We Just Kant Believe He’s a Day Over 299

Where we see the famed philosopher’s influence even now, 300 years after his birth.

Exactly 300 years ago this spring, Immanuel Kant, one of the most recognizable and influential philosophers in Western history, was born in what’s now Kaliningrad, Russia. He lived a slow, methodical life, during which time he reshaped the philosophical world, especially with his iconic project Critique of Pure Reason. Three centuries later, he’s known as the “father of modern ethics,” the “father of modern aesthetics,” and, less definitively, the “father of modern philosophy” (though it’s a little more common to see Descartes receive that title). In recognition of the thinky one’s birthday, we asked Kant scholar Susan Meld Shell, who chairs and teaches in the department of political science at Boston College, about where she sees Kant’s influence in our 2024 world and how we could use his influence again.

Where do you see Kant in our world today?

Human dignity. Everyone talks about human dignity, even the Pope talks about it. Kant has radically shifted the moral vocabulary that most of us use. He didn’t invent the phrase, but he put it on the map, so to speak, where it was sort of the primary driver of his philosophy.

Another big influence was in promoting the idea of the democratic peace theory, which says by spreading liberal democracy we spread peace, that America’s own interest is consistent with spreading liberal democracy as widely as possible. The idea that you could combine national self-interest and ethical concerns in one strategy very much saw itself as a Kant-inspired movement. A lot of the idealism of the Woodrow Wilson response to World War I and the neocon response to the fall of the Berlin Wall was framed in terms of Kant and hopefulness about the way you work toward more peace. I think Kant was more pessimistic in some ways, and more careful in his hopes, than is sometimes thought. But in general, that was probably his biggest and most obvious political influence.

Have we forgotten something about Kant that we should remember?

His emphasis on making sure that certain things that we regard as lifestyle choices are not mere lifestyle choices, but civic obligations. For example, child-rearing the next generation of citizens doesn’t happen automatically. And if you’re going to conserve forests and do other forward-looking things, then society needs to be more attentive to what it will take to reproduce a civic community that isn’t merely a bunch of live people, but that has a certain kind of shared civic culture. I think Kant can be very important in reconnecting with that.

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