DURANT 1926: Kant Himself

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VI, Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, Section 2 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


Kant Himself

He was born at Konigsberg, Prussia, in 1724. Except for a short period of tutoring in a nearby village, this quiet little professor, who loved so much to lecture on the geography and ethnology of distant lands, never left his native city. He came of a poor family, which had left Scotland some hundred years before Immanuel’s birth. His mother was a Pietist, i.e., a member of a religious sect which, like the Methodists of England, insisted on the full strictness and rigor of religious practice and belief. Our philosopher was so immersed in religion from morning to night that on the one hand he experienced a reaction which led him to stay away from church all through his adult life; and on the other hand he kept to the end the sombre stamp of the German Puritan, and felt, as he grew old, a great longing to preserve for himself and the world the essentials, at least, of the faith so deeply inculcated in him by his mother.

Kant [1724 – 1804]. He grew up with the full strictness and rigor of religious practice and belief of Pietism.

But a young man growing up in the age of Frederick and Voltaire could not insulate himself from the sceptical current of the time. Kant was profoundly influenced even by the men whom later he aimed to refute, and perhaps most of all by his favorite enemy, Hume; we shall see later the remarkable phenomenon of a philosopher transcending the conservatism of his maturity and returning in almost his last work, and at almost the age of seventy, to a virile liberalism that would have brought him martyrdom had not his age and his fame protected him. Even in the midst of his work of religious restoration we hear, with surprising frequency, the tones of another Kant whom we might almost mistake for a Voltaire. Schopenhauer thought it “not the least merit of Frederick the Great, that under his government Kant could develop himself, and dared to publish his Critique of Pure Reason. Hardly under any other government would a salaried professor” (therefore, in Germany, a government employee) “have ventured such a thing. Kant was obliged to promise the immediate successor of the great King that he would write no more.” [The World as Will and Idea, London,1883; vol. ii, p. 133.] It was in appreciation of this freedom that Kant dedicated the Critique to Zedlitz, Frederick’s far-sighted and progressive Minister of Education.

Kant’s last work was quite controversial in his time.

In 1755 Kant began his work as private lecturer at the University of Konigsberg. For fifteen years he was left in this lowly post; twice his applications for a professorship were refused. At last, in 1770, he was made professor of logic and metaphysics. After many years of experience as a teacher, he wrote a text-book of pedagogy, of which he used to say that it contained many excellent precepts, none of which he had ever applied. Yet he was perhaps a better teacher than writer; and two generations of students learned to love him. One of his practical principles was to attend most to those pupils who were of middle ability; the dunces, he said, were beyond all help, and the geniuses would help themselves.

Kant was very much liked as a teacher.

Nobody expected him to startle the world with a new metaphysical system; to startle anybody seemed the very last crime that this timid and modest professor would commit. He himself had no expectations in that line; at the age of forty-two he wrote: “I have the fortune to be a lover of metaphysics; but my mistress has shown me few favors as yet.” He spoke in those days of the ‘^bottomless abyss of metaphysics,” and of metaphysics as “a dark ocean without shores or lighthouse,” strewn with many a philosophic wreck. [In Paulsen, Immanuel Kant; New York, 1910; p. 82.] He could even attack the metaphysicians as those who dwelt on the high towers of speculation, “where there is usually a great deal of wind.” [In Paulsen, Immanuel Kant; New York, 1910; p. 56.] He did not foresee that the greatest of all metaphysical tempests was to be of his own blowing.

Kant loved the subject of metaphysics, but found it to be very confusing.

During these quiet years his interests were rather physical than metaphysical. He wrote on planets, earthquakes, fire, winds, ether, volcanoes, geography, ethnology, and a hundred other things of that sort, not usually confounded with metaphysics. His Theory of the Heavens (1755) proposed something very similar to the nebular hypothesis of Laplace, and attempted a mechanical explanation of all sidereal motion and development. All the planets, Kant thought, have been or will be inhabited; and those that are farthest from the sun, having had the longest period of growth, have probably a higher species of intelligent organisms than any yet produced on our planet. His Anthropology (put together in 1798 from the lectures of a life-time) suggested the possibility of the animal origin of man. Kant argued that if the human infant, in early ages when man \vas still largely at the mercy of wild animals, had cried as loudly upon entering the world as it does now, it would have been found out and devoured by beasts of prey; that in all probability, therefore, man was very different at first from what he had become under civilization. And then Kant went on, subtly: “How nature brought about such a development, and by what causes it was aided, we know not. This remark carries us a long way. It suggests the thought whether the present period of history, on the occasion of some great physical revolution, may not be followed by a third, when an orangutan or a chimpanzee would develop the organs which serve for walking, touching, speaking, into the articulated structure of a human being, with a central organ for the use of understanding, and gradually advance under the training of social institutions.”  Was this use of the future tense Kant’s cautiously indirect way of putting forth his view of how man had really developed from the beast?  [So Wallace suggests: Kant, Philadelphia, 1882,; p. 115.]

Kant’s earlier work has not been about Metaphysics.

So we see the slow growth of this simple little man, hardly five feet tall, modest, shrinking, and yet containing in his head, or generating there, the most far-reaching revolution in modern philosophy. Kant’s life, says one biographer, passed like the most regular of regular verbs. “Rising, coffee-drinking, writing, lecturing, dining, walking,” says Heine,– “each had its set time. And when Immanuel Kant, in his gray coat, cane in hand, appeared at the door of his house, and strolled towards the small avenue of linden trees which is still called ‘The Philosopher’s Walk,’ the neighbors knew it was exactly half-past-three by the clock. So he promenaded up and down, during all seasons; and when the weather was gloomy, or the gray clouds threatened rain, his old servant Lampe was seen plodding anxiously after, with a large umbrella under his arm, like a symbol of Prudence.”

Kant had a strict daily schedule.

He was so frail in physique that he had to take severe measures to regimen himself; he thought it safer to do this without a doctor; so he lived to the age of eighty. At seventy he wrote an essay “On the Power of the Mind to Master the Feeling of Illness by Force of Resolution.” One of his favorite principles was to breathe only through the nose, especially when out-doors; hence, in autumn, winter and spring, he would permit no one to talk to him on his daily walks; better silence than a cold. He applied philosophy even to holding up his stockings by bands passing up into his trousers’ pockets, where they ended in springs contained in small boxes. [“Introd. to Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason; London, 1909; p. xiii.] He thought everything out carefully before acting; and therefore remained a bachelor all his life long. Twice he thought of offering his hand to a lady; but he reflected so long that in one case the lady married a bolder man, and in the other the lady removed from Konigsberg before the philosopher could make up his mind. Perhaps he felt, like Nietzsche, that marriage would hamper him in the honest pursuit of truth; “a married man,’ Talleyrand used to say, “will do anything for money.” And Kant had written, at twenty-two, with all the fine enthusiasm of omnipotent youth: “I have already fixed upon the line which I am resolved to keep. I will enter on my course, and nothing shall prevent me from pursuing it.” [Wallace,p.100.]

And so he persevered, through poverty and obscurity, sketching and writing and rewriting his magnum opus for almost fifteen years; finishing it only in 1781, when he was fifty-seven years old. Never did a man mature so slowly; and then again, never did a book so startle and upset the philosophic world.



Kant was a small, frail, and a very private man, who taught and lectured about subjects other than metaphysics. He wrote about metaphysics only after great thought as his final work.


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