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Kantianism: Ethics, Philosophy, and Morality

What is Kantian Ethics?

According to Kant, ethics are a set of moral rules that everyone must follow, no matter what the case is. The principles are what the German philosopher Immanuel Kant calls “Categorical Imperatives.” They are described by how moral they are and how much freedom they give people.

What did Immanuel Kant do?

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who lived from 1724 to 1804. He was one of the most important thinkers in the history of political philosophy. The way justice works in democracies today is largely based on Kant’s ideas. The philosopher’s writings make a strong case for a single set of moral rules that can be used to create fair institutions that run society properly. Kant’s first book came out hundreds of years before the United Nations was created. It is heavily based on his idea of an international government that keeps the peace and connects nation-states.

What are categorical imperatives in Kantian ethics?

A hypothetical imperative is a moral duty that can only be used to reach a certain goal. One example is a student who works hard to get good grades. Hypothetical imperatives have nothing to do with right and wrong. This idea from Kant says that categorical imperatives tell us what our moral tasks are. There are no exceptions to these rules; they apply to everyone, everywhere, and no matter what their personal goals or fears are. Because it’s only natural for humans to want to feel good and avoid pain, they are necessary because people may not follow a moral code.
Kant comes up with a way to find a categorical imperative. “Only follow that maxim through which you can also will that it become a universal law,” he says. It means that a thought can only be known when it is used by everyone. If you want to cheat on a test, you should only do it if everyone else does it too. In reality, though, a widespread cheating story will destroy faith in the meritocracy system, which will cause schools to lose their funding.
In the end, it is wrong to cheat on a test. Categorical imperatives are against common sense, according to Kantian ethics. This means that people must act out of duty to humanity, even if they want to act in their own best interests. Kant thought that improving and protecting oneself was an unquestionable duty that everyone had.

Kant’s explanation of what is moral

Kant’s moral philosophy is a deontological normative theory. This means that he doesn’t agree with the utilitarian idea that an action is right if it leads to good results. He says that an action’s moral worth comes from its reason (or means), not its result (or end). To live an honest life, you should never use another person as a tool to get to another goal. Beings that can reason are different from other living things because they are physically unique.
According to Kant, “without rationality, the universe would be a waste, in vain, and without purpose.” Treating all people as ends in and of themselves is the only way to protect this consciousness, which is unique to the world or at least the Earth. It’s okay to eat to satisfy your hunger, but taking is wrong because it takes away someone’s property.
Kant has a very strict view of morals, which says that virtue must be present in everyone. No matter what the situation is, stealing is wrong. Even if you are protecting yourself, killing someone is still wrong. This idea of objectivity is Kant’s most important and controversial one because it goes against everything that has been taught since Aristotle.
Kant is not, however, a masochist or communist. It is clear to him that in order for society to work, students must use themselves to get good grades and their professors to learn more. He starts to talk about the idea that respect is important for people, which is different from feelings like love, sympathy, or compassion. Respect doesn’t pick and choose like love does. Because you are human, you deserve respect. Kant called it the “Formula for Humanity,” and it is still by far his least controversial idea.

Free will and autonomy

The Critique of Pure Reason is thought to be the most complete historical account of how free will works. Kant didn’t see freedom as a set of rules that everyone must follow. Instead, he saw it as something that each person creates. In other words, doing good things just because you’re afraid of getting punished is pointless.

People who are gloomy see free will as “freedom from” outside forces. But free will is also “freedom to” choose and enforce moral standards on one’s own. It’s like the idea of freedom that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had. When someone moves based on her wants or gut feelings, she is usually just meeting a need. This makes you a slave to your impulses, and Kant thought that freedom is the opposite of necessity. So, his idea of freedom is not the same as liberty, which says everyone should be able to do what they want.

Some people say that autonomy leaves room for subjectivity because different people may be ruled by different ideals. Kant’s answer is straightforward: reason is the same for everyone, no matter their own experiences and situations. At least as long as morals comes from logic, it should be pretty clear what is good and what is bad.

The influential 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote a lot about a way of thinking called “Kantianism.” Other philosophies grew out of studying Kant’s works and were influenced by his ideas. This story is only about the second one.

