The Starry Heavens Above Me And The Moral Law Within Me: Immanuel Kant (April 22, 1724 – February 12, 1804)

As you may know, I do Philosophy for Kids over at the Secular Web Kids website, so I thought I’d do a little philosophy here that is a bit more compact and clear than what you might see on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy site . Ideal for the Intellectually Impatient, lol!

  • Immanuel Kant above was a German philosopher and one of the central Enlightenment thinkers. Born in Königsberg, Kant’s comprehensive and systematic works in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics have made him one of the most influential figures in modern Western philosophy.

Kant is one of my favorite philosophers to study.  He is challenging to read, but after 2 undergraduate courses, 1 graduate course, and having researched him off an on for 25 years I think I have a pretty good sense of what he’s doing in that I can communicate his message in an accessible way.

A good place to start is Kant’s distinction between appearance and thing-in-itself, in that we only know reality as it appears to us, not as it is in itself.  We know this distinction from science and so for instance when scientists originally tried to determine whether it’s correct that the Earth gives everything the exact same acceleration, and so objects with different masses will still hit the ground at the same time if they are dropped from the same height, experiments were conducted and the results were ambiguous. Some scientists claimed yes, while others said no based on the results.  But, the point is in the experiments what was shown was “appearing” one way to one group of scientists, and another to others, and so the experiments showed reality as it “appeared,” not how it was in itself.  That’s science, but Plato had already seen this distinction philosophically in his “Sophist” critiquing Antisthenes that we don’t directly encounter the thing in itself, but this thing-in-itself-ness is something beyond immediate experience.  For example, I can’t encounter the shoe except as a “not-me,” and so for Kant my mind posits the shoe as having being “independent of my mind,” but this ironically is an act of my mind because Kant says there is no experiential difference between the shoe I see, or one I dream, or one I hallucinate.

Another important distinction for Kant is between space and time.  Kant says space is the way the mind creates the form of outer intuition that is going to make experiencing spatial relations possible.  So, when I look up at the starry skies, I don’t see randomness that my reasoning knows is the really real thing in itself, but instead I experience constellations (no, God did not paint a “connect the dots” puzzle as the stars, lol).  Similarly, time is the way the mind creates place for inner intuitions, and so if you have a dreamless sleep such as when you go under general anesthesia, you are awake at one moment and then again at the next moment an hour later not having felt any time has passed.  Without the mind creating this place, there is nowhere for experiences to appear in. This stretch and flow of time can be experience going forward (One more day and then I’ll make it to the weekend), or going backward (Christmas is coming and in three days Christmas will arrive), depending on how you look at it.

A further important distinction for Kant is how we understand the world.  For example, categories like cause and effect are not simply things we encounter from experience, but ways the mind make experience intelligible.  So, we may experience cause and effect positively when one ball hits another (change of place), to a greater degree when we boil water (change of form), and completely when we cook and egg which then can’t be uncooked (permanent change of form), in each of these three cases there being a different degree of irreversibility.  As Hume said, we don’t experience irreversibility, just this, then this, then this, etc, and so it was up to Kant to realize we are experiencing degrees of irreversibility, and since it is not received from sense it must be something the mind is doing to sensed experience. Kant struggled to see how the category of cause was furnished by the mind but only applicable in specific degrees to certain experiences (eg superlatively with the fried egg), and so he posited a third faculty, the Imagination, that was a kind of mediator between Understanding and Sense.

Finally, Kant had some very interesting thoughts on ethics.  He asked after a metaphysics of morals, so the main concern was not just determining right behavior but asking what made ethical behavior/judgments possible.  If we looks at animals like cats and certain mentally challenged individuals, we say they are not moral agents because they are not morally attached to their actions like we are. A puppy that chews up your slippers isn’t “bad” or “evil” because it doesn’t know any better.  For the rest of us, Kant says out of a causality of freedom that makes moral judgments possible, the Will unconsciously self-legislates a rule/imperative that I morally accompany all my actions, that I have moral ownership for what I do, and so criminals try to argue that there were extenuating circumstances during their crimes (eg drunkenness), and so they aren’t fully responsible.  Schelling later completed this thought that the distinctive human freedom is the ability to do evil, because only humans can sink below animals in terms of depravity.

  • Kant’s tombstone above near the cathedral of Kaliningrad (the former Prussian city of Königsberg) contains a famous passage from his Critique of Practical Reason in the original German. In English, it reads: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”