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The Core Curriculum

Immanuel Kant

1724 CE – 1804 CE

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 of 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 sixteen. 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 fifteen years as an unsalaried lecturer, when he was already fourty-six, he was finally appointed 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 stopped writing and publishing then.  Following this decade, “there erupted a philosophical volcano the likes of which the world has rarely seen,” as Paul Guyer 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/ substantially revised in 1787), offering a new foundation for human knowledge and demolishing virtually all of traditional metaphysics; the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), inextricably linking human freedom to the moral law while attempting to reconstruct the most cherished ideas of traditional metaphysical belief on a practical rather than theoretical foundation; and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), ostensibly bringing the seemingly disparate topics of aesthetic and teleological judgment into Kant’s system but also struggling to refine and even substantially revise some of Kant’s most basic conceptions about theoretical and practical reason and the relation between them.” (Guyer, p. 4)

    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 eightieth 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.”

Works consulted:
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).

Julia Nordmann, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Columbia University 

Historical Contexts

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

Considered the foremost philosopher of the European Enlightenment, Kant lived in 18th century Prussia during the reign of Frederick the Great (from 1740 to 1786), a vigorous “absolute monarch,” who was hailed both as a military genius and a “philosopher king” personifying the Enlightenment (Voltaire). Frederick the Great improved Prussia’s judicial and educational systems, promoted the arts and sciences, and instituted the principle of freedom of conscience in the Prussian state.  

In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” Kant depicts Prussia as a shining example of the Enlightenment movement and expresses his hopes that Prussia’s spirit of freedom, advanced by Frederick, would spread beyond the state’s boundaries. In the majority of his philosophical works, Kant was not very preoccupied with the concrete manifestations of political freedom. He developed instead a notion of freedom as "autonomy," the idea that that we should obey a law based on reason that we give to ourselves.

Kant was impressed by the progress of modern science (Copernicus, Galileo, Newton). As a result, he found the endless and seemingly insolvable metaphysical debates of his time about God, freedom, and immortality unbearable. He became convinced that if philosophy was to take its place among the sciences, it would have to proceed more critically. It would have to start from scratch and systematically investigate its own possibilities.

In his moral philosophy, Kant explains how reason can guide us to find morality in our actions. Hume and other empiricists of his time advocated the idea that our experience could help us to understand the grounds for moral activity, often in "moral sentiments." Kant brushes away this. Moral philosophy, in order to be considered a science, he says in Section II of the Groundwork, must “manifest its purity as sustainer of its own laws, not as herald of laws that an implanted sense or who knows what tutelary nature whispers to it” (Groundwork, p. 35).  Following moral principles derived from the senses and from experience, he admits, “may always be better than nothing at all.” Yet, they “can never yield basic principles that reason dictates,” and since this is decidedly Kant’s goal, he rejects the empiricists’ approach to morality.   

Kant aimed for a moral philosophy founded on reason. More precisely, he sought  to establish moral principles that “have their source entirely and completely a priori” and “expect nothing from the inclination of human beings.” A priori judgments, according to Kant, are judgments that are made independently of experience and that are held universally. In other words, he wanted to cut out any inconsistent empirical ‘mess.’ He sought a moral law independent from external circumstances (situations, customs, mores, societal laws), a universal law that is intelligible “for all rational beings” alike, regardless of the circumstances.

This premise led him to the bold statement in the first sentence of Section I, where he claims that the only thing that can be called good without limitation or qualification is the good will. Kant looked for goodness not in an object of our will but in the will itself. As Kant considered anything outside of the subject as dependent on empirical aspects, while he thought that our will can be guided by reason. By “placing” goodness within the individual (in the will), he makes it dependent on something that the individual—in fact, all rational individuals universally—can influence directly, namely the motivation underlying their actions.

Kant finds the a priori moral principle in the categorical imperative, which takes several forms, most famously: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” It is significant that this imperative giving commands to the individual’s reason in moral matters shall be categorical and not hypothetical. What counts is the individual’s determination of his or her will—not the potential or hypothetical consequences of the action, which should not influence the individual’s reasoning. The imperative must therefore be categorical, an unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances.

If the individual acts “from duty,” i.e. from respect for a self-given moral law (specifically, according to the categorical imperative), he or she follows a rational principle instead of simply reacting to the situation. The individual is guided by a law given through her own reason and proves to be truly autonomous in the Kantian sense. “Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage,” Kant had begun his Enlightenment essay. In the Groundwork, he shows how the use of reason can become the antidote to this nonage in the realm of morality.  
Works consulted:
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
Encyclopedia Britannica
Otfried Höffe, Immanuel Kant (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).

Julia Nordmann, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Columbia University