The philosopher of the 1700s who ranks with Aristotle and Plato of ancient times is Immanuel Kant. He set forth a chain of explosive ideas that humanity has continued to ponder since his time. He created a link between the idealists--those who thought that all reality was in the mind--and the materialists--those who thought that the only reality lay in the things of the material world. Kant's ideas on the relationship of mind and matter provide the key to understanding the writings of many 20th-century philosophers.
Kant was born on April 22, 1724, in Konigsberg, Germany (now Kaliningrad, Russia). His father was a saddle and harness maker. He attended school at the Collegium Fredericianum where he studied religion and the Latin classics. When he was 16 years old Kant entered the University of Konigsberg. He enrolled as a student of theology but soon became more interested in physics and mathematics.
After leaving college he worked for nine years as a tutor in the homes of wealthy families. In 1755 he earned his doctorate at the university and became a lecturer to university students, living on the small fees his students paid him. He turned down offers from schools that would have taken him elsewhere, and finally the University of Konigsberg offered him the position of professor of logic and metaphysics.
Kant never married and he never traveled farther than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Konigsberg. He divided his time among lectures, writing, and daily walks. He was small, thin, and weak, but his ideas were powerful.
Kant's most famous work was the 'Critique of Pure Reason' (published in German in 1781). In it he tried to set up the difference between things of the outside world and actions of the mind. He said that things that exist in the world are real, but the human mind is needed to give them order and form and to see the relationships between them. Only the mind can surround them with space and time. The principles of mathematics are part of the space-time thoughts supplied by the mind to real things.
For example, we see only one or two walls of a house at any one time. The mind gathers up these sense impressions of individual walls and mentally builds a complete house. Thus the whole house is being created in the mind while our eyes see only a part of the whole.
Kant said that thoughts must be based on real things. Pure reason without reference to the outside world is impossible. We know only what we first gather up with our senses. Yet living in the real world does not mean that ideals should be abandoned. In his 'Critique of Practical Reason' (1788) he argued for a stern morality. His basic idea was in the form of a Categorical Imperative. This meant that humans should act so well that their conduct could give rise to a universal law. Kant died in Konigsberg on Feb. 12, 1804. His last words were Es ist gut, "It is good."
World History Center