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Kant, Immanuel

Category: Philosopher


Immanuel Kant (April 1724 – 12 February 1804) was a German philosopher. Kant's major work is the Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781), however, he published other works on ethics, religion, law, aesthetics, astronomy, and history. These included the Critique of Practical Reason (Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788), the Metaphysics of Morals (Die Metaphysik der Sitten, 1797), and the Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790), which looks at aesthetics and teleology.

One of his biggest achievements was to help resolve the age old disputes over the empirical and rationalist approaches. The supporters of the former approach asserted that all knowledge comes through experience; the supporters of the latter approach maintained that reason and innate ideas were prior. Kant argued that you need both - experience is purely subjective without being processed by reason and that using reason without applying it to experience only leads to theoretical illusions. In essence he helped move philosophy beyond the debate between the rationalists and empiricists. Kant is, as a consequence, seen as a major figure in the history and development of philosophy.



Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in Königsberg, Prussia (now in Russia). His mother was German, his father was from what is now Klaipėda, Lithuania, his paternal grandfather was Scottish and spelled their family name "Cant". Baptized 'Emanuel', he changed his name to 'Immanuel' after learning Hebrew.

Young Kant was a ‘solid, albeit unspectacular, student’. He was brought up in a Pietist household that stressed religious devotion, humility, and a literal interpretation of the Bible. His education was strict, punitive and disciplinary, and focused on Latin and religious instruction over mathematics and science.  We shall see how this influenced his work in due course.  It is worth emphasising at this juncture that he showed no interest in spiritual matters.

He was almost obsessively regimented in his habits, ‘leading to an oft-repeated story that neighbours would set their clocks by his daily walks’. He never married.

In 1740, aged 16, he enrolled at the University of Königsberg, where he spent his whole career. He studied the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz and Christian Wolff under Martin Knutzen, a rationalist.  His father's stroke and subsequent death in 1746 interrupted his studies. Kant became a private tutor in the towns surrounding Königsberg, but continued his scholarly research. In 1747, he published his first philosophical work, Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces.

He made an important astronomical discovery about the nature of Earth's rotation, for which he won the Berlin Academy Prize in 1754.

Lord Kelvin, physicist, 1897:
Kant pointed out in the middle of last century, what had not previously been discovered by mathematicians or physical astronomers, that the frictional resistance against tidal currents on the earth's surface must cause a diminution of the earth's rotational speed. This immense discovery in Natural Philosophy seems to have attracted little attention—indeed to have passed quite unnoticed—among mathematicians, and astronomers, and naturalists, until about 1840, when the doctrine of energy began to be taken to heart.


In the General History of Nature and Theory of the Heavens (Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels) (1755), Kant laid out the Nebular hypothesis, in which he hypothesised that the Solar System formed from a large cloud of gas, a nebula. Kant also hypothesised that the Milky Way was a large disk of stars, which he theorized also formed from a (much larger) spinning cloud of gas. He further suggested that other nebulae might also be similarly large and distant disks of stars. These postulations opened new horizons for astronomy: for the first time extending astronomy beyond the solar system to galactic and extra-galactic realms.

From then on, Kant turned increasingly to philosophy.  In 1762, Kant produced The False Subtlety of the Four Syllogistic Figures, a work in logic.  Then came Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy. In 1764, Kant wrote Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime [which does not tackle the subject in either a beautiful or sublime way] and Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality.


In 1770, aged 45, Kant was finally appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Königsberg.  Up to now there is nothing but the intellect at work and it showed.

And then something seemed to happen to him which opened him up to consider spirit as a viable addition to matter, to start looking at mind as opposed to brain.

The breakdown

At age 46, Kant was an established scholar and an increasingly influential philosopher. Much was expected of him.

But something shook his confidence and his state of mind.  In correspondence with his ex-student and friend Markus Herz, Kant admitted that, in the Inaugural Dissertation, he had failed to take mind into account.  He also credited David Hume with awakening him from a "dogmatic slumber”.  Hume had stated that experience – perceptions – consist of sequences of feelings, images or sounds. Ideas such as "cause", goodness, or objects were not evident in perceptions, so why do we believe in the reality of these?

The flowering of the natural sciences had led to an understanding of how data reaches the brain. The retinal cells send impulses through the optic nerve and then they form a mapping in the brain of the visual features of the object. The interior mapping is not the exterior object, and our belief that there is a meaningful relationship between the object and the mapping in the brain depends on a chain of reasoning that is not fully grounded. In effect the world is an illusion created by our mind – not the brain, our mind.  We do not perceive Reality.  Kant had based much of his earlier work on a mixture of empirical and rationalist thought.  Now the whole of his empirical work was being called into question and he himself had argued that rationalism alone was not enough. 

Another major influence was Swedenborg, for whom [despite a number of accounts recently to the contrary] he had a profound respect.  The dilemma he had was that his whole livelihood was based on philosophy and his whole approach that of a rational sceptic. 

