The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 45): Immanuel [you] Kant [be serious]

In this brief post today, we will look at Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the philosopher who really “changed everything.” Now, I am not an expert in Kant, so I will simply do my best to outline some of the basic ideas he put forth…at least the one’s I understand. The key thing to realize about Kant is that he changed the way the West tended to view reality itself. He was the one who took a meat cleaver to reality and chopped into two different parts. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781 AD) he argued for a complete split in reality: the noumenal realm consisted of ideas and thoughts, whereas the phenomenal realm was the realm of material things, science governing the latter realm, and religion governing the former.

Now, people always realized that there was a difference between the “spiritual world” and the “material world,” but never a complete distinction into two different airtight compartments. At the very heart of the Christian faith was the idea that “the Word became flesh,” that God had become man–the spiritual world was made known through the material world. The Nicene Creed declares, “We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible“–there was one reality, and the spiritual world and material world were both vital parts of that one reality. But with Kant, came the idea of two realities, playing by two different sets of rules.

The Giant Coin Machine
He further argued that there were twelve categories of understanding within the human mind. Think of it this way: imagine the mind as a giant coin-collecting machine, with twelve different slots that sorts twelve different types of coins. If you dump a load of pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and eight other kinds of coins, there are mechanisms within the machine that can sort out the coins into their proper categories. This is what Kant argued happens within the human mind. Our senses are like the “coin collectors,” and they dump all the different “coins” (i.e. anything they take in through the senses) into the mind, which then sorts out all the varying “coins” into their proper categories.

Kant also gave his own definition of “enlightenment”: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Dare to know! Have courage to use your own understanding! That is the motto of the enlightenment.”

Simply put, Kant argued that to be truly enlightened meant to allow one’s reason to function autonomously, without any regard for any authority on any given issue. Now obviously, everyone should use his/her own reason in order to understand the world better; and obviously, it is immature to blindly accept what an authority figure tells you about something. But the idea that it is a wise and mature thing to completely disregard any “guidance from another” is, ironically, extremely foolish and immature, if not sophomoric. True enlightenment is not the reliance on your own autonomous reason, without any consideration of what others have said, without any humility to realize that you might not know everything. True enlightenment is using your own reason, interacting with what others have said, and accepting the guidance of those who have gone before you, and having the humility to admit your own autonomous reason, when left to itself, is going to be woefully inadequate for understanding the world.

Morality…Just Think About It
In his later work, Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Kant extended his praise of autonomous reasoning to morality. He argued that morality itself is not dependent upon some sort of “divine authority.” Instead, he argued that morality is based on, you guessed it, autonomous reason. Simply put, one should do the moral thing, not because some divine ruler in the sky tells one what is moral and what is not, but rather because one uses his/her autonomous reason to come to the conclusion what the moral thing to do is. Morality is self-evident, if only you’d think about it.

It should be self-evident that this simply not true. Ask a conservative and a liberal, both with the same education, about what is moral, and I can guarantee you that you will get different answers. Why? Because morality isn’t always self-evident; it’s not just a matter of using your reason to think about it. Furthermore, I would argue that Kant’s (and I suspect many others’) very concept of morality is somewhat flawed. Kant (and many others) seems to think morality is simply a matter of legal rules, either dictated by a divine authority in the sky, or as objective as a scientific fact (like gravity) that anyone can just “figure out” if one studies enough.

I would like to suggest that morality cannot be seen solely in terms of legality, and it certainly cannot be viewed in the same way scientific facts are viewed. Morality, at its heart, is relational. As many biblical scholars will tell you, even the Torah, at its heart, is rooted in the covenant relationship between YHWH and Israel. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus himself says, “Love God,” and “Love your neighbor”—all the legal codes are essentially just commentary on those two things.

Kant on Christianity, Doctrine, and Sin
In his work, Religion with the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), Kant depicted the heart and soul of Christianity as being nothing more than moralistic deism: belief in an absentee sky god, and adherence to moral rules in order to be good little boys and girls. For Kant, Christianity was certainly the most ethical of all religions, but nevertheless all the doctrines that made it distinctive (i.e. the Trinity, the divine and human natures of Christ, the sinfulness of humankind and the need for salvation, etc.) just had to go.

Although Kant readily acknowledged the existence of evil in the world, he argued that it could, in fact, be overcome. People just needed to trust their autonomous reason to deal with the problem of evil. Related to this was Kant’s understanding of the origin of sin. Looking at the story of Adam and Eve, Kant denied that it was a historical account of the origin of sin in the world. For Kant, “the fall” didn’t happen “back then and there.” For Kant, Adam represented everyman, and therefore the story of “the fall” of Adam was a depiction of what every human does to corrupt its disposition.

In this respect, Kant’s reading of Genesis 3 is actually somewhat similar to that of Eastern Orthodoxy. But where Kant clearly veered from any semblance of Christianity’s understanding of the fall, was that he concluded “salvation” was not something that God initiates to save a hopelessly fallen human race. Instead, Kant argued that a “rational response” to the state of humanity was for each one of us to figure out (using our autonomous reason) what we must individually to do essentially merit God’s assistance. Call Kant an Enlightenment version of Pelagius, if you want, for essentially, Kant changed turned Christianity into a “pull yourself by your moral bootstraps” religion.

And indeed, many people today who have little or no knowledge of how the Enlightenment changed how people in the West thought about religion and morality, simply parrot the sort of ideas about religion that Kant put forth: “I try to be a good person, so I’m sure that if there’s a God, I’ll go to heaven.”  Ever heard that kind of thing before? Well, it’s not Christianity…

Is this probably a rather inadequate take on Immanuel Kant? Perhaps…but it’s the best I can do!


  1. The Enlightenment portion of this series has left me realizing how truly poorly read I am in philosophy. :-/

    Are you planning on a sort of “Table of Contents” post (i.e., with links to each article) once you’ve finished this series? I’d love to have a single link to refer to for easy access when I want to revisit some or all of these posts.

    1. I had never really thought about that. Maybe I will. All these “WW” posts were originally intended to be a book geared for my senior class on Western Philosophy and Worldviews I was teaching at my old high school. I’m by no means an expert in philosophy, but over the course of the past 8 years I’ve read quite a lot. And since most of it is so hard to understand, these posts are me “dumbing it down” just so I could understand it! haha

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