Kant's Philosophical Achievement

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is the philosopher of the European Enlightenment and, with Plato and Aristotle, one of the three greatest Western philosophers of all time. He was born and brought up in Königsberg in East Prussia, now Kaliningrad in Russia. His father was a saddler and his parents were pious Lutherans. Kant taught a wide range of subjects as a private tutor, but eventually became a Professor at the University of Königsberg. He led a disciplined, but very sociable life. 

In the Critique of Pure Reason/Kritik der Reinen Vernunft Kant first of all wanted to show that there are necessary truths, such as “every event has a cause”, which are not based on the meaning of the concepts used or on empirical evidence. Secondly, he wanted to deal with the problem of the “antinomies”: the phenomenon that reason contradicts itself when it reflects on the whole universe. So it is possible to claim both that the universe has a beginning in time and that it has existed for an infinite period of time. Kant argued that objects conform to human cognition, and not the other way round. We construct objects using the categories which are embedded in our perceptual and thought processes, such as substance and causality. For this reason our knowledge is limited to how objects appear to us and not to how objects are in themselves.


Space and time are for Kant “forms of sensibility”, ways in which our perceptions are constituted and given to us. For this reason the question of whether the universe had a beginning in time or is timeless is itself misplaced, because time is not an objective feature of the universe, but a subjective feature of our way of perceiving objects, in this case the totality of objects. 


The central tenet of Kant's moral philosophy is the "categortical imperative": act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law. Although there are many controversies surrounding the application of the categorical imperative and the law-orientated nature of Kant's moral thought, the basic idea is clear enough: we should do something only if others should do the same thing in the same circumstances. Kant has given an account of morality which puts autonomy, rationality, equality and obligation, or as he would say “duty” (Pflicht), at its heart. For Kant there is no reason for being moral; morality is an unmediated demand, a categorical or unconditional imperative. By giving the demand of morality priority over any other demands, Kant has expressed an ideal which is both unqualified and very moving: the ideal that human existence can be ultimately just  (Williams, 2006, first published 1985: 55, 195).

Unlike utilitarians such as J.S. Mill, Kant believes that what makes an action right or wrong is not the consequences of the action but the intention or will which motivates it.  For Kant moral motivation should be given the highest priority in our deliberations, and should outweigh non-moral motivation. An obligation or duty is a practical conclusion of reasoning which governs what we should do, all things considered (Fricker, Guttenplan, 2009: 256). Practical reason demands that it applies to all of us. Indeed if something is an unconditional practical necessity, i.e. it is something we simply must do and there is no alternative for us, then Kant thinks it must be connected to morality. Hegel rightly criticized Kant’s notion of morality for making moral thought devoid of content (Williams, 2006, first published 1985: 189, 184).

Kant explains further that in order to act morally we have to be autonomous, i.e. we have to act on our own reasons and not on the reasons of others. Autonomy and reason are interconnected. As rational beings we want to act not in a random or capricious manner depending on the particular desire or “inclination” we happen to have at a given moment, but according to general rules or principles (“maxims”) on which other rational people act. We use our autonomy to make such rules or laws for ourselves, and the most important of these is the categorical imperative or “moral law”. So obligations, duties and rules or laws do not decrease our autonomy, because we have, using the rationality which we all share, chosen them ourselves. Williams has criticized Kant’s idea that morality is based on reason: there is always room for rational dissent from any moral obligation, because, contrary to what Kant claims, there is no single, objectively correct moral system. Williams argues that practical necessity, what we think we simply have to do above all else, is not based on desires we simply happen to have, but on desires which are essential to who we are and which make our lives worth living (Fricker, Guttenplan, 2009: 260).

The ability to act morally is what gives human beings intrinsic value or “dignity”. Because we have dignity we should be treated by others with respect and should treat ourselves with respect, by, for instance, not acting in an overly deferential way towards others. This notion of dignity has been very influential, with regard to the human rights movement  after the Second World War (e.g. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The German Constitution or Grundgesetz). Rights are intended to protect the most important interests of human beings, and this protection is regarded as essential for human dignity. 


Kant’s third major contribution was in the area of aesthetics (Critique of Judgment/Kritik der Urteilskraft). He wanted to account for the universal aspect of judgments of beauty: the idea that in describing something as beautiful, I am claiming not only that it is beautiful for me, but that it is beautiful for others who look at it in the right way. Kant thought that aesthetic objects were created in such a way that their form corresponds to the subjective pleasure in any viewer which gives rise to the viewer’s judgment that the object is beautiful.  


Paul Crichton

London, 3rd March 2013



Crichton, P. Entering the Whirlpool: Self-Realization and Necessity (working title), in press


Kant, Immanuel (1999, first published 1784) ‘Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung’/ ‘Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ in H.D. Brandt (ed.) Was ist Aufklärung? Hamburg: Meiner Verlag: 8.37. 


Kant, Immanuel (1990, first published 1781) Kritik der Reinen Vernunft/Critique of Pure Reason (= CPR), Hamburg: Meiner Verlag: A738–9/B766–7.


Kant, Immanuel (1994, first published 1785) Grundlage zur Metaphysik der Sitten/Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (= G), Hamburg: Meiner Verlag.


Kant, Immanuel (2001, first published 1790) Kritik der Urteilskraft/Critique of Judgment (= CJ), Hamburg: Meiner Verlag: 5, 293–6.