The opinion expressed by Swedenborg’s editor, Dr. J. F. Immanuel Tafel, of the University of Tübingen, in the Sammlung von Urkunden, iv., 255, that it was Kant’s fear of ridicule among his philosophical colleagues that led him to affect so trifling an attitude toward an author who had in reality deeply and lastingly impressed him

The following explains his true state of mind at this point

 letter of April 8th, 1766.

“As a matter of fact it would be difficult for me to conceive of a method of so clothing my thoughts that I shall not subject myself to ridicule. It seemed to me the wisest course to take advantage of others and first do the ridiculing myself; and in this I have been perfectly frank since the attitude of my own mind is inconsistent and, so far as these stories are concerned, I cannot help having a slight inclination for things of this kind, and indeed, as regards their reasonableness, I cannot help cherishing an opinion that there is some validity in these experiences in spite of all the absurdities involved in the stories about them, and the crazy and unintelligible ideas which deprive them of their real value.”

Dreams of a Spirit Seer (Träume eines Geistersehers 1766) contains about the only genuine easily understood summary of his beliefs, and as he says they are indeed very veiled. 

Thus Kant had a real dilemma on his hands.  He did not publish any work in philosophy for the next 11 years.  Although fond of company and conversation with others, Kant isolated himself and 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.

All this implies he had become mentally ill.  There are clues that he had started to become mentally ill in one essay that he wrote, (1764) Essay on the Illness of the Head (Über die Krankheit des Kopfes).  There is the possibility that Kant, like many of his fellow Germans was yet another person to succumb to lead poisoning.  There is furthermore, proof for this:

Immanuel Kant, one of the most brilliant minds of the XVIII century and of western philosophy, suffered from dementia in his late years. Based on the analysis of testimonies of his close friends, in this report we describe his neurological disorder which, after 8years of evolution, led to his death. His cognitive decline was strongly associated with a parasomnia compatible with a severe rapid eye movement (REM) behavior disorder (RBD) and dementia with Lewy bodies. PMID: 20451446

This is brain damage and brain damage can be associated with Parkinson's disease as well as Dementia.


When Kant emerged from his silence in 1781, the result was the Critique of Pure Reason. The Critique was largely ignored upon its initial publication. The book was long, over 800 pages in the original German edition, and written in a convoluted style. It is rambling and shows at times a lack of rational thought.  It has all the hallmarks of a man suffering from brain damage.  It received few reviews, and these granted it no significance.

The criticisms of it are justified. 

Kant's former student, Johann Gottfried Herder criticized it for discussing reason instead of considering the process of reasoning within the context of language and one's entire personality.  Its density made it, as Herder said in a letter to Johann Georg Hamann, a "tough nut to crack", obscured by "all this heavy gossamer".  All this is accurate.  Recognizing the need to clarify the original treatise, Kant wrote the Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics in 1783 as a summary of its main views.

It is very very hard going.  But Kant’s ego had been broken down enough for him to start to genuinely understand metaphysics and his illness had possibly damaged his left brained intellectualism enough to ensure a bit more right brain inspiration and wisdom got through.  He would never ever be a spiritual man, but the knock he received at least made him a more balanced man.  And in this book are a number of little gems of wisdom – not many – but a few.

His early work

Much of Kant’s early thinking revolved around morality, and Kant developed his moral philosophy in two main works: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785)  and Metaphysics of Morals (1797).  In this area, Kant assumes the role of a theologian rather than a philosopher and is none too successful. 

In these works he covers such topics as moral frameworks; the concept of freedom; considerations of individual rights versus aggregate utility; the workings of reason [which has relevance, but is at too detailed a level to be usable dealing as it does with all the different types of reasoning]; and the mechanics of governance.  For example he stated, "...democracy is, properly speaking, necessarily a despotism, because it establishes an executive power in which 'all' decide for or even against one who does not agree; that is, 'all,' who are not quite all, decide, and this is a contradiction of the general will with itself and with freedom.”


If we take  “the practical concept of freedom as the independence of our will from the coercion or necessitation through sensuous impulses" we can see how the moral arguments also seeped through into some of the other arguments.  Kant’s moral posturing is his weakest area, and at times he appears to be almost fanatically dogmatic in his beliefs of what is right and wrong.  Kant wrote a book discussing his theory of virtue in terms of independence, which he believed was "a viable modern alternative to more familiar Greek views about virtue". This book is often criticized for its hostile tone.

Like many of his contemporaries, Kant was no friend of institutionalised religion, but the reasons are not those of his spiritually minded contemporaries, it is because he believed that there was not enough moral control:

Kant articulates his strongest criticisms of the organization and practices of religious organizations to those that encourage what he sees as a religion of counterfeit service to God.   Among the major targets of his criticism are external ritual, superstition and a hierarchical church order. He sees all of these as efforts to make oneself pleasing to God in ways other than conscientious adherence to the principle of moral rightness in choosing one's actions. The severity of Kant's criticisms on these matters, … and his philosophical re-interpretation of some basic Christian doctrines, allow interpretations that see Kant as thoroughly hostile to religion in general (e.g., Walsh 1967).

