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Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Albert Camus was a French-Algerian journalist, playwright, novelist, philosophical essayist, and Nobel laureate. Though he was neither by advanced training nor profession a philosopher, he nevertheless made important, forceful contributions to a wide range of issues in moral philosophy in his novels, reviews, articles, essays, and speeches—from terrorism and political violence to suicide and the death penalty. He is often described as an existentialist writer, though he himself disavowed the label. He began his literary career as a political journalist and as an actor, director, and playwright in his native Algeria. Later, while living in occupied France during WWII, he became active in the Resistance and from 1944-47 served as editor-in-chief of the newspaper Combat. By mid-century, based on the strength of his three novels (The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall) and two book-length philosophical essays (The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel), he had achieved an international reputation and readership. It was in these works that he introduced and developed the twin philosophical ideas—the concept of the Absurd and the notion of Revolt—that made him famous. These are the ideas that people immediately think of when they hear the name Albert Camus spoken today. The Absurd can be defined as a metaphysical tension or opposition that results from the presence of human consciousness—with its ever-pressing demand for order and meaning in life—in an essentially meaningless and indifferent universe. Camus considered the Absurd to be a fundamental and even defining characteristic of the modern human condition. The notion of Revolt refers to both a path of resolved action and a state of mind. It can take extreme forms such as terrorism or a reckless and unrestrained egoism (both of which are rejected by Camus), but basically, and in simple terms, it consists of an attitude of heroic defiance or resistance to whatever oppresses human beings. In awarding Camus its prize for literature in 1957, the Nobel Prize committee cited his persistent efforts to “illuminate the problem of the human conscience in our time.” He was honored by his own generation, and is still admired today, for being a writer of conscience and a champion of imaginative literature as a vehicle of philosophical insight and moral truth. He was at the height of his career—at work on an autobiographical novel, planning new projects for theatre, film, and television, and still seeking a solution to the lacerating political turmoil in his homeland—when he died tragically in an automobile accident in January 1960.
Table of Contents
Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, a small village near the seaport city of Bonê (present-day Annaba) in the northeast region of French Algeria. He was the second child of Lucien Auguste Camus, a military veteran and wine-shipping clerk, and of Catherine Helene (Sintes) Camus, a house-keeper and part-time factory worker. (Note: Although Camus believed that his father was Alsatian and a first-generation émigré, research by biographer Herbert Lottman indicates that the Camus family was originally from Bordeaux and that the first Camus to leave France for Algeria was actually the author’s great-grandfather, who in the early 19th century became part of the first wave of European colonial settlers in the new melting pot of North Africa.)
Shortly after the outbreak of WWI, when Camus was less than a year old, his father was recalled to military service and, on October 11, 1914, died of shrapnel wounds suffered at the first battle of the Marne. As a child, about the only thing Camus ever learned about his father was that he had once become violently ill after witnessing a public execution. This anecdote, which surfaces in fictional form in the author’s novel The Stranger and is also recounted in his philosophical essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” strongly affected Camus and influenced his lifelong opposition to the death penalty.
After his father’s death, Camus, his mother, and his older brother moved to Algiers where they lived with his maternal uncle and grandmother in her cramped second-floor apartment in the working-class district of Belcourt. Camus’s mother Catherine, who was illiterate, partially deaf, and afflicted with a speech pathology, worked in an ammunition factory and cleaned homes to help support the family. In his posthumously published autobiographical novel The First Man, Camus recalls this period of his life with a mixture of pain and affection as he describes conditions of harsh poverty (the three-room apartment had no bathroom, no electricity, and no running water) relieved by hunting trips, family outings, childhood games, and scenic flashes of sun, seashore, mountain, and desert.
Camus attended elementary school at the local Ecole Communale, and it was there that he encountered the first in a series of teacher-mentors who recognized and nurtured the young boy’s lively intelligence. These father figures introduced him to a new world of history and imagination and to literary landscapes far beyond the dusty streets of Belcourt and working-class poverty. Though stigmatized as a pupille de la nation (that is, a war veteran’s child dependent on public welfare) and hampered by recurrent health issues, Camus distinguished himself as a student and was eventually awarded a scholarship to attend high school at the Grand Lycee. Located near the famous Kasbah district, the school brought him into close proximity with the native Muslim community and thus gave him an early recognition of the idea of the “outsider” that would dominate his later writings.
It was in secondary school that Camus became an avid reader (absorbing Gide, Proust, Verlaine, and Bergson, among others), learned Latin and English, and developed a lifelong interest in literature, art, theatre, and film. He also enjoyed sports, especially soccer, of which he once wrote (recalling his early experience as a goal-keeper): “I learned . . . that a ball never arrives from the direction you expected it. That helped me in later life, especially in mainland France, where nobody plays straight.” It was also during this period that Camus suffered his first serious attack of tuberculosis, a disease that was to afflict him, on and off, throughout his career.
By the time he finished his Baccalauréat degree in June 1932, Camus was already contributing articles to Sud, a literary monthly, and looking forward to a career in journalism, the arts, or higher education. The next four years (1933-37) were an especially busy period in his life during which he attended college, worked at odd jobs, married his first wife (Simone Hié), divorced, briefly joined the Communist party, and effectively began his professional theatrical and writing career. Among his various employments during the time were stints of routine office work where one job consisted of a Bartleby-like recording and sifting of meteorological data and another involved paper shuffling in an auto license bureau. One can well imagine that it was as a result of this experience that his famous conception of Sisyphean struggle, heroic defiance in the face of the Absurd, first began to take shape within his imagination.
In 1933, Camus enrolled at the University of Algiers to pursue his diplome d’etudes superieures, specializing in philosophy and gaining certificates in sociology and psychology along the way. In 1936, he became a co-founder, along with a group of young fellow intellectuals, of the Théâtre du Travail, a professional acting company specializing in drama with left-wing political themes. Camus served the company as both an actor and director and also contributed scripts, including his first published play Revolt in Asturia, a drama based on an ill-fated workers’ revolt during the Spanish Civil War. That same year Camus also earned his degree and completed his dissertation, a study of the influence of Plotinus and neo-Platonism on the thought and writings of St. Augustine.
Over the next three years Camus further established himself as an emerging author, journalist, and theatre professional. After his disillusionment with and eventual expulsion from the Communist Party, he reorganized his dramatic company and renamed it the Théâtre de l’Equipe (literally the Theater of the Team). The name change signaled a new emphasis on classic drama and avant-garde aesthetics and a shift away from labor politics and agitprop. In 1938 he joined the staff of a new daily newspaper, the Alger Républicain, where his assignments as a reporter and reviewer covered everything from contemporary European literature to local political trials. It was during this period that he also published his first two literary works—Betwixt and Between, a collection of five short semi-autobiographical and philosophical pieces (1937) and Nuptials, a series of lyrical celebrations interspersed with political and philosophical reflections on North Africa and the Mediterranean.
The 1940s witnessed Camus’s gradual ascendance to the rank of world-class literary intellectual. He started the decade as a locally acclaimed author and playwright, but he was a figure virtually unknown outside the city of Algiers; however, he ended the decade as an internationally recognized novelist, dramatist, journalist, philosophical essayist, and champion of freedom. This period of his life began inauspiciously—war in Europe, the occupation of France, official censorship, and a widening crackdown on left-wing journals. Camus was still without stable employment or steady income when, after marrying his second wife, Francine Faure, in December of 1940, he departed Lyons, where he had been working as a journalist, and returned to Algeria. To help make ends meet, he taught part-time (French history and geography) at a private school in Oran. All the while he was putting finishing touches to his first novel The Stranger, which was finally published in 1942 to favorable critical response, including a lengthy and penetrating review by Jean-Paul Sartre. The novel propelled him into immediate literary renown.
Camus returned to France in 1942 and a year later began working for the clandestine newspaper Combat, the journalistic arm and voice of the French Resistance movement. During this period, while contending with recurrent bouts of tuberculosis, he also published The Myth of Sisyphus, his philosophical anatomy of suicide and the absurd, and joined Gallimard Publishing as an editor, a position he held until his death.
After the Liberation, Camus continued as editor of Combat, oversaw the production and publication of two plays, The Misunderstanding and Caligula, and assumed a leading role in Parisian intellectual society in the company of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir among others. In the late 40s his growing reputation as a writer and thinker was enlarged by the publication of The Plague, an allegorical novel and fictional parable of the Nazi Occupation and the duty of revolt, and by the lecture tours to the United States and South America. In 1951 he published The Rebel, a reflection on the nature of freedom and rebellion and a philosophical critique of revolutionary violence. This powerful and controversial work, with its explicit condemnation of Marxism-Leninism and its emphatic denunciation of unrestrained violence as a means of human liberation, led to an eventual falling out with Sartre and, along with his opposition to the Algerian National Liberation Front, to his being branded a reactionary in the view of many European Communists. Yet his position also established him as an outspoken champion of individual freedom and as an impassioned critic of tyranny and terrorism, whether practiced by the Left or by the Right.
In 1956, Camus published the short, confessional novel The Fall, which unfortunately would be the last of his completed major works and which in the opinion of some critics is the most elegant, and most under-rated of all his books. During this period he was still afflicted by tuberculosis and was perhaps even more sorely beset by the deteriorating political situation in his native Algeria—which had by now escalated from demonstrations and occasional terrorist and guerilla attacks into open violence and insurrection. Camus still hoped to champion some kind of rapprochement that would allow the native Muslim population and the French pied noir minority to live together peaceably in a new de-colonized and largely integrated, if not fully independent, nation. Alas, by this point, as he painfully realized, the odds of such an outcome were becoming increasingly unlikely.
In the fall of 1957, following publication of Exile and the Kingdom, a collection of short fiction, Camus was shocked by news that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He absorbed the announcement with mixed feelings of gratitude, humility, and amazement. On the one hand, the award was obviously a tremendous honor. On the other, not only did he feel that his friend and esteemed fellow novelist Andre Malraux was more deserving, he was also aware that the Nobel itself was widely regarded as the kind of accolade usually given to artists at the end of a long career. Yet, as he indicated in his acceptance speech at Stockholm, he considered his own career as still in mid-flight, with much yet to accomplish and even greater writing challenges ahead:
Every person, and assuredly every artist, wants to be recognized. So do I. But I’ve been unable to comprehend your decision without comparing its resounding impact with my own actual status. A man almost young, rich only in his doubts, and with his work still in progress…how could such a man not feel a kind of panic at hearing a decree that transports him all of a sudden…to the center of a glaring spotlight? And with what feelings could he accept this honor at a time when other writers in Europe, among them the very greatest, are condemned to silence, and even at a time when the country of his birth is going through unending misery?
Of course Camus could not have known as he spoke these words that most of his writing career was in fact behind him. Over the next two years, he published articles and continued to write, produce, and direct plays, including his own adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. He also formulated new concepts for film and television, assumed a leadership role in a new experimental national theater, and continued to campaign for peace and a political solution in Algeria. Unfortunately, none of these latter projects would be brought to fulfillment. On January 4, 1960, Camus died tragically in a car accident while he was a passenger in a vehicle driven by his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard, who also suffered fatal injuries. The author was buried in the local cemetery at Lourmarin, a village in Provencal where he and his wife and daughters had lived for nearly a decade.
Upon hearing of Camus’s death, Sartre wrote a moving eulogy in the France-Observateur, saluting his former friend and political adversary not only for his distinguished contributions to French literature but especially for the heroic moral courage and “stubborn humanism” which he brought to bear against the “massive and deformed events of the day.”
2. Literary Career
According to Sartre’s perceptive appraisal, Camus was less a novelist and more a writer of philosophical tales and parables in the tradition of Voltaire. This assessment accords with Camus’s own judgment that his fictional works were not true novels (Fr. romans), a form he associated with the densely populated and richly detailed social panoramas of writers like Balzac, Tolstoy, and Proust, but rather contes (“tales”) and recits (“narratives”) combining philosophical and psychological insights.
