his day, and a staunch advocate of liberalism under a constitutional monarchy. Kant's career is commonly divided into three periods. Between 1747 and 1770 he published a number of solid, conventional works on science and the methods of metaphysics. In the so-called silent decade, 1771-80, he published practically nothing, devoting his time to thinking out what was published as the Critique of Pure Reason. This slowly made his reputation, and the spate of works that followed till 1797 extended and consolidated his fame. {1}

Critique of Pure Reason: 1781

Though Kant's writing is in places obscure and inconsistent, giving rise to varying interpretation, his main arguments are readily grasped. The central concern of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is metaphysics: how we can know things that lie beyond the bounds of experience? Kant's answer lay through what he called "a priori synthetic" concepts. To take a familiar example: mathematics is both a priori (logical) and synthetic (based on our sense perceptions). So with other things. The mind is always organizing impressions so as to make sense of its surroundings. Indeed the organization is already built into our impressions, presupposed by them. And since the organization is not provided by the world itself, it must come from us. In short, we do not see the world as it really is (noumena) but as the mind filters, combines and represents it to us (phenomena). Our concepts of causality, symmetry, number, etc. — all these unchanging features of experience are examples of the ways our senses are regimented by the mind.

Nothing if not comprehensive, Kant organized concepts into categories of understanding, which he grouped under quantity (unity, plurality and totality), quality (reality, negation, limitation), relation (inherence and subsistence, causality and dependence, and reprocity) and modality (possibility and impossibility, existence and nonexistence, and necessity and contingency). How did Kant arrive at these categories? By various routes. He respected the traditional categories of logic. He incorporated the science of his time. And he tackled antinomies or intellectual contradictions. Consider the start of the universe in a modern view like the big bang theory. What created that initial big bang? What existed before it? Surely there must be answers to these questions if the whole edifice of cause and effect upon which science rests is not to have limits? In Kant's view we would be using "pure reason" from which all empirical content had been removed, and such thinking ends in illusions. We err if we think we can escape the actual. Time and space were not categories of understanding for Kant, but the very medium in which we live and through which we which we receive our impressions of the world around us. Independent of us? Probably. Kant was not clear on this point, nor on the status of noumena. Are they entities conceived by the mind but not grasped by the sense? Are they invisible extensions of phenomena, beyond our means to perceive and understand? Or are "things-in-themselves", whose nature is entirely unknown to us? Kant used the terms somewhat inconsistently.

What then of the order and regularity that we see in nature: is that real or only what the mind imposes? Both. What Kant called "imagination" synthesizes our sense impressions with our concepts of understanding, and does them harmoniously, so that we have confidence in the reality of ourselves and of the outside world. How can we be sure that the categories are correct, i.e. necessary and sufficient? Kant laid down the principles by which we arrive at them. And they differed according to grouping. Kant looked at causality. Hume was right to say that connection is not demonstrable by reason: there is no logical connection between cause and effect. But neither was it a matter of habit. Causality is a category of understanding (relation, in fact) and everything we perceive or can reasonably expect to perceive has a cause simply because our understanding is so constituted. It can't be otherwise. We notice a speeding car at various points along a road, not random positions but progressive, all in the same direction, if the car has not radically changed speed or direction. Unless our understanding corresponds to something beyond ourselves (i.e. is in some ways objective) the world would not cohere into an intelligible whole. {2}

Critique of Practical Reason: 1788

By his Critique of Pure Reason Kant had removed the grounds for belief in large parts of traditional metaphysics: immortality of the soul, existence of God, the freedom of the will. But these are important to us, not matters to be easily set aside. Well then, if Kant had shown the impossibility of proving their existence, he had not actually disproved their existence. Progressively, through his Principles of Moral (1785), his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), his Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone (1792) and Metaphysics of Morals (1797) Kant came to argue that we should act as though morality, justice, God, our duties and responsibilities to others were realities even though we can't prove them.

An act of faith? Not at all. Kant attempted to map the area beyond the boundaries of his first Critique with a new type of reason: practical reason. Unlike pure reason, which aims at truth, practical reason simply tells us what we must do. Its principles were again synthetic a priori, but applied to action. Practical reasoning concerned ends and means. Unlike Hume, who held that passions motivate us, and reason can only restrain or guide, Kant believed that reason was part and parcel of will. Freedom was the power to will an action for ourselves. Essentially, and more importantly, freedom was the ability to be governed by reason. And we were free only to the extent that we are governed by reason — not driven by our passions, not coerced by outside pressures. An " autonomous agent " was one who acted according to the principles of practical reason, not blind passion nor the calculations of enlightened self-interest.