Kant saw in Jesus Christ, for example, the affirmation of a "pure moral disposition of the heart”.  But rather oddly, he uses none of the ‘moral’ frameworks inherent in Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus’ doctrine was in simple terms don’t hurt and love instead – a single moral imperative you could expand in all sorts of ways.  Kant is particularly known for his theory that there is a single moral obligation, which he called the "Categorical Imperative", but his is not based on love, but a concept of ‘duty’ [whatever that may mean].


After the breakdown

After the breakdown, the Critique of Pure Reason is in almost complete contrast to his earlier moralising stance.  There are passages relating to morals and in some cases, the old Kant creeps back, but to a large extent it is free of 'sermonising'.  And there are a few gems of true philosophical thought:

  • Inner speech - Hidden and almost invisible in the heavy text, is one area absolutely key to this site – the idea of Inner speech.  Inner speech proves the existence of spirit and Kant elucidated this very aspect, albeit in the most convoluted language possible.  Kant claimed that mathematical formula are synthetic a priori, in that the statements provide new knowledge, but knowledge that is not derived from experience. In effect they are ‘discovered’, not observed with the 5 senses.  This became part of his over-all argument for transcendental idealism. In effect there are laws which exist outside the realm of experience – and thus by extension in the realm of spirit – that form the laws of Nature and the systems of the universe and a mathematician, for example, ‘discovers’ them.
  • The critical method  - was an approach Kant used to try to handle anything that could not be observed with the 5 senses – empirically proved. It thus has great relevance to this site, as by definition all things spiritual are observed with an organ of sense that is internal to each person and often cannot be shared.  I say often because there are cases when it can - inter composer communication between bodied souls is by definition shared spiritual experience and work has been done on shared out of body experiences and lucid dreaming.  The critical method required that "If one cannot prove that a thing is, he may try to prove that it is not. If he fails to do 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."
  • The principles of cause and effectAristotle’s work in this area is possibly more comprehensive and it is clear that Kant used Aristotle’s ideas.  What is rather interesting is that he uses the cause effect chain to attempt to prove the existence of God.
  • Heuristical knowledge – in this Kant provides a good explanation of the problems of knowledge derived via heuristics
  • The existence of God - and by extension a definition of God.  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. He did however provide some useful reasoned arguments, which I have included as observations, to show that an Intelligence of some sort can be philosophically proved.  Kant asserted that people are justified in believing in God, even though they could never know God's presence empirically.
  • Perception - Kant defines his theory of perception in the Critique of Pure Reason, he stated that our understanding of the external world had its foundations not merely in perception, but in classification of those perceptions into classes – memory – our model of the world.  Each class can then be further refined in what he calls an
  • Analytic proposition: a full or partial definition of the class
  • Synthetic proposition: the attributes of the class
The external world, Kant wrote, provides those things that we sense. But it is our mind that processes this information and gives it order, allowing us to comprehend it. Our mind supplies the conditions needed to experience objects. The mind has a host of functions geared to turning perceptions into an ordered database that reasoning could process and through which learning could take place.  Without the concepts, perceptions are nondescript; without the perceptions, concepts are meaningless — thus the famous statement, "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions (perceptions) without concepts are blind."

Some of these ideas are new, some are not ‘new’, as previous philosophers had already broached these topics, but in the latter case Kant's thoughts do provide an additional useful set of observations on the same subject.   Kant himself acknowledged the debt he owed Aristotle, for example, and was known to have been deeply influenced by the famous Muslim philosopher Imam Ghazali.

Last thoughts

Kant's health, long poor, worsened and he died at Königsberg on 12 February 1804, uttering "Es ist gut" ("It is good") before expiring.  What is clear is that he was suffering badly from brain damage on his death and had been for several years.  Early migraine turned into dementia.  His best work was produced at a hinge point between the two.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) suffered, since his forties, from a migraine with aura which showed a significant exacerbation in his seventies, coinciding with the onset of symptoms of a senile dementia of Alzheimer's type. Recorded symptoms of Kant's migraine include recurrent scintillating scotomas, one episode of diplopia, two episodes of complete amaurosis and frequent headaches described as oppressions of the head. The said symptoms of Kant's migraine can be traced not only in his letters and in accounts of his contemporary biographers, but also in the philosopher's published work. PMID: 10945159



Some of his other works which have pertinence to this site include the following:

  • (1784) "An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?" (Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?) – Kant is not describing Buddhist enlightenment, but his definition is intriguing.  Kant defined the Enlightenment as an age shaped by the Latin motto Sapere aude ("Dare to be wise"). Kant maintained that one ought to think autonomously, free of the dictates of external authority.  In effect he was extolling wisdom as opposed to cleverness
  •  (1793) Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft) - met with opposition from the King's censorship commission, Kant then arranged to have all four pieces published as a book, routing it through the philosophy department at the University of Jena to avoid the need for theological censorship. This insubordination earned him a now famous reprimand from the King.


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