In this respect, it is also worth noting that at no time in his career did Camus ever describe himself as a deep thinker or lay claim to the title of philosopher. Instead, he nearly always referred to himself simply, yet proudly, as un ecrivain—a writer. This is an important fact to keep in mind when assessing his place in intellectual history and in twentieth-century philosophy, for by no means does he qualify as a system-builder or theorist or even as a disciplined thinker. He was instead (and here again Sartre’s assessment is astute) a sort of all-purpose critic and modern-day philosophe: a debunker of mythologies, a critic of fraud and superstition, an enemy of terror, a voice of reason and compassion, and an outspoken defender of freedom—all in all a figure very much in the Enlightenment tradition of Voltaire and Diderot. For this reason, in assessing Camus’s career and work, it may be best simply to take him at his own word and characterize him first and foremost as a writer—advisedly attaching the epithet “philosophical” for sharper accuracy and definition.
3. Camus, Philosophical Literature, and the Novel of Ideas
To pin down exactly why and in what distinctive sense Camus may be termed a philosophical writer, we can begin by comparing him with other authors who have merited the designation. Right away, we can eliminate any comparison with the efforts of Lucretius and Dante, who undertook to unfold entire cosmologies and philosophical systems in epic verse. Camus obviously attempted nothing of the sort. On the other hand, we can draw at least a limited comparison between Camus and writers like Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche—that is, with writers who were first of all philosophers or religious writers, but whose stylistic achievements and literary flair gained them a special place in the pantheon of world literature as well. Here we may note that Camus himself was very conscious of his debt to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche (especially in the style and structure of The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel) and that he might very well have followed in their literary-philosophical footsteps if his tuberculosis had not side-tracked him into fiction and journalism and prevented him from pursuing an academic career.
Perhaps Camus himself best defined his own particular status as a philosophical writer when he wrote (with authors like Melville, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka especially in mind): “The great novelists are philosophical novelists”; that is, writers who eschew systematic explanation and create their discourse using “images instead of arguments” (The Myth of Sisyphus 74).
By his own definition then Camus is a philosophical writer in the sense that he has (a) conceived his own distinctive and original world-view and (b) sought to convey that view mainly through images, fictional characters and events, and via dramatic presentation rather than through critical analysis and direct discourse. He is also both a novelist of ideas and a psychological novelist, and in this respect, he certainly compares most closely to Dostoyevsky and Sartre, two other writers who combine a unique and distinctly philosophical outlook, acute psychological insight, and a dramatic style of presentation. (Like Camus, Sartre was a productive playwright, and Dostoyevsky remains perhaps the most dramatic of all novelists, as Camus clearly understood, having adapted both The Brothers Karamazov and The Possessed for the stage.)
Camus’s reputation rests largely on the three novels published during his lifetime—The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall—and on his two major philosophical essays—The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel. However, his body of work also includes a collection of short fiction, Exile and the Kingdom; an autobiographical novel, The First Man; a number of dramatic works, most notably Caligula, The Misunderstanding, The State of Siege, and The Just Assassins; several translations and adaptations, including new versions of works by Calderon, Lope de Vega, Dostoyevsky, and Faulkner; and a lengthy assortment of essays, prose pieces, critical reviews, transcribed speeches and interviews, articles, and works of journalism. A brief summary and description of the most important of Camus’s writings is presented below as preparation for a larger discussion of his philosophy and world-view, including his main ideas and recurrent philosophical themes.
The Stranger (L’Etranger, 1942)—From its cold opening lines, “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure,” to its bleak concluding image of a public execution set to take place beneath the “benign indifference of the universe,” Camus’s first and most famous novel takes the form of a terse, flat, first-person narrative by its main character Meursault, a very ordinary young man of unremarkable habits and unemotional affect who, inexplicably and in an almost absent-minded way, kills an Arab and then is arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The neutral style of the novel—typical of what the critic Roland Barthes called “writing degree zero”—serves as a perfect vehicle for the descriptions and commentary of its anti-hero narrator, the ultimate “outsider” and a person who seems to observe everything, including his own life, with almost pathological detachment.
The Plague (La Peste, 1947)—Set in the coastal town of Oran, Camus’s second novel is the story of an outbreak of plague, traced from its subtle, insidious, unheeded beginnings and horrible, seemingly irresistible dominion to its eventual climax and decline, all told from the viewpoint of one of the survivors. Camus made no effort to conceal the fact that his novel was partly based on and could be interpreted as an allegory or parable of the rise of Nazism and the nightmare of the Occupation. However, the plague metaphor is both more complicated and more flexible than that, extending to signify the Absurd in general as well as any calamity or disaster that tests the mettle of human beings, their endurance, their solidarity, their sense of responsibility, their compassion, and their will. At the end of the novel, the plague finally retreats, and the narrator reflects that a time of pestilence teaches “that there is more to admire in men than to despise,” but he also knows “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good,” that “the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again” and send them forth yet once more to spread death and contagion into a happy and unsuspecting city.
The Fall (La Chute, 1956)—Camus’s third novel, and the last to be published during his lifetime, is in effect an extended dramatic monologue spoken by M. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a dissipated, cynical, former Parisian attorney (who now calls himself a “judge-penitent”) to an unnamed auditor (thus indirectly to the reader). Set in a seedy bar in the red-light district of Amsterdam, the work is a small masterpiece of compression and style: a confessional (and semi-autobiographical) novel, an arresting character study and psychological portrait, and at the same time a wide-ranging philosophical discourse on guilt and innocence, expiation and punishment, good and evil.
Camus began his literary career as a playwright and theatre director and was planning new dramatic works for film, stage, and television at the time of his death. In addition to his four original plays, he also published several successful adaptations (including theatre pieces based on works by Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, and Calderon). He took particular pride in his work as a dramatist and man of the theatre. However, his plays never achieved the same popularity, critical success, or level of incandescence as his more famous novels and major essays.
Caligula (1938, first produced 1945)—“Men die and are not happy.” Such is the complaint against the universe pronounced by the young emperor Caligula, who in Camus’s play is less the murderous lunatic, slave to incest, narcissist, and megalomaniac of Roman history than a theatrical martyr-hero of the Absurd: a man who carries his philosophical quarrel with the meaninglessness of human existence to a kind of fanatical but logical extreme. Camus described his hero as a man “obsessed with the impossible” willing to pervert all values, and if necessary destroy himself and all those around him in the pursuit of absolute liberty. Caligula was Camus’s first attempt at portraying a figure in absolute defiance of the Absurd, and through three revisions of the play over a period of several years he eventually achieved a remarkable composite by adding to Caligula’s original portrait touches of Sade, of revolutionary nihilism, of the Nietzschean Superman, of his own version of Sisyphus, and even of Mussolini and Hitler.
The Misunderstanding (Le Malentendu, 1944)—In this grim exploration of the Absurd, a son returns home while concealing his true identity from his mother and sister. The two women operate a boarding house where, in order to make ends meet, they quietly murder and rob their patrons. Through a tangle of misunderstanding and mistaken identity they wind up murdering their unrecognized visitor. Camus has explained the drama as an attempt to capture the atmosphere of malaise, corruption, demoralization, and anonymity that he experienced while living in France during the German occupation. Despite the play’s dark themes and bleak style, he described its philosophy as ultimately optimistic: “It amounts to saying that in an unjust or indifferent world man can save himself, and save others, by practicing the most basic sincerity and pronouncing the most appropriate word.”
State of Siege (L’Etat de Siege, 1948)—This odd allegorical drama combines features of the medieval morality play with elements of Calderon and the Spanish baroque; it also has apocalyptic themes, bits of music hall comedy, and a collection of avant-garde theatrics thrown in for good measure. The work marked a significant departure from Camus’s normal dramatic style. It also resulted in virtually universal disapproval and negative reviews from Paris theatre-goers and critics, many of whom came expecting a play based on Camus’s recent novel The Plague. The play is set in the Spanish seaport city of Cadiz, famous for its beaches, carnivals, and street musicians. By the end of the first act, the normally laid-back and carefree citizens fall under the dominion of a gaudily beribboned and uniformed dictator named Plague (based on Generalissimo Franco) and his officious, clip-board wielding Secretary (who turns out to be a modern, bureaucratic incarnation of the medieval figure Death). One of the prominent concerns of the play is the Orwellian theme of the degradation of language via totalitarian politics and bureaucracy (symbolized onstage by calls for silence, scenes in pantomime, and a gagged chorus). As one character observes, “we are steadily nearing that perfect moment when nothing anybody says will rouse the least echo in another’s mind.”
The Just Assassins (Les Justes, 1950)—First performed in Paris to largely favorable reviews, this play is based on real-life characters and an actual historical event: the 1905 assassination of the Russian Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich by Ivan Kalyayev and fellow members of the Combat Organization of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The play effectively dramatizes the issues that Camus would later explore in detail in The Rebel, especially the question of whether acts of terrorism and political violence can ever be morally justified (and if so, with what limitations and in what specific circumstances). The historical Kalyayev passed up his original opportunity to bomb the Grand Duke’s carriage because the Duke was accompanied by his wife and two young nephews. However, this was no act of conscience on Kalyayev’s part but a purely practical decision based on his calculation that the murder of children would prove a setback to the revolution. After the successful completion of his bombing mission and subsequent arrest, Kalyayev welcomed his execution on similarly practical and purely political grounds, believing that his death would further the cause of revolution and social justice. Camus’s Kalyayev, on the other hand, is a far more agonized and conscientious figure, neither so cold-blooded nor so calculating as his real-life counterpart. Upon seeing the two children in the carriage, he refuses to toss his bomb not because doing so would be politically inexpedient but because he is overcome emotionally, temporarily unnerved by the sad expression in their eyes. Similarly, at the end of the play he embraces his death not so much because it will aid the revolution, but almost as a form of karmic penance, as if it were indeed some kind of sacred duty or metaphysical requirement that must be performed in order for true justice to be achieved.
c. Essays, Letters, Prose Collections, Articles, and Reviews
Betwixt and Between (L’Envers et l’endroit, 1937)—This short collection of semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional, philosophical pieces might be dismissed as juvenilia and largely ignored if it were not for the fact that it represents Camus’s first attempt to formulate a coherent life-outlook and world-view. The collection, which in a way serves as a germ or starting point for the author’s later philosophy, consists of five lyrical essays. In “Irony” (“L’Ironie”), a reflection on youth and age, Camus asserts, in the manner of a young disciple of Pascal, our essential solitariness in life and death. In “Between yes and no” (“Entre Oui et Non”) he suggests that to hope is as empty and as pointless as to despair, yet he goes beyond nihilism by positing a fundamental value to existence-in-the-world. In “Death in the soul” (“La Mort dans l’ame”) he supplies a sort of existential travel review, contrasting his impressions of central and Eastern Europe (which he views as purgatorial and morgue-like) with the more spontaneous life of Italy and Mediterranean culture. The piece thus affirms the author’s lifelong preference for the color and vitality of the Mediterranean world, and especially North Africa, as opposed to what he perceives as the soulless cold-heartedness of modern Europe. In “Love of life” (“Amour de vivre”) he claims there can be no love of life without despair of life and thus largely re-asserts the essentially tragic, ancient Greek view that the very beauty of human existence is largely contingent upon its brevity and fragility. The concluding essay, “Betwixt and between” (“L’Envers et l’endroit”), summarizes and re-emphasizes the Romantic themes of the collection as a whole: our fundamental “aloneness,” the importance of imagination and openness to experience, the imperative to “live as if….”
Nuptials (Noces, 1938)—This collection of four rhapsodic narratives supplements and amplifies the youthful philosophy expressed in Betwixt and Between. That joy is necessarily intertwined with despair, that the shortness of life confers a premium on intense experience, and that the world is both beautiful and violent—these are, once again, Camus’s principal themes. “Summer in Algiers,” which is probably the best (and best-known) of the essays in the collection, is a lyrical, at times almost ecstatic, celebration of sea, sun, and the North African landscape. Affirming a defiantly atheistic creed, Camus concludes with one of the core ideas of his philosophy: “If there is a sin against life, it consists not so much in despairing as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this one.”
