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Friday, July 31, 2015

LYNN BERGMAN: BOOK REVIEW - IMMANUEL KANT’S 18TH CENTURY IDEALISM

Lest we judge today's Germany and its people by it's most notorious madman, it behooves us to remember one of the most important philosophers of the ages. Immanuel Kant, the diminutive professor of Scottish descent was born at Konigsberg, Prussia in the year 1724.

Kant's mother was a Pietist, a member of a religious sect (like the Methodists of England) which insisted on the full strictness of religious practice and belief.

In 1755, Kant began his work as a private lecturer at the University of Konigsberg, finally becoming a professor of logic and metaphysics at a time when some of the subjects within Aristotle's “physics” (the study of matter and its motion through space and time) were re-assigned to “metaphysics”, the relation of mind and body, the freedom of will, and personal identity over time. Kant focused mostly on his pupils of middle ability; to Kant, the dunces were beyond all help and the geniuses would help themselves.

This timid and modest government employee worked for almost fifteen years on his “Critique of Pure Reason”, which was dedicated to Karl Abraham Freiherr von Zedlitz (King Frederick the Great's Minister of Education) and published in 1781 at the age of 57. The question posed by “Critique” was “… what can we hope to achieve with reason when all the material and assistance of experience are taken away?”

“Critique” ends with the heretical (at that time) answer: “Religion cannot be proved by theoretical reason”. The most eloquent and incisive portions of the 800 page book argued that the objects of faith – a free and immortal soul, a benevolent character – could never be proved by reason… so “Religion” was saved. If religion cannot be based on science and theology, on what then?  Kant's answer… “...on morals. Religion must be derived from the inner self by direct perception and intuition. We know, not by reasoning, but by vivid and immediate feeling, that we must avoid behavior which, if adopted by all men, would render social life impossible.” The priests of Germany protested madly against the book and named their puppies “Immanuel Kant”.

The only thing unqualifiedly good in this world is a good will – the will to follow the moral law, regardless of profit or loss to ourselves. Never mind your happiness… do your duty; for morality is not properly the doctrine how we make ourselves happy, but how we make ourselves worthy of happiness.

This absolute command to duty proves at last the freedom of our wills; how could we ever have conceived such a notion as duty if we had not felt ourselves free?

We cannot prove the freedom of will by theoretical reason; we prove it by feeling it directly in the crisis of a moral choice.

The world of reason tells us that any thief can triumph if he steals enough (successfully). If worldly utility and expediency were the justification of virtue, it would not be wise to be too good. Yet knowing this, we still feel the inner command to righteousness; we know that we ought to do the inexpedient good! How could this sense of right survive if it were not in our hearts that we feel this life to be only a part of a later and longer life where every cup of water given generously is returned a hundred fold?

If this “sense of duty” involves and justifies a belief in rewards yet to come, “the postulate of immortality”, it must lead to the supposition of a cause adequate to the effect… the existence of a God. Again, this is no proof of a God by “reason” but by a moral sense.

Rousseau was right; above the logic of the head is the feeling in the heart.

Pascal was right; the heart has reasons of its own, which the head can never understand.

At the age of 69, Kant published his “Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason”. In this, perhaps his boldest book, Kant suggests that any religious text must be judged by its value for morality and cannot by itself be the judge of a moral code.

Kant believed that churches and dogmas have value in so far as they assist the moral development. When mere creeds or ceremonies usurp priority over moral excellence as a test of religion, religion has disappeared. The real church is a community of people, however scattered and divided, who are united by devotion to the common moral law.

Lastly, Kant observed, “Finally, the nadir (peak) of perversion is reached when the church becomes an instrument in the hands of a reactionary government; when the clergy, whose function is to console and guide a harassed humanity with religious faith and hope and charity, are made tools of theological obscurantism and political oppression.

 

Commentary

Reading Kant's words made me wonder, has Pope Francis read Kant? For he certainly seems to have become a “tool of socialist dogma”. And, even more obviously, is Islam a true religion or just another means to power for those who value power over all else? And if these questions are controversial, what does it say of our nation's understanding of “morality”?

 

 

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