Kinds of Kant and what they mean

The Kantian movement is a loose grouping of different philosophical views that share Kant’s goal of studying the nature and boundaries of human knowledge with the goal of making philosophy a science like physics and math. Because they follow Kant’s critical spirit and method, these theories are at odds with dogmatism, expansive speculative naturalism (like that of Benedict de Spinoza, the Dutch Jewish rationalist), and most of the time, irrationalism. Many of Kant’s philosophical developments have “family resemblances” that define the different branches of his philosophy. For example, each branch is interested in the nature of empirical knowledge and how the mind shapes experience, especially the structure that makes human knowledge and moral action possible.

A theory like Kant’s critical philosophy can have its synthesis reconstructed in any way that the reader wants, based on their own philosophical preferences. Kant’s system was a mix of British empiricism (like John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume), which emphasized the importance of experience in the development of knowledge, Isaac Newton’s scientific method, and the metaphysical apriorism (or rationalism) of Christian Wolff, who organized Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s philosophy with a focus on mind. It was a combination of things that came from very different places and were very different in nature, which made students want to put their own assumptions into it.

Critical philosophy has been looked at and interpreted in a number of different ways. These can be boiled down to three main groups: those who see critical philosophy as a theory of how we know what we know and how to do it scientifically; those who see it as a theory of metaphysics or the nature of being (ultimate reality); and those who see it as a theory of normative or valuational reflection similar to ethics (in the field of action). Each of these types, which are called epistemological, metaphysical, and axiological Kantianism, can be further broken down into a number of smaller methods. In the past, different schools of thought within epistemological Kantianism existed. These included empirical Kantianism, which was based on physiological or psychological research, logistic Kantianism from the Marburg school, which focused on essences and the use of logic, and realistic Kantianism from the Austrian Alois Riehl. Many speculative thinkers saw in critical philosophy the building blocks of an essentially inductive metaphysics, which fits with what we know from modern science. This is how metaphysical Kantianism went from the transcendental idealism of German Romanticism to realism.
Axiological Kantanism, which is about value theory, split into two main groups. The first was an axiological approach, which saw all three of Kant’s Critiques—Critik der reinen Vernunft (1781, rev. ed. 1787; Critique of Pure Reason), Critik der praktischen Vernunft (1788; Critique of Practical Reason), and Critik der Urteilskraft (1790; Critique of Judgment)—as normative ways of thinking. The second was an eclectic or relativistic Kantianism. The most important people in these submovements are named in the historical parts that follow.

It is important to make a clear distinction between two times in the Kantian movement: the first was from 1790 to 1831, when the German idealist G.W.F. Hegel died; and the second was from 1860 to the present day, when antiphilosophical positivism, a way of thinking that replaced metaphysics with science, was popular. The first stage started with a close study and improvement of Kant’s most important theoretical work, the Critique of Pure Reason. However, it quickly mixed with the romantic ideas of German idealism. Neo-Kantianism, the name for the second time, was first and foremost a conscious reappraisal, in whole or in part, of the theoretical Critique. It was also a reaction against positivism as a whole. Neo-Kantianism in the past limited philosophy to the theory of knowledge and scientific method. Systematic Neo-Kantianism, which started to appear at the start of the 20th century, tried to build metaphysical frameworks.

The early years of Kant: 1790–1835

Kant said that the Critique of Pure Reason was a treatise on methodology, which is an important pre-study for studying science. It compared the Newtonian method (induction, inference, and generalization) to that of Descartes and Wolff (deduction from intuitions that are said to be obvious). The end result was a criticism of metaphysics, which had no value in science but in a world that could only be reached by smart people. Kant put his Critique in a good light by looking into this “noumenal” world, as he called it. As Nicolaus Copernicus discovered that the apparent motions of the planets were actually reflections of the Earth’s motion, it caused a revolution in astronomy. Kant started a Copernican revolution in philosophy, which said that the person knowing makes up a big part of the thing being known. In other words, knowledge is made up of a priori or transcendental factors that the mind applies to the data. Kant thought that knowledge was something that came from the person who knew it, not something that described an outside world. The spiritual (mental) apparatus either makes human experience or science what it is, or it shapes it into being what it is.
There are three levels of these transcendental elements. The forms of space and time, which are actually intuitions, are at the lowest level. The categories and principles of human intelligence, such as substance, causality, and necessity, are above these. And at the highest level of abstraction are the ideas of reason, which include the transcendental “I,” the world as a whole, and God. There are things that happen when the forms of human sensory awareness (like space and time) meet with perceptions. The forms come from the subject himself, but the perceptions—or the data of experience—are ultimately about things that aren’t knowable because things have to show up in the forms of human intuition in order to be known at all. They have to present themselves as phenomena instead of noumena. So, the limit is shown by the thing-in-itself, not the thing that is known.