The Myth of Sisyphus (Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1943)—If there is a single non-fiction work that can be considered an essential or fundamental statement of Camus’s philosophy, it is this extended essay on the ethics of suicide (eventually translated and repackaged for American publication in 1955). It is here that Camus formally introduces and fully articulates his most famous idea, the concept of the Absurd, and his equally famous image of life as a Sisyphean struggle. From its provocative opening sentence—“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”—to its stirring, paradoxical conclusion—“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”—the book has something interesting and challenging on nearly every page and is shot through with brilliant aphorisms and insights. In the end, Camus rejects suicide: the Absurd must not be evaded either by religion (“philosophical suicide”) or by annihilation (“physical suicide”); the task of living should not merely be accepted, it must be embraced.
The Rebel (L’Homme Revolte, 1951)—Camus considered this work a continuation of the critical and philosophical investigation of the Absurd that he began with The Myth of Sisyphus. Only this time his primary concern is not suicide but murder. He takes up the question of whether acts of terrorism and political violence can be morally justified, which is basically the same question he had addressed earlier in his play The Just Assassins. After arguing that an authentic life inevitably involves some form of conscientious moral revolt, Camus winds up concluding that only in rare and very narrowly defined instances is political violence justified. Camus’s critique of revolutionary violence and terror in this work, and particularly his caustic assessment of Marxism-Leninism (which he accused of sacrificing innocent lives on the altar of History), touched nerves throughout Europe and led in part to his celebrated feud with Sartre and other French leftists.
Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (1957)—This posthumous collection is of interest to students of Camus mainly because it brings together an unusual assortment of his non-fiction writings on a wide range of topics, from art and politics to the advantages of pessimism and the virtues (from a non-believer’s standpoint) of Christianity. Of special interest are two pieces that helped secure Camus’s worldwide reputation as a voice of liberty: “Letters to a German Friend,” a set of four letters originally written during the Nazi Occupation, and “Reflections on the Guillotine,” a denunciation of the death penalty cited for special mention by the Nobel committee and eventually revised and re-published as a companion essay to go with fellow death-penalty opponent Arthur Koestler’s “Reflections on Hanging.”
To re-emphasize a point made earlier, Camus considered himself first and foremost a writer (un ecrivain). Indeed, Camus’s dissertation advisor penciled onto his dissertation the assessment “More a writer than a philosopher.” And at various times in his career he also accepted the labels journalist, humanist, novelist, and even moralist. However, he apparently never felt comfortable identifying himself as a philosopher—a term he seems to have associated with rigorous academic training, systematic thinking, logical consistency, and a coherent, carefully defined doctrine or body of ideas.
This is not to suggest that Camus lacked ideas or to say that his thought cannot be considered a personal philosophy. It is simply to point out that he was not a systematic, or even a notably disciplined thinker and that, unlike Heidegger and Sartre, for example, he showed very little interest in metaphysics and ontology, which seems to be one of the reasons he consistently denied that he was an existentialist. In short, he was not much given to speculative philosophy or any kind of abstract theorizing. His thought is instead nearly always related to current events (e.g., the Spanish War, revolt in Algeria) and is consistently grounded in down-to-earth moral and political reality.
a. Background and Influences
Though he was baptized, raised, and educated as a Catholic and invariably respectful towards the Church, Camus seems to have been a natural-born pagan who showed almost no instinct whatsoever for belief in the supernatural. Even as a youth, he was more of a sun-worshipper and nature lover than a boy notable for his piety or religious faith. On the other hand, there is no denying that Christian literature and philosophy served as an important influence on his early thought and intellectual development. As a young high school student, Camus studied the Bible, read and savored the Spanish mystics St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and was introduced to the thought of St. Augustine St. Augustine would later serve as the subject of his baccalaureate dissertation and become—as a fellow North African writer, quasi-existentialist, and conscientious observer-critic of his own life—an important lifelong influence.
In college Camus absorbed Kierkegaard, who, after Augustine, was probably the single greatest Christian influence on his thought. He also studied Schopenhauer and Nietzsche—undoubtedly the two writers who did the most to set him on his own path of defiant pessimism and atheism. Other notable influences include not only the major modern philosophers from the academic curriculum—from Descartes and Spinoza to Bergson—but also, and just as importantly, philosophical writers like Stendhal, Melville, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka.
The two earliest expressions of Camus’s personal philosophy are his works Betwixt and Between (1937) and Nuptials (1938). Here he unfolds what is essentially a hedonistic, indeed almost primitivistic, celebration of nature and the life of the senses. In the Romantic poetic tradition of writers like Rilke and Wallace Stevens, he offers a forceful rejection of all hereafters and an emphatic embrace of the here and now. There is no salvation, he argues, no transcendence; there is only the enjoyment of consciousness and natural being. One life, this life, is enough. Sky and sea, mountain and desert, have their own beauty and magnificence and constitute a sufficient heaven.
The critic John Cruikshank termed this stage in Camus’s thinking “naïve atheism” and attributed it to his ecstatic and somewhat immature “Mediterraneanism.” Naïve seems an apt characterization for a philosophy that is romantically bold and uncomplicated yet somewhat lacking in sophistication and logical clarity. On the other hand, if we keep in mind Camus’s theatrical background and preference for dramatic presentation, there may actually be more depth and complexity to his thought here than meets the eye. That is to say, just as it would be simplistic and reductive to equate Camus’s philosophy of revolt with that of his character Caligula (who is at best a kind of extreme or mad spokesperson for the author), so in the same way it is possible that the pensées and opinions presented in Nuptials and Betwixt and Between are not so much the views of Camus as they are poetically heightened observations of an artfully crafted narrator—an exuberant alter ego who is far more spontaneous and free-spirited than his more naturally reserved and sober-minded author.
In any case, regardless of this assessment of the ideas expressed in Betwixt and Between and Nuptials, it is clear that these early writings represent an important, if comparatively raw and simple, beginning stage in Camus’s development as a thinker where his views differ markedly from his more mature philosophy in several noteworthy respects.
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In the first place, the Camus of Nuptials is still a young man of twenty-five, aflame with youthful joie de vivre. He favors a life of impulse and daring as it was honored and practiced in both Romantic literature and in the streets of Belcourt. Recently married and divorced, raised in poverty and in close quarters, beset with health problems, this young man develops an understandable passion for clear air, open space, colorful dreams, panoramic vistas, and the breath-taking prospects and challenges of the larger world. Consequently, the Camus of the period 1937-38 is a decidedly different writer from the Camus who will ascend the dais at Stockholm nearly twenty years later.
The young Camus is more of a sensualist and pleasure-seeker, more of a dandy and aesthete, than the more hardened and austere figure who will endure the Occupation while serving in the French underground. He is a writer passionate in his conviction that life ought to be lived vividly and intensely—indeed rebelliously (to use the term that will take on increasing importance in his thought). He is also a writer attracted to causes, though he is not yet the author who will become world-famous for his moral seriousness and passionate commitment to justice and freedom. All of which is understandable. After all, the Camus of the middle 1930s had not yet witnessed and absorbed the shattering spectacle and disillusioning effects of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Fascism, Hitlerism, and Stalinism, the coming into being of total war and weapons of mass destruction, and the terrible reign of genocide and terror that would characterize the period 1938-1945. It was under the pressure and in direct response to the events of this period that Camus’s mature philosophy—with its core set of humanistic themes and ideas—emerged and gradually took shape. That mature philosophy is no longer a “naïve atheism” but a very reflective and critical brand of unbelief. It is proudly and inconsolably pessimistic, but not in a polemical or overbearing way. It is unbending, hardheaded, determinedly skeptical. It is tolerant and respectful of world religious creeds, but at the same time wholly unsympathetic to them. In the end it is an affirmative philosophy that accepts and approves, and in its own way blesses, our dreadful mortality and our fundamental isolation in the world.
c. Themes and Ideas
Regardless of whether he is producing drama, fiction, or non-fiction, Camus in his mature writings nearly always takes up and re-explores the same basic philosophical issues. These recurrent topoi constitute the key components of his thought. They include themes like the Absurd, alienation, suicide, and rebellion that almost automatically come to mind whenever his name is mentioned. Hence any summary of his place in modern philosophy would be incomplete without at least a brief discussion of these ideas and how they fit together to form a distinctive and original world-view.
i. The Absurd
Even readers not closely acquainted with Camus’s works are aware of his reputation as the philosophical expositor, anatomist, and poet-apostle of the Absurd. Indeed, as even sitcom writers and stand-up comics apparently understand (odd fact: the comic-bleak final episode of Seinfeld has been compared to The Stranger, and Camus’s thought has been used to explain episodes of The Simpsons), it is largely through the thought and writings of the French-Algerian author that the concept of absurdity has become a part not only of world literature and twentieth-century philosophy but also of modern popular culture.
What then is meant by the notion of the Absurd? Contrary to the view conveyed by popular culture, the Absurd, (at least in Camus’s terms) does not simply refer to some vague perception that modern life is fraught with paradoxes, incongruities, and intellectual confusion. (Although that perception is certainly consistent with his formula.) Instead, as he emphasizes and tries to make clear, the Absurd expresses a fundamental disharmony, a tragic incompatibility, in our existence. In effect, he argues that the Absurd is the product of a collision or confrontation between our human desire for order, meaning, and purpose in life and the blank, indifferent “silence of the universe”: “The absurd is not in man nor in the world,” Camus explains, “but in their presence together…it is the only bond uniting them.”
So here we are: poor creatures desperately seeking hope and meaning in a hopeless, meaningless world. Sartre, in his essay-review of The Stranger provides an additional gloss on the idea: “The absurd, to be sure, resides neither in man nor in the world, if you consider each separately. But since man’s dominant characteristic is ‘being in the world,’ the absurd is, in the end, an inseparable part of the human condition.” The Absurd, then, presents itself in the form of an existential opposition. It arises from the human demand for clarity and transcendence on the one hand and a cosmos that offers nothing of the kind on the other. Such is our fate: we inhabit a world that is indifferent to our sufferings and deaf to our protests.
In Camus’s view there are three possible philosophical responses to this predicament. Two of these he condemns as evasions, and the other he puts forward as a proper solution.
The first choice is blunt and simple: physical suicide. If we decide that a life without some essential purpose or meaning is not worth living, we can simply choose to kill ourselves. Camus rejects this choice as cowardly. In his terms it is a repudiation or renunciation of life, not a true revolt.
The second choice is the religious solution of positing a transcendent world of solace and meaning beyond the Absurd. Camus calls this solution “philosophical suicide” and rejects it as transparently evasive and fraudulent. To adopt a supernatural solution to the problem of the Absurd (for example, through some type of mysticism or leap of faith) is to annihilate reason, which in Camus’s view is as fatal and self-destructive as physical suicide. In effect, instead of removing himself from the absurd confrontation of self and world like the physical suicide, the religious believer simply removes the offending world and replaces it, via a kind of metaphysical abracadabra, with a more agreeable alternative.
The third choice—in Camus’s view the only authentic and valid solution—is simply to accept absurdity, or better yet to embrace it, and to continue living. Since the Absurd in his view is an unavoidable, indeed defining, characteristic of the human condition, the only proper response to it is full, unflinching, courageous acceptance. Life, he says, can “be lived all the better if it has no meaning.”
The example par excellence of this option of spiritual courage and metaphysical revolt is the mythical Sisyphus of Camus’s philosophical essay. Doomed to eternal labor at his rock, fully conscious of the essential hopelessness of his plight, Sisyphus nevertheless pushes on. In doing so he becomes for Camus a superb icon of the spirit of revolt and of the human condition. To rise each day to fight a battle you know you cannot win, and to do this with wit, grace, compassion for others, and even a sense of mission, is to face the Absurd in a spirit of true heroism.
