Tuesday, September 4, 2007
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.
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Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a German (Prussian) philosopher, generally regarded as the last major philosopher of the early modern period, and on anyone's account, one of history's most influential thinkers. Kant is most famous for his view--called transcendental idealism--that we bring innate forms and concepts to the raw experience of the world, which otherwise would be completely unknowable. Kant's philosophy of nature and human nature is one of the most important historical sources of the modern conceptual relativism that dominated the intellectual life of the 20th century--though it is likely that Kant would reject relativism in most of its more radical modern forms. Kant is also well-known and very influential for his moral philosophy.
Kant spent most of his life in Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad). He spent much of his youth as a solid but not spectacular student, living more off playing pool than his writings. His revolutionary pieces were written very late in life after a long period of silence.
Kant's philosophy in general
Though he adopted the idea of a critical philosophy, the primary purpose of which was to "critique" or come to grips with the limitations of our mental capacities, Kant was one of the greatest of system builders, pursuing the idea of the critique through studies of metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics.
One famous citation "the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me", sums up his efforts: he wanted to explain in one systematic theory, those two areas or realms. Isaac Newton had developed a theory of physics that Kant wanted to build his philosophy upon. This theory involved the assumpton of natural forces that humans cannot sense, but are used to explain movement of physical bodies.
Kant's metaphysics and epistemology
Kant's most widely read and most influential book is Critique of Pure Reason (1781), which proceeds from a remarkably simple thought experiment. He said, try to imagine something that exists in no time and has no extent in space. The human mind cannot produce such an idea--time and space are fundamental forms of perception that exist as innate structures of the mind. Nothing can be perceived except through these forms, and the limits of physics are the limits of the fundamental structure of the mind. On Kant's view, therefore, there are something like innate ideas--a priori knowledge of some things (space and time)--since the mind must possess these catagories in order to be able to understand the buzzing mass of raw, uninterpreted sensory experience which presents itself to our consciousness. Secondly, it removes the actual world (which Kant called the noumenal world, or noumena) from the arena of human perception--since everything we perceive is filtered through the forms of space and time we can never really "know" the real world.
Kant had wanted to discuss metaphysical systems but discovered "the scandal of philosophy"--you cannot decide what the proper terms for a metaphysical system are until you have defined the field, and you cannot define the field until you have defined the limit of the field of physics first. 'Physics' in this sense means, roughly, the discussion of the perceptible world.
Kant's moral philosophy
Kant develops his moral philosophy in three works: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and Metaphysics of Morals (1798). Under this heading Kant is probably best known for his theory about a single, general moral obligation that explains all other moral obligations we have: the categorical imperative. A categorical imperative, generally speaking, is an unconditional obligation, or an obligation that we have regardless of our will or desires. A hypothetical imperative, by contrast, is a conditional obligation, one that we have only if we have some desire or other: if one wants x, one ought to do y.
Our moral duties can be derived from the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative can be formulated in three ways, which he believed to be roughly equivalent (although many commentators do not). The first formulation (the Formula of Universal Law) says: "act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law." The second formulation (the Formula of Humanity) says: "Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means." The third formulation (the Formula of Autonomy) is a synthesis of the previous two. It says that we should so act that we may think of ourselves as legislating universal laws through our maxims. We may think of ourselves as such autonomous legislators only insofar as we follow our own laws.
The theory that we have universal duties, which hold despite one's subjective (and thus, merely hypothetical) imperatives that seek to fulfill one's own inclinations or happiness instead of these duties, is known as deontological ethics. Kant is often cited as the most important source of this strand of ethical theory (in particular, of the theory of conduct, also known as the theory of obligation.
The amount of literature on Kant is ever-growing. Often, the best places to start are the introductions of his translated works. Modern translations usually suggest a variety of secondary literature, the purpose of which is both to explain and to interpret Kant's philosophy. For an example, see Christine Korsgaard's introduction to Mary Gregor's translation of the Groundwork, which not only provides a concise overview of Kant's moral philosophy, but also places his ethics within the framework of the larger critical system.
