TCS Daily

The Prussian Revolution

By Irwin Savodnik - May 13, 2004 12:00 AM

Recently, and all too quietly, the 200th anniversary of the death of Immanuel Kant passed. It is ironic that, in a world in which science has acquired the status of an ideology, moral issues are debated with febrile intensity and even movie reviews draw directly from Kant's writings, Americans know so little of his work. One reason, for sure, is that his often obtuse, Germanic writing style makes for tough going. After all, a statement such as, "The infinitude of time signifies nothing more than that every determinate magnitude of time is only possible through limitations of a single time grounding it," is not exactly breakfast fare or beach time recreation.

We are so deeply immersed in the world of science that we forget just how new this world-view is. We read of T-cells and stem cells, the Hubble telescope, the human genome, even relativity, and feel at home -- or nearly so -- with the ideas behind these things. Yet, few recognize that it was Kant who "rescued" science from the grip of a skepticism that threatened its legitimacy just as it was beginning to feel its oats. Had he not written the Critique of Pure Reason, we might be still fighting among ourselves about whether or not science is telling the truth about the world. By offering a theory about the way our senses and our intellect combine to construct a world, Kant gave us a way to understand our relationship to nature.

The Prussian Revolutionary

Kant's lifestyle was, in a word, simple. Born in Königsberg and remaining there until his death, he preferred amorous austerity to marriage, philosophical pursuits to self-aggrandizement and friendship to fortune. After taking his degree, he was able to obtain a university appointment nine years later. In this center of the German Enlightenment, Kant's salary contained not a single krohne. It was another 15 years before he was awarded a professorship in metaphysics and logic. His "experience-poor" life contrasts dramatically with contemporary "rich" living, with its multiple diversions, amusements and intensities the sum of which may combine to insulate us from important questions.

His First Critique was published in 1781 when Kant was 57 years old. Its impact on the world of ideas was inestimable. Around the world are Kant societies, Kant journals, Kant translations, Kant chairs and Kant critiques. The response to what came to be regarded as a philosophical synthesis has turned into an ongoing way of doing philosophy and thinking about the world.

It would have been enough had he ended his work at this point, but that was not to be. Kant wrote one of the most important treatises on ethics, The Critique of Practical Reason, in which he demonstrated the logical importance of freedom and formulated his famous categorical imperative: "I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law." There are actually five formulations of the categorical imperative, each carefully worked out in the Second Critique. With this work, Kant argues that the very idea of a rational being ultimately entails the concept of moral law. This argument is still one of the foundation stones of Western moral and legal thought. That we are free beings, able to do right and wrong -- condemned to freedom, as Jean Paul Sartre put it -- is an unavoidable Kantian principle. Yes, there may be external forces, constraints and influences on each of us, but in the end we are all responsible for who we are and how we act.

In the Critique of Judgment, Kant offered a full-blown esthetic theory that remains one of the most important works of its kind ever written. It is a sad irony that the book was written when Kant was 71 years old and his faculties were diminishing.

The Dignity of the Individual

There were early papers on science and a venture into political utopianism with a work on world peace. Kant, the Enlightenment thinker, was, in many ways, the first modern writer as well. The reason is that he pulled human beings away from the sidelines of experience and power -- from ecclesiastical abuses, from incarcerating superstitions -- and placed the human mind in the center of the action. It was the mind that built reality, that exercised its reason in moral life, that deliberated on the nature of beauty. The agent of historical change was no longer a transcendent being nor providence nor some vague force animating human events. It was the free, moral agent, the human being on whose shoulders reason and responsibility rested.

Kant transformed the image we have of ourselves: from subjects, political or theological, to persons, powerful and free. His is a robust view of the human spirit, filled with such ideas as tolerance, possibility, dignity, freedom and novelty. From a small town in 18th century Prussia, he gave the world the ideas that legitimated science and the dignity of the individual.

Irwin Savodnik, M.D., a psychiatrist and philosopher, teaches at UCLA. In addition to his professional writing, he has published frequently on the intersection of psychiatry, politics and civil society. He recently completed a book on theory of mind. This is his first article for TCS.


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