Over the course of his career, Camus examines the Absurd from multiple perspectives and through the eyes of many different characters—from the mad Caligula, who is obsessed with the problem, to the strangely aloof and yet simultaneously self-absorbed Meursault, who seems indifferent to it even as he exemplifies and is finally victimized by it. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus traces it in specific characters of legend and literature (Don Juan, Ivan Karamazov) and also in certain character types (the Actor, the Conqueror), all of who may be understood as in some way a version or manifestation of Sisyphus, the archetypal absurd hero.
[Note: A rather different, yet possibly related, notion of the Absurd is proposed and analyzed in the work of Kierkegaard, especially in Fear and Trembling and Repetition. For Kierkegaard, however, the Absurd describes not an essential and universal human condition, but the special condition and nature of religious faith—a paradoxical state in which matters of will and perception that are objectively impossible can nevertheless be ultimately true. Though it is hard to say whether Camus had Kierkegaard particularly in mind when he developed his own concept of the absurd, there can be little doubt that Kierkegaard’s knight of faith is in certain ways an important predecessor of Camus’s Sisyphus: both figures are involved in impossible and endlessly agonizing tasks, which they nevertheless confidently and even cheerfully pursue. In the knight’s quixotic defiance and solipsism, Camus found a model for his own ideal of heroic affirmation and philosophical revolt.]
The companion theme to the Absurd in Camus’s oeuvre (and the only other philosophical topic to which he devoted an entire book) is the idea of Revolt. What is revolt? Simply defined, it is the Sisyphean spirit of defiance in the face of the Absurd. More technically and less metaphorically, it is a spirit of opposition against any perceived unfairness, oppression, or indignity in the human condition.
Rebellion in Camus’s sense begins with a recognition of boundaries, of limits that define one’s essential selfhood and core sense of being and thus must not be infringed—as when a slave stands up to his master and says in effect “thus far, and no further, shall I be commanded.” This defining of the self as at some point inviolable appears to be an act of pure egoism and individualism, but it is not. In fact Camus argues at considerable length to show that an act of conscientious revolt is ultimately far more than just an individual gesture or an act of solitary protest. The rebel, he writes, holds that there is a “common good more important than his own destiny” and that there are “rights more important than himself.” He acts “in the name of certain values which are still indeterminate but which he feels are common to himself and to all men” (The Rebel 15-16).
Camus then goes on to assert that an “analysis of rebellion leads at least to the suspicion that, contrary to the postulates of contemporary thought, a human nature does exist, as the Greeks believed.” After all, “Why rebel,” he asks, “if there is nothing permanent in the self worth preserving?” The slave who stands up and asserts himself actually does so for “the sake of everyone in the world.” He declares in effect that “all men—even the man who insults and oppresses him—have a natural community.” Here we may note that the idea that there may indeed be an essential human nature is actually more than a “suspicion” as far as Camus himself was concerned. Indeed for him it was more like a fundamental article of his humanist faith. In any case it represents one of the core principles of his ethics and is one of the tenets that sets his philosophy apart from existentialism.
True revolt, then, is performed not just for the self but also in solidarity with and out of compassion for others. And for this reason, Camus is led to conclude that revolt too has its limits. If it begins with and necessarily involves a recognition of human community and a common human dignity, it cannot, without betraying its own true character, treat others as if they were lacking in that dignity or not a part of that community. In the end it is remarkable, and indeed surprising, how closely Camus’s philosophy of revolt, despite the author’s fervent atheism and individualism, echoes Kantian ethics with its prohibition against treating human beings as means and its ideal of the human community as a kingdom of ends.
iii. The Outsider
A recurrent theme in Camus’s literary works, which also shows up in his moral and political writings, is the character or perspective of the “stranger” or outsider. Meursault, the laconic narrator of The Stranger, is the most obvious example. He seems to observe everything, even his own behavior, from an outside perspective. Like an anthropologist, he records his observations with clinical detachment at the same time that he is warily observed by the community around him.
Camus came by this perspective naturally. As a European in Africa, an African in Europe, an infidel among Muslims, a lapsed Catholic, a Communist Party drop-out, an underground resister (who at times had to use code names and false identities), a “child of the state” raised by a widowed mother (who was illiterate and virtually deaf and dumb), Camus lived most of his life in various groups and communities without really being integrated within them. This outside view, the perspective of the exile, became his characteristic stance as a writer. It explains both the cool, objective (“zero-degree”) precision of much of his work and also the high value he assigned to longed-for ideals of friendship, community, solidarity, and brotherhood.
iv. Guilt and Innocence
Throughout his writing career, Camus showed a deep interest in questions of guilt and innocence. Once again Meursault in The Stranger provides a striking example. Is he legally innocent of the murder he is charged with? Or is he technically guilty? On the one hand, there seems to have been no conscious intention behind his action. Indeed the killing takes place almost as if by accident, with Meursault in a kind of absent-minded daze, distracted by the sun. From this point of view, his crime seems surreal and his trial and subsequent conviction a travesty. On the other hand, it is hard for the reader not to share the view of other characters in the novel, especially Meursault’s accusers, witnesses, and jury, in whose eyes he seems to be a seriously defective human being—at best, a kind of hollow man and at worst, a monster of self-centeredness and insularity. That the character has evoked such a wide range of responses from critics and readers—from sympathy to horror—is a tribute to the psychological complexity and subtlety of Camus’s portrait.
Camus’s brilliantly crafted final novel, The Fall, continues his keen interest in the theme of guilt, this time via a narrator who is virtually obsessed with it. The significantly named Jean-Baptiste Clamence (a voice in the wilderness calling for clemency and forgiveness) is tortured by guilt in the wake of a seemingly casual incident. While strolling home one drizzly November evening, he shows little concern and almost no emotional reaction at all to the suicidal plunge of a young woman into the Seine. But afterwards the incident begins to gnaw at him, and eventually he comes to view his inaction as typical of a long pattern of personal vanity and as a colossal failure of human sympathy on his part. Wracked by remorse and self-loathing, he gradually descends into a figurative hell. Formerly an attorney, he is now a self-described “judge-penitent” (a combination sinner, tempter, prosecutor, and father-confessor) who shows up each night at his local haunt, a sailor’s bar near Amsterdam’s red light district, where, somewhat in the manner of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, he recounts his story to whoever will hear it. In the final sections of the novel, amid distinctly Christian imagery and symbolism, he declares his crucial insight that, despite our pretensions to righteousness, we are all guilty. Hence no human being has the right to pass final moral judgment on another.
In a final twist, Clamence asserts that his acid self-portrait is also a mirror for his contemporaries. Hence his confession is also an accusation—not only of his nameless companion (who serves as the mute auditor for his monologue) but ultimately of the hypocrite lecteur as well.
v. Christianity vs. “Paganism”
The theme of guilt and innocence in Camus’s writings relates closely to another recurrent tension in his thought: the opposition of Christian and pagan ideas and influences. At heart a nature-worshipper, and by instinct a skeptic and non-believer, Camus nevertheless retained a lifelong interest and respect for Christian philosophy and literature. In particular, he seems to have recognized St. Augustine and Kierkegaard as intellectual kinsmen and writers with whom he shared a common passion for controversy, literary flourish, self-scrutiny, and self-dramatization. Christian images, symbols, and allusions abound in all his work (probably more so than in the writing of any other avowed atheist in modern literature), and Christian themes—judgment, forgiveness, despair, sacrifice, passion, and so forth—permeate the novels. (Meursault and Clamence, it is worth noting, are presented not just as sinners, devils, and outcasts, but in several instances explicitly, and not entirely ironically, as Christ figures.)
Meanwhile alongside and against this leitmotif of Christian images and themes, Camus sets the main components of his essentially pagan worldview. Like Nietzsche, he maintains a special admiration for Greek heroic values and pessimism and for classical virtues like courage and honor. What might be termed Romantic values also merit particular esteem within his philosophy: passion, absorption in pure being, an appreciation for and indeed a willingness to revel in raw sensory experience, the glory of the moment, the beauty of the world.
As a result of this duality of influence, Camus’s basic philosophical problem becomes how to reconcile his Augustinian sense of original sin (universal guilt) and rampant moral evil with his personal ideal of pagan primitivism (universal innocence) and with his conviction that the natural world and our life in it have intrinsic beauty and value. Can an absurd world have intrinsic value? Is authentic pessimism compatible with the view that there is an essential dignity to human life? Such questions raise the possibility that there may be deep logical inconsistencies within Camus’s philosophy, and some critics (notably Sartre) have suggested that these inconsistencies cannot be surmounted except through some sort of Kierkegaardian leap of faith on Camus’s part—in this case a leap leading to a belief not in God but in man.
Such a leap is certainly implied in an oft-quoted remark from Camus’s “Letter to a German Friend,” where he wrote: “I continue to believe that this world has no supernatural meaning…But I know that something in the world has meaning—man.” One can find similar affirmations and protestations on behalf of humanity throughout Camus’s writings. They are almost a hallmark of his philosophical style. Oracular and high-flown, they clearly have more rhetorical force than logical potency. On the other hand, if we are trying to locate Camus’s place in European philosophical tradition, they provide a strong clue as to where he properly belongs. Surprisingly, the sentiment here, a commonplace of the Enlightenment and of traditional liberalism, is much closer in spirit to the exuberant secular humanism of the Italian Renaissance than to the agnostic skepticism of contemporary post-modernism.
vi. Individual vs. History and Mass Culture
A primary theme of early twentieth-century European literature and critical thought is the rise of modern mass civilization and its suffocating effects of alienation and dehumanization. This became a pervasive theme by the time Camus was establishing his literary reputation. Anxiety over the fate of Western culture, already intense, escalated to apocalyptic levels with the sudden emergence of fascism, totalitarianism, and new technologies of coercion and death. Here then was a subject ready-made for a writer of Camus’s political and humanistic views. He responded to the occasion with typical force and eloquence.
In one way or another, the themes of alienation and dehumanization as by-products of an increasingly technical and automated world enter into nearly all of Camus’s works. Even his concept of the Absurd becomes multiplied by a social and economic world in which meaningless routines and mind-numbing repetitions predominate. The drudgery of Sisyphus is mirrored and amplified in the assembly line, the business office, the government bureau, and especially in the penal colony and concentration camp.
In line with this theme, the ever-ambiguous Meursault in The Stranger can be understood as both a depressing manifestation of the newly emerging mass personality (that is, as a figure devoid of basic human feelings and passions) and, conversely, as a lone hold-out, a last remaining specimen of the old Romanticism—and hence a figure who is viewed as both dangerous and alien by the robotic majority. Similarly, The Plague can be interpreted, on at least one level, as an allegory in which humanity must be preserved from the fatal pestilence of mass culture, which converts formerly free, autonomous, independent-minded human beings into a soulless new species.
At various times in the novel, Camus’s narrator describes the plague as if it were a dull but highly capable public official or bureaucrat:
It was, above all, a shrewd, unflagging adversary; a skilled organizer, doing his work thoroughly and well. (180) “But it seemed the plague had settled in for good at its most virulent, and it took its daily toll of deaths with the punctual zeal of a good civil servant.” (235)
This identification of the plague with oppressive civil bureaucracy and the routinization of charisma looks forward to the author’s play The State of Siege, where plague is used once again as a symbol for totalitarianism—only this time it is personified in an almost cartoonish way as a kind of overbearing government functionary or office manager from hell. Clad in a gaudy military uniform bedecked with ribbons and decorations, the character Plague (a satirical portrait of Generalissimo Francisco Franco—or El Caudillo as he liked to style himself) is closely attended by his personal Secretary and loyal assistant Death, depicted as a prim, officious female bureaucrat who also favors military garb and who carries an ever-present clipboard and notebook.
