Back when I was a philosophy student, Immanuel Kant was it. The 18th century Prussian philosopher who pinched off the stiff arguments between the Continental Rationalists and the British Empiricists and ushered in the contemporary era of analytic/existential thought was probably more highly regarded by most of my professors (a highly contentious lot) than any other single figure except maybe Plato.
That doesn't mean Kant was anybody's favorite philosopher, though, either in my college's department or anywhere. He probably wasn't. Everybody respects Kant, but few get excited about him -- probably because his ideas are so widely and generally accepted. He is a foundational figure because he stands as a mediator between opposing ideas.
Kant's greatest achievement in 18th century European philosophy was to mediate a middle ground between two intellectual attitudes that had reached a deadlock. He agreed with the British Empiricists that human beings cannot claim access to absolute truth by means of philosophical argument. But he denied the empiricist's model of the human mind as an empty vessel that can only access reality through sensory experience. Instead, Kant showed, we must realize that the mind constructs its understanding of the outside world, and that therefore our beliefs are grounded in something less flimsy than the phenomenological and epistemological mass of meaninglessness that Bishop George Berkeley and David Hume described.
With this model, suddenly the tedious arguments between Berkeley and Hume and Spinoza and Leibniz seemed to matter less, and western philosophy found several more creative and constructive paths. Philosophy got better after Kant. He led the way to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer, to Soren Kierkegaard and Freidrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud and William James, Auguste Comte, Bertrand Russell, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Along with his metaphysical and epistemological work, Kant was also an influential mediator in ethical philosophy. His great moral notion was the Categorical Imperative, a declaration that we must try to live by universal laws, and consider the needs of others as well as those of ourselves. The Categorical Imperative was notable not for contradicting common sense, but rather for echoing in academic and scientific terms a principle as old as civilization itself: treat others as you would like others to treat you.
This moral message also resonated with principles found in Plato, the Jewish Bible, the Gospels, the Koran and virtually all other religious or ancient philosophical texts -- and thus amounted to a bracing endorsement of primordial human belief.
Thus, in morals as well as with philosophy of the mind, it is Kant's great achievement to reconcile a faith-based belief system with the scientific method -- to affirm that, in the modern world of science, truth and faith and charity and love still exist. As Kant wrote in the Critique of Practical Reason:
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.
Last weekend I mentioned that Immanuel Kant has become newly controversial among some conservatives. This is partly due to the influence of Ayn Rand, who notably does not believe that any moral laws compel charity or kindness. This makes some people angry, though I think Kantians should welcome the confrontation.
Personally, of course, I prefer Immanuel Kant's ethical philosophy to Ayn Rand's by a mile, but I do not condemn Ayn Rand for directly attacking Kant in her writings. She has a right to express what she believes. Nor do I condemn others -- conservatives, Objectivists or anybody -- who wish to challenge the primacy of Immanuel Kant's metaphysical or moral system. No philosopher's work should ever stand unchallenged.
However, it's my judgement after hearing all sides that Immanuel Kant's philosophy stands up pretty well to its challengers. None of Kant's attackers have yet succeeded in denting the broad public belief that we should treat others as well as we would treat ourselves. This is a principle that will hopefully stay with us -- we are surely doomed if it does not.
An interesting perspective on Kant's realistic but idealistic philosophy can be obtained by looking at the odd history of the city in which he lived.
Immanuel Kant spent his entire life in Konigsberg, Prussia. Konigsberg was then an intellectual capital, one of the great cities of the world. He died in 1804, in the midst of a new European era of revolutionary war.
The violence left behind by the Napoleonic wars would never leave Prussia, and today the entire world Kant knew has been obliterated. The city of Konigsberg is no longer on the map. The entire Prussian/German population of the city was forced to leave the former territories of East Prussia after World War II, and Konigsberg is now Kalingrad, a part of Russia.
(It's sad to say that Russia does not treasure this historic city for its culture. They treasure it because they need an all-weather seaport and naval outlet for their Baltic fleet.)
The entire legacy of the Prussian Enlightenment was erased from Kalingrad by the Soviet Union, as well as the population that once lived on these streets. But there is a statue of Immanuel Kant, pictured above in a photo by Scottish Colin. One wonders what Kant would think if he could see.