|Education:||University of Königsberg
(PhD, 1755; Dr. habil., 1770)
|Main Interests:||Epistemology Metaphysics Ethics Cosmogony|
|Noteable Ideas||Categorical imperative
Transcendental idealism Synthetic a priori Noumenon Sapere aude Nebular hypothesis
|Born||April 22 1724|
|Died||February 12 1804 (aged 79)|
His main field of expertise was ethics, and quite drastically changed the field. One could say that a quick summary of his general philosophy was: "Don't lie, don't break promises, ever". While it's a nice idea in theory, Kant did not explain which was more important, which created some problems for his followers when, say, they were asked to keep a secret, and then somebody asked them about the secret. 
But this philosophy did, in a way, "birth" the idea of idealism in Central Europe, and influenced other philosophers, such as Fichte, Hegel, Novalis, REinhol, and Schelling. Kant also opposed Democracy.
Kant believed that an external power was necessary to underpin and regulate the Universe and he called that power God. (Those who believe that something is needed to underpin and regulate the universe should be able to see such an entity doesn't have to be God as imagined in the Mythology of the Bible. Anything that underpins the universe could be one or more impersonal forces, alternatively a different kind of God or Gods.) Kant believed further that, while Humans can't possibly understand God, religion is necessary for (most) societies as moral compass.   At the same time as Kant believed God was unknowable, Kant was a pietistic Lutheran; however, this probably means that Kant merely saw the Lutheran Faith as best expressing the practical necessity of the God postulate, and he was known for being heavily critical of the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the established churches of Germany and for disregarding anything in religion which did not seem to serve the purposes of morality as mere superstition. Does any of this make sense? A great deal of what Kant wrote is hard to understand and it's hard to see if these concepts make sense or not.
Kant insisted that actual knowledge of a world beyond one's finite senses would corrupt practical reasoning, by imposing an external incentive for moral action - fear of eternal punishment and hope of a heavenly reward - beyond a sense of dutifulness for duty's sake, which he saw as a form of despotism. In this, Kant was a clear predecessor of present-day Humanist morality, which attempts to provide a moral compass for those of us who don't believe in God. However, unlike most modern humanists, Kant thought that theoretical reason had inbuilt limitations which required deference to the practical demands of duty and the eventual securing of the supreme good for human beings to which it is ultimately directed (including the ultimate realization of universal happiness, though only once we had been made worthy of it), which in his view necessitated the postulation of personal immortality (in order that we may eventually make ourselves worthy of happiness) and then of God (in order to ensure that we eventually recieve our due). Needless to say, this emphasis on the unprovability yet necessity of believing in such things as personal immortality and God has earned him a mixed reaction amongst the religious and nonreligious alike.
Interaction With Modern Society
Multiple groups have claimed to live by Kant's idealistic thoughts (about lying and promises), including Fox News, The Bush Administration, and The Tea Party, all of which
have succesfully stood by the philosophy with nothing but stalwartism have failed miserably.
Two comments originally by Toph's Fanboy were added below.
Kant was similar to many European Deists of his time in that he believed that world progress was best accomplished through the leadership of "enlightened despots", who would of course give their former subjects rights because of their enlightened status. Kant just heavily preferred that all this happen without revolution; and the historical tendency of revolutions to lead to oppressive dictatorships concerned only with expanding their own ability to achieve their own interests is kind of on his side on that.
The summary of his ethics would be better summed up in his own terms for it: "Act only upon that maxim that one can at the same time legislate as a universal law of human nature." And he didn't believe that "God almost certianly didn't exist"; rather, he believed it was impossible to prove that we can ever understand the nature of things-in-themselves outside of the interpertative schemata of the human mind, and that therefore the only inklings we can ever have of the true nature of the Divine must come through the moral requirements of the reasoning which governs our practical lives, as pure reason can only define the nature of our interpertative schemata in itself according to his critical line of reasoning.
It seems to me that the footnote about how Kant supposedly didn't live up to his own theory of ethics very well, suffers from ignoring a critical distinction Kant made concerning the difference between "perfect" and "imperfect" duties.
Perfect duties are negative, insofar as perfect duties are those to not act by maxims that result in logical contradictions when we attempt to universalize them. (Indeed, Kant's main point wasn't that we should only act according to principles which would make society function well; rather, it was that we should act only according to principles free of logical contradiction when posited as potential universal laws of human nature, whatever effect this may have upon society.) Imperfect duties, on the other hand, are positive duties,entailed by logical contradictions which would result if they are not done. It is precisely because they are required in lieu of logical contradictions by ommision, that the details of how they are to be carried out cannot be rationally specified, and instead allows for subjective desires to condition just how they are carried out in practice (so long as they actually are).
The particular circumstance you referenced was actually treated by Kant, in regards to an imperfect duty to cultivate one's talents. In regards to this subject, he referred to a hypothetical man who could bring many goods to society if he cultivated his talents, but who has everything he wants and would rather lazily enjoy the pleasures of life instead. Kant proceeds to point out the logical contradiction in the man's acting according to such a principle, as if everyone failed to cultivate their talents there would be no creation of the luxuries for him/them to lazily enjoy in the first place. For this reason, Kant posits an imperfect duty to cultivate one's talents, which are considered morally praiseworthy the greater the effort one puts into them (which, yes, would make Kant morally very praiseworthy for the extent to which he developed his talents at philosophy), but which one cannot be blamed for one never be fully completing (specifically because their content is subjectively determined).
I'm not saying I entirely agree with Kant on the idea of a duty to cultivate one's talents (or whether he puts the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties in the right place, for that matter), but I am saying he shouldn't be seen as living inconsistently with his moral philosophy simply on account of being a philosopher.
References and footnotes
- About duty-based ethics
- Kant also believed people should act in such ways that if everyone did the same society would function well. Kant's Duty Ethics Kant didn't live according to that principle. If everybody devoted time to philosophy to the extent that Kant did society would function badly. After all that way practical work wouldn't get done. Sometimes one person can improve society by doing something while it would be bad if everybody did the same thing.
- Kant's Ethics
- Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
- Immanuel Kant was a Lutheran
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