So Plague is a fascist dictator, and Death a solicitous commissar. Together these figures represent a system of pervasive control and micro-management that threatens the future of mass society.
In his reflections on this theme of post-industrial dehumanization, Camus differs from most other European writers (and especially from those on the Left) in viewing mass reform and revolutionary movements, including Marxism, as representing at least as great a threat to individual freedom as late-stage capitalism. Throughout his career he continued to cherish and defend old-fashioned virtues like personal courage and honor that other Left-wing intellectuals tended to view as reactionary or bourgeois.
Suicide is the central subject of The Myth of Sisyphus and serves as a background theme in Caligula and The Fall. In Caligula the mad title character, in a fit of horror and revulsion at the meaninglessness of life, would rather die—and bring the world down with him—than accept a cosmos that is indifferent to human fate or that will not submit to his individual will. In The Fall, a stranger’s act of suicide serves as the starting point for a bitter ritual of self-scrutiny and remorse on the part of the narrator.
Like Wittgenstein (who had a family history of suicide and suffered from bouts of depression), Camus considered suicide the fundamental issue for moral philosophy. However, unlike other philosophers who have written on the subject (from Cicero and Seneca to Montaigne and Schopenhauer), Camus seems uninterested in assessing the traditional motives and justifications for suicide (for instance, to avoid a long, painful, and debilitating illness or as a response to personal tragedy or scandal). Indeed, he seems interested in the problem only to the extent that it represents one possible response to the Absurd. His verdict on the matter is unqualified and clear: The only courageous and morally valid response to the Absurd is to continue living—“Suicide is not an option.”
viii. The Death Penalty
From the time he first heard the story of his father’s literal nausea and revulsion after witnessing a public execution, Camus began a vocal and lifelong opposition to the death penalty. Executions by guillotine were a common public spectacle in Algeria during his lifetime, but he refused to attend them and recoiled bitterly at their very mention.
Condemnation of capital punishment is both explicit and implicit in his writings. For example, in The Stranger Meursault’s long confinement during his trial and his eventual execution are presented as part of an elaborate, ceremonial ritual involving both public and religious authorities. The grim rationality of this process of legalized murder contrasts markedly with the sudden, irrational, almost accidental nature of his actual crime. Similarly, in The Myth of Sisyphus, the would-be suicide is contrasted with his fatal opposite, the man condemned to death, and we are continually reminded that a sentence of death is our common fate in an absurd universe.
Camus’s opposition to the death penalty is not specifically philosophical. That is, it is not based on a particular moral theory or principle (such as Cesare Beccaria’s utilitarian objection that capital punishment is wrong because it has not been proven to have a deterrent effect greater than life imprisonment). Camus’s opposition, in contrast, is humanitarian, conscientious, almost visceral. Like Victor Hugo, his great predecessor on this issue, he views the death penalty as an egregious barbarism—an act of blood riot and vengeance covered over with a thin veneer of law and civility to make it acceptable to modern sensibilities. That it is also an act of vengeance aimed primarily at the poor and oppressed, and that it is given religious sanction, makes it even more hideous and indefensible in his view.
Camus’s essay “Reflections on the Guillotine” supplies a detailed examination of the issue. An eloquent personal statement with compelling psychological and philosophical insights, it includes the author’s direct rebuttal to traditional retributionist arguments in favor of capital punishment (such as Kant’s claim that death is the legally appropriate, indeed morally required, penalty for murder). To all who argue that murder must be punished in kind, Camus replies:
Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated, can be compared. For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date on which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not to be encountered in private life.
Camus concludes his essay by arguing that, at the very least, France should abolish the savage spectacle of the guillotine and replace it with a more humane procedure (such as lethal injection). But he still retains a scant hope that capital punishment will be completely abolished at some point in the time to come: “In the unified Europe of the future the solemn abolition of the death penalty ought to be the first article of the European Code we all hope for.” Camus himself did not live to see the day, but he would no doubt be gratified to know that abolition of capital punishment is now an essential prerequisite for membership in the European Union.
Camus is often classified as an existentialist writer, and it is easy to see why. Affinities with Kierkegaard and Sartre are patent. He shares with these philosophers (and with the other major writers in the existentialist tradition, from Augustine and Pascal to Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche) an habitual and intense interest in the active human psyche, in the life of conscience or spirit as it is actually experienced and lived. Like these writers, he aims at nothing less than a thorough, candid exegesis of the human condition, and like them he exhibits not just a philosophical attraction but also a personal commitment to such values as individualism, free choice, inner strength, authenticity, personal responsibility, and self-determination.
However, one troublesome fact remains: throughout his career Camus repeatedly denied that he was an existentialist. Was this an accurate and honest self-assessment? On the one hand, some critics have questioned this “denial” (using the term almost in its modern clinical sense), attributing it to the celebrated Sartre-Camus political “feud” or to a certain stubbornness or even contrariness on Camus’s part. In their view, Camus qualifies as, at minimum, a closet existentialist, and in certain respects (e.g., in his unconditional and passionate concern for the individual) as an even truer specimen of the type than Sartre.
On the other hand, besides his personal rejection of the label, there appear to be solid reasons for challenging the claim that Camus is an existentialist. For one thing, it is noteworthy that he never showed much interest in (indeed he largely avoided) metaphysical and ontological questions (the philosophical raison d’etre of Heidegger and Sartre). Of course there is no rule that says an existentialist must be a metaphysician. However, Camus’s seeming aversion to technical philosophical discussion does suggest one way in which he distanced himself from contemporary existentialist thought.
Another point of divergence is that Camus seems to have regarded existentialism as a complete and systematic world-view, that is, a fully articulated doctrine. In his view, to be a true existentialist one had to commit to the entire doctrine (and not merely to bits and pieces of it), and this was apparently something he was unwilling to do.
A further point of separation, and possibly a decisive one, is that Camus actively challenged and set himself apart from the existentialist motto that being precedes essence. Ultimately, against Sartre in particular and existentialists in general, he clings to his instinctive belief in a common human nature. In his view human existence necessarily includes an essential core element of dignity and value, and in this respect he seems surprisingly closer to the humanist tradition from Aristotle to Kant than to the modern tradition of skepticism and relativism from Nietzsche to Derrida (the latter his fellow-countryman and, at least in his commitment to human rights and opposition to the death penalty, his spiritual successor and descendant).
7. Significance and Legacy
Obviously, Camus’s writings remain the primary reason for his continuing importance and the chief source of his cultural legacy, but his fame is also due to his exemplary life. He truly lived his philosophy; thus it is in his personal political stands and public statements as well as in his books that his views are clearly articulated. In short, he bequeathed not just his words but also his actions. Taken together, those words and actions embody a core set of liberal democratic values—including tolerance, justice, liberty, open-mindedness, respect for personhood, condemnation of violence, and resistance to tyranny—that can be fully approved and acted upon by the modern intellectual engagé.
On a purely literary level, one of Camus’s most original contributions to modern discourse is his distinctive prose style. Terse and hard-boiled, yet at the same time lyrical, and indeed capable of great, soaring flights of emotion and feeling, Camus’s style represents a deliberate attempt on his part to wed the famous clarity, elegance, and dry precision of the French philosophical tradition with the more sonorous and opulent manner of 19th century Romantic fiction. The result is something like a cross between Hemingway (a Camus favorite) and Melville (another favorite) or between Diderot and Hugo. For the most part when we read Camus we encounter the plain syntax, simple vocabulary, and biting aphorism typical of modern theatre or noir detective fiction. However, this base style frequently becomes a counterpoint or springboard for extended musings and lavish descriptions almost in the manner of Proust. Here we may note that this attempted reconciliation or union of opposing styles is not just an aesthetic gesture on the author’s part: It is also a moral and political statement. It says, in effect, that the life of reason and the life of feeling need not be opposed; that intellect and passion can, and should, operate together.
Perhaps the greatest inspiration and example that Camus provides for contemporary readers is the lesson that it is still possible for a serious thinker to face the modern world (with a full understanding of its contradictions, injustices, brutal flaws, and absurdities) with hardly a grain of hope, yet utterly without cynicism. To read Camus is to find words like justice, freedom, humanity, and dignity used plainly and openly, without apology or embarrassment, and without the pained or derisive facial expressions or invisible quotation marks that almost automatically accompany those terms in public discourse today.
At Stockholm Camus concluded his Nobel acceptance speech with a stirring reminder and challenge to modern writers: “The nobility of our craft,” he declared, “will always be rooted in two commitments, both difficult to maintain: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression.” He left behind a body of work faithful to his own credo that the arts of language must always be used in the service of truth and the service of liberty.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Towards the end of his most influential work, Critique of Pure Reason(1781/1787), Kant argues that all philosophy ultimately aims at answering these three questions: “What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?” The book appeared at the beginning of the most productive period of his career, and by the end of his life Kant had worked out systematic, revolutionary, and often profound answers to these questions.
At the foundation of Kant’s system is the doctrine of “transcendental idealism,” which emphasizes a distinction between what we can experience (the natural, observable world) and what we cannot (“supersensible” objects such as God and the soul). Kant argued that we can only have knowledge of things we can experience. Accordingly, in answer to the question, “What can I know?” Kant replies that we can know the natural, observable world, but we cannot, however, have answers to many of the deepest questions of metaphysics.
Kant’s ethics are organized around the notion of a “categorical imperative,” which is a universal ethical principle stating that one should always respect the humanity in others, and that one should only act in accordance with rules that could hold for everyone. Kant argued that the moral law is a truth of reason, and hence that all rational creatures are bound by the same moral law. Thus in answer to the question, “What should I do?” Kant replies that we should act rationally, in accordance with a universal moral law.
Kant also argued that his ethical theory requires belief in free will, God, and the immortality of the soul. Although we cannot have knowledge of these things, reflection on the moral law leads to a justified belief in them, which amounts to a kind rational faith. Thus in answer to the question, “What may I hope?” Kant replies that we may hope that our souls are immortal and that there really is a God who designed the world in accordance with principles of justice.
In addition to these three focal points, Kant also made lasting contributions to nearly all areas of philosophy. His aesthetic theory remains influential among art critics. His theory of knowledge is required reading for many branches of analytic philosophy. The cosmopolitanism behind his political theory colors discourse about globalization and international relations. And some of his scientific contributions are even considered intellectual precursors to several ideas in contemporary cosmology.
This article presents an overview of these and other of Kant’s most important philosophical contributions. It follows standard procedures for citing Kant’s works. Passages from Critique of Pure Reason are cited by reference to page numbers in both the 1781 and 1787 editions. Thus “(A805/B833)” refers to page 805 in the 1781 edition and 833 in the 1787 edition. References to the rest of Kant’s works refer to the volume and page number of the official Deutsche Akademie editions of Kant’s works. Thus “(5:162)” refers to volume 5, page 162 of those editions.
Table of Contents
Kant was born in 1724 in the Prussian city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad in Russia).
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His parents – Johann Georg and Anna Regina – were pietists. Although they raised Kant in this tradition (an austere offshoot of Lutheranism that emphasized humility and divine grace), he does not appear ever to have been very sympathetic to this kind of religious devotion. As a youth, he attended the Collegium Fridericianum in Königsberg, after which he attended the University of Königsberg. Although he initially focused his studies on the classics, philosophy soon caught and held his attention. The rationalism of Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and Christian Wolff (1679-1754) was most influential on him during these early years, but Kant was also introduced to Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) writings during this time.
His mother had died in 1737, and after his father’s death in 1746 Kant left the University to work as a private tutor for several families in the countryside around the city. He returned to the University in 1754 to teach as a Privatdozent, which meant that he was paid directly by individual students, rather than by the University. He supported himself in this way until 1770. Kant published many essays and other short works during this period. He made minor scientific contributions in astronomy, physics, and earth science, and wrote philosophical treatises engaging with the Leibnizian-Wolffian traditions of the day (many of these are discussed below). Kant’s primary professional goal during this period was to eventually attain the position of Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Königsberg. He finally succeeded in 1770 (at the age of 46) when he completed his second dissertation (the first had been published in 1755), which is now referred to as the Inaugural Dissertation.
