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Influential Figures in My Life: Immanuel Kant

April 15, 2013

Kant portraitI think for anyone who comes to modern western philosophy, they will find Kant to be just about the most influential figure that there can be. If philosophy can claim any subject-matter, any domain of its own that science cannot interfere with, it is the subject matter provided by Kant’s epistemology. It is, of course, transformed and used in many different ways by subsequent thinkers. But the basic idea, of a subjective framework of categories, which we need to analyse as being at the foundation of all our objective and scientific knowledge of the world. To this basic idea, philosophers return time and time again.

It forms the basis for Schopenhauer’s World as will and representation. Its subjective, idealist approach is the basis for Hegelian idealism. Something that takes Kant’s ideas in quite an unusual direction due to its taking little interest in the authority of science and empirical truth. It is basic to the phenomenological approach of Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. In which the analyses of the subject of knowledge become ever more subtle and intricate. It is the starting point for critical theory. In which Kants critical notion of reason is explored in detail, by figures such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. It also informs the political philosophy of Habermas, where he tries to develop a more positive notion of reason: communicative reason, to move beyond the practical limitations of Kant’s critical approach. So it is hard to ignore the influence of Kant. It pervades our whole outlook, and much of his approach we make use of without even consciously realizing it, as a result of this.

Much of the influence of Kant on myself was indirectly via other figures such as Schopenhauer, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edmund Husserl and Jurgen Habermas. But the fundamental philosophical approach of analyzing the subjective forms and categories underlying our experience of the world, I did read first hand in his Critique of Pure Reason. A truly great philosophical book, and for any analytic philosopher or positivist or scientist with little philosophical experience who likes to take a seemingly common sense materialist approach to the world, this book presents to their naturalistic standpoint a great challenge. A challenge that very few are able to come to terms with, and one that is renewed time and again by his successors, such as Schopenhauer, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty.

The moral philosophy of Kant is an area where many of his successors have been less happy to adopt his starting point. For it has come to be thought by many that reason in itself is not adequate to comprehend our moral intuitions and feelings. The categorical imperative of Kant, tells us to act in such a way that our way of acting could become a universal principle applying for all people in a similar circumstance. This universality ignores just how central our personal perspective is to the moral judgments we make. It sees the bad side of partiality in moral judgments, but in extricating these with the categorical imperative it forgets the good side to this partiality, the fact that it allows us to act out our morality with a sense of meaning and purpose to our decisions.

In the area of moral philosophy, this continental approach to the subject is still seeking out a secure and stable subject-matter, the likes of which Kant has secured for them in epistemology. The legacy of Kant remains influential in political philosophy, due to the adoption of his ideas by John Rawls, and Jurgen Habermas. But in moral philosophy a new direction is being sought out. The important figure of Charles Taylor has set out to give a stable grounding to an approach to moral philosophy consistent with the continental approach in setting itself up to secure a philosophical domain from the danger of naturalism. This has met with mixed results so far, and so the danger of the domain of moral  philosophy being usurped by other subjects is still there. It is one area where we find ourselves having to move beyond Kant, to find a framework for our understanding. I think success or failure here will have huge consequences. If philosophy cannot get to grips with morality, it could trigger a naturalist revolution, like Sam Harris recently is trying to enact. Or it could trigger a reversion to religious influence over moral debates and questions.

All this is once more testament to the range of influence Kant has had on philosophy, not just through influencing others, but through the creation of a whole subject-matter and domain of influence that philosophy is commonly accepted to have in society. But the boundaries of these domains are ever changing and shifting around, and the battle with naturalism seems to be one that recurs regularly.

From all of this, the biggest influence I can credit Kant with on myself, is the desire to continue to secure a steady domain for the nurturing of the philosophical spirit and philosophical approach to understanding the world. It would be nice to extend the influence of philosophy in moral domains. But to do this it will take something beyond rationality, which time and again, shows itself to be quite constricted and limited in getting to grips with our moral sentiments.

So the influence of Kant on myself is interwoven with the whole story of how philosophy has developed in the last few hundred years. A story which I have chosen to become a part of. And in so doing, the influence of Kant is one I acknowledge as central to my own philosophical development.

  1. I really enjoyed Kant in my first year philosophy class, I should go back to those books


    • There is a lot to learn and pick up from Kant. I would certainly recommend that Lily. The prolegemena to any future metaphysic and the critique of pure reason are particularly good ones from my experience.

      • I’m making a note of those – I imagine I could get them on my kindle, haha. Thank you


  2. Here’s something rather rare, a quote by Kant displaying just a hint of a sense of humor: “When a hypochondrial wind is roaring in the bowels, everything depends on the direction it takes. If it goes downwards, it turns into a fart, but if it mounts upwards, it is a vision or a divine inspiration.”

  3. A slightly different angle on Kant:

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