Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is the greatest of the German
He wrote on numerous subjects (his
fill 23 volumes) but
made his biggest impact in philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics).
He was born, and lived his entire life, in the town of Königsberg in East Prussia.
now the city of Kaliningrad in Russia.
His father’s ancestors immigrated from Scotland
in the 17
century, and Kant came from a lower-middle class background.
His father was
a saddler, and the Kant family were devout Pietists (a German Protestant sect that
resembles Puritanism or a very strict Methodist Christianity).
The Pietists renounced
much of the external side of religion and kept away from formal religious observances,
such as attending church and displays of emotion.
Kant remained a strict Pietist
throughout his life.
He was trained for the Pietist ministry, but as a stellar student at the University of
Königsberg he became interested in natural science and philosophy.
himself as a private tutor for wealthy families and by hustling billiards.
In 1755 he
became an instructor at the University in mathematical physics and then philosophy.
1770 he was promoted to professor of logic and metaphysics.
Interestingly, he did not
publish until his landmark
Critique of Pure Reason
in 1781 at the age of 57.
standards, he never would have received tenure.
He was one of the first philosophers to
make his living teaching philosophy.
Before him, philosophy was the pastime of the
gifted, highly educated, wealthy few.
Since Kant, virtually all philosophers make a living
in a college or university.
Kant never married, never traveled, and followed a strict routine every day.
many thinkers influenced Kant.
From Isaac Newton and Voltaire he
developed faith in science and reason; from Richard Price and Thomas Reid (who reacted
to Hobbes’ egoism) he believed in the importance of motives and duty; from Rousseau he
gained the idea of the General Will, the Good Will, the dignity of ordinary human nature,
and, he was impressed by this thinker who fought the materialism and atheism of the
Enlightenment and who defended the superiority of feeling over the intellect.
Bishop Joseph Butler he developed the belief that the conscience is the supreme
Finally, from his contemporary David Hume he found an opponent who ‘woke
him from his dogmatic slumber.’
Hume’s dismissive view of reason was a direct
challenge to Kant.
The great quote from Hume:
“reason is, and only ought to be, a slave
of the passions.”
Kant has influenced every Western philosopher since his time.