THIS DAY IN HISTORY: Immanuel Kant, One Of The Greatest Philosophers Of All Time, Was Born...

Today is the 297th anniversary of the birth of Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who revolutionized Western thinking without leaving his hometown of Königsberg (East Prussia, Germany). His philosophy is an inexcusable landmark of our thought, a before and after of Western philosophy. His biography, however, has become over the years a repeated cliché full of unhealthy routines that did not always correspond to reality. 

Little by little, philosophical lives, which by a strange paradox were of great significance in antiquity and very little in modern culture, have become a specific genre of their own. Philosophers are responsible for this situation. Kant headed his first great work, his Critique of Pure Reason, with a quotation of Bacon from Verulamius that begins thus: De nobis ipsis silemus, "let us be silent about ourselves." But already Nietzsche insisted that philosophers, through their philosophy, always ended up relating their own life experience.

Some characters are free from this preconceived idea. No one doubts the highly novelistic content of lives such as those of Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, but can the same be said of Hegel's life? And of the most characteristic "philosopher's life", the one most subject to clichés, that of Kant? The acid test of this biographical genre consists in confronting the life of the most brilliant of modern philosophers. He is also the one who seems to present the least narrative and novelistic substance in his monotonous life.

And here the data are unequivocal: he never moved from his hometown, which was also an important but provincial city, located on the very edge of the Western and Germanic world, Königsberg. He was single and celibate all his life. Almost his only occupation for sixty years was university teaching, on which his livelihood depended. He came from a family of saddlers who still lived in an artisanal regime of guilds and brotherhoods; affable, cultured parents, whom Kant always remembered with great affection. A somewhat sordidly disciplined schooling. A university career in which Kant discovered ancient languages, especially Latin. So much for a picture lacking the most elementary interesting narrative substance.

With these premises, the author of this important biographical text undertakes the Herculean task of breaking the cliché of this apparently mechanized life, sprinkled with depressing anecdotes, such as the one that tells that every time Kant left his house, all his fellow citizens adjusted their watches. Many of us were suspicious of this caricatured life. We could not understand how a philosopher who showed such vitality, strength and passion in his works of philosophical creation, capable of revolutionizing in the most surprising and innovative way theoretical philosophy in his Critique of Pure Reason, moral philosophy in his Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals, or our aesthetic (and teleological) judgments in the Critique of the Capacity to Judge, could have as his only support a great inner life, but such a rickety outer life.

The author of this biography refutes these assessments by noting that they all come from the same sources: those which, after Kant's death, constituted his first biographies. They are three biographies written from the knowledge of the last Kant, the Kant who was growing old after the enormous effort of his ten years of great creative intensity, and who died at the age of eighty.

The glory of this philosopher is cemented in the production of ten memorable years: the decade that elapses between the definitive writing of the first critique and the writing of the third and last. This explosion of creativity coincided with great world events: the American and French Revolutions. These biographies had before them a character that showed signs of exaggeration of tendencies that in more youthful times were not preponderant: the strict regulation of life, the dietary diet typical of a certain tendency to hypochondria. These biographies are responsible for an official biography that has never been discussed.

This biography by Kuehn, on the other hand, attempts to take a look at an unpublished, unknown, surprising Kant. A Kant that many of us had long suspected, since the "betrayal of joy" that Max Scheller discovered in the rigorism of his ethics was, in reality, nothing more than a misunderstanding. These ethics, if known in depth, show a much more stimulating landscape. It constitutes the best intellectual plea ever made for a fully clarified concept of freedom. Freedom understood as responsibility, with its implications of self-determination and autonomy. Notions that literally would not exist if this great philosopher had not coined, argued and expounded them.

Kant lived for years and years in his provincial city, deriving all the vital and intellectual enjoyment and benefits it could bring him. Kant appears in this biography as a worldly, social character, loved by artistic circles, who sows admiration and esteem for his passionate way of conversing, for his eloquent and fiery speech, and who conquers male and female minds and hearts. A Kant always celibate and single, but much more open to social encounters than certain biographies, or the lack of them, allow us to suppose.

And above all a Kant who, in good logic of the pietistic religiosity that permeated his formation, always believed that character can be created and built through adjusted maxims, or that a sort of conversion, or epistrophe, is possible, which would make possible a true rebirth (along the lines of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus in the Gospel of John). Or that a palimgenesia could take place, like the one he experienced at the age of forty, when he had the first inkling of the full magnitude of the ideas, still in a magmatic state, that he treasured.

He was the first to be surprised by his burst of creativity, especially in the crucial decade in which he began the gestation of his critical project (from his "years of silence", 1770-1780.) His friends doubted whether he would end up being the great genius that his intellectual gifts foreshadowed, or a sort of perpetual promise that would not end up finding its source of creativity. In fact, the late character of his work could have made him suspect to himself, and to his own milieu, that the creative outburst was too long in coming. And that therefore he would not go beyond being an excellent provincial professor, with a few works of strictly academic interest, not excessively original.

Rarely has there been such a biographical phenomenon; so exciting. Perhaps few external adventures can be attributed to him. But he consummated a risky adventure that led him to foresee his creativity at the age of forty, building his life as if it were a work of art. In addition, he met the friend of his soul, or the good daimon, who from then on was his great interlocutor. That dear friend was not a philosopher; he was an English merchant named Green who, however, was the most cultured person imaginable, aware of everything that was being written about philosophy in Britain and in the troubled France of the time.

Kant's biography now appears to us, thanks to this excellent work, as the story of a very great passion; perhaps one of the most valuable of all passions; the passion to know. 

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