Kant -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) marks the beginning of a turning point in philosophy. He was born in Königsberg, Prussia, where he spent most of his life. A liberal in politics, he was influenced by the ideas of Rousseau, and sympathised with the French Revolution, at least in the early stages. The other great influence on his thought was science, which at the time was making spectacular advances. Kant himself made an important contribution to science, particularly in his General Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755). In this, where he put forward the nebular hypothesis for the formation of the solar system, later developed by Laplace, and now generally accepted.

When Kant began his intellectual activity, German philosophy had reached a dead end. The brilliant flashes of inspiration that characterised the thought of Leibniz did not really add up to a coherent school of philosophy. After his death, Christian Wolff tried to turn it into a system, but succeeded only in vulgarising it. In Wolff’s hands, Leibniz’s profound intuitions about the world became transformed into the most arid formalism. Kant was repelled by this metaphysical speculation, which attempted to solve the mysteries of the universe, not by looking at nature, but by endless abstract reasoning. Meanwhile, in the real world, a new spirit was stirring. The natural sciences were developing fast, especially in Britain and France. Even in sleepy Germany, where the Thirsty Years’ War had paralysed progress, there was a renewal of culture in the Aufkl÷rung, the German equivalent of the French Enlightenment. Kant was the true child of his times.

His most important work, the Critique of Pure Reason, was first published in 1781, when he was 57 years old, although it was subsequently revised in the second edition in 1787. In this work, Kant attempts to resolve the problem of knowledge, which had caused a crisis in philosophy, the clearest expression of which was the subjective idealism of Berkeley and the scepticism of Hume. Kant’s declared aim was to finish off the old metaphysics which "appears to furnish an arena specially adapted for the display of skill or the exercise of strength in mock-contests—a field in which no combatant ever yet succeeded in gaining an inch of ground, in which, at least, no victory was ever yet crowned with permanent possession." (Op. cit., p.11.)

The great successes of natural science, especially in Britain, meant that knowledge could not be confined to mere abstract speculation, which sucked its theories out of its thumb. Determined to break with this "metaphysics," Kant decided that it was necessary to go back to fundamentals. He decided to tackle the thorny question of how true knowledge was to be obtained. On the one hand, the striking advances of natural science pointed the way forward. All those questions about the nature of the universe and man’s place in it could not be solved by abstract speculation, but only by observation and experiment.

The task of the sciences is not merely to collect a heap of facts. It is to obtain a rational insight into the workings of nature. For this, mere generalisations are insufficient. Thinking must not be passive but active, as Kant understood. It is not an accident that the title of his greatest work refers to Reason (Vernunft), which he clearly distinguishes from mere Understanding (Verstand). But are the forms of reason adequate to comprehend reality? Kant subjected these logical forms to a searching criticism, and showed that the traditional logic falls into a state of contradiction (antimony). Kant showed that it was possible to derived diametrically opposite conclusions from the same propositions. But in Kant, this contradiction remains unresolved.

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