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Immanuel Kant: still relevant after all these years


As a scholar of English Romanticism, I have long been preoccupied with the relationship between Britain and Germany. The connection is impossible to explore without referring to Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher who died 200 years ago this month. Kant has enormously influenced English Romanticism as well as my own research. I was first exposed to him in 1956 while studying at the Georg-August University in Göttin-gen. The German university, founded by King George II in 1734, has always attracted British and American scholars.

At Göttingen, I followed in the footsteps of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the British poet, critic and philosopher who returned from the university in 1799 as an influential mediator of Kantian concepts in literary criticism. Kant’s ideas, which helped transform Western thought, sensibility and art, are as relevant today as they were in his time.

There are four Kantian concepts to which I frequently return. The first is “the primacy of the mind,” which Kant likened to a Copernican revolution in metaphysics. He taught that perception is not determined by the attributes of things; rather, the universe of things is determined by the attributes of the mind. What is in the mind independent of our experience, or a priori (concepts of space, time, cause, effect), determines how we perceive the world.

A second concept is Kant’s attention to the imagination. Before Kant, philosophers had relegated the imagination to the “lower faculties,” along with feelings and sensations. But Kant insisted that imagination functions hand in hand with the “higher” rational and intuitive faculties of the mind. What’s more, he argued, imagination helps shape all perception as well as the capacity to contemplate what lies beyond perception.

Because Kant exalted the imagination, he grounded his aesthetics in reason. He saw the beautiful as that which satisfies the rational sense of harmony, order and proportion. In contrast to the beautiful, he proposed the idea of the sublime — the third of his concepts to which I routinely pay homage. Sublimity, in Kant’s terms, is inherently boundless and characterized by the intrusion of two alternating emotional factors: an inhibition and an overflowing. To experience the sublime, said Kant, is to confront a grandeur so vast or powerful that the imagination is jolted, leaving the viewer consciously frail and incapacitated. This is followed by an awareness of not only perceiving but also participating imaginatively in sublimity’s grandeur.

Kant’s fourth concept is “art for art’s sake.” How, he asks, is a beautiful rape, murder, disease or death possible? (The history of art provides numerous instances of each.) Kant answers that a work of art is judged exclusively by its inherent aesthetic criteria — not by ethical or moral considerations external to it.

Since Kant’s death, we have grown suspicious of the claims of systematic philosophy to provide one all-encompassing account of being. Kant nevertheless continues to reward readers by challenging and provoking notions of how the mind knows itself and the universe around it — notions now reinforced by research in cognitive science. It’s not scientific corroboration, however, that makes Kant relevant in the 21st century. Rather, his significance lies in that shadow of “personal identity” where MRI scanners and other probes cannot reach.

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