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KantReview - Kant
A Biography
by Manfred Kuehn
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Review by Stephen Palmquist, Ph.D.
Oct 12th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 41)

 

The life of Immanuel Kant, I have long thought, would provide excellent material for an entertaining yet thought-provoking film. But who would believe such a far-fetched claim, given Kant's almost universal reputation for having lived a boring, ultra-regulated life? The idea could never pass beyond the stage of idle musing without a significant and accessible body of documentation to substantiate such a hunch. That lack has now been fulfilled.

 

Manfred Keuhn's exhaustive new English biography is more than just the story of Kant's life. It is a thoroughly researched account of the context that nurtured Kant's genius. Although Kuehn provides concise summaries of nearly all Kant's published writings, these take a back seat in his overall strategy to reflections on Kant's personality, character, and personal relationships. Careful attention is given to how each writing arose out of the real issues Kant and his contemporaries were struggling with. To support this strategy, the book provides brief – and sometimes not so brief – character sketches of many of Kant's contemporaries, as well as so much other information about life in 18th Century Europe that this feature sometimes comes close to being a fault. The chapter on Kant's so-called "silent decade", for example, is so packed with material about numerous of Kant's students, teachers, colleagues, and friends that the apparent intent to "fill in" the silence only ends up accentuating how little we really know about Kant during that period. The dramatic strategy is enhanced by the selected "Cast of Characters" that appears at the beginning of the book, providing short paragraphs describing each of 26 important persons.

 

Most chapters provide material on aspects of Kant's life and/or personality that have rarely, if ever, been given their due regard. Readers of Chapter 1, for instance, can almost smell the leather as Kuehn describes how the young Kant's moral outlook would have been profoundly affected by being raised in the home of a respected member of the harness makers' guild. He exaggerates the case, no doubt, by portraying Kant's mature moral outlook as being rooted primarily in the guild ethos, discounting the influence of his mother's devout Pietism. Perhaps this was necessary to drive home the point. A skilled screenwriter would be able to draw numerous leads from this emphasis – though it ought to be balanced with a fairer account of Kant's profound respect for his Pietist upbringing. For the interplay between these two forces in Kant's childhood may be more significant than either on its own.

 

Among the other revealing insights Kuehn provides into "the real Kant" is the fact that during his University years there is little, if any, reliable evidence that Kant made a significant impression on his teachers. Contrary to what was assumed by Kant's earliest biographers, who had only known Kant in his mature years, his genius was not recognized by his teachers. Kuehn unveils the behind-the-scenes "politics" of university life – all-too-familiar to those of us who share the same profession as Kant – whereby the Pietists controlled the University of Königsberg during Kant's years as a tertiary student, with those students who "towed the party line" being placed promptly into the line of succession. Indeed, a virtual "blacklisting" appears to be what forced Kant to become a private tutor for over a decade, instead of going straight into university teaching. But what goes around comes around, and Kant himself eventually learned to "play the politics game" to such a degree that one cannot avoid wondering whether his philosophy would have been so well received had it not been for his own somewhat manipulative self-promotion. Perhaps the silent decade itself was, at least in part, an intentional ploy to whet the appetites of his contemporaries! In any case, there is now no shortage of material for intrigue in a film version of Kant's life.

 

Despite the excessive length of this book (544+xxii pages , including the Notes, Works Cited, and Index), there are omissions. Kuehn gives considerable detail about the first of Kant's three placements as private tutor (enough for one or two moving, character-setting scenes in the film version), comments briefly on the second placement, and then totally skips over the third without so much as a sentence of explanation. Likewise, far too little is said about the influence of Swedenborg on Kant, with Kuehn's summary of the highly significant Dreams of a Spirit-Seer leaving much to be desired. (Hume's influence, by contrast, is over-emphasized (e.g., 253).) Moreover, Kuehn totally neglects the crucial role of "architectonic" in Kant's conception of philosophy, mentioning it only once in passing (346). But the most significant omission is one that pervades the entire book in such a systematic manner that it clearly reveals the biographer's personal bias rather than reflecting accurately on Kant: Kuehn consistently downplays the role of God and religion in Kant's life and thought.