Kant’s theses led to criticism from followers of Christian Wolff, the Leibnizian rationalist, and questions among Kant’s followers. These doubts and criticisms turned into systems and marked the start of Kantianism. There were some followers who thought that the Critique of Pure Reason was more of a “preface” to studying pure reason or the transcendental system than the system itself. They thought that this interpretation explained why they thought the Critique was not clear. First, they thought Kant was wrong when he said there were three types of a priori knowledge that went with the three levels or powers of the mind. Second, they thought Kant was wrong when he said that knowledge is made up of things themselves. In response to the first point, they said that Kant had accepted the three faculties and their transcendental qualities without questioning them. This structure should then be seen as three manifestations of a single basic faculty, in line with the preliminary nature of the Critique. Because of this, the difference between intuition and understanding (or between the mind’s openness and spontaneity) had to be thrown out. This is because the three transcendentals—space and time, categories, and the ideas of reason—were not real things; they were just functions of thought. Lastly, these followers said that if there was only one ultimate subject, the Ego, then the thing-in-itself would not be needed and might even be bad for the scientific study of epistemology.

This function of human thought (the transcendental subject), which serves as the absolute source of the a priori, was variously designated by different early Kantian thinkers: for the German realist Karl L. Reinhold, it constituted the faculty of representation; for the Lithuanian idealist Salomon Maimon, it was a mental capacity for constructing objects; for the idealist Jakob S. Beck, a protégé of Kant, it was the act of synthesis; for the empirical critic of Kantianism G.E. Schulze, it was experience in the sense intended by Hume, a volley of discrete sense impressions; for the theory of knowledge of the outstanding ethical idealist Johann G. Fichte, it was the original positing of the Ego and the non-Ego, which meant, in turn, in the case of the aesthetic idealist F.W.J. von Schelling, the “absolute self,” in the case of Hegel, the Geist, or “absolute Spirit,” and finally, in the case of the pessimistic Romanticist Arthur Schopenhauer, the “absolute Will.” In each case (excepting Schulze) the interpretation of the thing-in-itself in a realistic metaphysical sense was rejected in favour of various degrees of transcendental idealism. The scientifically oriented thinker Jakob Friedrich Fries was different from the main stream of Kantanism. He was the only person in this group who wasn’t really an idealist, and he explained the a priori in terms of psychological abilities and parts.

After publicly rejecting these apostates, Kant, near the end of his life, worked on a new explanation of transcendental philosophy (the second part of his Opus Postumum). This showed that he was willing to accept his critics’ points of view.

Neo-Kantianism in the nineteenth century

In a strange way, positivism’s rejection of all philosophy sparked an awakening of Kantianism. This was because many philosophers wanted to give positivism a philosophical foundation that respected the phenomenological view but was against positivism’s metaphysics, which was usually a subtle but unimportant materialism. People thought that Kant could provide this kind of basis because he was against metaphysics and thought that science should only study phenomena. That was because critical philosophy was so complicated that there were different ways to look at theoretical criticism and different ways to understand the Critique of Pure Reason from the facts themselves. Kantianism had different currents, but the most important ones lived on into the 20th century. They were empiricist, logicalist, realist, philosophical, axiological, and psychological, in the order of when they started (not how good or important they were).

