Immanuel Kant, born on April 22, 1724, is considered one
of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy and modern times.
He lived his entire life in Königsberg (now Kalingrad in Russia),
studying at the Collegium Fredericianum and the University of Königsberg
and concentrating in classics, mathematics, and physics. He taught for
some years as a private tutor, and finally received his doctorate in 1755.
Kant lived a very ordered life, possibly because of a delicate constitution
or being raised under the religious strictness of Pietism. It has been
said that people of Königsberg set their watches by Kant’s
daily walks. Although his life was outwardly simple, Kant’s philosophical
work produced a revolution in modern thought of Copernican proportions.
In the Metaphysics of Ethics (1797), Kant described his ethical system, which is based on a belief that reason is the final authority for morality. Actions of any sort, he believed, must be undertaken from a sense of duty dictated by reason, and no action performed for expediency or solely in obedience to law or custom can be regarded as moral. Kant's ethical ideas are a logical outcome of his belief in the fundamental freedom of the individual as stated in his Critique of Practical Reason (1788). This freedom he did not regard as equal to lawlessness or anarchy; rather, reason would reveal the natural laws of the universe, which each individual then had the freedom to consciously obey. Kant believed that an ideal society was possible, in which the welfare of each individual would properly be regarded as an end in itself. Ultimately, progress would lead to an ideal society in which reason would “bind every law giver to make his laws in such a way that they could have sprung from the united will of an entire people, and to regard every subject, in so far as he wishes to be a citizen, on the basis of whether he has conformed to that will.” In one of his last works, Perpetual Peace (1795), Kant made a plea for international cooperation and advocated a world federation of free states.
Kant’s philosophy has had an impact on almost every philosophical movement that followed, especially the idealism of Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling. Kant died in Königsberg in 1804. His tombstone reads, “Starry heavens above and the moral law within.”
"I have now explored the territory of... understanding, and ... measured its extent, assigning to everything its rightful place. This domain is an island... surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion, where many a fog bank and many a swiftly melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes and engaging him in enterprises which can never abandon and yet is unable to carry to completion. "
- from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason