By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
While there have been several significant philosophers in the past few centuries, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would contest that throughout Immanuel Kant’s life, he became the most revolutionary and most foundational thinker of the modern world. Kant’s thought is as fundamental and far-reaching as Plato’s, or Aristotle’s, or Aquinas’s, or Augustine’s, or Descartes’s. It’s simply impossible to imagine another modern philosopher in that group of people.
Kant had, for all his revolutionary intellectual power, a rather pedestrian life. He was born in 1724 in the town of Königsberg in East Prussia. It was his hometown throughout his childhood; and, in fact, he never in his entire life traveled more than 110 miles from Königsberg.
He had offers to move to other universities eventually; he never took them. He was raised in a very strict Pietist family, and that background stuck with him his whole life, long after he stopped being a Pietist himself as a young adult.
Pietism was a form of German Protestantism that was very rigorous and very, very focused on having the proper emotional response to the scriptures and one’s experience of religious salvation, and also it was a very moralistic kind of religion.
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Discoveries in Planetary Sciences
He enrolled at the University of Königsberg in 1740, and he would remain there at the university as a student and then a professor for the rest of his life. Initially, Kant was a scientist who made significant discoveries in planetary physics through which he made his name in a way.
He discovered some interesting discrepancies in the velocity of the earth’s rotation due to tidal variations. These discrepancies have been of substantial importance for planetary science. People recognized its interest and insight in the 18th century, but it was not fully appreciated for what it meant for understanding how worlds move and things like that until the 19th century.
Learn more about science vs. philosophy in the 17th century.
The Professor of Logic
But in 1755, at the age of 31, he became a lecturer at the university—it was his first real job—and he was assigned to teach on metaphysics; so he began doing lectures on metaphysics and the philosophy of nature.
Fifteen years after that, after many attempts to get other jobs, better jobs—in Königsberg or at the university, but never really outside of it—he was appointed the professor of logic and metaphysics in 1770.
Being a professor in a German university gives you a certain level of stability and financial safety, but it comes with a significant amount—then as now—of labor. Kant taught, because of his contract and legal obligations, at 7 am four days a week.
He then did private teaching—which paid him extra—every day, but all of his duties would end by lunchtime, which was always a substantial meal for Kant. He taught rigorously, up until 1796, fully 56 years after he had entered the University of Königsberg as a young student. He died in 1804.
Immanuel Kant and Sailors
During lunchtime, he famously always kept an open invitation to any sailor who appeared in the harbor of Königsberg—assuming that they were relatively decent—to come and share his meal and tell him what they had seen of the world.
Though he didn’t want to or at least feel the need to travel far, he was perpetually extremely interested in the outside world; he gave lectures on world geography.
He kept this schedule for the rest of his life, and the good people of Königsberg famously used to say that you could set your watch by Professor Kant’s walk after his lunch.
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The Great Intellectual Slumber
Rousseau was one of Kant’s enormous influences. The other great influence for Kant was David Hume. He first encountered the work of David Hume in 1771. He credited Hume for “awakening” him from his “dogmatic slumber”.
Having appreciated the work of Hume, Kant effectively went into a kind of intellectual seclusion and reeducation, reconsidering the foundations of human knowledge and the basic structure of the world. For the next ten years, he published nothing. The authorities at the university must have been quite upset at this.
If we could know biographically more about people deeper in the past—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas—we would probably find similar intense periods of really radical interiorization in their lives, where they’re burrowing deep down into themselves and into their scholarship in a way that seems to make no sense to people outside of them.
Also, this silent period is a pretty strong argument for the sort of tenure that Kant himself had. Had Kant not been assured of permanent employment, he probably would not have been able to take, to enjoy, the peace required to undertake the massive project that he did. In those ten years, he wasn’t just being an aimless, pointless dilly-dallier; he was rethinking the basic structures of human existence and knowledge themselves.
Common Questions about Immanuel Kant: The Great Awakening
Immanuel Kant discovered some interesting discrepancies in the velocity of the earth’s rotation due to tidal variations. These discrepancies have been of substantial importance for planetary science.
During lunchtime, Immanuel Kant famously always kept an open invitation to any sailor who appeared in the harbor of Königsberg to come and share his meal and tell him what they had seen of the world.
Having appreciated the work of David Hume, Immanuel Kant effectively went into a kind of intellectual seclusion and reeducation, reconsidering the foundations of human knowledge and the basic structure of the world. For the next ten years, he published nothing.