One of the best pieces of secondary literature on Kant's moral philosophy is a work by Korsgaard called Creating the Kingdom of Ends. In this collection of essays, Korsgaard attempts to organize Kant's ethics into a coherent interpretation that may respond adequately to the modern defenders of ethical systems contrary with Kant's, such as Aristotle's, Hume's, and Hegel's.
Another good starting point of investigation is John Rawls' book of published lecture notes, titled Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. The work is particularly useful in its investigation of Kant's moral philosophy within the vicissitudes of ethical systems from Hume to Leibniz to Hegel. Two other important scholars of Kant are Henry Allison and Onora O'Neill. Both authors have written books about Kant's moral philosophy. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Immanuel Kant.]
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Malaspina Great Books Exclusive]
Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804), a German (Prussian) philosopher, physicist and theologian by training, is generally regarded as the last major philosopher of the enlightenment and one of the most influential thinkers of modern times.
Kant is most famous for his view, which has come to be know as transcendental idealism--a mode of thinking in which we bring innate forms and concepts--concepts born in the mind--to the raw experience of the world of experience--a world which otherwise would be completely unknowable.
Kant's philosophy of nature and of human nature--and he ties the two together--is one of the most important historical sources of the modern notion of conceptual relativism--a perspective that has dominated the intellectual life of the 20th century--and as we will see in LBST 420 a concept that many people regard as a source of modern alienations--the malaise of modernity. That said, it is likely that Kant would himself would reject this relativistic spin on his philosophy especially in most of its more radical modern forms. The notion of relativism derives from the innate aspect of transcendental idealism.
It works this way. If we accept that real phenomenal knowledge is possible only through the filter of innate--mind born ideas--and appreciate that no two minds are the same--and that therefore no two innate ideas can be identical--then the knowledge that requires illuminate from the innate idea will itself differ--thus, all knowledge must in some degree be relative to these innate suppositions.
Kant himself would likely object to these lines of reasoning because--as is clear from the readings here--that although he believes firmly in what he refers to with undeniable certainty and even inevitability in the Eight Thesis of his Universal History as a hidden plan of nature. Modern relativistic readings of Kant may accept the brilliance of Kant's idea if innate knowledge but reject the certainty of such assertions--for the simple reason that innate reasoning can lead to different conclusions.
Kant's life project might be summed up in one famous citation of his the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. Kant wanted to explain in one systematic theory, those two areas or realms. Isaac Newton had developed a theory of physics and Kant wanted to build his moral philosophy up from there. This theory of moral philosophy involved the assumption of the existence of certain natural forces akin to the natural forces of Newton but forces that humans cannot sense. From where then does Kant derive the level of moral certainty underpinning these readings?
To answer that question we need to roll back the clock 36 years--to Kant's first major work written at the tender age of 31 in 1755 around the same time as Rousseau's Discourse of last week and only a few decades after Newton's famous Principia. The then obscure Kant's work had an imposing title: Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens: An essay on the Constitution and Mechanical Origin of the Whole Universe According to Newton's Principles.
If recanting was in the cards for Kant--it might have been around the theological and metaphysical inferences he drew from the speculative thesis he offered here. I'll offer you some of the text later and attempt to point out what I mean. And what I mean, what I argue, is that this text exposes Kant's underbelly in ways that are not so obvious in the writing of the mature philosopher.
Kant's grandparents were Scots who immigrated to the Prussian city of Konigsberg. Kant was born there; lived there; attended university there; taught there; and died there at the age of 80. His degree was in theology but he devoted most of his post graduation energies to mathematics and astronomy. Kant's world fame dates from the publication of his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 when he was 56. The critique is a treatise on the theory of Knowledge and arose out of his interest in Newtonian Physics--the principles of which he believed to be no less true than those of geometry and arithmetic. It was only in these later years that Kant devoted his time to philosophy--in the modern sense of the term--although he did occasionally dabble in science and write an essay on lunar volcanoes in 1785--around the time he wrote these essays here.
The literary style Kant uses in his earlier scientific work is much clearer than in his philosophical works. Kant's objective in writing this book was to extend Newton's philosophy of nature beyond the limits set by Newton which was restricted mainly to the solar system.