Commentators divide Kant’s career into the “pre-critical” period before 1770 and the “critical” period after. After the publication of the Inaugural Dissertation, Kant published hardly anything for more than a decade (this period is referred to as his “silent decade”). However, this was anything but a fallow period for Kant. After discovering and being shaken by the radical skepticism of Hume’s empiricism in the early 1770s, Kant undertook a massive project to respond to Hume. He realized that this response would require a complete reorientation of the most fundamental approaches to metaphysics and epistemology. Although it took much longer than initially planned, his project came to fruition in 1781 with the publication of the first edition of Critique of Pure Reason
The 1780s would be the most productive years of Kant’s career. In addition to writing the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783) as a sort of introduction to the Critique, Kant wrote important works in ethics (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785, and Critique of Practical Reason, 1788), he applied his theoretical philosophy to Newtonian physical theory (Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, 1786), and he substantially revised the Critique of Pure Reason in 1787. Kant capped the decade with the publication of the third and final critique, Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790).
Although the products of the 1780s are the works for which Kant is best known, he continued to publish philosophical writings through the 1790s as well. Of note during this period are Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason (1793), Towards Perpetual Peace (1795), Metaphysics of Morals (1797), and Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798). The Religion was attended with some controversy, and Kant was ultimately led to promise the King of Prussia (Friedrich Wilhelm II) not to publish anything else on religion. (Kant considered the promise null and void after the king died in 1797.) During his final years, he devoted himself to completing the critical project with one final bridge to physical science. Unfortunately, the encroaching dementia of Kant’s final years prevented him from completing this book (partial drafts are published under the title Opus Postumum).
Kant never married and there are many stories that paint him as a quirky but dour eccentric. These stories do not do him justice. He was beloved by his friends and colleagues. He was consistently generous to all those around him, including his servants. He was universally considered a lively and engaging dinner guest and (later in life) host. And he was a devoted and popular teacher throughout the five decades he spent in the classroom. Although he had hoped for a small, private ceremony, when he died in 1804, age 79, his funeral was attended by the thousands who wished to pay their respects to “the sage of Königsberg.”
2. Metaphysics and Epistemology
The most important element of Kant’s mature metaphysics and epistemology is his doctrine of transcendental idealism, which received its fullest discussion in Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87). Transcendental idealism is the thesis that the empirical world that we experience (the “phenomenal” world of “appearances”) is to be distinguished from the world of things as they are in themselves. The most significant aspect of this distinction is that while the empirical world exists in space and time, things in themselves are neither spatial nor temporal. Transcendental idealism has wide-ranging consequences. On the positive side, Kant takes transcendental idealism to entail an “empirical realism,” according to which humans have direct epistemic access to the natural, physical world and can even have a priori cognition of basic features of all possible experienceable objects. On the negative side, Kant argues that we cannot have knowledge of things in themselves. Further, since traditional metaphysics deals with things in themselves, answers to the questions of traditional metaphysics (for example, regarding God or free will) can never be answered by human minds.
This section addresses the development of Kant’s metaphysics and epistemology and then summarizes the most important arguments and conclusions of Kant’s theory.
a. Pre-Critical Thought
Critique of Pure Reason, the book that would alter the course of western philosophy, was written by a man already far into his career. Unlike the later “critical period” Kant, the philosophical output of the early Kant was fully enmeshed in the German rationalist tradition, which was dominated at the time by the writings of Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and Christian Wolff (1679-1754). Nevertheless, many of Kant’s concerns during the pre-critical period anticipate important aspects of his mature thought.
Kant’s first purely philosophical work was the New Elucidation of the First Principles of Metaphysical Cognition (1755). The first parts of this long essay present criticisms and revisions of the Wolffian understanding of the basic principles of metaphysics, especially the Principles of Identity (whatever is, is, and whatever is not, is not), of Contradiction (nothing can both be and not be), and of Sufficient Reason (nothing is true without a reason why it is true). In the final part, Kant defends two original principles of metaphysics. According to the “Principle of Succession,” all change in objects requires the mutual interaction of a plurality of substances. This principle is a metaphysical analogue of Newton’s principle of action and reaction, and it anticipates Kant’s argument in the Third Analogy of Experience from Critique of Pure Reason (see 2f below). According to the “Principle of Coexistence,” multiple substances can only be said to coexist within the same world if the unity of that world is grounded in the intellect of God. Although Kant would later claim that we can never have metaphysical cognition of this sort of relation between God and the world (not least of all because we can’t even know that God exists), he would nonetheless continue to be occupied with the question of how multiple distinct substances can constitute a single, unified world.
In the Physical Monadology (1756), Kant attempts to provide a metaphysical account of the basic constitution of material substance in terms of “monads.” Leibniz and Wolff had held that monads are the simple, atomic substances that constitute matter. Kant follows Wolff in rejecting Leibniz’s claim that monads are mindlike and that they do not interact with each other. The novel aspect of Kant’s account lies in his claim that each monad possesses a degree of both attractive and repulsive force, and that monads fill determinate volumes of space because of the interactions between these monads as they compress each other through their opposed repulsive forces. Thirty years later, in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786), Kant would develop the theory that matter must be understood in terms of interacting attractive and repulsive forces. The primary difference between the later view and the earlier is that Kant no longer appeals to monads, or simple substances at all (transcendental idealism rules out the possibility of simplest substances as constituents of matter; see 2gii below).
The final publication of Kant’s pre-critical period was On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and the Intelligible World, also referred to as the Inaugural Dissertation (1770), since it marked Kant’s appointment as Königsberg’s Professor of Logic and Metaphysics. Although Kant had not yet had the final crucial insights that would lead to the development of transcendental idealism, many of the important elements of his mature metaphysics are prefigured here. Two aspects of the Inaugural Dissertation are especially worth noting. First, in a break from his predecessors, Kant distinguishes two fundamental faculties of the mind: sensibility, which represents the world through singular “intuitions,” and understanding, which represents the world through general “concepts.” In the Inaugural Dissertation, Kant argues that sensibility represents the sensible world of “phenomena” while the understanding represents an intelligible world of “noumena.” The critical period Kant will deny that we can have any determinate knowledge of noumena, and that knowledge of phenomena requires the cooperation of sensibility and understanding together. Second, in describing the “form” of the sensible world, Kant argues that space and time are “not something objective and real,” but are rather “subjective and ideal” (2:403). The claim that space and time pertain to things only as they appear, not as they are in themselves, will be one of the central theses of Kant’s mature transcendental idealism.
b. Dogmatic Slumber, Synthetic A Priori Knowledge, and the Copernican Shift
Although the early Kant showed a complete willingness to dissent from many important aspects of the Wolffian orthodoxy of the time, Kant continued to take for granted the basic rationalist assumption that metaphysical cognition was possible. In a retrospective remark from the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783), Kant says that his faith in this rationalist assumption was shaken by David Hume (1711-1776), whose skepticism regarding the possibility of knowledge of causal necessary connections awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” (4:260). Hume argued that we can never have knowledge of necessary connections between causes and effects because such knowledge can neither be given through the senses, nor derived a priori as conceptual truths. Kant realized that Hume’s problem was a serious one because his skepticism about knowledge of the necessity of the connection between cause and effect generalized to all metaphysical knowledge pertaining to necessity, not just causation specifically. For instance, there is the question why mathematical truths necessarily hold true in the natural world, or the question whether we can know that a being (God) exists necessarily.
The solution to Hume’s skepticism, which would form the basis of the critical philosophy, was twofold. The first part of Kant’s solution was to agree with Hume that metaphysical knowledge (such as knowledge of causation) is neither given through the senses, nor is it known a priori through conceptual analysis. Kant argued, however, that there is a third kind of knowledge which is a priori, yet which is not known simply by analyzing concepts. He referred to this as “synthetic a priori knowledge.” Where analytic judgments are justified by the semantic relations between the concepts they mention (for example, “all bachelors are unmarried”), synthetic judgments are justified by their conformity to the given object that they describe (for example, “this ball right here is red”). The puzzle posed by the notion of synthetic a priori knowledge is that it would require that an object be presented to the mind, but not be given in sensory experience.
The second part of Kant’s solution is to explain how synthetic a priori knowledge could be possible. He describes his key insight on this matter as a “Copernican” shift in his thinking about the epistemic relation between the mind and the world. Copernicus had realized that it only appeared as though the sun and stars revolved around us, and that we could have knowledge of the way the solar system really was if we took into account the fact that the sky looks the way it does because we perceivers are moving. Analogously, Kant realized that we must reject the belief that the way things appear corresponds to the way things are in themselves. Furthermore, he argued that the objects of knowledge can only ever be things as they appear, not as they are in themselves. Appealing to this new approach to metaphysics and epistemology, Kant argued that we must investigate the most basic structures of experience (that is, the structures of the way things appear to us), because the basic structures of experience will coincide with the basic structures of any objects that could possibly be experienced. In other words, if it is only possible to have experience of an object if the object conforms to the conditions of experience, then knowing the conditions of experience will give us knowledge – synthetic a priori knowledge in fact – of every possible object of experience. Kant overcomes Hume’s skepticism by showing that we can have synthetic a priori knowledge of objects in general when we take as the object of our investigation the very form of a possible object of experience. Critique of Pure Reason is an attempt to work through all of the important details of this basic philosophical strategy.
c. The Cognitive Faculties and Their Representations
Kant’s theory of the mind is organized around an account of the mind’s powers, its “cognitive faculties.” One of Kant’s central claims is that the cognitive capacities of the mind depend on two basic and fundamentally distinct faculties. First, there is “sensibility.” Sensibility is a passive faculty because its job is to receive representations through the affection of objects on the senses. Through sensibility, objects are “given” to the mind. Second, there is “understanding,” which is an active faculty whose job is to “think” (that is, apply concepts to) the objects given through sensibility.
The most basic type of representation of sensibility is what Kant calls an “intuition.” An intuition is a representation that refers directly to a singular individual object. There are two types of intuitions. Pure intuitions are a priori representations of space and time themselves (see 2d1 below). Empirical intuitions are a posteriori representations that refer to specific empirical objects in the world. In addition to possessing a spatiotemporal “form,” empirical intuitions also involve sensation, which Kant calls the “matter” of intuition (and of experience generally). (Without sensations, the mind could never have thoughts about real things, only possible ones.) We have empirical intuitions both of objects in the physical world (“outer intuitions”) and objects in our own minds (“inner intuitions”).
The most basic type of representation of understanding is the “concept.” Unlike an intuition, a concept is a representation that refers generally to indefinitely many objects. (For instance, the concept ‘cat’ on its own could refer to any and all cats, but not to any one in particular.) Concepts refer to their objects only indirectly because they depend on intuitions for reference to particular objects. As with intuitions, there are two basic types of concepts. Pure concepts are a priori representations and they characterize the most basic logical structure of the mind. Kant calls these concepts “categories.” Empirical concepts are a posteriori representations, and they are formed on the basis of sensory experience with the world. Concepts are combined by the understanding into “judgments,” which are the smallest units of knowledge. I can only have full cognition of an object in the world once I have, first, had an empirical intuition of the object, second, conceptualized this object in some way, and third, formed my conceptualization of the intuited object into a judgment. This means that both sensibility and understanding must work in cooperation for knowledge to be possible. As Kant expresses it, “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” (A51/B75).
