Manfred Kuehn. Kant: A Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
From the time that I was an undergraduate until now, the eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant has been with me. I’ve heard or read such things as: “Kant refuted the arguments for the existence of God.” “Kant offered a moral argument for the existence of God.” “Kant did not believe time and space are real.” “Kant did not believe in cause and effect.” “Your defense of our ability to know the outside world and talk about it objectively can be knocked down by a neo-Kantian!” “Kant was not an epistemological skeptic but was trying to refute Humean skepticism.” “We don’t need God to have morality, for Kant offered his own basis for morality: you refrain from doing what you don’t want everyone else to do.” “Kant was absolutist when it came to ethics.” “Kant said you should stick with moral principles out of duty, regardless of what you feel.” “Kant said Abraham should have disobeyed God when God told him to sacrifice his son.” “Our universe is an orderly machine, as Kant said.” “Kant was so orderly that people set their clocks according to his daily walks.” “That guy is not sophisticated enough to understand Kant.” “You don’t understand Kant.” “It’s pronounced ‘KOnt,’ not ‘KAnt!'” “I have a philosophy joke: Who was the greatest philosopher? I Kant remember! Ha ha.”
I wondered what exactly Kant believed, for so many things that I read and heard about him seemed contradictory. I have been particularly curious about Kant’s epistemology—-his view about whether or not we are able to understand the outside world and to talk about it accurately—-and also Kant’s stance regarding religion. Perhaps I could have read his works on reason: I picked up a book that contained some of Kant’s prominent works at a library giveaway a while back. But many will agree with me that Kant is not easy to read (though I do remember translating a sample from one of his books about reason for a German class, and I did not find the passage particularly difficult to translate). I thought that, if I read a biography about Kant, maybe I would get to know him better, and the biography would effectively communicate what his philosophy was, within Kant’s historical context. I went to a library and saw that shelf after shelf was devoted to Kant: there were more books about Kant in that library than there were about David Hume! I thumbed through various books. Many of the ones that I looked at had thick prose. Manfred Kuehn’s Kant: A Biography attracted me, however, for its prose appeared lucid, accessible, and engaging. The few pages that I looked at while I was perusing it read like other biographies I have read and enjoyed, ones about Nixon and Reagan. I decided to check the book out. “Maybe now I will finally understand Kant!,” I thought.
Do I now understand Kant, after having read Kuehn’s book? Well, I think that I know Kant better as a person. As far as Kant’s philosophy is concerned, I’m still hazy, and I figure that I need to read more books to get more of a sense of where Kant was coming from.
Kuehn disagrees with many other biographies of Kant. There are biographies of Kant that depict him as extremely introverted, unsociable, unwilling to engage other scholars in discussion, misogynistic, cold, orderly, stingy, and shut off from the wider world. Kuehn attempts to account for these portrayals, as he offers evidence that Kant was sociable and engaged other scholars. While Kant never married and maybe never even had sex, he had female friends, and he did not marry because he never found the right time. Kant could also be generous, according to Kuehn. While I would probably identify with Kant more had he been introverted and unsociable—-he would then be another inspiring example to an Aspergian like me—-I could relate to Kant’s struggles to find a foothold within academia, with all of its rivalries and judgments.
Regarding philosophy, Kuehn’s book is useful for those who would like summaries of the various stages of Kant’s thought and works. I am still hazy about Kant’s thought, however, for a variety of reasons. For one, Kant changed his mind about things. Earlier, for example, Kant radically distinguished between what we know empirically and what we know rationally (a priori, prior to experience). Later on, he appeared to conflate the two. Second, the way people understood and characterized what Kant was saying was not necessarily how he himself understood what he was saying. Kant was accused of being an atheist and a dangerous epistemological skeptic, when Kant viewed his project differently. Third, Kant seemed to me to be all over the map in what he said. On some things, he seemed to me to contradict himself, and yet there were times when he could hold those apparently contradictory concepts together with some nuance. I think specifically of his support for the American and French revolutions, even though he wrote against the idea that people can revolt against their government. Fourth, Kant did not always believe in what he wrote. While, in his writings, he was rather open to the existence of God and immortality, he personally was very skeptical about these things, according to Kuehn. My impression is that Kant was interested in religion in terms of its social consequences: its promotion of morality and social well-being.
I think that Kuehn could have explained better what was at stake in many of the philosophical discussions of the day. Kuehn is effective when he describes the interaction between Kant and other philosophers and the political systems of that time. But I often felt that I was reading about philosophical discussions and did not fully understand the significance of what I was reading. In my opinion, Kuehn would have done well to have included a glossary of philosophical terms, such as pre-established harmony and idealism. Pre-established harmony comes up often in Kuehn’s book. Kant had a pietist evangelical background, which he did not exactly hate or scorn, and the pietists loathed a prominent philosopher named Christian Wolff because Wolff believed in pre-established harmony, which they took to imply fatalism. Kant appeared to be open to pre-established harmony, however. I am not entirely sure what pre-established harmony was, or why the pietists hated that concept so much. It is associated with Leibniz, who held that our world is the best possible world, so maybe that is relevant to pre-established harmony. Regarding idealism, my hazy impressions are that it either maintained that all of the world is in the mind of God, or that it is in human minds, but I should do more reading about that. According to Kuehn, Kant was accused of being an idealist, but Kant believed that he was refuting idealism!
I had moments of lucidity in reading Kuehn’s discussion about Kant’s philosophy. According to Kuehn, Kant said that we know things by how they appear to us, not according to how they actually are. That makes a degree of sense to me! Kant also discussed contradictions within reason. Kant may not have taken these insights into the realm of complete epistemological skepticism: perhaps Kant was critical in his analysis of reason, not thoroughly skeptical.
There were some aspects of Kant’s thought that I found interesting. For instance, Kant was critical of looking for a Golden Age (perhaps a supernatural one), for he believed that the evil in this world was somehow necessary in our progress and maturation.
Overall, I could identify with what one thinker quoted in the book said about Kant’s works: it takes thirty years to understand them, and then one has to wait another thirty years before one is qualified to comment on them!
As I said, I will need to read more. The next book that I will read is the Cambridge Companion to David Hume, and it looks very lucid to me. The Cambridge Companion series advertises itself as such—-as accessible books that break down complex thoughts for readers. I notice that there are Cambridge Companion books about the German Idealists, Kant, and the influence of Kant’s thought. I may read those books in the future—-not immediately, but in the future.