stamp for 250 years of birth of Immanuel Kant ...
Stamp for 250 years of birth of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a profoundly influential German philosopher, born in the university city of Königsberg. He was Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Königsberg in 1770 and worked as a private tutor in nearby towns. Never traveling too far, most of his life was spent within 10 miles of the city of his birth.

I am not an expert on Kant – very few people are – and can only scratch the surface as I see it from looking over his work, talking with scholars and reading many secondary sources over the past few decades.

If you need more, follow some of the links provided below and if you’re really brave, check out his works.

I should also add that this is a major revision from my rather scant entry at the old Think Free. I’m revising amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, a situation which gives me more time but also more concern. So I will probably make several more minor edits after posting this. Comments and typo-reporting are most welcome.

Noumena and Phenomena

Let’s begin with an important insight forwarded by Kant, that being the distinction between noumena and phenomena.

Astronomers witness the dragging of spacetime in stellar cosmic dance – Click on image for credit – Fair use / Fair dealing rationale

Kant believed that knowledge of worldly things depends on certain conditions that he called the “forms of intuition” (i.e. objects in space and the inward perception of time) and, more specifically, what he called the “categories of understanding“–e.g. “cause”, “substance”, “unity”, “necessity.”

This type of knowledge only applies to one’s perception or, as Kant put it, “apprehension” of the world. For him, we cannot know anything about the character and quality of the world as it truly exists in itself.

Kant calls things in themselves “noumena.” And he calls the perceived world, which may be known as we apprehend it, “phenomena.”

Despite Kant’s belief that we cannot know about the true character and quality of the noumenal world, we can, he claims, be certain that it exists because the phenomenal world depends on it.

Categorical Imperative

Kant’s main contribution to ethics is his notion of the “categorical imperative.” Put simply, the categorical imperative means we should do those actions that are morally good in every circumstance, such as truth-telling. Like most of Kant’s ideas, this has been debated. Are right ethics always absolute or sometimes conditional?

The favorite example here is of the Nazi’s knocking on the door, asking if any Jews are hidden in the house. If by chance you are sheltering Jews in a hidden space, chances are you will lie and say no. But isn’t this the right thing to do, given the beastly and absurd circumstances?

See also lying to a murderer.

Arguments for the existence of God

Kant – Portrait by Johann Gottlieb Becker, 1768

Kant’s logic appears to disprove some previous arguments for the existence of God. However, Kant does not claim to have disproved the existence of God. He only challenges the validity of previous arguments about God’s existence. Indeed, Kant’s Moral Argument for God argues that God must exist in order to deliver pure justice in an afterlife since justice is so rarely served in this life.

Analytic and Synthetic

Kant devised a distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions. Analytic propositions are said to contain the predicate in the subject. Synthetic propositions do not contain the predicate in the subject.

An example of an analytic proposition is, “All squares have four sides.” An example of a synthetic proposition is, “All men are athletic.”

Willard Quine and others have formally challenged Kant’s analytic/synthetic distinction, and I applaud them for doing so.

Noumenon and Numen

It may be tempting to link Kant’s idea of noumena, mentioned above, to the religious studies term numen (or the related Jungian term numinosity). After all, noumena refers to that world behind the senses (or put differently, the world as it allegedly exists before we perceive it as such).

Meditators will say that noumena must have some kind of a buzz to it, right? Something that “bubbles up” into consciousness when we strip away all our illusions.

Well, most scholars point out that the two words noumena and numen are phonetically similar but not directly related.

However, it seems possible that while most say the two words are not etymologically or semantically related, they could exhibit some basic affinities in actual practice.


Put simply, if we arrive at a ‘place’ where we appreciate the notion that the world is not necessarily as it appears to the senses (the noumenal world), there’s a chance we will begin to experience numinosity (the numen).

Others discuss the connection – or lack of – between noumenon and numen here.

For some seekers, intellectual ruminating gradually takes second place to just trying to do the right thing amidst the experience of “The Holy,” as Rudolf Otto put it. Not that there is anything wrong with reflecting on our faith and experience. But again, at certain times it seems a higher-order power kicks in and all our thoughts and inclinations seem quite petty. My favorite quote here comes from Isaiah 55:8-9.

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

A Priori vs. A Posteriori

Kant also employs another distinction between a priori (‘from the earlier’) and a posteriori (‘from the later’) knowledge.

While these terms may sound intimidating, they’re really not.² And neither are they carved in stone as absolute truths. Instead, they have been the source of much debate.

Königsberg before World War I – Apparently Kant spent his entire lifetime here and never traveled more than 10 miles beyond this university city.

For instance, with regard to a priori knowledge, one must learn a language or mathematics before one can have knowledge allegedly independent of experience. To some, this doesn’t make much sense.

Also, Kant was a popularizer and by no means the creator of this debatable distinction. The ancient Greek mathematician Euclid made the distinction around 300 BC, later translated into the Latin terms we have today. Euclid’s work was upheld as a good example of precise thinking from the 15th to late 18th centuries.

Future Directions

To me, it seems we are collectively on the verge of outgrowing the limits of rigid, categorical thinking as exemplified by many philosophical thinkers, both West and East.³ The ever-changing realities of life compel us to continually reassess and broaden our horizons.

¹ See Wikipedia.

² It seems some pundits and second-rate professors like to think they are smart – when really, they’re not that bright – and enjoy intimidating everyday people by never explaining some pretty basic ideas in everyday terms. After all, there’s plenty of money, power, and prestige in it for them if they come off as the only ones clever enough to peddle seemingly difficult ideas. Hence the false front of superiority.

³ In India, for example, schools of extensive logic and vulgar materialism grew alongside the more well-known avenues of mystical introspection.

Related » John Stuart Mill, Numinous, Science, Suffering, Unconscious

Michael William Clark has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Ottawa, Canada. Among his varied interests, he is particularly keen on promoting new directions leading toward the confluence of spirituality and science.