Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Immanuel Kant spent his entire life in Königsberg, a small German town on the Baltic Sea in East Prussia. (After World War II, Germany's border was pushed west, so Königsberg is now called Kaliningrad and is part of Russia.) He was the son of a poor saddle-maker, but because of his evident intelligence he was sent to university. After receiving a doctoral degree from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Königsberg.

At the age of fifty-five, Kant had published much work on the natural sciences, taught at Königsberg University for over twenty years—where he lectured on a variety of topics including cosmology and anthropology, as well as philosophy—and achieved a good reputation in German literary circles. During the last twenty-five years of his life, however, Kant's philosophical work placed him firmly in the company of such towering giants as Plato and Aristotle. Kant's three major works are often considered to be the starting points for different branches of modern philosophy: Critique of Pure Reason (1781) for the philosophy of mind; Critique of Practical Reason (1788) for moral philosophy; and Critique of Judgment (1790) for aesthetics, the philosophy of art. Kant continued to think and write well into his old age, and he was at work on a fourth Critique at the time of his death in 1804.

Kant lived an exceptionally quiet, uneventful, regular life, never marrying or traveling far from Konigsberg. His sedentary, routine life has often been the source of derision from his critics. Allegedly, the housewives of Königsberg set their clocks every day of his professional life by his daily walk—except for one day when, in his engrossment with Jean Jacque Rousseau's novel Emile, he forgot the walk. On the other hand, Kant's heavy academic workload, moderate income, and weak health may go some ways towards explaining his uneventful life, and perhaps it is simply true that for him his intellectual adventures were adventures enough. We do know that he was quite sociable and also that he took great interest in the latest sciences, which should go some ways toward dispelling the image of Kant as bloodless and interested only in his own abstractions.

It has been suggested that Kant was affected by his upbringing as a Pietist, a Lutheran revivalist sect that emphasized moral self-examination over dogma and ritual. One possible sign of this upbringing lies in his understanding of moral worth, which depends on the inner reason the person has for an action rather than on the effects or appearance of the action. Another sign of his upbringing lies in his understanding of religion; although Kant rejects most of the traditional Christian system with its anthropomorphic God and its accompanying rituals, he still regards himself as having saved all worthwhile features of religion.

Background on Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason

Immanuel Kant's impact on contemporary analytic and continental philosophy is hard to overestimate. In Anglo-American analytic circles, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason sets the terms for many debates in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind. In addition, much has been written in the last ten years about Kant's most well-known ethical treatise, The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. In Anglo-American continental circles, Kant's work has been the object of both ridicule and esteem. By any standard, he is a philosopher of the first rank, standing in importance among philosophers of historical importance such as Hegel, Plato, and Aristotle.

Kant's life's final chapter began late. After obtaining a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Königsberg at the age of thirty-one, Kant seems to have gone into a long hibernation. The first inklings of professional promise came with The Only Possible Ground of Proof for a Demonstration of God's Existence in 1763, published when Kant was thirty-nine years old. Kant had also studied Latin literature, mathematics, and physics at the University of Königsberg , and his wide interests would later prove invaluable for the development of his understanding of metaphysics and epistemology.

Kant obtained a full-time university post at the University of Königsberg in 1770. Critique of Pure Reason was published in 1781, when Kant was fifty-seven years old. The first review it received was unremittingly critical. The (simplified) argument of Critique of Pure Reason is that while empirical objects, like books and chairs, are in some sense very real, they might not be transcendentally real. Chairs are real insofar as they are objects that have to conform to our concepts, to our perceptual categories. But we cannot be sure that they are transcendentally real, because to be sure of this we would ourselves have to transcend our own perceptual limitations to confirm the "transcendental" existence of objects.

This clever argument promised to solve a number of problems that had plagued philosophers for generations. Kant thought it solved, once and for all, questions about God's existence. He claimed that we should no longer attempt, as he himself had done as a young scholar, to prove God's existence. Such attempts are a waste of time, because our concepts only work properly in the empirical world. Since God is, by definition, a spirit, a non-empirical entity, we will never be able to use our limited concepts to prove his (or her) existence. Secondly, Kant's work dispels the urgency of questions about which objects in the world are really, truly real. Real objects, on Kant's view, are simply the ones that are subject to our perceptual categories. We cannot be sure that other, non-empirical objects do not exist, but this should not worry us. After all, we can rest assured that medium-sized objects—houses, boats, and the like—are indeed real. This argument is quite inventive, and to this day it puzzles the sharpest professional philosophers.

The important thing to note about Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason is that like the Critique of Pure Reason, it represents an ingenious attempt to address a tough philosophical problem concerning the nature of faith and religious obligation. In Critique of Pure Reason Kant employs his own brand of common sense and asks us to set aside questions that we have no chance of adequately answering. We have no need to ask about non-natural entities like God, in other words, since we cannot answer our own questions. Twelve years later, in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Kant again encourages us to give up things we don't need. This time, he asks us not to give up questions about God, but rather to give up religious practices that are unnecessary for true moral conduct.