 

That Kuehn has a bias against religion and theology, whereby he sets out to downplay Kant's interest, becomes evident at the very outset (e.g., 12): the Prologue is mainly devoted to discrediting the three authoritative German biographies on the grounds that the religious disposition of their authors renders them unreliable. This antireligious bias continues throughout the book, as Kuehn misses no opportunity to paint a dark, unattractive picture of Pietism and to distance Kant from the movement in historically inaccurate ways (e.g., 22, 94, 110), preferring to attribute Kant's emphasis on obviously religious concepts such as "holiness" to his father's involvement in guild-life (42-4), rather than to the likelihood that his parents raised young Immanuel to be naturally religious. Kuehn derides as "absurd" any suggestion that Pietism had any positive influence on Kant's thinking, or that Kant ever regarded himself as "converted" (p.54) – claims that simply ooze with signs of a hidden agenda. Kant did critique religion in general and his own Pietist background in particular; but this does not mean he outright "rejected the religious way of life of [his] parents." Not surprisingly, when Kuehn is forced to consider Kant's views on religion by describing Kant's 1794 book on the subject, he adopts the now widely discredited reductionist interpretation (370-1). Or, where that is not possible, he calls into question the sincerity of Kant's own explicit affirmations (e.g., 105, 382). In voicing such negative opinions so loudly (e.g., 250), Kuehn inadvertently accentuates the illegitimacy of his own bias. Thus, ignoring the myriad of voices that have expressed a contrary opinion, Kuehn claims on the flimsiest of evidence that Kant completely lost his faith in God in old age (138).

 

Despite this major flaw, Kuehn does a surprisingly good job of getting "under the skin" of the man Kant really was, showing us aspects of his personality that are not immediately evident from reading his Critical writings. We see a man who seeks to live by principle, yet who repeatedly ends up acting in ways that some regard as conflicting with the "respect for persons" rule, a man who, like various of the other characters in this historical drama, was "conflicted" in various ways – a claim Kuehn repeats on several occasions. We see with perfect clarity why Kant would prefer to stay in Königsberg, why Kant's alleged sexism is not as blameworthy as many have claimed (399), etc.

 

Kuehn gives more attention to the romantic interests and sexual orientation of Kant and his friends than most biographers have. For example, he tells how the young wife of Kant's friend Jacobi, Maria Charlotta, was obviously hitting on Kant and relates how Kant never seems to have recovered emotionally when she jilted him for another man (163-70). Kuehn naively assumes Kant never experienced any significant emotional attachment, leaving unexplained why he appears to have lost interest in marriage from this time forward. A bit more imaginative license would be required for the film version, of course. Not much, however, for Kant's repeated failures in matters concerning love, like his neurotic worry over his health (from his heart trouble in youth to his fart trouble in old age) and his deep questioning about the role of God in human life, is already reminiscent of a certain modern-day film director who is as attached to New York as Kant was to Königsberg.

 

Kuehn announces in his Prologue that he is writing for the general reader rather than for the Kant scholar (21). In this he is only partly successfully, for the author's scholarly disposition remains abundantly clear throughout. Nevertheless, his book should succeed in convincing scholars that Kant's life was as interesting and as worthy of public awareness as, for instance, that of Benjamin Franklin. The general reader will therefore be attracted to this book, I predict, only after the film version appears. At least, this is likely to be the case if the full extent of my longstanding dream comes true some day, and a modern-day director of tragi-comedy par excellence could be convinced to produce the film. And what better candidate for this role could there be for such a film than ("Woody") Allen Stewart Konigsberg himself?

 

© 2001 Stephen Palmquist

 

Stephen Palmquist, Hong Kong Baptist University


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