About the Author:
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) has been caricatured as a stiff German professor whose Stoic habits were so predictable that the people of Königsberg, his hometown, could set their clocks by his daily walks. Kant's life is best described as a heroic struggle to discover order within chaos or, better, an effort to fix human thought and behavior within it proper limits. He lived and worked during the Enlightenment, a time when political, religious, and intellectual freedom erupted across the Western world.<%END%>
No philosopher has exerted more influence onmodern philosophy than Immanuel Kant. He was born on April 22, 1724, in Königsberg, East Prussia. During his lifetime the intellectual milieu in Germany was divided into two radically opposed camps. On the one hand, there were the pietists, followers of a religious movement that began at the end of the sixteenth century, which stood in stark contrast to the attitudes that formed the Aufklärung, or the German Enlightenment. On the other hand, there were the views of the 'dogmatic' rationalist philosophers, G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716) and his student and popularizer, Christian Wolff (1679-1754). While pietism stressed personal freedom and the subjective aspects of faith as the most important elements of human reality, the dogmatists emphasized the priority of reason and objectivity in human concerns. Although Kant was raised as a pietist, he was for the most part educated in the rationalist tradition. And much of his genius consists in his ability to create a new alternative, a synthesis of these two seemingly disparate strands. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Critique of Practical Reason, where, employing the objectively rational methods of his new transcendental philosophy, he attempts to secure what had traditionally been regarded as the purely subjective components of moral motivation, i.e., the beliefs in God and the immortal soul.
Prior to 1781, during his so-called pre-Critical period, Kant wrote nearly two-dozen treatises and essays on a broad range of topics in philosophy, physics, natural history, geology, and theology. It is, however, 1781 that truly marks the beginning of his most productive period. It was this year that he published the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, the Critique of Pure Reason, arguably the most important and original contribution to modern philosophy. This was followed two years later by the Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik, die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten können (Prolegomena for a Future Metaphysics That Can Appear as a Science), which is essentially a summation and restatement of the arguments in the first Critique. Among the more important works that followed were the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals) , certainly the most accessible of Kant's books and one of the most important contributions in moral philosophy ever written. In 1788, Kant published his second Critique, the Kritik der practischen Vernunft, the Critique of Practical Reason. This was followed in 1790 by the third and final Critique, the Kritik der Urtheilskraft, the Critique of Judgment, which is his transcendental exposition of teleological and aesthetic judgments. In 1793 Kant published Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone) , which earned him a royal censure. And in 1797, Kant published his final work on ethics, Die Metaphysik der Sitten (The Metaphysics of Morals) . He died in 1804.
The significance of the Critique of Practical Reason can only be understood when it is placed in the context of Kant's other works; specifically, the first Critique and the Foundations. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant had attempted to show the failure of previous attempts to establish metaphysical claims beyond the domain of human knowledge, and to answer the question, how are a priori synthetic judgments possible? In the former context, traditional metaphysics and 'rational theology' had attempted to prove the existence of God, the immortal soul, and human freedom by the use of discursive reason. Kant contends that such arguments are, however, misguided attempts to employ reason beyond its proper domain. In criticizing the traditional dogmatic arguments for God and the soul, he earned for himself the title Alleszerstörer, the "all destroyer." In the latter context, Kant attempts to establish the truths of mathematics and metaphysics as a priori, i.e., necessary and universally true assertions, and as synthetic judgments, i.e., judgments about experience.
The issues Kant deals with in the Critique of Pure Reason have to do more or less exclusively with the domain of theoretical reason; the realm of human knowledge wherein truth can be verified through empirical procedures. The concerns that had traditionally been the subject matter of metaphysics, e.g., the existence of God, the immortal soul, and human freedom, inasmuch as they are unverifiable by empirical means, are, for Kant, excluded from the domain of metaphysics. They are outside the limits of theoretical reason. Yet, they fall within the purview of what Kant calls practical reason. Practical reason has to do with issues that have pragmatic significance for human beings, but which, alas, cannot be known by us in any normal manner. For Kant, questions of faith and morality are issues of practical reason.
Kant's first detailed attempt to deal with the practical application of reason to moral issues occurs in his little work entitled the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Here he begins by examining various common kinds of moral judgments and concludes that inasmuch as such judgments are hypothetical, i.e., to the extent that they have some specific end, purpose, or result in mind, they have no real moral worth. Whatever value they have is extrinsic to the agent. For Kant, the only judgment that can have moral value, value that expresses intrinsic moral worth illustrative of a 'good will,' is an imperative, i.e., a moral command, that, since it is grounded in pure practical reason, has no exception and thus, may be said to be categorical. Thus, the categorical imperative expresses a moral command that any and all rational agents would choose insofar as their motives are grounded in duty toward and respect for the moral law.
