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17.9 Immanuel Kant

Philosophy day part 3 shall deal with arguably the most influential single philosopher in some centuries. Certainly in philosophical history, the subject is often divided into two parts, before Kant and after Kant. Though he worked in a number of different areas and attracted a great deal of interest from scientists, mathematicians and philosophers, his most famous single contribution was the effective union of the seemingly opposing ideals of Empiricism and Rationalism.

Growing up in Germany in the 18th century, Kant read quite a bit about many topics. Though he stayed in the same city of Konigsburg almost his entire life, the world effectively came to him through books, and over the first part of his life he made quite a name for himself writing popular essays and books on a very wide variety of topics. Then, however, all this suddenly stopped, he dedicated ever more of his time to trying to understand how the human mind actually worked, beyond the point where data from the outside world had passed through the sense organs. He effectively disappeared, shutting himself away just to read and write and think, and when he emerged from this isolation, it was with a huge, incredibly difficult book that hardly anyone even bothered trying to read.
Writing more, and attempting to write short, easy to read guides to his longer works, Kant gradually developed a new theory of philosophy, in which he attempted to apply the scientific method to the study of thought.
From this, he developed a sequence of ideas, to start with, simply that we can only know and understand that which we can actually sense. But, he suggested, there was no way of proving that things we could not sense did not exist. there was, however, no way of proving that they did, and so he proposed to set all such thoughts, particularly religious debates, aside as being impossible to decide one way or another, and to focus entirely on things that could be understood.
Effectively, he argued, all of what we see and hear and feel around us comes to us from our senses, meaning that we are, though a part of the universe around us, in some way separate from it, in that we can only know what our minds can process for us. What we see may not be what is really there, there is no way of telling what the real world outside out mind looks like.
In fact, one of his most important and influential arguments was that, this being the case, the mind imposes some sort of structure on the otherwise random and meaningless data that pours in continuously. we understand objects and events as being within space and within time, but we cannot actually see these things in the world around us, only understand them through the things that exist within them. Therefore, surely space and time exist only in our minds, they are patterns imposed upon reality by our minds to help us understand what is going on around us.
As well, our minds impose some idea of order, of cause and effect, even though there is no physical connection between two events, we see them happening together often enough that we learn that one always leads to another, and assume it to be so, and an integral part of the way the world works, even though we cannot know what will happen next time.
Space and time may not exist outside of our minds, what of beauty? That is not a physical thing in itself, not an integral part of an object, it can be understood not by what it is but only by the response it creates within our own minds, the same as with, for example, comedy, which can only be known as what it is because it is anything that makes people laugh, but there is no comedy atom inherent within certain things.
Even within the mind, that is always changing, how we feel about one thing can affect how we then feel about something else, different things can invoke different responses at different times, for different reasons, nothing can be considered absolute in that way. Indeed, it began to seem that people like Hume were right, that all our actions were goverened by emotion and passion rather than rules and logic and so on. Indeed, the entirety of our existance is controled by our feelings, which are always there, though there is one way to escape them, momentarily all other cares disappear in the presence of great beauty, a piece of art, architecture or music, for example.
Meanwhile, however, Kant’s interest in combining science and philosophy led him to the absolute laws of science, those rules that structure reality and are the same everywhere. Are, Kant wondered, there absolute laws on how the mind works? In particular, are there laws outside of ourselves governing morality? This led to the creation of the Categorical Imperative, a rule that states that, though there may well not be absolute laws of morality, we should act as though there are, that is, any moral we create for ourselves, we should assume applies to everyone else as well.

So, in summary, things we cannot sense may or may not exist, there is no point trying to prove one way or another. We cannot understand the world around us, only the data that comes to us from our senses (as in Empiricism). Time and space may or may not exist outside of our own minds, it could be that we are imagining them, and the ideas of cause and effect, just to impose order on the random data coming to us from the world around (this links back to Rationalism’s ideas of all understanding of reality being a part of the mind). Beauty, comedy, morality and other abstract ideas are only a part of our minds, but yet we should act as though everything we do was a rule that applied equally to everyone. All our actions are dictated by emotions, and the only way to escape these momentarily is to experience great art or music.

Next week, then, Arthur Schopenhaur takes these ideas and extends them, coming to some interesting realisations about the reality of existance and the existance of reality.

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