What were these principles of practical reason? Kant accepted that freedom was problematic, perhaps even an antinomy. It was something we must take on trust. But we know that freedom must exist, or our beliefs, actions and social institutions will rest on nothing. Here Kant introduced his notion of "imperatives": two in number: either hypothetical (necessary to some end: e.g. work hard to prosper) or categorical (when necessary in themselves: e.g. do not tell lies). Categorical imperatives made real and unconditional demands. They were impersonal: laws emptied of desires, ambitions, personal interests, social expectations and context. They applied universally to all rational beings. Kant had five such laws, of which the first two are the most famous. Act only in a manner that can be made a universal law. Act so as to treat humanity always as an end and never simply as means. Moral judgement was directed to the intention of an action, not its consequences. "Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will." {3}

Critique of Judgement: 1790

Kant's first two Critiques had examined the questions: What must a self-conscious being think? and What must such a being do? The third addresses the question (in a repetitious and muddled way) of what must a human being find agreeable? And in this seemingly innocuous way Kant attempted not only to harmonize his two reasons, pure and practical, but to deal with the fundamental notions of purpose, theology, beauty and the sublime.

Kant proposed that aesthetics should have its own faculty, that of judgement, which would mediate between the other two faculties. And because judgement had both an objective and subjective aspect, Kant divided his third Critique in two. The first part considers the objective finality of nature, why it is ordered so as to be intelligible. Undoubtedly we find it so, and that surely hints at a supreme intelligence, and some divine purpose. Of course God is a transcendental being, an entity that entirely escapes rational description, and Kant had already disposed of the traditional arguments in his first Critique. Scriptures, and the religious doctrines that conflict with reason, must be treated as allegory, as moral insights that gain vivacity but not validity by their religious expression. But we are moved by God's creation, by the limitlessness of our surroundings which the eighteen century called the "sublime": mountain landscapes, nature in all her moods, the vast expanse of the starry heavens. We cannot translate our feelings into reasoned arguments without falling into contradictions, but to believe that our understanding adequately represents the world in all its immensity, beauty and complexity is surely unjustified. Just as practical reason suggests a moral purpose to the world, so does the sublime point to something transcendental.

Kant was notoriously indifferent to music and painting, but his views on art are an important and enduring contribution to aesthetics. He distinguished three types of pleasure: in the agreeable, in the good and in beauty. The first was a matter of gratification, and preferences were simply matters of taste. Our pleasure in the good was important but not disinterested. Beauty, however, was an immediate and disinterested pleasure. To find something beautiful we must respond to it as it presents itself, without reasoning or analysis. Aesthetic judgement derives from experience (the beautiful is an harmonious union of our understanding and imagination) but it is not conceptual: no amount of argument can talk us into liking something which doesn't appeal. What such liking or disliking consists of may be very difficult to explain. There is nothing more fundamental we can appeal to, though we give grounds for our feelings by pointing to various features of the object represented. Surely something likes this happens when we contemplate the majesty of the world around us? We find a unity between our rational faculties and what we observe that invites a belief in, though it does not prove, some divine purpose underlying natural appearances.

But beauty is not mere feelings. Kant believed that though the sense of beauty was grounded in feelings of pleasure, this pleasure was universally valid and necessary. Other people ought to feel as we do. What did he mean by this imperative? Not that we could ever establish principles to compel admiration, but that we must think of our pleasure as validated by the beauty of the art object. An inconclusive argument? Many have thought so. But Kant also stressed the disinterestedness of that pleasure. Just as human beings should never be treated as merely means to an end, so aesthetic pleasure comes from the sheer joy of deploying of our imagination. Not for reasons of morality, or utility, or any other purpose. In a free play of our imagination we bring concepts to bear on experiences that would otherwise be otherwise free of concepts, thereby extending our pleasure in the world. But the extension does not bring understanding. Art objects are valuable for their beauty and as sensory embodiments of ideas, but they do not convey what Kant was disposed to call knowledge. {4}