There are two other important cognitive faculties that must be mentioned. The first is transcendental “imagination,” which mediates between sensibility and understanding. Kant calls this faculty “blind” because we do not have introspective access to its operations. Kant says that we can at least know that it is responsible for forming intuitions in such a way that it is possible for the understanding to apply concepts to them. The other is “reason,” which operates in a way similar to the understanding, but which operates independently of the senses. While understanding combines the data of the senses into judgments, reason combines understanding’s judgments together into one coherent, unified, systematic whole. Reason is not satisfied with mere disconnected bits of knowledge. Reason wants all knowledge to form a system of knowledge. Reason is also the faculty responsible for the “illusions” of transcendent metaphysics (see 2g below).
d. Transcendental Idealism
Transcendental idealism is a theory about the relation between the mind and its objects. Three fundamental theses make up this theory: first, there is a distinction between appearances (things as they appear) and things as they are in themselves. Second, space and time are a priori, subjective conditions on the possibility of experience, and hence they pertain only to appearances, not to things in themselves. Third, we can have determinate cognition of only of things that can be experienced, hence only of appearances, not things in themselves.
A quick remark on the term “transcendental idealism” is in order. Kant typically uses the term “transcendental” when he wants to emphasize that something is a condition on the possibility of experience. So for instance, the chapter titled “Transcendental Analytic of Concepts” deals with the concepts without which cognition of an object would be impossible. Kant uses the term “idealism” to indicate that the objects of experience are mind-dependent (although the precise sense of this mind-dependence is controversial; see 2d2 below). Hence, transcendental idealism is the theory that it is a condition on the possibility of experience that the objects of experience be in some sense mind-dependent.
i. The Ideality of Space and Time
Kant argues that space and time are a priori, subjective conditions on the possibility of experience, that is, that they are transcendentally ideal. Kant grounds the distinction between appearances and things in themselves on the realization that, as subjective conditions on experience, space and time could only characterize things as they appear, not as they are in themselves. Further, the claim that we can only know appearances (not things in themselves) is a consequence of the claims that we can only know objects that conform to the conditions of experience, and that only spatiotemporal appearances conform to these conditions. Given the systematic importance of this radical claim, what were Kant’s arguments for it? What follows are some of Kant’s most important arguments for the thesis.
One argument has to do with the relation between sensations and space. Kant argues that sensations on their own are not spatial, but that they (or arguably the objects they correspond to) are represented in space, “outside and next to one another” (A23/B34). Hence, the ability to sense objects in space presupposes the a priori representation of space, which entails that space is merely ideal, hence not a property of things in themselves.
Another argument that Kant makes repeatedly during the critical period can be called the “argument from geometry.” Its two premises are, first, that the truths of geometry are necessary truths, and thus a priori truths, and second, that the truths of geometry are synthetic (because these truths cannot be derived from an analysis of the meanings of geometrical concepts). If geometry, which is the study of the structure of space, is synthetic a priori, then its object – space – must be a mere a priori representation and not something that pertains to things in themselves. (Kant’s theory of mathematical cognition is discussed further in 3b below.)
Many commentators have found these arguments less than satisfying because they depend on the questionable assumption that if the representations of space and time are a priori they thereby cannot be properties of things in themselves. “Why can’t it be both?” many want to ask. A stronger argument appears in Kant’s discussion of the First and Second Antinomies of Pure Reason (discussed below, 2g2). There Kant argues that if space and time were things in themselves or even properties of things in themselves, then one could prove that space and time both are and are not infinitely large, and that matter in space both is and is not infinitely divisible. In other words, the assumption that space and time are transcendentally real instead of transcendentally ideal leads to a contradiction, and thus space and time must be transcendentally ideal.
ii. Appearances and Things in Themselves
How Kant’s distinction between appearances and things in themselves should be understood is one of the most controversial topics in the literature. It is a question of central importance because how one understands this distinction determines how one will understand the entire nature of Kantian idealism. The following briefly summarizes the main interpretive options, but it does not take a stand on which is correct.
According to “two-world” interpretations, the distinction between appearances and things in themselves is to be understood in metaphysical and ontological terms. Appearances (and hence the entire physical world that we experience) comprise one set of entities, and things in themselves are an ontologically distinct set of entities. Although things in themselves may somehow cause us to have experience of appearances, the appearances we experience are not things in themselves.
According to “one-world” or “two-aspect” interpretations, the distinction between appearances and things in themselves is to be understood in epistemological terms. Appearances are ontologically the very same things as things in themselves, and the phrase “in themselves” simply means “not considered in terms of their epistemic relation to human perceivers.”
A common objection against two-world interpretations is that they may make Kant’s theory too similar to Berkeley’s immaterialist idealism (an association from which Kant vehemently tried to distance himself), and they seem to ignore Kant’s frequent characterization of the appearance/thing in itself distinction in terms of different epistemic standpoints. And a common objection against one-world interpretations is that they may trivialize some of the otherwise revolutionary aspects of Kant’s theory, and they seem to ignore Kant’s frequent characterization of the appearance/thing in itself distinction in seemingly metaphysical terms. There have been attempts at interpretations that are intermediate between these two options. For instance, some have argued that Kant only acknowledges one world, but that the appearance/thing in itself distinction is nevertheless metaphysical, not merely epistemological.
e. The Deduction of the Categories
After establishing the ideality of space and time and the distinction between appearances and things in themselves, Kant goes on to show how it is possible to have a priori cognition of the necessary features of appearances. Cognizing appearances requires more than mere knowledge of their sensible form (space and time); it also requires that we be able to apply certain concepts (for example, the concept of causation) to appearances. Kant identifies the most basic concepts that we can use to think about objects as the “pure concepts of understanding,” or the “categories.”
There are twelve categories in total, and they fall into four groups of three:
The task of the chapter titled “Transcendental Deduction of the Categories” is to show that these categories can and must be applied in some way to any object that could possibly be an object of experience. The argument of the Transcendental Deduction is one of the most important moments in the Critique, but it is also one of the most difficult, complex, and controversial arguments in the book. Hence, it will not be possible to reconstruct the argument in any detail here. Instead, Kant’s most important claims and moves in the Deduction are described.
Kant’s argument turns on conceptions of self-consciousness (or what he calls “apperception”) as a condition on the possibility of experiencing the world as a unified whole. Kant takes it to be uncontroversial that we can be aware of our representations as our representations. It is not just that I can have the thoughts ‘P’ or ‘Q’; I am also always able to ascribe these thoughts to myself: ‘I think P’ and ‘I think Q’. Further, we are also able to recognize that it is the same I that does the thinking in both cases. Thus, we can recognize that ‘I think both P and Q’. In general, all of our experience is unified because it can be ascribed to the one and same I, and so this unity of experience depends on the unity of the self-conscious I. Kant next asks what conditions must obtain in order for this unity of self-consciousness to be possible. His answer is that we must be able to differentiate between the I that does the thinking and the object that we think about. That is, we must be able to distinguish between subjective and objective elements in our experience. If we could not make such a distinction, then all experience would just be so many disconnected mental happenings: everything would be subjective and there would be no “unity of apperception” that stands over and against the various objects represented by the I. So next Kant needs to explain how we are able to differentiate between the subjective and objective elements of experience. His answer is that a representation is objective when the subject is necessitated in representing the object in a certain way, that is, when it is not up to the free associative powers of my imagination to determine how I represent it. For instance, whether I think a painting is attractive or whether it calls to mind an instance from childhood depends on the associative activity of my own imagination; but the size of the canvas and the chemical composition of the pigments is not up to me: insofar as I represent these as objective features of the painting, I am necessitated in representing them in a certain way. In order for a representational content to be necessitated in this way, according to Kant, is for it to be subject to a “rule.” The relevant rules that Kant has in mind are the conditions something must satisfy in order for it to be represented as an object at all. And these conditions are precisely the concepts laid down in the schema of the categories, which are the concepts of an “object in general.” Hence, if I am to have experience at all, I must conceptualize objects in terms of the a priori categories.
Kant’s argument in the Deduction is a “transcendental argument”: Kant begins with a premise accepted by everyone, but then asks what conditions must have been met in order for this premise to be true. Kant assumed that we have a unified experience of the many objects populating the world. This unified experience depends on the unity of apperception. The unity of apperception enables the subject to distinguish between subjective and objective elements in experience. This ability, in turn, depends on representing objects in accordance with rules, and the rules in question are the categories. Hence, the only way we can explain the fact that we have experience at all is by appeal to the fact that the categories apply to the objects of experience.
It is worth emphasizing how truly radical the conclusion of the Transcendental Deduction is. Kant takes himself to have shown that all of nature is subject to the rules laid down by the categories. But these categories are a priori: they originate in the mind. This means that the order and regularity we encounter in the natural world is made possible by the mind’s own construction of nature and its order. Thus the conclusion of the Transcendental Deduction parallels the conclusion of the Transcendental Aesthetic: where the latter had shown that the forms of sensibility (space and time) originate in the mind and are imposed on the world, the former shows that the forms of understanding (the categories) also originate in the mind and are imposed on the world.
f. Theory of Experience
The Transcendental Deduction showed that it is necessary for us to make use of the categories in experience, but also that we are justified in making use of them. In the following series of chapters (together labeled the Analytic of Principles) Kant attempts to leverage the results of the Deduction and prove that there are transcendentally necessary laws that every possible object of experience must obey. He refers to these as “principles of pure understanding.” These principles are synthetic a priori in the sense defined above (see 2b), and they are transcendental conditions on the possibility of experience.
The first two principles correspond to the categories of quantity and quality. First, Kant argues that every object of experience must have a determinate spatial shape and size and a determinate temporal duration (except mental objects, which have no spatial determinations). Second, Kant argues that every object of experience must contain a “matter” that fills out the object’s extensive magnitude. This matter must be describable as an “intensive magnitude.” Extensive magnitudes are represented through the intuition of the object (the form of the representation) and intensive magnitudes are represented by the sensations that fill out the intuition (the matter of the representation).
The next three principles are discussed in an important, lengthy chapter called the Analogies of Experience. They derive from the relational categories: substance, causality, and community. According to the First Analogy, experience will always involve objects that must be represented as substances. “Substance” here is to be understood in terms of an object that persists permanently as a “substratum” and which is the bearer of impermanent “accidents.” According to the Second Analogy, every event must have a cause. One event is said to be the cause of another when the second event follows the first in accordance with a rule. And according to the Third Analogy (which presupposes the first two), all substances stand in relations of reciprocal interaction with each other. That is, any two pieces of material substance will effect some degree of causal influence on each other, even if they are far apart.
The principles of the Analogies of Experience are important metaphysical principles, and if Kant’s arguments for them are successful, they mark significant advances in the metaphysical investigation of nature. The First Analogy is a form of the principle of the conservation of matter: it shows that matter can never be created or annihilated by natural means, it can only be altered. The Second Analogy is a version of the principle of sufficient reason applied to experience (causes being sufficient reasons for their effects), and it represents Kant’s refutation of Hume’s skepticism regarding causation. Hume had argued that we can never have knowledge of necessary connections between events; rather, we can only perceive certain types of events to be constantly conjoined with other types of events. In arguing that events follow each other in accordance with rules, Kant has shown how we can have knowledge of necessary connections between events above and beyond their mere constant conjunction. Lastly, Kant probably intended the Third Analogy to establish a transcendental, a priori basis for something like Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which says that no matter how far apart two objects are they will exert some degree of gravitational influence on each other.
The Postulates of Empirical Thinking in General contains the final set of principles of pure understanding and they derive from the modal categories (possibility, actuality, necessity). The Postulates define the different ways to represent the modal status of objects, that is, what it is for an object of experience to be possible, actual, or necessary.
