Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Seminar paper - Kant

German Idealism

Idealism is the theory according to which the nature of reality only relies upon the mind. Therefore, the external world does not exist if no one perceives it (example of the tree falling in the forest). Although this theory exists since Antiquity, Kant gave birth to a new current, German Idealism, which started to spread in the XVIIIth century and influenced many philosophers such as Hegel, Fitche and Schopenhauer. Kant was a philosopher who covered many subjects: science, mathematics, astronomy, metaphysics, religion, morality, human reason, aesthetic etc. Given this very wide range of topics, it is impossible for me to sum up each of his theories. However I am going to cover his main work, Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason.

Critique of Pure Reason

Critique of Pure Reason was published in 1781 and is considered as one of the most influential works in philosophy. In this work, Kant tries to determine what empirical and a priori knowledge are and their extents. His main goal is to show that knowledge revolves around a thinking mind, like Copernicus showed that the Earth rotates around the Sun. The thinking mind controls knowledge and not the contrary. As a result, it is impossible to know the external reality because knowledge entirely depends on the perception of the mind and its interpretation. This is what Kant called noumenal reality. Like John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Kant tries to define the limits of human understanding. According to him, reason and experience should be used together to get to any kind of knowledge. In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant explores the concepts of time and space and finds out that both are necessary to allow men to think and perceive the external world.

Kant’s concept of space and time (Critique of Pure Reason)

According to Kant, space is not a concept we can acquire from experience. It is an a priori idea or intuition which means that it is included in our understanding without having to prove its existence. Space is the basis of any external perception. For example, we could not place/locate items if space didn’t exist. However, you cannot depict space itself; you can only imagine an empty space. Objects entirely depend on space because space allows them to exist.
Like space, time is an a priori intuition. However, it has another quality space hasn’t: time is the basis of any intuition or perception. If we didn’t have the intuition of time, we wouldn’t be able to think or perceive anything. Therefore, any intuition, reflexion or perception is included within the intuition of time.

Critique of Practical Reason

Critique of Practical Reason was published in 1788 and is considered to be the continuation of Critique of Pure Reason. This work is about moral philosophy and ethics. Kant gives up the analysis of reason to work on its practical use.

Kant’s theory of God

Given that mankind cannot have an objective knowledge of the external world, therefore nobody can be sure that God exists. Anybody who pretends to tell the truth by claiming that God exists is just being dogmatic, according to Kant. On the other hand, anybody who claims that God does not exist is also being dogmatic. Transcendental ideas are beyond human understanding, says Kant. Here, the philosopher distinguishes knowledge from belief. However, Kant says that believing in God is necessary to achieve freedom and happiness. In Critique of Practical Reason, Kant claims that mankind is driven by the idea of eternal life and freedom. The idea that God looks after them and will reward them with eternal life pushes men to act morally.

Kant’s theory of morality (Critique of Practical Reason)

To be able to act morally, Kant gives the rule of the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." Kant believes that an act is moral only if you’re not seeking your own interest. To be moral, you need to truly mean well when doing your action to be moral. The consequences of the action could be absolutely dreadful, as long as the person meant well, the action is still moral. According to Kant, very few actions are moral simply because men usually seek their own interest when doing something. And even if the action seems moral to other people, how can we make sure that the person doesn’t act well just to get other people’s sympathy? There is no way to know, and here Kant applies the Cartesian doubt.

One of the first philosophers Kant greatly influenced was Hegel, who developed a philosophy based on Kant’s ideas even if he often criticised him. According to Russell, Hegel’s philosophy would have never existed without Kant.


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