The famous philosopher Kuno Fischer’s historical painting, Kants Leben und die Grundlagen seiner Lehre (1860; “Kant’s Life and the Foundations of his Teaching”), sparked the return to Kant. It replaced the earlier work of the semi-Kantian Ernst Reinhold, son of the more famous Jena scholar mentioned above (published 1828–30), and especially that of the great philosopher historian Johann Eduard Erdmann (published 1834–53). “Zurück nach Kant!” was written in 1865.” (“Back to Kant!”) echoed through the famous work of the young epistemologist Otto Liebmann, Kant und die Epigonen (“Kant and his Followers”). This work was meant to free their minds from the positivist muck and steer Germans away from Romantic ideals at the same time.

Neo-Kantianism in terms of knowledge

The schools of thought called empiricist, logistic, and pragmatic are all about how we know what we know.
A very smart and innovative scientist and physiologist named Hermann von Helmholtz and, to some extent, Friedrich Albert Lange, who wrote a famous study on materialism, were both supporters of empiricist Neo-Kantianism. Kant agreed with Helmholtz that perception can show an outside thing, but it usually does so in a way that is very different from how its properties are actually described; secondly, that space and time are made up by the person who is perceiving them; and thirdly, that causality is an a priori law that lets the philosopher infer a reality that they can’t know at all. In the same way, Lange lowered science to the level of the bizarre and rejected the thing-in-itself.

Logic-based Neo-Kantianism, like the well-known and successful school of Kantianism at Marburg, has its roots in Hermann Cohen, who followed Lange and wrote “Kant’s Theory of Experience” in 1871. In it, Cohen argued that the transcendental subject is not a psychic being but a logical function of thought that creates both the form and the content of knowledge. He said that nothing is gegeben, but everything is aufgegeben (like a riddle) to thought, like how an analyst in infinitesimal math makes motion by picturing thin slices of space and time and adding up their heights. So, experience is a great example of how people’s logical spirit works. Many authors were influenced by Cohen’s work. For example, Paul Natorp, Cohen’s colleague at Marburg, wrote about the logical foundations of the exact sciences and included psychology in Marburgian transcendentalism. Also, Ernst Cassirer, who is best known for focusing on people’s symbolic abilities, wrote the famous book Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit (1906–20; The Problem of Knowledge: Philosophy, Science, and an

There was a third type of Neo-Kantianism that was called realistic Neo-Kantianism. It was shown by the realism of the scientific monist Alois Riehl and his student Richard Honigswald. To the Marburgian view of logic, Riehl said that the thing itself plays a positive role in the formation of knowledge because all perception includes references to things outside the topic.

New Kant’s metaphysical ideas

Ten years after the groundbreaking book Kant und die Epigonen came out, Otto Liebmann, who wrote it, wrote a book called Zu Analysis der Wirklichkeit (1876), which was similar to Kantianism in Marburg but had a new metaphysical method. Johannes Volkelt, a Romanticist, picked up the idea of a critical metaphysics and said that there is a new kind of certainty in a transsubjective world that goes beyond the certainties of subjective consciousness. This was his way of expressing his ongoing search for the Absolute. In this way, subjectivity is always surpassed, just like the sciences are surpassed when they assume a philosophy. Friedrich Paulsen, a famous and influential spiritual moralist, defended the idea that Kant had always behaved like a metaphysician, even in the Critique of Pure Reason, despite the limitations on knowledge he put on himself. This idea had a big effect on people for a hundred years after it was made.

Neo-Kantianism based on axiology

The two most important people in the axiological interpretation both taught at the University of Heidelberg. Because of this, this group is also called the Southwest German or Baden school. Wilhelm Windelband started it. He is known for taking a “problems” approach to the history of philosophy. It was his successor, Heinrich Rickert, who built on Kuno Fischer’s work and made this view more systematic. They drew a comparison between the limits that logic puts on thought and the limits that the sense of ought puts on moral behavior. They said that while human action must answer to an absolute value (the Good), human thought must answer to a regulative value (the True), which makes us duty-bound to follow it. Some people thought that the Critique of Pure Reason went into more detail about this rule, which is not something real but an absolute command to act. Rickert thought the critical work was too narrow because it was only appropriate for physics. And he said that it should really be the basis for all the sciences of the mind. So, what made this school unique was that it brought back German idealism (like in Fichte and Hegel) into a very personal Kantianism. So, it was able to take over more than one area of semi-Kantian thought. For example, Wilhelm Dilthey’s “philosophy of the spiritual sciences” said that intellectual life can’t be explained by naturalistic causality but only through historical understanding (Verstehen); Georg Simmel’s “life-philosophy” moved away from naturalistic relativism and toward objective values; and Paul Ricoeur’s “philosophy of value.” All of these thinkers had something to do with axiological Neo-Kantianism.