Kant's inspiration for this book came from the work of an obscure Englishman named Thomas Wright. Wright had written a work called An Original Theory of the Universe, in which he argued that the sun like the planets in the solar system revolves about some Universal Centre of Gravitation. Furthermore there were throughout the Universe many of such systems--we call these galaxies today.
Kant is concerned with the temporal or evolutionary stages of development of the universe along with its spatial structure: cosmology in other words.
In developing his ideas Kant reaches back as far as the pre-Socratic philosophers Leucippus, Democritus and later to Leucretius and Epicurus to assert that the beginning of creation involved a universal diffusion of primitive matter which helped by gravity or weight brought those elementary pieces together causing vortices.
Kant--unlike the early atomists--was a theist--believing that the universe came into being as an act of creation by a transcendent deity.
Kant thus begins with atoms, a void, Newton's laws and thereby attempts to account for the major stages of the evolutionary development of the cosmos.
But Kant went far beyond anything said by Newton himself who describes the existent regularities found in the world, and especially the solar system--Newton makes no attempt to explain how the system came to be or how it achieved the regularity it now possesses.
Newton's laws account for how the planets remain in their current state but do not account for how they got there. Kant ventured where Newton feared to tread.
He attempted to describe how the galaxies came to be, what spatial and physical distribution they might possess, and what various stages of development they might go through: the universe has history and its stages of development could be traced in terms of well established physical principles.
That the universe is not static and that it undergoes basic change--that it had a history--was a daring and revolutionary assertion. Kant speculated further that the entire universe was constituted of a single unified system in which all these external galaxies participated in motions about a common centre.
He described the exercise initially as … a dangerous expedition ... one in which he has set out... to establish the existence of a supremely wise creator … matter which is the primitive constituent of all things, is therefore bound to certain laws, and when it is freely abandoned to these laws it must necessarily bring forth beautiful combinations. It has no freedom to deviate from this perfect plan. Since matter is subject to a supremely wise purpose, it must necessarily have been put into such harmonious relationships by a first cause ruling over it.
Years later, in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant would argue that the great problems of metaphysics like the existence of God--are insoluble by scientific thought. But, in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) he argues that morality requires belief in God's existence. Kant's famous categorical imperative, or absolute moral law, which I'll talk more of in a moment, rests on the same foundation of beauty and purposiveness as the physical world and these are the bridge between the sensible and the intelligible worlds.
So Kant's later writings--at least the ones we are examining here--obscure and soften the bold deistic certitude we hear here with respect to the theological claims. But the certitude he expresses with respect to purpose in the Cosmopolitan essay, for example, seems just as strong.
If the universe is systematic in its structure--a premise Kant seems assured--that systematic structure is evidence of purpose--the working out of a hidden plan.
Taking on the whole universe was for Kant a far easier task than taking on something as simple as say a caterpillar. In the Nebular thesis he says: The origin of the whole present constitution of the universe will become intelligible before the production of a single herb or caterpillar will become distinctly understood ... because of the complications of the manifold constituents.
Kant's intellectual life seems to have been bracketed by an if clause. If ... universe has structure ... then ... purpose is evident.... hidden plan is evident ... If hidden plan is established in the universe writ large, then hidden plans in smaller but more complex systems follow (from caterpillars to human societies) ...
One can only speculate the impact that the subsequent observational confirmation of Kant's speculation in this century might have had on Kant's later intellectual life. With the if clauses less iffy Kant's later reasoning might have been bolder yet.
Kant's most widely read and most influential book is Critique of Pure Reason. It starts with a simple thought experiment. Try to imagine something that exists in no time and has no extent in space. The human mind cannot produce such an idea--time and space are fundamental forms of perception that exist as innate structures of the mind. Nothing can be perceived except through these forms, and the limits of physics are the limits of the fundamental structure of the mind.
We thus have a priori knowledge of some things (space and time)--since the mind must possess these categories in order to be able to understand anything else. For Kant, the actual world--noumenal world--unfiltered by space & time is not really knowable because that world is constantly filtered through the forms of space and time.
