MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 23

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

23

CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON

Immanuel Kant (1781)

Macmillan Co Ltd, London, 1963; translated Norman Kemp Smith; Papermac; rebound in half biscuit morocco with soft burgundy boards.

I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.

Immanuel Kant was born in Konigsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in 1724.  He was the fourth of nine children of a poor harness-maker.  His parents were simple Prussians – and devout Pietists, a reformist group within the Lutheran Church, sometimes compared, not always politely, to the Jesuits.  Kant was fortunate to be sent, although poor, to a school that would have given him a better education than many countries in the West now offer to their poor children.  But Kant was to be scarred for life by the teachers whom he regarded as religious fanatics.

The whole life of Kant was governed by duty.  One Prussian Pietist saw what duty might mean at the age of thirteen.  A friend of his mother was jilted in love.  She fell sick with a deadly high fever.  Kant’s mother nursed her friend.  The friend refused her medicine.  To encourage her, Kant’s mother took a spoonful herself.  As she did so, she realised that her friend had already used the spoon.  She died the same day of smallpox – in the words of Kant, ‘a sacrifice to friendship’.  She was buried ‘silently’ and ‘poor’, possibly in the manner shown in the film Amadeus for the burial of Mozart.

Kant entered the University of Konigsberg at sixteen and graduated six years later.  He took work as a private tutor.  When aged thirty one, he obtained a post at the University.  He gave public lectures.  He became known as de Schöne Magister, the Elegant Teacher.  Konigsberg was then a substantial city of 50,000.  It was a sea-port with trading interests and it therefore had a cosmopolitan flavour.  Kant was constrained to lecture over a wide area, including geography, but from the time he became a professor, his interest was in philosophy.  It looks like Kant never stepped out of Konigsberg.

His lectures were very popular.  He gave them at 7.00 a.m.  It was said that you had to be there at 6.00 a.m. to be sure of getting a place.  One of his students said of the lectures that Kant had an intense way of stating the issue to be discussed.

Kant was indifferent to music and painting – how unlike Wittgenstein! – but he loved poetry and satire, a form which he indulged in his own writings.  His published works are astonishingly substantial.  He must be the most prolific and industrious philosopher since Aristotle.  His major work, The Critique of Pure Reasoning, was not published until he was fifty seven.  Most of it is too dense for the average reader, but it is shot through with practical insights.  He later wrote The Critique of Practical Reason, The Critique of Judgment and The Groundwork of The Metaphysics of Morals.  The last work contains his ethical theory, and may be the most accessible to the general reader.  Kant is probably the most uplifting of writers on ethics for the uninitiated.

In Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, Kant launched an all-out assault on those who want to intellectualize God and faith.  Kant was well and truly warned off by the Prussian establishment.  Throughout his life Kant managed to avoid attending any ceremony at the University that may have involved religious ceremony.

Toward the end the mighty mind of Immanuel Kant fell into decline. This is how the English philosopher Roger Scruton describes his ending:

He faded into insensibility, and passed from his blameless life on 12 February 1804, unaccompanied by his former intellectual powers.  He was attended at his grave by people from all over Germany, and by the whole of Konigsberg, being acknowledged even in his senility as the greatest glory of that town.  His grave crumbled away and was restored in 1881.  His remains were moved in 1924 to a solemn neoclassical portico attached to the cathedral.  In 1950 unknown vandals broke open the sarcophagus and left it empty.  By that time Konigsberg had ceased to be a centre of learning, had been absorbed, following its brutal destruction by the Red Army, into the Soviet Union, and had been renamed in honour of one of the few of Stalin’s henchmen to die of natural causes.  A bronze tablet remains fixed to the wall of the castle, overlooking the dead and wasted city, bearing these words from the concluding section of the ‘The Critique of Practical Reason’:  ‘Two things fill the heart with ever renewed and increasing awe and reverence, the more and the more steadily we mediate upon them: the starry firmament above and the moral law within’.

It is good to see that the tradition of clear, crisp writing, in English philosophy is not dead.

You might think that the religious writings of Kant constitute one long protest.  He was brought up, but he did not remain, a Protestant (as was the case with Hume and Gibbon).  He was brought up as a Lutheran Pietist and it shows, both in his life and in his writing.  The Pietists saw themselves not as subscribing to doctrine, but as being in a living relationship with God.  They had a ‘born again’ feeling.  They were against their religion being taken over by intellectuals.  You see both tendencies alive and well in the US – the second with alarming consequences.  They also tended to be egalitarian. The priesthood was their community of believers.  All this comes through in Kant, the most intellectual man in Europe.

The thinking of Kant would affect the Christian churches of Europe in at least three ways.  First, Kant set about demolishing the logical arguments for the existence of God.  Moses Mendelssohn, a friend and colleague, said that the criticism of Kant were ‘world-crushing’.  But Kant did hold that the concept of God is natural to human reason.  Just what that concept may involve is another matter.

Secondly, Kant developed a system of ethics or morals from the ground up, so to speak, and without invoking religion or the supernatural in the process.  His teaching on ethics was and is available to most people.  Some in the church may have felt threatened by a moral code that did not require God.  But Kant went one step further.  He did not stop with saying that morality does not rest on religion; he went on and said that religious faith is founded on morality.  The whole point of his arguments on morality is to establish that morality, which is independent of religious belief, nonetheless does lead us to religious belief.  Such a contention would, of course, leave plenty of room to manoeuvre on the content of the religion.

Thirdly, Kant has a lot to say about the practice of religion, and it was mainly this that got him into trouble.  Like the old Hebrews with God, Kant refused to refer to Jesus of Nazareth by name, but like Spinoza before him, Kant accepted the teaching of Jesus and incorporated it into his own and was hostile to people who sought to come between that teaching and the rest of mankind.

Kant may have been a bit of a pill to have lunch with – even if he did ensure that a wine decanter was in reach of every guest.  But his mind was one of Europe’s great engine rooms.  It is sad that provincialism and specialization mean that he is hardly taught now at English universities because no one since has got within a bull’s roar of producing insights across the scale like Kant ,and Kant might be just the kind of man to make the word ‘intellectual’ sound decent to Anglo-Saxon ears.  He fought the fight for religious faith and he did more than anyone else to give people an ethical code that did not require underpinning by faith.  He never set out to hurt anyone, and he left the world better than he found it.  It is not just Prussia or Europe that should revere the name of Immanuel Kant.

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