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Kant spent his entire life in or near the German city of Königsberg in East-Prussia, far away from the European capitals such as London, Paris or Edinburgh. Renamed Kaliningrad when it fell to the Russians in 1945, the city now is the center of the Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. Kant was born in 1724 into a family of artisans of modest means. The family belonged to the Protestant sect of the Pietists, and Kant went to a Pietist school. The emphasis on reason in Kant’s philosophy is sometimes interpreted as a reaction against his religious education. Biographers also stress that his parents might have influenced him less through their Pietism but through their high esteem for artisanal values, such as hard work, honesty and independence.
Kant lived the life of a scholar. He entered the University of Königsberg as a student at age 16. He studied philosophy, mathematics, physics, logic, metaphysics, ethics and natural law. After college, Kant spent six years working as a private tutor for various families in the vicinity of Königsberg. He then returned to Königsberg and published various scientific works as well as two Latin dissertations, which earned him a Master’s degree and qualified him to teach at the university. He did not receive a professorship immediately but was taken on as a “Privatdozent,” an unsalaried position paid “by the head” depending on the number of students attending his lectures. From 1755 to 1770, Kant’s teaching load was heavy. He had to give a multitude of lectures on logic, metaphysics, ethics, mathematics, physics and physical geography to earn a living. In the 1760s, he became a popular lecturer and published a number of works. During this time, he developed a reputation as a promising young philosopher.
In 1770, after 15 years as an unsalaried lecturer, when he was already 46, he was finally appointed to a regular professorship, the chair of logic and metaphysics at the University of Königsberg. The year 1770 marks the beginning of what is often called Kant’s “silent decade.” Though he had regularly published scholarly works in the years leading up to this appointment, he then stopped writing and publishing.
Following the silent decade, “there erupted a philosophical volcano the likes of which the world has rarely seen,” as Paul Guyer has phrased it. From 1781 on, Kant published a major work almost every year for more than a decade and a half. The works from this later period have greatly influenced the philosophy of his time and all subsequent philosophy up to the present day. Among them are Kant’s so-called three critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), which demolished traditional metaphysics and created a new foundaiton for knowledge; the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), which linked moral law to human freedom and attemped to re-establish cherished ideas of older metaphysical systems on a new practical basis; and the Critique of Judgment (1790), which brought the theretofore unrelated topics of aesthetics and telelogical judgment into Kant's new system, while also revising his earlier conceptions of pure and practical reason.
Always focused on his work and strictly following his daily routines, Kant lived a highly disciplined life. He got up at 4:45 a.m. every morning and went to bed at 10 p.m. The citizens of Königsberg are said to have set their watches by the regular time he passed their doors on his daily walk after lunch. However rigid Kant seems to have been in his work, contemporaries also praised his dry humor and his sociability. He regularly entertained guests for lunch or dinner.
Kant retired from teaching in 1796. He died in 1804, shortly before his 80th birthday. His tombstone near the cathedral of Kaliningrad contains what is perhaps the single most famous passage of his work (from the end of his Critique of Practical Reason): “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
Written by Julia Nordmann, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Columbia University
Paul Guyer, "Introduction: The starry heavens and the moral law," The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy, Ed. Paul Guyer (Cambridge University Press, 2006)