Kant is probably best known for his theory about a single, general moral obligation that explains all other moral obligations we have: the categorical imperative. A categorical imperative, generally speaking, is an unconditional obligation, or an obligation that we have regardless of our will or desires. All or moral duties can be derived from the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative can be formulated in three ways:
The first formulation (the Formula of Universal Law) says: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. The second formulation (the Formula of Humanity) says: Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means. The third formulation (the Formula of Autonomy) is a synthesis of the previous two. It says that we should so act that we may think of ourselves as legislating universal laws through our maxims. We may think of ourselves as such autonomous legislators only insofar as we follow our own laws.
A reading of Perpetual Peace requires some understanding of these ideas. It is an essay that takes on the dichotomy between political idealism and political realism. Kant draws heavily upon his critical philosophy to develop a frank analysis of the complexities of politics, weaving together the cynicism of realism and the optimism of idealism. Specifically, the central role he ascribes to liberal republicanism is consistent with a critical perspective where neither principle is effective exclusive of the other. Hs application of various formulations of the Categorical Imperative is shown to lead him to assert the primacy of idealism over realism.
An application of kant's ideas to our responses to 9/11 and the impending attempt to unseat Saddam in Iraq, Kant would agree terror to be order of our day. But while responses we have made and will make may remove individual perpetrators, like bin Ladin and Saddam Hussein, these responses will not secure peace. Kant would agree that evil is undeniable in his world and ours. But its presence in the world is no more proof of its primacy in our nature, or a justification for political cynicism, than the occurrence of illness in a healthy body establishes that the body is inherently unsound and that we should all therefore commit suicide. Evil cannot be a justification for abandoning the dream of peace. In spite of the horrors that plague our world, blunting our moral sensibilities, the human community continues to dream. The appeal of religious and ethical systems for billions of human beings demonstrates the universality of this tendency.
For Kant, the way to peace lies in finding a common ethical basis for communication that would constitute a global identity as humans over and above the completing ties of ethnicity, religion, and nation that separate us.
Kant's essay lies as the base for a strategy that might achieve its ultimate goal: perpetual peace. The way to peace for Kant lies in finding a common ethical basis for communication that would constitute a global identity as humans over and above the completing ties of ethnicity, religion, and nation.
Suggestions for a practical educational programs designed to implement Kant's ideals have included: 1. globally conscious primary and secondary education curricula; 2. cosmopolitan higher education informed by an analytical and empirically based search for common humanity as the necessary ground for empathetic trans-cultural communication; 3 studies on the religious and ethical traditions of the entire world; 4. the creation of global studies curricula with on courses on universal history, economy, politics, and geography; 5. liberal education designed to elevate the vision of humans as moral beings capable of ethical behavior as our essential nature over all racial, national, gender, cultural, and ethnic identities.
1. No Treaty of Peace Shall Be Held Valid in Which There Is Tacitly Reserved Matter for a Future War
Probably not too much difficulty arises here. Tacit means not mentioned. An overarching theme in this essay is the concept of right, a so-called transcendental idea that defies definition--because it is after all outside the box. So, for Kant any agreement on peace that contains an unwritten notwithstanding clause is, by its nature not really a treaty of peace but a suspension of hostilities, a truce.
2. "No Independent States, Large or Small, Shall Come under the Dominion of Another State by Inheritance, Exchange, Purchase, or Donation.
Nations are societies of men--and as such persons not things. To sell, inherit, etc., a state would be to treat the nation as a thing.
3. "Standing Armies (miles perpetuus) Shall in Time Be Totally Abolished
Kant provides a double defense of this idea. One is economic--the maintenance standing armies are more costly than short wars--so wars--where standing armies exist--make economic sense. Besides--and this is a direct application of the Categorical Imperative. The training of soldiers to kill, is to treat a man as a machine--a killing machine--is to treat him as a thing--a means to an end. But men are not to treated as such.
