Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was influenced by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) who denied rationality. Kant did find this liberating and concluded that asking ‘what came first’ was the wrong question. He argued that the space and time environment – as was first explored by Plato – was a result of the fact we can experience it, so he questioned ‘how is experience’ possible? He then further argued that metaphysics was not external but internal.
While George Hegel (1770-1831) agreed with Kant he at the same time he argued that all understanding must start with the individual’s perception. Here he thought lays the way to genuine freedom that can be achieved through self-knowledge. What also very much interested me was that he sees the history of the world as a process of the progress of the consciousness of freedom. The history of the world is according to Hegel – and I agree – an ongoing conversation. Hegel brings in the untranslatable German word of Geist (which is not quite the same as Spirit). The Zeitgeist is what allows the actualisation of that concept of the consciousness of freedom. In other words, the actualisation of the mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time. History is how ideas and beliefs interact and develop out of one other, because ideas rule everything else. The Geist within a family or community equally influences the progress of consciousness with the family.
Coming back to Kant’s statement on rationality, Hegel famously stated: “what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational”, so true. Bringing these two concepts from Hegel together: the process of human history is one of self-recognition, guided by the principle of reason. For better or worse the outcome of these processes is the human made world we live in. Hegel’s philosophy can also be linked to Spinoza’s observations of Nature being a system of cause and effect, history is also a system of cause and effect.
Similar to his denial of rationality Kant also denies the concept of ‘beauty’. He concluded that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t exist without humans. Humans can see the beauty in a holistic context. Art arrives when more people share the imagination of beauty. Art is not the object itself but our interpretation of it. This is quite different from Plato’s ‘Forms’. He saw these ‘Forms’ as the ideal ‘thing’ being something outside us. Kant and for that matter also Spinoza and Nietzsche are seeing such a concept within us human beings.
The Big Questions according to Kant rely on several concepts, such as knowledge and on the limits of knowledge as well as of time and space (this looks similar to to the influence of the zeitgeist as per Hegel). We need to acknowledge these limits because we are born this way and we therefore can only address those metaphysical questions within those limitations and therefore we will never be able to answer them in our current understanding. Kant introduced the thought that these questions can be answered within us, making them transcendental questions. Hegel took these ideas several steps forwards.
While there are some significant differences with Spinoza here, Kant agreed with him that we do not have to resort to faith, scepticism, or dogmas. We simply accept that there are limits to what we can understand.
Kant, in 1784 wrote “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” This is interesting because humans quite often can see solutions, but it seems to be impossible to implement them. Humanity is not good in preventing bad things from happening. But once they happen, we are good at solving problems. The corona pandemic might be such an opportunity in our lifetime that allows us to adjust the direction of where we are going.
Kant agreed with the principle of this as he mentioned progress of humanity through the many twists and turns. Over the ages we have overcome rigid tribal customs, suffocating religious doctrines, and murderous political authorities. In the western world this has led to rationally organised communities and states with democratic institutions who are keeping an eye on the checks and balances. Other philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke have been following similar lines of thought in their works on political philosophy.
Another famous element in Kant’s philosophy is ‘unsociable sociability’. the struggle of the individual to be part of society and its ego of individuality. This clash can make or break societies. The American society is a good example of such a struggle but also again the pandemic which requires a very strong social response and this clashes with personal freedoms.
These developments have in general led to an increase in general welfare. Again, in an overall sense this has been for the common good of all humanity. It can even be observed way beyond the western countries. Internationally, poverty has decreased and healthcare and educational has significantly improved. The spread of rational developments aimed at serving mankind remains the best way forward.
Another key element of Kant’s work is his concept of ‘categorical imperative’ here he evaluated human motivations for action. He seems to indicate that moral principle is dictated by reason. With reason we should treat other people as ends in themselves, not merely as means to our end. His interpretation of morality is that we have duties towards ourselves and others which have to be performed, whatever the circumstances.
However, Nietzsche absolutely disagrees. He argues that reason can be construed, and this can be used in an oppressive way.
While Kant certainly thought that decisions should be based on reason and not on emotions. He does acknowledge that emotions do play a role. He uses words such as Gefühl, Affekt, and Rührung, these are all effects of emotions. While he not necessarily uses the word emotions, the various elements he mentioned (in German) seem to indicate that he does see a role for them in morality. So it might not be as black and white as is often portrait in reviews of Kant’s work.
However, it is vary obvious that Kant was not a Epicurean: life is not about pleasure but about duty.