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Immanuel Kant, Enlightenment Philosopher, 1724-1804

Kant is widely considered a central figure of modern philosophy. He lived in Königsberg (in East Prussia).

In an essay titled "What is Enlightenment," Kant wrote of the courage to use one's own intelligence. "Dare to know," he wrote. "Have the courage to use your own understanding." He saw the Enlightenment as liberating humanity from what he called immaturity, deferring serious thought to some authority figure. The Enlightenment for Kant was freedom. And with this attitude he became a supporter of the American and then French revolutions.

Like the British empiricists, Kant dwelled on sense experience as the source of knowledge, but he believed that David Hume had gone too far in his skepticism. Kant argued against the empiricist position that the mind was a blank slate upon which sense experience is written – John Locke's belief. And Kant argued against the proposition that we have knowledge or concepts completely separate from the world of sense experience. In other words, Kant argued that one could not start from a premise and build logically to real knowledge – as Aristotle and others after Aristotle thought they had done. Kant held that the human mind arranged sense experiences, making generalizations. (Our sense of motion and space derives from experience. So too is the imagined sense of the supernatural, anthropomorphic or not.)

Kant described knowledge as a synthesis of both rationality and empiricism. He put humans at the center of philosophical inquiry. With Kant there was no philosophizing about things independent of the person doing the perceiving and thinking.

Kant believed that there were limits to what people could know, that we can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety, but by weighing thoughts in a disciplined manner we could, within this limitation, establish certainties. He stated that one cannot know a thing-in-itself (das Ding an sich), that we can only recognize attributes.

Kant believed that he was uniting philosophy with science. He urged people to use scientific thinking to understand their own nature and nature outside of themselves. With such thinking, he claimed, religion could transcend tradition and dogmatism. He criticized church ritual, superstition and hierarchical church order. People gathering knowledge and thinking for themselves, he believed, could determine what they should do. And knowledge, he believed, was the proper source of rational religion and morality.

Knowledge for Kant was seeing differences so that everything was not a blur, and knowledge was seeing connections. Seeing a balloon rise is an awareness of the many things. In his "Critique of Pure Reason," Kant claimed that the brain connects a lot of matters into a unified experience. This is corroborated by 21st-century neuroscience. Instead of locating awareness at a single point in the brain, neuroscientists find consciousness as an integration of flashing connections from different places in the brain.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.