Contemporaries thought Kant had set philosophy on a new course, and they were largely right. Continental philosophy is heavily indebted to the nineteenth century thinkers who either developed or more commonly reacted against Kant's ideas. Nonetheless, there were and remain specific difficulties. Kant's twelve categories of understanding now look dubious: sufficiently obvious to Kant's contemporaries not to require extensive justification, but now overtaken by later work. Logic has expanded enormously in the twentieth century. Kant's account of space and time (fixed and universal) does not square with relativity, and modifications by Cassirer and other have not been widely accepted. Euclidean geometry fails over cosmic distances. More important, there are several geometries, all logical proceeding from slightly different axioms, where choice depends on the task in hand. Mathematics seems now to offer a less certain knowledge. For many mathematician, indeed, the subject represents the free creations of the human mind. So with aesthetics. Are we necessarily so disinterested in beauty? And can we really demand of others (Kant's distinguishing feature of beauty as opposed to taste) that they too find something beautiful, i.e. is beauty a categorical imperative? Many have doubted so. {5}

But Kant's preoccupation was with knowledge: what can be known, and what cannot be known. He attempted to bring certainty by combining the approach of empiricists and idealists. All knowledge comes ultimately from the senses say the empiricists. Not so, say the idealists: the senses mislead and only the mind confers certainty. By welding the two, Kant argued for the active part played by the brain, a view repeatedly demonstrated by the sciences of cognition. But the price was high. Large areas of traditional knowledge were ruled out of court. We may suppose, we perhaps should suppose, that the maxims of religion, art and morality are true, but we cannot prove so.

So be it, then. Kant's boundaries of knowledge are very much those of Anglo-American philosophy. That we use categories at all, and that they give us a generally coherent view of the world, means that the world exists. It must exist. Our understanding has to be through words (or art or mathematics or morality) but these shapings of experience must have something to consistently engage with and shape. This argument, together with Wittgenstein's arguments against a private language, is usually taken as the decisive refutation of Derrida and others who claim that words are the only reality

Compelling? In some ways. Close reasoning, supported by a literal view of language, makes the conclusion inevitable. But not all areas of life are so governed: not aesthetics, literary theory, sociology and politics. But surely even here contemporary theories should show how close reasoning fails, in particular instances, and the precise consequences of taking alternative routes. Global judgements can only muddy the water.

But it was global judgements elaborated in the nineteenth century that laid the foundations of much theorizing today. Fichte (1762-1814), Schelling (1775-1854) and Hegel (1770-1831) accepted Kant's view of the organizing activities of the mind but built philosophies on thought alone. Nietzsche moved to aesthetics and dispensed with logic. And though taken as self-defeating by the analytical schools, the wider scepticism of the continental schools has shown how immense difficulties with truth, meaning and logic can arise from simple assumptions.

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1. Kant, Immanuel entry in Ted Honderich's The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995).
2. A vast literature. Among many introductory accounts are: Roger Scruton's Kant in German Philosophers (1997), John Kemp's The Philosophy of Kant (1968) and S. Körner's Kant (1955). All provide bibliographies.
3. Ibid.
4. Kant, Immanuel entry in David Cooper's A Companion to Aesthetics (1992), pp. 50-53 in Oswald Hanfling's Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction (1992) and Donald Crawfords' Kant's Aesthetic Theory (1974).
5. Beauty entry in Cooper 1992, and Mary Mothersill's Beauty Restored (1984).

Internet Resources

1. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kelley L. Ross. 2003. Clear introduction to main points.
2. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). William Turner / Rick McCarty. 1910 / 2003. Essay from the Catholic Encyclopedia.
3. Immanuel Kant. 2000. Books and Writers article. NNA
4. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Jan. 2004. Introductory article with in-text links.
5. Immanuel Kant 1724-1804. Short article on Kant's work and importance.
6. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Garth Kemerling. Aug. 2002. Short article and good links.
7. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) Metaphysics. Matt McCormick. 2001. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article.
8 . The Critique of Judgement. Douglas Burnham. 2001. Extended article, with references.
9. Kant's Philosophical Development. Martin Schönfeld. Nov. 2003. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with good bibliography.
10. Kant's Philosophy of Science. Eric Watkins. Oct. 2003. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with extensive bibliography.
11. Salomon Maimon. Yitzhak Melamed. Jul. 2002. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on best of Kant's contemporary critics.
12. Paul Natorp. Alan Kim. Aug. 2003. Important Neo-Kantian and associate of Ernst Cassirer.
13. Ernst Cassirer. 2003.
. Brief listings.
14. Immanuel Kant.
. Good bibilography and listings.
15. Immanuel Kant Information Online. Kant resources (many in German).
16. Immanuel Kant. Richard Lee. Dec. 2003. Just listings: excellent.
17. Kant on the Web. Steve Palmquist. Articles and listings: possibly the web's largest resource on Kant.