4. National Debts Shall Not Be Contracted with a View to the External Affairs of States.
Kant gives voice here to the enslavement and hostility engendered by the idea of debt. Debt is dangerous--it also enslaves. The prescience of this with respect to the present situation and relationship between the burden of debt carried by third word nations and a correlationship between debt and the rise in international terrorism is interesting. Debt breeds exasperation, despair, and hostility.
5. No State Shall by Force Interfere with the Constitution or Government of Another State.
The non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign states has become an article of international behavior. With any of these articles try substituting neighbor or friend for state. A constitution reflects the common or general will of a society. Forcible interference (direct or implied) with national or personal sovereignty limits and enslaves individuals and states. Nations acting in such a way are treating such states as pawns, or things--this article is again an application of the categorical imperative.
6. No State Shall, during War, Permit Such Acts of Hostility Which Would Make Mutual Confidence in the Subsequent Peace Impossible: Such Are the Employment of Assassins (percussores), Poisoners (venefici), Breach of Capitulation, and Incitement to Treason (perduellio) in the Opposing State.
That war is a sad necessity in the state of nature, Kant accepts. The articles, setting out certain rules of engagement and attempts at setting rules of war have been implemented in modern times. This is a corollary of the first article--for it ensures that a tacit reservation for future war will remain. Dishonorable actions: extermination, assassination, spying (which is direct interference in the internal affairs of another state), flying airplanes into civilian buildings, dropping nuclear weapons onto cities…virtually guarantee that Peace will never be permanent. Nations so offended will bide their time, and peace treaties emerging can never be permanent.
The Civil Constitution of Every State Should Be Republican.
Of course Kant means Republican in fact--not in name. Republicanism for Kant is that form of constitution in which the constitution--the law--is owned by and consented to all. The government--the executive--is only the minister. The ruler is but another citizen--not the lawmaker. In a non-republican state--modern Iraq--or wartime Germany-- the will of the executive is the law. Citizens are pawns. Again, the idea here is clearly an application of the categorical imperative--for people are not pawns. Republicanism--as so defined--must reflect the general will: that is it reflects the principle of RIGHT. Everyone in a so-defined constitution is free to do whatever he will--as long as what he wills no wrong.
The Law of Nations Shall be founded on a Federation of Free States.
We are tempted here to see this as a United Nations - A nation of nations. An arrangement whereby all nations alienate their sovereignty--or part of their sovereignty over to a super nation governed by a super ruler. But such an arrangement however determines would contradict the idea of sovereignty. If Canada turns over its sovereignty to a third party--it can no longer claim to be sovereign. This--it can be forcefully argued--is exactly why we had riots in Seattle, and Quebec City. It is at the root of the concern many share around globalization, and free trade. Canada may set rules, but the real power is moving swiftly to multi-nationals. The multi-nationals--the real power behind globalization--act not in the interest of a general will, but a will determined inside the boardrooms of those companies. In its implementation of Bill 28, and other measures The Liberal Government of British Government can be seen as acting as pawns or instruments of this rapidly emerging global reality.
So, whatv does Kant mean by a Federation of Nations? Well he sees it as necessary for peace, because no war can do that--precisely because the victor in war is determined by power. Might does not make right. But the federation is somehow something different than a nation. It is a free association of free states--subject to no binding law. It's a fuzzy sort of idea. Kant admits so. He hints--on the bottom of p.117 that such an association must somehow involve the surrender the right to go to war--which exists in the state of nature. This federation is described there not as a positive idea of a world republic but the negative idea of a federation that prevents war and curbs the tendency to go to war.
OF THE GUARANTEE FOR PERPETUAL PEACE
This is where Kant seems to get a bit spooky. Peace is guaranteed not by god, or fate, or providence, or luck--but, by nature! Human purpose ensures peace. He leaves aside the possibility that human purpose is predetermined by providence or god because this theoretical treatise has been crafted by reason--and reason--he admits--has its bounds. Purpose--if I may refer to my opening remarks--can really work only inside the box. Purpose--he seems to imply--is either outside the box--or--part of that noumenal world that we can never really experience because we are restricted to see through the filters of space and time.
It will happen. I'll leave off here.
Books from Alibris: Immanuel Kant