German Philosopher Immanuel Kant and his Influence on Early America

April, 2024 marks the 300th birthday of German political and moral philosopher Immanuel Kant (22 April, 1724-12 February, 1804). He is considered one of the most influential thinkers and political philosophers of the Enlightenment era.  

Portrait of Kant from the Smithsonian Institute

Kant’s Life and Work

Immanuel Kant was born in Königsberg, Prussia, which since WWII has been renamed Kaliningrad and is part of Russia. Kant was the fourth of nine children and grew up in a household that stressed pietist religious values like devotion, humility and the literal interpretation of the Bible. As a young scholar, he wrote significant scientific works about natural history, astronomy and astrophysics. However, he wrote his greatest works in later life. These works centered on the philosophy of ethics and metaphysics. His best known and most influential work is titled the Critique of Pure Reason (1887). 

In this treatise, Kant explores how we combine sensory knowledge (what we see, hear, experience) with intellectual knowledge based on reasoning. Kant argued that reasoning could help to explain the reality of subjective perceptions like ideas (e.g., causality, morality and objects not evident in experience). His thinking was important in the Enlightenment movement which reoriented the individual at the center of moral reasoning and responsibility in the balance between the natural world and religion. 

Portrait of Kant fromThe Collector

Kant and the ‘Categorial Imperative’ in Governance

Kant believed that the social contract between citizens and their governments must be based on a fixed set of laws, where every citizen has the right to pursue and maximize his happiness without violating the rights and freedoms of fellow citizens. Th

is is referred to as Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ and stresses the moral responsibility of the individuals to ‘do unto others…’ in the sense expressed in the Bible. The citizen must respect the laws of the government, and the government must give the law-abiding citizen maximum liberty within that framework. Here liberty does not imply, however, libertarian or anarchical ideas. Rather it is the emphasis on free will and will under moral laws as being the same. 

Kant’s Enlightenment and its Influence on Early American Politics

Kant’s influence on American politics is prominently reflected by the freedoms expressed in the Constitution. His essay ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ first appeared in 1784, only a few years before the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. In this essay Kant states: ‘Have the courage to make use of your own understanding! Is…the motto of enlightenment!…For this enlightenment, however, nothing is required but freedom!’. Kant later stated that he was primarily referring to religion (

The First Amendment establishes Kant’s idea as the bedrock of the Constitution: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thererof.’ The First Amendment also guarantees freedom of speech. Here we can see Kant’s influence when he claims that one should have ‘freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters’.

Kant’ Relevance Today

According to Kant, our rights and happiness require the state to follow two fundamental rules. First, it must protect our rights and liberties, and secondly it must promote the indirect happiness we seek as long as the rights of fellow citizens are not discriminated against in the process. The categorial imperative of the single person becomes the political imperative of the whole state, based on logic and a sense of duty (ibid, above).

Today, some believe that the individuality of the person is incompatible with the majority rule of the state. In an increasingly multipolar and polarized world it might perhaps be good to refocus more on the Kantian values that make us human across all geopolitical, cultural and social spheres so we can reconnect to what protects and unites us as global citizens rather than focusing on differences and dominance.