| Thinking hard|
or hardly thinking?
|Major trains of thought|
|The good, the bad|
and the brain fart
|Come to think of it|
Immanuel Kant was a key figure in the history of philosophy, instituting a "Copernican Revolution" in Western thought by showing that any philosophical analysis of reality is constrained by the structure of the human mind itself. Before proceeding in any philosophical analysis, therefore, one must first understand the limits and ways of thought that are necessitated by our mind. Any attempt to breach beyond these limits is futile and meaningless. The analysis and revelation of the precise constraints he termed 'transcendent' philosophy - transcendent to the main subject of philosophy, the one the philosopher wishes to explore.
For example, the aptly named Kant distinguished between phenomena, which are things as they appear to us, and noumena, things as they really are. He maintained that certain aspects of the phenomena were necessarily so by virtue of being perceived by humans. For example, he argued that humans necessarily perceive reality as being spatially and temporally ordered. In contrast, he argued that any claim about the noumena was completely without meaning. Most claims about the noumenal world are, by definition, nonsense, because any claim about the noumenal world as such would presuppose an objective perspective. In Kant's view, there is no such thing as a perspective without the limits of a perspective (i.e. there can never be an 'objective' perspective). All we can speak of is how we perceive spacetime, we have no umediated access to spacetime itself, as it is all mediated through the mind.
Kant is considered one of the greatest philosophers, and his work is studied extensively. Unfortunately, he was nearly incomprehensible even in his own time, and the passage of time (and translation) does not improve his clarity. His magnum opus, the Critique of Pure Reason was so opaque that he was forced to write An Introduction to Any Possible Metaphysics as a kind of shorthand version and introduction to the main text. Novice readers are advised to stay clear of this extraordinarily complicated text as well, and instead read up on more modern accounts of Kant, that manage to convey his meaning without his obtuse style and also have the advantage of incorporating the thinking of later generations and critique of his work.
Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason are really dense stuff about existence, knowledge and morality. He also wrote several other works, including Religion in the Light of Pure Reason where he argued for a religion that used the semantics of Christianity to appeal to the masses and convention, but had a layer of occult meaning intended for philosophers and those "in the know" which was, essentially, atheistic.
He founded Kantianism, or the categorical imperative, a deontological moral philosophy which can be summed up as "act only in such a way that the principle of your action could be, in-principle, universalized." This theory emphasizes the value of a person's will, rather than their intentions (or the actual consequences of their actions). A form of moral absolutism it nevertheless (arguably) does not require a divine source. He argued that his view could be deduced by a priori logic. Deontology's basis in duty, rather than utilitarianism's consequences, makes it popular with many modern libertarians, as it means (what they view as) thefts are always wrong, and property rights always right, and Kant's notion of treating men as ends in themselves rather than means to an end deny justification for coercion. Kantian deontology, however, is merely one of many possible deontological accounts - for the record, one libertarians would disapprove of on several counts, since it affirms traditional Christian ideas (i.e. condemning all extramarital sex, etc.).
He was also a real pissant, who was very rarely stable.
On issues of race and gender, Kant was a man of his day. While many modern Kantians see the categorical imperative as clearly forbidding discrimination and bigotry based on race, gender and even sexual orientation, there is no evidence that Kant considered his prejudices as being in anyway contrary to his ethics.
By the standards of his time, however, Kant was a liberal in terms of freedom of thought and conscience and constitutional government. He was often at odds with both Church and State, both for his support of limitations on the then absolute power of the monarchy and for his claims that ethics can be based on reason rather than revelation and that the existence of God could not be proven logically. Kant refuted many of the alleged proofs of God's existence which were then given a great deal of weight among Christian apologists. Most of these thoroughly debunked "proofs" are still listed as evidence for Christianity on Conservapedia. Kant settled on a moral argument for God's existence, since he felt it necessary to support his morality. In addition, he staunchly defended the French Revolution, arguing that responsibility could not come before freedom; rather, people couldn't have responsibility without freedom.
As a form of moral absolutism, Kantianism is often associated with conservative (even reactionary) ideologies. However, Kant also has multiple supporters on the other side of the spectrum. In his work The Open Society and Its Enemies, philosopher of science and critic of religion Karl Popper unabashedly (but not uncriticially) identifies himself with the Kantian tradition while relentlessly attacking Aristotle, Plato, Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx.
Ayn Rand also had an odd loathing for Kant whom she described as "the most evil man who ever lived" and also, "Kant was the first hippie in history."[notes 1] Her followers believe this type of writing passes for philosophy. Rand's critiques are ignored by academic philosophers, largely based on her own insignificance as a philosopher as well as her inability to understand Kant.
- Probably because his insistence on the means conflicted with her
delusions of grandeurwishes to create an Übermensch.
- Idle, E. (March 23, 1974). "Bruces' Philosophers Song." Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl.
- George V. Walsh, an Objectivist himself, on why Rand didn't understand Kant http://enlightenment.supersaturated.com/objectivity/walsh1/