Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is
widely acknowledged by
philosophers of all persuasions to
have been one of the greatest
thinkers of all time. He is also
notorious for being one of the
most difficult to understand.
The complexity of his prose,
however, is due not to any willful
obscurantism. In reading Kant,
one is aware of a thinker
struggling to clothe in language
ideas of the very highest level of
complexity and profundity.
Born in 1724, Kant lived his entire life in the East
Prussian town of Königsberg. He never married, though
was a popular man who by all accounts led a life of the
utmost order and regularity...
so regular in his habits that locals
used to set their watches by him on
his daily walk
Kant said we constitute the world of our experience through
basic, universal categories of the understanding .
Synthesis: the act of putting different representations
together, and of grasping what is manifold in them in one
act of knowledge.
• Considered pure if the manifold is not empirical.
• Synthesis is what first gives rise to knowledge, i.e. it is
• It is an act of the imagination.
Pure synthesis gives us pure concepts of the understanding.
“Two things fill the mind with ever new
and increasing admiration and awe...
the starry heavens above me and the
moral law within me.”
Kant's Categorical Imperative
"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same
time will that it should become a universal law."
That is, each individual agent regards itself as determining, by its
decision to act in a certain way, that everyone (including itself) will
always act according to the same general rule in the future.
This expression of the moral law, Kant maintained, provides a
concrete, practical method for evaluating particular human
actions of several distinct varieties.
He believed in something that seems like moral absolutism -
his famous Categorical Imperative - but this tiny little man
with a large head was anti-Puritan, kept a good (all-male)
table, preferring to find his female companionship in the local
"Puff" or brothel, the upper storey of a Koenigsberg boarding
house. He lived as regular as clockwork until senile dementia
took over. He died when he accidentally ignited his nightcap
with a candle, a gruesome fact that led Elias Canetti very
nearly to entitle his fictional masterpiece as Kant faengt
Feuer - Kant catches fire. -“A Tribute to Kant” by A.N. Wilson
Sapere Aude! "Have the courage to use your own
reason!" -“What is Enlightenment?” (1784)
"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the
same time will that it should become a universal law."
"Sapere aude!" (Use your own reason.)
Do you follow either or both of these Kantian injunctions?
Do you sometimes find yourself saying "just this once..."
and hoping that no harm will be done if you make an
exception of yourself and act in ways that you hope no one
else will act, with respect to some moral rule you profess
such as honesty? Or, do you ever say: I'll just go along with
what my friends or family say, and not question it? What
would you say to Kant, if he scolded you for such behavior?
G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831). Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel
viewed freedom as self-consciousness in a rationally
organized community... he offered wide-ranging ideas about
freedom, historical progress, the instability of self-
consciousness and its dependence on recognition by others.
Subject matter of ph’y: reality as a whole (The Absolute). Dialectic (thesis, anti-th., synthesis).
Historical progress, ever-higher synthesis toward knowledge of Absolute spirit, mind (“geist”)...
Hegel is a favorite target, on account of his convuluted style and conceptual obscurity, of
American philosophers in particular – James made fun of him by writing while under the
influence of nitrous oxide and calling the results (“his nonsense is pure onsense” etc.)
But another American philosopher, Dewey, was deeply influenced by Hegel’s organic/biological
metaphors (in contrast to the physical/mathematical emphasis of the rationalists). Knowledge
and consciousness grow, on Hegel’s view, through conflict and opposition. Given the excesses
of conflict in human history, this approach promises to redeem much that would otherwise seem
irrational and hopelessly depressing in human affairs.
That must be the meaning of Hegel’s motto that “the real is the rational, & the rational is the real.”
Whatever happens, in other words, may contribute to our eventual progress... not because it
conforms to a pre-established plan in the mind of god, but because out of every conflict (thesis-
antithesis) comes a forward-moving synthesis, and so on and on and on.
John Dewey was also impressed by the strong social emphasis in Hegel.
“...selfhood develops not through introspection but through mutual
recognition... individuality appears only within an interpresonal context.”
We all crave “mutual recognition,” and
membership in “something much greater than
ourselves.” That’s the role of spirit or Geist, a
“cosmic soul that encompasses all of us and all
Hegel Society of America
English writer Michael Prowse confesses that he had gotten Hegel wrong, and
had overlooked this “communitarian” sensibility at the heart of Hegel’s dense
forest of jargon. “Hegel didn’t regard Geist as something that stands apart from,
or above, human individuals. He saw it rather as the forms of thought that are
realised in human minds...
What Hegel does better than most philosophers is explain how individuals are
linked together and why it is important to commit oneself to the pursuit of the
general or common good” and not just one’s private interest and happiness.
( “My new friend Hegel,” Prospect 8.03).
The later Hegel (in saying that
“the Owl of Minerva flies only
at twilight”) implied that
comes only when historical
events have already
Should philosophers aspire
to change the world, or just
summarize and comment on
We all crave mutual recognition, and membership in
something much greater than ourselves.” That's the role in
Hegel's philosophy of spirit or Geist, a cosmic soul that
encompasses all of us and all of nature.
Are there other ways, religious or secular, of attaching
yourself to something greater?
Is it a reasonable goal to try and become so distinctive a
personality that you don't feel any need to find something
greater to belong to? Or is that selfish in a bad way?
Schopenhauer responds to Hegel, Mill, and Kierkegaard
Hegel's State is a crock; especially considering he believed the
State he lived in to be the ideal one and that has since fallen. Mill's
utilitarianism is philosophically sound, but ultimately fruitless since
there is little, if any, happiness to be found in this life.
Kierkegaard's all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing God is
laughable; just look out the window at all the misery that abounds
and tell me where all the beauty and happiness that should be there
is. Life is suffering, and then you die.
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