Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was a highly influential German philosopher whose works centered mostly on the workings of the mind in regard to things like reason, aesthetics, and the nature of reality. For example, Kant asked how we know things are real (that is, where does knowledge come from?). In Kant’s day, there were two schools of thought: knowledge comes from human reason (rationalism), or knowledge comes from human experience (empiricism). He set about finding a compromise between the two, and he set the philosophical world afire in so doing. Kant argued that our first steps toward knowledge are experiential; however, rationalism also brings something to the table. We experience things and thereby gain knowledge, but, simultaneous with each experience is the working of the mind as it interprets and categorizes that knowledge; therefore, our understanding of reality is the product of a synthesis of rationalism and empiricism.
The writings of Immanuel Kant are widely considered to be among the most profound of the world’s philosophies. To attempt an exhaustive analysis of Kant’s theories here would be impossible. But we can look at some of his basic premises and compare them to Scripture. An outgrowth of Kant’s views on reality and reason was a skepticism of all things metaphysical. Immanuel Kant believed God was basically unknowable because there is no way for the human mind to grasp the workings of the supernatural. The Bible teaches that God is transcendent, but it also reveals that God is knowable through the Person of Jesus Christ (see John 14:7–11).
Kant is famous for critiquing the traditional arguments for the existence of God, including Descartes’s ontological argument for God’s existence. He is also famous for proposing the “categorical imperative,” which has had an impact on the way we think about ethics. Kant’s categorical imperative states that we should think beyond the personal impact of our decisions and ask this question: “if everyone in the world took this action, what would be the result?” In other words, a person may excuse an instance of lying or cheating by arguing that it doesn’t harm anyone. But, if everyone excused lying and cheating on a regular basis, what sort of world would ensue? Kant’s categorical imperative helps the cause of Christianity: if everyone in the world followed Christ’s teaching and loved their neighbor as themselves (Galatians 5:14), this would undoubtedly be a better world.
The philosophies of Immanuel Kant and others like him are useful in that they help us to think and reason and consider reality. But as a way to gain truth and knowledge they lack the one thing that is absolutely essential: illumination. The Holy Spirit must enlighten the heart before the mind will be able to grasp spiritual truth. This is why salvation is (and must be) a gift according to grace (Ephesians 2:8–9). God does not leave us in the dark. Anyone who wants to know Him, can. As He has said, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).
Immanuel Kant laid the foundation for much of modern philosophy, as well as influencing the transcendentalist movement, deontology, and natural law. The works of Kant such as The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793) continue to exert an influence on current thinking and various realms of philosophy, politics, and aesthetics.