Neo-Kantianism in psychology

In his 1870 book Kants Psychologie (also known as “Kant’s Psychology”), the Friesian empiricist Jürgen Bona Meyer was the first person to try to explain Kant’s transcendentalism in terms of psychology. Later, Karl Nelson, a philosopher of law and ethics from Gottingen, made a more important addition to this field. It was published in the “Acts of the Friesian School” (1904 and later). The name of the book itself suggests a close connection with Fries’s (1807) “New Critique of Reason” and Kantianism. In fact, Nelson is seen as the father of the Neo-Friesian school. Nelson believed that the transcendental tools of the mind, called the a priori, are directly exposed when looking at the subjective or inner self. At the time, other Kantian schools were interested in the transcendental analysis of objective or outer knowledge. So, psychology, which is part of the philosophical order, had to come clean about this gear. Rudolf Otto, a theologian from Marburg, used this idea as the base for a type of religious phenomenology that worked very well in his 1917 book Das Heilige, which means “The Idea of the Holy.”
A lot of philosophical history writing that came after 1860 was preceded by a field called Kant Philologie, which studied the life, works, and growth of Kant. After Hans Vaihinger’s extensive commentary on the Critique of Pure Reason from 1881–1892, which is known for his philosophy of the “As If” (which stresses how much people depend on pragmatic fictions), these studies began. In 1896, the new journal Kantstudien (also called “Kant Studies”) was founded, and in 1904, the Kant-Gesellschaft (also called “Kant Society”) was founded. Both of these organizations are still around today. The most important thing that came out of this philological movement, though, was the huge collection of all of Kant’s works that was put together by the Academy of Sciences in Berlin (1900 and later), at first under the direction of Wilhelm Dilthey, who was a defender of humanistic studies.

Kantanism that isn’t German

The Kantian awakening didn’t just happen in Germany; it happened all over Western thought. Its main founders were: France was the first country to accept its impact, thanks to the diverse thinker Victor Cousin, who had read German authors and visited Germany several times. Then, the relativistic personalist Charles Renouvier defended a rather personal critical philosophy. This philosophy had a lasting effect on the extreme idealist Octave Hamelin of the Sorbonne, the metaphysician and co-founder of French neospiritualism Jules Lachelier, and his student, the philosopher of science Émile Boutroux.

English-speaking countries, on the other hand, were not as open to critical thought as they were to Hegelian idealism. At the end of the 1800s, the only other Scottish philosopher in Britain who was a Kantian was the critical realist Robert Adamson. The other was the religious absolutist Edward Caird (The Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, 1889), who was mostly a Hegelian. After him, however, there is Norman Kemp Smith’s commentary on Kant’s first Critique, which came out in 1918 and is the standard English version of the book. There is also Herbert J. Paton’s amazing explanation of Kant’s metaphysics of experience, which came out in 1936 and is written by an Oxford Kantian. A later book by the famous Oxford philosopher Peter F. Strawson, called Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959), also used Kantian ideas.

Around 1840, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a transcendentalist and author from New England, was the main person in the United States who introduced Kant to the world. Emerson was not a Kantian, though. The scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce got a lot of his pragmatism from Kant’s role as an opponent of Hegelianism. A type of Neo-Kantianism that was influenced by the Marburg school was shaped by the American philosopher William H. Werkmeister (The Basis and Structure of Knowledge, 1948).
When Alfonso Testa started to study Kant, on the other hand, many Italian students became very interested in the subject. The most important Neo-Kantian thinker in Italy, though, was the realist Carlo Cantoni, who was against positivism. Later, between 1900 and 1918, the strict realism of theist Francesco Orestano was a symbol of Kantianism. A school of Kantian philology grew up in Turin around Augusto Guzzo, a smart Christian idealist, and his magazine Filosofia. The work of Pantaleo Carabellese, who took over for Giovanni Gentile as a philosopher at Rome, was more independent in spirit.