To determine whether an action has moral worth we must, according to Kant, consider three things: first, there is the act itself. Second, there is the subjective principle which determines the action and which the action exemplifies, or what Kant calls the maxim. Consider, for example, the action of rescuing a person from a burning building. Here the maxim might be something like, "one should preserve human life whenever possible." This maxim is said to be a subjective principle inasmuch as it is freely chosen by the subject; it can be adopted, modified, and disposed of at the discretion of the individual. The third element involved in determining moral worth is what Kant calls the moral law. The moral law is said to be an objective principle of action insofar as it is necessarily and universally applicable to any and all moral agents regardless of their circumstances. In other words, what the moral law prescribes is what any rational moral agent would be compelled to do, qua rational moral agent. Since we are humans and are therefore subject to various less than rational desires and motives, our rational moral duty comes to us in terms of what we ought to do.
Like the first Critique, Kant's Critique of Practical Reason begins with our ordinary, common experience; in this case, our ordinary experience of making moral judgments. He now proceeds to ask the 'transcendental question': what are the necessary conditions for our having such experiences? The most fundamental condition for any and all morality is, of course, the assumption of freedom. Unless humans have free will, it makes no sense to ascribe moral blame or praise to an action. In earlier discussions (cf. the section of the first Critique entitled the Third Antinomy and in Section III of the Foundations), Kant illustrates what appears to be an irreparable contradiction regarding our conception of freedom. On the one hand, we see the world as a closed, deterministic system, and inasmuch as we are members of this system, human freedom seems to be impossible. On the other hand, insofar as we regard our own actions as originating from free choice, or spontaneity, and we ascribe moral blame or praise to such actions, then human freedom is a viable hypothesis. His solution to this antinomy is to assert that both claims are true; that we must see ourselves as members of both the mechanistic, phenomenal realm, and as members of a supersensible, noumenal realm of moral agency. Thus, human freedom becomes an idea of pure practical reason. As an idea, it cannot and need not be demonstrated in the realm of theoretical knowledge, in the domain of empirical experience. It is something that can be thought; it is something that can serve and must serve to organize our moral experience. It is a transcendental principle, or a necessary condition for the possibility of our having any moral experience whatsoever.
While the influences of Kant's rationalistic education have been evident throughout his writings, it is here, in the Critique of Practical Reason that we see evidence of the influence of his pietist side, or his desire "to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith." In addition to freedom, Kant here contends that the ideas of God and the immortal soul should also be regarded as ideas of pure practical reason. Like freedom, such ideas are not susceptible to the rules of theoretical reason. Any attempts to demonstrate the existence of such things on the basis of empirical evidence or the traditional deductive models of proof are doomed to failure. Yet, such ideas can indeed be thought without contradiction. And furthermore, they can be usefully employed in our moral activity. In fact, Kant insists that they must so be employed.
The idea of moral goodness means, for Kant, actions done purely from duty. Such actions express a maxim, or subjective principle of action, that is consistent with the universal principle, or the moral law; the law that 'compels' all rational agents to do the morally good thing by informing us what we ought to do. By freely choosing to follow the recommendations of the moral law, the moral agent expresses, by his or her action, a 'good will' (i.e., an action grounded in the categorical imperative); a will that is not determined by desire, appetites, or results (i.e., an action grounded in a hypothetical imperative). Yet the notion of a mere transient moral goodness, one restricted to the confines of a mortal lifetime, is inconsistent with Kant's conception of a good will as an absolute, unqualified good. Thus, in Book II of the Critique of Practical Reason, he introduces the immortal human soul as a postulate of pure practical reason. The moral law is absolute and unchanging. And it is only by conceiving the moral agent as an infinitely enduring existence capable of making infinite moral progress that the notion of moral goodness becomes possible. Thus, the immortal soul is shown to be a transcendental, or necessary, condition for possibility of moral behavior.
Kant next turns to the more problematical notion of God. He had already shown that all of the traditional metaphysical proofs for the existence of God were, without exception, worthless and misleading. They were worthless to the extent that they misapplied the principles of theoretical reason beyond their proper sphere; and they were misleading insofar as they gave people the false impression that theology was a kind of 'science of God'; that elements of faith could be affirmed on the basis of experience or reason. Now, in Book II of the second Critique, Kant argues that, like the immortal soul, the idea of God should be acknowledged as a postulate of pure practical reason. He notes that our moral activity occurs in the phenomenal realm, the world of nature that is determined by causal necessity. And our morally good actions, i.e., those actions done from respect for the moral law, express moral goodness in the natural world. Therefore, the possibility of goodness is contained both in the moral law itself, insofar as it can determine my will, qua a 'good will,' and in the natural, phenomenal world itself, insofar as such a world contains the possibility of expressing good moral actions. Now for the transcendental question: what is the necessary condition for the possibility of such a situation? What could serve as the cause or explanation for both of these facts? Kant's answer is God. God can be understood as the author of the phenomenal world, as the Highest Good who instilled in the world the conditions of moral possibility; and as the source of the human will and the object of the will, the moral law -- the rational object of all moral value. The idea of God then is no longer left in abeyance from the human condition. For Kant, God is now an object of what he calls 'rational faith.' Thus, Kant has fulfilled the promise he made in the first Critique's introduction: "to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith."
Dennis Sweet holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Iowa. He writes frequently on Kant, Heraclitus, and Nietzsche and teaches philosophy and history at several colleges in Pittsburgh.