A Middlesex University resource provided by Andrew Roberts

Immanuel Kant

1724 - 1804
born and died Konigsberg

Notes based on the lectures of Bernard Burgoyne on Kant and rationality. Political Philosophy Autumn 1990

Theories of rationality of Locke, Hume (Empiricists) and Kant are different: Kant's is very different from the other two.

In empiricism the mind is passive. In Kant the mind is active.

Kant's three main works were written in the decade of the French Revolution.

a-priori - before

a-posteriori - after

Is all knowledge subsequent to experience of the world? Empiricists, such as Locke and Hume, say yes; Kant says no. Some knowledge is prior to experience of the world..and necessary to knowledge of the world.

Hume seemed to have proved that scientific knowledge is impossible. Kant considered this scandalous. To re-instate scientific knowledge he invented Critical Philosophy.

Critical Philosophy involves doing "critiques".

Kant used antinomies: An antinomy is proving two contradictory things at the same time. For example: the world has a beginning and an end/ the world is infinite. Or Everything has a cause/Everything does not have a cause

[Antinomies are set out in Watson, J. 1927 pp 158 following]

The antinomies are the first step to the critique of reason. One can deduce the structure of mind from the critique of reason.

The major job of philosophy must be to find out what objects must be like in order to conform to the structure of mind - not the other way round.

Kant calls this his Copernican revolution.

In part the mind gives the world it organisation, and experience of the world is impossible without.

Three level organisation of mind:

1. Ideas of Reason: Organise categories of understanding Ideas of reason include freedom and immortality. Freedom is the main one to concentrate on.

2. Categories of the Understanding include space, time and causality

3. Forms of sensibility

Freedom: The antinomy of cause (3rd antinomy) suggests there exists a sphere which is outside of causality. Causality is a law of nature. Perhaps there is another world which is not part of nature? Kant argues that this other world is the world of morality, which is governed by the laws of morality.

nature > society

nature > morality > self determination

General Will > Reason

Self government by means of reason is Kant's idea of being human.

Saying "no" to a natural impulse is the first stirring of reason.

Reason lifts us above the brutes

Moral reason is self-determination (Will)

Reason is not the pursuit of happiness.

Choose the law so that anyone can act in accordance with it (categorical imperative = practical reason)

Categorical imperative:

"There is therefore but one categorical imperative, which may be thus stated: Act in conformity with that maxim, and that maxim only, which you can at the same time will to be a universal law." (Kant, I 1785 s.2 in Watson, J. 1927 p.241)

"Act so that the will may regard itself as in its maxims laying down universal laws." (Kant, I 1785 s.2 in Watson, J. 1927) p.241


"So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle establishing universal law." Kant, I 1788 Book 1, Chapter 1, Principle 7. in Beck, L.W. 1963

Political Philosophy in Universal History
(From Valerie Argent's notes)
Based on
Kant 1784/Universal in Reiss, H. 1970

"The will's manifestations, i.e. human actions are determined in accordance with natural laws, as is every natural event."

"Individual men and even entire nations little imagine that, while they are pursuing their own ends, each in his own way and often in opposition to others, they are unwittingly guided in their advance along a course intended by nature." (Kant 1784/Universal in Reiss, H. 1970 p.41)

"In man (as the only rational creature on earth), those natural capacities which are directed towards the use of his reason are such that they could be fully developed only in the species, but not in the individual." (Kant, I. 1784/Universal (Second Proposition) in Reiss, H. 1970 p.42)


"Reason, in a creature, is a faculty which enables that creature to extend far beyond the limits of natural instinct the rules and intentions it follows in using its various powers, and the range of its projects is unbounded. But reason does not itself work instinctively, for it requires trial, practice and instruction to enable it to progress gradually from one stage of insight to the next." (Kant, I. 1784/Universal (Second Proposition) in Reiss, H. 1970 p.42)

"Nature has willed that man should produce entirely by his own initiative everything which goes beyond the mechanical ordering of his animal existence, and that he should not partake of any other happiness or perfection than that which he has procured for himself without instinct and by his own reason." (Kant 1784/Universal (Third Proposition) in Reiss, H. 1970 p.43)

Man meant to produce everything out of himself - no instinct or innate knowledge, food, clothes, tools - "just enough for the most pressing needs of the beginnings of existence".

"nature has worked more with a view to man's rational self-esteem than to his mere well-being." (Kant 1784/Universal (Third Proposition) in Reiss, H. 1970 p.43)

Hardships to force man onward

"if he lives among others of his own species, man is an animal who needs a master. For he certainly abuses his freedom in relation to others of his own kind. And even though, as a rational creature, he desires a law to impose limits on the freedom of all, he is still misled by his self-seeking animal inclinations into exempting himself from the law where he can. He thus requires a master to break his self-will and force him to obey a universally valid will under which everyone can be free." (Kant 1784/Universal (Sixth Proposition) in Reiss, H. 1970 p.46)

Morality and politics

Howard Williams (1983): "Kant recommends the moral course in politics...Taking the moral course of action gives the politician a clear, direct path to follow. The moral course is one that is dictated by the concept of right or justice, and this course is not necessarily the same as the pursuit of the happiness of the community. Although this may appear to be its weakness it is in fact its strength; to try to bring happiness to the community would involve the pursuit, in Kant's view, of a myriad of conflicting ends. The moral politician must have before his eyes not a material goal, which will contribute to the well-being of the community, but a formal goal which will provide the conditions for individual freedom."

"...what a people may not decree for itself can even less be decreed for them by a monarch, for his law giving authority rests on his uniting the general public will in his own."

"Morality, as a collection of absolutely binding laws by which our actions ought to be governed, belongs essentially, in an objective sense, to the practical sphere." (Kant 1795 in Reiss, H. 1970 p.116)

"reason.. is not sufficiently enlightened to discover the whole series of predetermining causes which would allow it to predict accurately the happy or unhappy consequences of human activities as dictated by the mechanism of nature, it can only hope that the result will meet with its wishes. But reason at all time shows us clearly enough what we have to do in order to remain in the paths of duty, as the rules of wisdom require, and thus shows us the way towards our ultimate goal." (Kant 1795 in Reiss, H. 1970 p.116)

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Political Philosophy in Universal History

Politics should be moral

Kant and politics

Law is the foundation of a civilised society in which human beings can develop as autonomous rational beings within the rule of reason. Rational law is the expression of the common moral interest of the community. As such law is established in nations it lays the foundations for it establishment universally: providing universal peace. The rule of law will replace the rule of force.