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Immanuel Kant was born in Konigsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad), where he spent his entire life, first as a student and Privatdozent, later as Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Konigsberg. Kant’s trilogy of main works, the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and Critique of Judgment (1790), has become an indispensable reference point for all subsequent philosophy, but his theories of experience, ontology and ethics were also instrumental in laying the foundations of the human sciences, and classical sociology in particular was inspired from Kantian roots.
Kant’s epistemology and ontology were developed from his inversion of conventional thinking about the relationship between experience and reality. He suggested that experience does not simply adapt itself to the world, but determines the way the world appears to us. The forms of space and time, together with other fundamental features -the ”categories” of quantity, quality, relation (which includes causality), and modality – are imposed on the world by the act of experience itself. Since knowledge is limited by the bounds of experience, human beings can know only appearances in the world, and have no access to things-in-them-selves, that is, to objects as they exist independently of our apprehension of them.
A similar line of thinking underpins Kant’s theories of free will, ethics, and action. The existence of individual free will is unknowable. However faith in its existence is necessary in order to make sense of the institutions of morality and law, as well as widely held principles that guide judgment in human affairs such as autonomy, duty, and responsibility. Freedom is a condition for those acts that flow from obedience to the moral law, or what Kant famously entitled the categorical imperative, which (among other elements) requires that human beings treat others as ends-in-themselves rather than as mere means to their own ends.
Kant’s influence on Durkheim is most visible in his program for a sociology of knowledge developed in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Durkheim agreed with Kant as to the constitutive role of experience in determining reality, but took issue with Kant’s claim that the categories of experience are innate and identical for all rational beings. Durkheim, by contrast, regarded them as variable across cultures and over the course of social evolution. This variation is visible in the divergent classification systems adopted by different cultures, and which Durkheim (with Marcel Mauss) undertook to enumerate in Primitive Classification.
Classical German sociology developed directly out of the neo-Kantian program of grounding the emerging social sciences in Kant’s philosophy, and this is evident in the work of both Simmel and Weber. Simmel accepted Kant’s theory of experience, as laid out in the Critique of Pure Reason, as valid for objects within the natural order of reality. However, he argued that the concept of ”society” implies a world of subjects that is experienced differently from the natural order, and which is unknowable through the methods of the natural sciences. ”Society” may be studied instead through the ”forms of sociation” (Vergesellschaftung), such as conflict, exchange and group size, which structure and organize social life in a manner analogous to the actions of the categories on the data of experience.
Weber was drawn to Kant’s understanding of action in terms of means and ends, which underpinned the latter’s moral philosophy. Weber’s theory of rational action, a key component of his general theory of social action, may be taken as an extension of Kant’s contrast between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. Weber distinguished between instrumentally rational (Zweckrational) and value-rational (Wertrational) action, that is, between action oriented towards efficient means and strategic ends on the one hand, and action oriented towards achievement of ends that are valued and pursued for their own sake (or ends-in-themselves) on the other. The contrast between instrumental and value-rational action was taken up by the Frankfurt School in a self-consciously critical manner that combined Kantian elements with Marxism.
All these Kantian elements have found their way, via the classical traditions, into contemporary sociological thinking, and Kant’s work remains an important source of ideas and inspiration within contemporary social theory.
- Cassirer, E. (1981) Kant’s Life and Thought. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.
- Caygill, H. (1995) A Kant Dictionary. Blackwell, Oxford.