Biography and Background of Immanuel Kant

(Last Updated On: May 1, 2018)

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was born in Konigsberg in what was then known as East Prussia (now Kaliningrad in the former Soviet Union). His parents were poor but devout members of a fundamentalist Protestant sect known as Pietism. Pietists rejected the idea of imposing a church and priests between the individual and God, preferring to rely on immediate personal to God. They emphasized faith and repentance and lived severe, puritanical lives.

When he was eight years old Kant was sent to a school founded by a local Pietist preacher. The regimen was exceptionally strict, beginning daily at five thirty in the morning. Students received an hour’s instruction in Pietism, and each class period concluded with a prayer. Sundays were devoted almost completely to religious activity. Later in life, Kant said that he resented the school’s heavy emphasis on a theology of terror and piety – fear of hell and trembling before a vision of a wrathful God. Yet he never lost his regard for righteousness and moral severity. As an old man, Kant spoke respectfully of his parents’ faith, saying,

“People may say what they will of Pietism. Those in whom it was sincere were worthy of honor. They possessed the highest thing that man can have – the quiet, the content, the inner peace, which no suffering can disturb.”

At the age of sixteen, Kant entered the University of Konigsberg, where he studied for six years. Upon leaving the university, he refused a lucrative offer to become a Lutheran minister, choosing instead to continue his studies. For the next nine years he supported himself with meager earnings as a private tutor. In 1755, Kant received the equivalent of today’s doctoral degree. This earned him the privilege of lecturing at the university as a Privatdozent, a private teacher whose salary was paid directly by his students. The more students he attracted and retained, the more money he earned. Kant became a popular lecturer, and in 1770, when he was forty-six, the university hired Kant as a professor of logic and metaphysics. Though the salary was small, Kant was pleased with his improved status.

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For the most part, Kant’s life is noteworthy for not being noteworthy. He probably never traveled more than sixty miles from his birthplace during his entire life. One biographer said,

“Kant’s life was like the most regular verbs,” to which another added, “But it was not a conjugated verb. For Kant never married.”

Kant lived most of his life on a rigid schedule. The poet Heinrich Heine described Kant’s penchant for routine:

“I do not believe that the great cathedral clock of this city accomplished its day’s work in a less passionate and more regular way than its countryman, Immanuel Kant. Rising from bed, coffee-drinking, writing, lecturing, eating, walking, everything had its fixed time: and the neighbors knew that it must be exactly half past four when they saw Professor Kant, in his gray coat, with his cane in his hand, step out of his housedoor, and move toward the little lime tree avenue, which is named after him, the Philosopher’s Walk. Eight times he walked up and down that walk at every season of the year, and when the weather was bad, or the gray clouds threatened rain, his servant, old Lampe, was seen anxiously following him with a large umbrella under his arm like an image of providence”

Kant is reported to have missed his walk only once, when he became so absorbed in reading Rousseau’s Emile that he forgot to take it.

Kant was a prolific writer. His works include the difficult but revolutionary Critique of Pure Reason (1781 and a second edition in 1787), Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783), Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Critique of Judgment (1790), and Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793).

Kant retired from public lecturing in 1797, and although he physically declined, he remained a prolific writer. Immanuel Kant died a lonely old man who had never seen a mountain or the sea. Yet he shook the foundations of Western philosophy to such an extent that it has been said that whether or not philosophers agree or disagree with Kant, they must face him. Above his grave in the Konigsberg Cathedral, his own words are inscribed, “The starry heavens above me; the moral law within me.”

The philosopher-poet Friedrich Schiller, referring to the richness, complexity, and importance of Kant’s philosophy, as well as its impact on the many philosophers whose work is in one way or another a response to Kant’s, said,

“See how a single rich man has given a living to a number of beggars.”

Kant’s work was important and troubling, for it included devastating critiques of rationalism and empiricism (the dominant philosophical schools of the day), as well as popular theology. It is said that some clergymen called Immanuel Kant a dog, and others called their dogs Immanuel Kant.

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