“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
There is one thinker that is, in my opinion, far and away, the greatest thinker of all-time —and I mean it isn’t even close: Immanuel Kant. He improved Newton’s physics by coming up with the modern idea of inertia (and Newton’s physics, still using Aegilus Romanus’ vis inertiae, was a bit of a mess); the idea that there are other galaxies (“island universes”); a metaphysical foundation for Newton’s physics; in a way, resolved the outstanding epistemological debate between the empiricists (Bacon, Hume, Locke, and so on) and the rationalists (Descartes, Berkeley, Leibniz, and so on), giving a framework illustrating that there was another, more attractive option; created the synthetic-analytic distinction that permitted mathematics and morality a completely new classification over and beyond the mere a prior and a posteriori, namely the synthetic a priori; created (as far as I know) the only rationalistic absolute system of morality; provided the modern foundation for cognitive science; and developing some loose rules of thumb for the predication of attributes in logic (resolving the Anselm’s Argument debate in definitive fashion…see below), among many other things. The Critique of Pure Reason is Kant’s most important work, and I think it is the single most important piece of scholarship ever composed; so I recommend starting there. The general consensus is that first Critique is difficult to understand, but a decent piece of secondary literature and Pluhar’s translation should be enough to understand the major points of the work. (Pluhar’s translation sacrifices some accuracy, but this should be of little matter to general readership.)
In general, I think that Kant has been so influential that everything following Kant is, in some way, a reaction to Kant or is consonant with Kant’s thought. Modern abstract art is a great example, as it largely makes use of anschauung (phenomena) without vorstellung (representation) through the lack of categories necessary to understand the visual image. (This also has an enormous role to play in cognitive science.) The reactions against Kant are probably more pronounced than those of the adherence, though neo-Kantian schools of thought (e.g., the Marburg School) are not hard to find. For example, all of this “after theory” and “antiphilosophy” and anti-system sentiments are responses to Kant’s presentation of the world as a super-ordered, ultra-systematic entity, and this is borne out as soon as one digs into the schema and terminology of any of these such works, whether it is intentional by the author or not. Marx is another example, as Hegel was greatly trying to extend and build off of Kant’s worldview. (One point on this, that I absolutely have to bring up, is that Kant seems to have been absolutely misunderstood until sometime in the 20th century (Nietzsche notwithstanding), as is evinced by the interpretation of Kant by, say, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and William James (esp., The Varieties of Religious Experience), to name a few…Schopenhauer might be the most ridiculous and overt offender). Kierkegaard, also reacting to the Kant, sought to demonstrate that any complete system of reason would necessarily require going beyond it (e.g., teleological suspension of the ethical, that is, the holding in abeyance of universal law) —and one’s mind should immediately rush to Cantor and Gӧdel at this suggestion.
With respect to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, I think Kant was probably trying to develop a system that was based on his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783), his first Critique (1781), and such that it accords with the Bible. One this last point, keep in mind Romans 2:15, which mentions that the law is written on the hearts of humans, so this is to suggest that man has universal access to morality, and Kant paraphrases, but does not cite, this. One of the points of Kant’s line of reasoning is to deny some amount of reason to admit room for faith, albeit one of a deistic flavor. (There are some who criticize Kant for not being Christian enough, so don’t be so quick to move him from deism to theism.) Here, one thing in all of this that really interesting is, in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, that we can never have a science of metaphysics: “Natural science will never reveal to us the internal constitution of things, which though not appearance, yet can serve as the ultimate ground of explaining appearance” (Prolegomena 79). The idea (in the Transcendental Dialectic in the Critique of Pure Reason) is that, wherever science goes, knowledge of the physical world will conform to the concepts, and the world will prove to be deterministic. The converse of that (i.e., where cannot go) is that science can’t tell us about things beyond where science can go, meaning that the dialectic leads to unresolvable antinomies. This limitation does not extend to the realm of the synthetic a priori, because, exempli gratia, unlike general imperatives (in the form of “if X, then do Y”), a Categorical Imperative lacks analyticity (Groundwork 84-85), meaning that we need not do as Aristotle and stand back to assess the outcome. This also is why Kant’s moral philosophy is deontological, meaning that it is not outcome oriented —one is to follow a universal maxim. The only thing that is good in-itself is a good will: “It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will” (Groundwork 61). One begins to see how all of this works together consistently, when one examines the rest of Kant’s corpus. For example, “good” and “existence” have very special rules predication, as asserted in The One Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God (1762), which is one of Kant’s pre-critical works. (Note: This particular work also presents one of the best refutations to Anselm’s Ontological Argument.)
We can’t close without mentioning Kant’s Copernican Revolution, which was so nicely laid out in Dennis Sweet’s potent and beautifully written introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of the Prolegomena. We touched on it, to some extent, already. Formerly, the idea (as far back as Theatetus by Plato) had been that experiences of objects in the world make impressions upon the mind, kind of like pressing a key against a piece of warm wax. Kant, in suggesting the pure concepts that are imposed open the phenomenal world, claimed that experience conforms to the mind, not mind to the experience. (This is what I was omitting when I mentioned cognitive science and the empiricist/rationalist debate.) The reason I have waited to discuss this is it has to do with the foregoing, developed discussions of science and epistemology. Hume was the thinker who Kant claimed woke him from his dogmatic slumber. The reason was that Hume proposed that, sure, there are constant conjunctions between events A and B; but there is no way to determine the necessity of B following from A. That is, there is apparently no necessary causal connection between the two events. The way Kant proposed to defeat Hume’s argument was to say that “causality” is one of those aforementioned pure concepts to which the world of experience conforms. Therefore, perceived causality is a necessary connection between events. Kant gets into some qualification of this point, in Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science.
I hope that the preceding has created some interest in the work of Immanuel Kant. In my opinion, no thinker comes close to his remarkable corpus, and it is quite possible that he shall never be surpassed.
Cahoone, Lawrence. “Kant’s Copernican Revoluton” (Lecture 8 of The Modern Intellectual
Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida series). The Teaching Company.Chantilly. 2010.
—————. “Kant and the Religion of Reason” (Lecture 9 of The Modern Intellectual
Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida series). The Teaching Company.Chantilly. 2010.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett
Publishing Company, 1996. Print.
—————. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. H.J. Paton. Ed. H.J. Paton.
New York City: Harper and Row, 1953. 55-130. Print.
—————. Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (Cambridge Texts in the History
of Philosophy). Trans. Michael Friedman. Ed. Michael Friedman. New York City:
Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
—————. The One Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God (Der
Einzig Mogliche Bewisgrund). Trans. Gordon Treash. Omaha: University of Nebraska,
—————. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Trans. Paul Caurus. Ed. Dennis Sweet.
New York: Barnes and Noble, 2007. Print.