Immanuel Kant lived in the time when great social changes took place in Europe. The 18th century was the period when human knowledge and philosophical thought were making great advance in many countries of Europe. Germany, France and England were the countries where philosophical thought was flourishing in the works of such great philosophers as Leibniz, Descartes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hobbs, Locke and Kant. These philosophers possessed a great knowledge in many subjects. In fact, their knowledge tended to be universal.
Each of them made his contribution to various fields of science: mathematics, physics, moral ethics, law, politics and other fields of human knowledge. Such explosion of knowledge and philosophical thought was called ‘Enlightenment’. Immanuel Kant was one of those who gave description to this phenomenon. The answer Kant gave in 1784 to the question “What is Enlightenment? ” is that it is a “human being’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity, which is the “inability to use one’s own understanding without direction from another”.
This immaturity is self-incurred when it is caused not by a lack of mental capacity, but by the “the lack of resolution [Entschliessung] and courage to use one’s own understanding without direction from another. ” Thus for Kant, “Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding is the motto of the Enlightenment” (qtd. in Losonsky 1). Nevertheless, Kant’s philosophical thought in many ways rested upon the studies of his predecessors and contemporaries: he used the works of other philosophers in his lectures.
Kant never went farther than 50 miles away from his native town, Konigsberg, but he was well aware of all the processes (scientific and political) that took place in Europe. He corresponded with many prominent people of that time. However, his views concerning politics and social order found their expression only in the late period of his life. The end of 18th century was a very important period in political history of Europe. The Great French Revolution first was met with enthusiasm and then with much disappointment.
Kant was not a revolutionary. However, some of his views on political order are rather revolutionary. In what way did he push forward political theory? What was the intellectual context of his works? All these questions are discussed in this paper within the framework of general philosophical and political thought of the time when Kant and some of his contemporaries and predecessors lived. This paper will try to illustrate how his work relates to the conventional political discourse in Europe in the 18th century.
The critical philosophy examines the structure of thought, and tells us what can and cannot be proved by it. It stands in judgment over all philosophies, and its theorems are not ordinary proofs, but proofs about the provable. In short, it is a metaphilosophy, a philosophy about philosophy. It foreshadows the metalogic and metamathematics that have altered the conception of mathematical reasoning, and undermined some of the criticisms made of Kant’s view of mathematics, as a body of synthetic a priori truth.
This does not mean that Kant’s philosophy was without results, or unable to challenge prevailing orthodoxy. On the contrary, in the practical sphere, Kant believed, the critical method made direct contact with moral judgment, and delivered conclusions that must be accepted, even if people should have an interest in denying them. Morality is the core of practical reasoning; but it is not the whole of it, and in his last years Kant turned his attention to politics, hoping by the use of the critical method to settle some of the vexing questions of legitimacy and right.
Of ever-increasing importance to Kant’s contemporaries, and also to Kant himself, was the vision of human society and institutions that had been put forward by Rousseau, and that made the self-legislation of the free individual into the foundation of legitimate political order. This vision encouraged an increasing skepticism towards authority. It gave precedence to the individual conscience over the dictates of church and state; and it fed the belief in progress, as the natural condition of humanity when freed from superstitious obedience.
Kant’s moral philosophy, which derived a complete system of duty from the idea of self-legislation, gave the ultimate philosophical endorsement to the new vision of politics, and the Enlightenment, as it was to be known, is indelibly associated with Kant, as its most explicit and articulate exponent. Indeed, it was Kant who first ventured to define Enlightenment, as ‘the liberation of man from his self-imposed minority’, adding that this minority lies ‘not in lack of understanding, but in a lack of determination and courage to use it without the assistance of another’ (qtd.
in Sauer 113). Kant’s republican sympathies were well known in his day, though he was an articulate opponent of revolution, seeing it as a return to the state of nature – a return that could never be rationally justified, since it rendered the rule of reason impossible. The violence of the French Revolution confirmed Kant’s suspicion of the revolutionary project. However, it did not diminish his admiration for Rousseau, or his commitment to the Enlightenment vision that he shared with so many of the revolutionaries.