A Look at Kant’s Ideas

What’s wrong with Kant

The critical philosophy is a theory of science that fits with the times when it comes to epistemology. This is because science needs to have a base that is both practical and real. On the other hand, the transcendental or a priori comes into play, and things get very complicated when someone asks if they can get a kind of understanding that isn’t based on experience but does give them new, real knowledge—in other words, if they can make synthetic a priori judgments. It is important to note that Edmund Husserl, the German philosopher who started phenomenology, later joined Kantian transcendentalism after strongly disagreeing with it in the past. Unlike Kant’s view, standard empiricism doesn’t even think the synthetic a priori is possible, let alone what it means. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a revolutionary philosopher, said that philosophy had to limit reason (or the abstract part of knowledge). This was a somewhat Kantian view that he later gave up. When it comes to existentialism, Martin Heidegger, one of Germany’s most famous thinkers, gave a very personal view in his 1929 book Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik.

Nicolai Hartmann, a metaphysician who studied under Cohen in Marburg, was one of the first people to take a realistic view. In his “Outline of a Metaphysics of Knowledge” (1921), he wrote more about the ontological relationship he saw between thought and reality. So, he thought that the rules of thought were the same as the rules of reality, which was different from Kant’s view (even when Kant was seen as a realist). Hartmann also approached math problems in a way that was completely different from Kant’s. For example, he questioned Kant’s a priori intuition (or positing) of the spatio-temporal framework in which humans think about the world. He was challenging Kant not only to deal with non-Euclidean geometries (with curved space) that offered a realist alternative to the a priori but also to reflect the clearly

The question of the role of the thing-in-itself in how humans understand the real was still being talked about in philosophy after Hartmann’s death, but it didn’t lead to any decisions. At a time when Hartmann seemed to accept the thing-in-itself without question, empiricism (in all its forms) strongly disagreed and tried to understand the real world only through what Kant called events. People who study phenomenology and existentialism didn’t like how Kant’s ethics were too formal and didn’t go into enough detail. Instead, they came up with a “material” ethic of physical duties that was just as absolute as Kant’s. On the other hand, logical empiricists (also called logical positivists) were only interested in analyzing moral judgments, which they saw as emotional imperative statements meant to win followers.

Problems with Kant’s ideas

There is no doubt that Kant came up with many of the most important ideas that are still important in modern philosophy, even in the forms that they take today. However, Kantianism went through a huge fall compared to the time period from 1860 to 1918. This decline lasted until around the third quarter of the 20th century.

In what ways did this drop happen? Philosophy could not be boiled down to the philosophy of science after World War I, even though logical empiricism didn’t really have a problem with it. Philosophical problems don’t all come together in the philosophy of science. It’s just one problem area. A second objection came up because of this: Kant’s ideas are too formal to satisfy people’s natural curiosity, which is moving more and more toward real issues. Kantianism only looks at the a priori forms of thinking and doesn’t care much about the different things that they think. If this objection only applied to the exact sciences, it wouldn’t be a big deal because those sciences take care of their own uses. But when it comes to ethics, the argument becomes a very big deal.
For this reason, the strongest argument against Kant’s rigor has been made against his ethical work, the Critique of Practical Reason. Hartmann, Max Scheler, and others have all written about this. This transcendental formalism is immediately met with the objection of subjectivism, even though logic tries to avoid it. Subjectivism is blamed for making it impossible to understand the real universality of the Ego, or thinking subject, and for forcing the scholar to believe that all human knowledge is subjectively constructed. By its very nature, this subjectivist transcendentalism keeps people from connecting with the outside world. Additionally, it keeps them from entering the world of things as such, and it also stops them from giving objective truth to phenomena as such, since the transcendental source is seen as helpful for both experience and the phenomenon.

Kant’s writings always come back to these three main arguments, which stand out among many other criticisms of small points. Because of these arguments, some philosophers don’t agree with critical philosophy at all, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. In spite of everything, Kant is still a never-ending source of problems and ideas, similar to Plato and Aristotle. Together with them, he forms the great trio of Western philosophical thought.

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