The most important passage from the Postulates chapter is the Refutation of Idealism, which is a refutation of external world skepticism that Kant added to the 1787 edition of the Critique. Kant had been annoyed by reviews of the first edition that unfavorably compared his transcendental idealism with Berkeley’s immaterialist idealism. In the Refutation, Kant argues that his system entails not just that an external (that is, spatial) world is possible (which Berkeley denied), but that we can know it is real (which Descartes and others questioned). Kant’s argumentative strategy in the Refutation is ingenious but controversial. Where the skeptics assume that we have knowledge of the states of our own minds, but say that we cannot be certain that an external world corresponds to these states, Kant turns the tables and argues that we would not have knowledge of the states of our own minds (specifically, the temporal order in which our ideas occur) if we were not simultaneously aware of permanent substances in space, outside of the mind. The precise structure of Kant’s argument, as well as the question how successful it is, continues to be a matter of heated debate in the literature.
g. Critique of Transcendent Metaphysics
One of the most important upshots of Kant’s theory of experience is that it is possible to have knowledge of the world because the world as we experience it conforms to the conditions on the possibility of experience. Accordingly, Kant holds that there can be knowledge of an object only if it is possible for that object to be given in an experience. This aspect of the epistemological condition of the human subject entails that there are important areas of inquiry about which we would like to have knowledge, but cannot. Most importantly, Kant argued that transcendent metaphysics, that is, philosophical inquiry into “supersensible” objects that are not a part of the empirical world, marks a philosophical dead end. (Note: There is a subtle but important difference between the terms “transcendental” and “transcendent” for Kant. “Transcendental” describes conditions on the possibility of experience. “Transcendent” describes unknowable objects in the “noumenal” realm of things in themselves.)
Kant calls the basic concepts of metaphysical inquiry “ideas.” Unlike concepts of the understanding, which correspond to possible objects that can be given in experience, ideas are concepts of reason, and they do not correspond to possible objects of experience. The three most important ideas with which Kant is concerned in the Transcendental Dialectic are the soul, the world (considered as a totality), and God. The peculiar thing about these ideas of reason is that reason is led by its very structure to posit objects corresponding to these ideas. It cannot help but do this because reason’s job is to unify cognitions into a systematic whole, and it finds that it needs these ideas of the soul, the world, and God, in order to complete this systematic unification.
After completion, participants had dramatically lower markers of metabolic disease such as: 6.3% LOWER Total cholesterol levels 12.3% LOWER LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol levels 10.7% HIGHER HDL (the “good”) cholesterol levels 8.6% LOWER Blood triglycerides This is due to the inhibition of the enzyme citrate lyase, which signals the production of fat in the body (32, 33, 34, 35, 36).
Kant refers to reason’s inescapable tendency to posit unexperienceable and hence unknowable objects corresponding to these ideas as “transcendental illusion.”
Kant presents his analysis of transcendental illusion and his critique of transcendent metaphysics in the series of chapters titled “Transcendental Dialectic,” which takes up the majority of the second half of Critique of Pure Reason. This section summarizes Kant’s most important arguments from the Dialectic.
i. The Soul (Paralogisms of Pure Reason)
Kant addresses the metaphysics of the soul – an inquiry he refers to as “rational psychology” – in the Paralogisms of Pure Reason. Rational psychology, as Kant describes it, is the attempt to prove metaphysical theses about the nature of the soul through an analysis of the simple proposition, “I think.” Many of Kant’s rationalist predecessors and contemporaries had thought that reflection on the notion of the “I” in the proposition “I think” would reveal that the I is necessarily a substance (which would mean that the I is a soul), an indivisible unity (which some would use to prove the immortality of the soul), self-identical (which is relevant to questions regarding personal identity), and distinct from the external world (which can lead to external-world skepticism). Kant argues that such reasoning is the result of transcendental illusion.
Transcendental illusion in rational psychology arises when the mere thought of the I in the proposition “I think” is mistaken for a cognition of the I as an object. (A cognition involves both intuition and concept, while a mere thought involves only concept.) For instance, consider the question whether we can cognize the I as a substance (that is, as a soul). On the one hand, something is cognized as a substance when it is represented only as the subject of predication and is never itself the predicate of some other subject. The I of “I think” is always represented as subject (the I’s various thoughts are its predicates). On the other hand, something can only be cognized as a substance when it is given as a persistent object in an intuition (see 2f above), and there can be no intuition of the I itself. Hence although we cannot help but think of the I as a substantial soul, we can never have cognition of the I as a substance, and hence knowledge of the existence and nature of the soul is impossible.
ii. The World (Antinomies of Pure Reason)
The Antinomies of Pure Reason deal with “rational cosmology,” that is, with metaphysical inquiry into the nature of the cosmos considered as a totality. An “antinomy” is a conflict of reason with itself. Antinomies arise when reason seems to be able to prove two opposed and mutually contradictory propositions with apparent certainty. Kant discusses four antinomies in the first Critique (he uncovers other antinomies in later writings as well). The First Antinomy shows that reason seems to be able to prove that the universe is both finite and infinite in space and time. The Second Antinomy shows that reason seems to be able to prove that matter both is and is not infinitely divisible into ever smaller parts. The Third Antinomy shows that reason seems to be able to prove that free will cannot be a causally efficacious part of the world (because all of nature is deterministic) and yet that it must be such a cause. And the Fourth Antinomy shows that reason seems to be able to prove that there is and there is not a necessary being (which some would identify with God).
In all four cases, Kant attempts to resolve these conflicts of reason with itself by appeal to transcendental idealism. The claim that space and time are not features of things in themselves is used to resolve the First and Second Antinomies. Since the empirical world in space and time is identified with appearances, and since the world as a totality can never itself be given as a single appearance, there is no determinate fact of the matter regarding the size of the universe: It is neither determinately finite nor determinately infinite; rather, it is indefinitely large. Similarly, matter has neither simplest atoms (or “monads”) nor is it infinitely divided; rather, it is indefinitely divisible.
The distinction between appearances and things in themselves is used to resolve the Third and Fourth Antinomies. Although every empirical event experienced within the realm of appearance has a deterministic natural cause, it is at least logically possible that freedom can be a causally efficacious power at the level of things in themselves. And although every empirical object experienced within the realm of appearance is a contingently existing entity, it is logically possible that there is a necessary being outside the realm of appearance which grounds the existence of the contingent beings within the realm of appearance. It must be kept in mind that Kant has not claimed to demonstrate the existence of a transcendent free will or a transcendent necessary being: Kant denies the possibility of knowledge of things in themselves. Instead, Kant only takes himself to have shown that the existence of such entities is logically possible. In his moral theory, however, Kant will offer an argument for the actuality of freedom (see 5c below).
iii. God (Ideal of Pure Reason)
The Ideal of Pure Reason addresses the idea of God and argues that it is impossible to prove the existence of God. The argumentation in the Ideal of Pure Reason was anticipated in Kant’s The Only Possible Argument in Support of the Existence of God (1763), making this aspect of Kant’s mature thought one of the most significant remnants of the pre-critical period.
Kant identifies the idea of God with the idea of an ens realissimum, or “most real being.” This most real being is also considered by reason to be a necessary being, that is, something which exists necessarily instead of merely contingently. Reason is led to posit the idea of such a being when it reflects on its conceptions of finite beings with limited reality and infers that the reality of finite beings must derive from and depend on the reality of the most infinitely perfect being. Of course, the fact that reason necessarily thinks of a most real, necessary being does not entail that such a being exists. Kant argues that there are only three possible arguments for the existence of such a being, and that none is successful.
According to the ontological argument for the existence of God (versions of which were proposed by St. Anselm (1033-1109) and Descartes (1596-1650), among others), God is the only being whose essence entails its existence. Kant famously objects that this argument mistakenly treats existence as a “real predicate.” According to Kant, when I make an assertion of the form “x is necessarily F,” all I can mean is that “if x exists, then x must be F.” Thus when proponents of the ontological argument claim that the idea of God entails that “God necessarily exists,” all they can mean is that “if God exists, then God exists,” which is an empty tautology.
Kant also offers lengthy criticisms of the cosmological argument (the existence of contingent beings entails the existence of a necessary being) and the physico-theological argument, which is also referred to as the “argument from design” (the order and purposiveness in the empirical world can only be explained by a divine creator). Kant argues that both of these implicitly depend on the argumentation of the ontological argument pertaining to necessary existence, and since it fails, they fail as well.
Although Kant argues in the Transcendental Dialectic that we cannot have cognition of the soul, of freedom of the will, nor of God, in his ethical writings he will complicate this story and argue that we are justified in believing in these things (see 5c below).
3. Philosophy of Mathematics
The distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments (see 2b above) is necessary for understanding Kant’s theory of mathematics. Recall that an analytic judgment is one where the truth of the judgment depends only on the relation between the concepts used in the judgment. The truth of a synthetic judgment, by contrast, requires that an object be “given” in sensibility and that the concepts used in the judgment be combined in the object. In these terms, most of Kant’s predecessors took mathematical truths to be analytic truths. Kant, by contrast argued that mathematical knowledge is synthetic. It may seem surprising that one’s knowledge of mathematical truths depends on an object being given in sensibility, for we surely don’t arrive at mathematical knowledge by empirical means. Recall, however, that a judgment can be both synthetic yet a priori. Like the judgments of the necessary structures of experience, mathematics is also synthetic a priori according to Kant.
To make this point, Kant considers the proposition ‘7+5=12’. Surely, this proposition is a priori: I can know its truth without doing empirical experiments to see what happens when I put seven things next to five other things. More to the point, ‘7+5=12’ must be a priori because it is a necessary truth, and empirical judgments are always merely contingent according to Kant. Yet at the same time, the judgment is not analytic because, “The concept of twelve is by no means already thought merely by my thinking of that unification of seven and five, and no matter how long I analyze my concept of such a possible sum I will still not find twelve in it” (B15).
If mathematical knowledge is synthetic, then it depends on objects being given in sensibility. And if it is a priori, then these objects must be non-empirical objects. What sort of objects does Kant have in mind here? The answer lies in Kant’s theory of the pure forms of intuition (space and time). Recall that an intuition is a singular, immediate representation of an individual object (see 2c above). Empirical intuitions represent sensible objects through sensation, but pure intuitions are a priori representations of space and time as such. These pure intuitions of space and time provide the objects of mathematics through what Kant calls a “construction” of concepts in pure intuition. As he puts it, “to construct a concept means to exhibit a priori the intuition corresponding to it” (A713/B741). A mathematical concept (for example, ‘triangle’) can be thought of as a rule for how to make an object that corresponds to that concept. Thus if ‘triangle’ is defined as ‘three-sided, two-dimensional shape’, then I construct a triangle in pure intuition when I imagine three lines coming together to form a two-dimensional figure. These pure constructions in intuition can be used to arrive at (synthetic, a priori) mathematical knowledge. Consider the proposition, ‘The angles of a triangle sum to 180 degrees’. When I construct a triangle in intuition in accordance with the rule ‘three-sided, two-dimensional shape’, then the constructed triangle will in fact have angles that sum to 180 degrees. And this will be true irrespective of what particular triangle I constructed (isosceles, scalene, and so forth.). Kant holds that all mathematical knowledge is derived in this fashion: I take a concept, construct it in pure intuition, and then determine what features of the constructed intuition are necessarily true of it.
4. Natural Science
In addition to his work in pure theoretical philosophy, Kant displayed an active interest in the natural sciences throughout his career. Most of his important scientific contributions were in the physical sciences (including not just physics proper, but also earth sciences and cosmology). In Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) he also presented a lengthy discussion of the philosophical basis of the study of biological entities.
In general, Kant thought that a body of knowledge could only count as a science in the true sense if it could admit of mathematical description and an a priori principle that could be “presented a priori in intuition” (4:471). Hence, Kant was pessimistic about the possibility of empirical psychology ever amounting to a true science. Kant even thought it might be the case that “chemistry can be nothing more than a systematic art or experimental doctrine, but never a proper science” (4:471).
This section focuses primarily on Kant’s physics (4a), but it also lists several of Kant’s other scientific contributions (4b).
Kant’s interest in physical theory began early. His first published work, Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces (1749) was an inquiry into some foundational problems in physics, and it entered into the “vis viva” (“living forces”) debate between Leibniz and the Cartesians regarding how to quantify force in moving objects (for the most part, Kant sided with the Leibnizians). A few years later, Kant wrote the Physical Monadology (1756), which dealt with other foundational questions in physics (see 2a above.)
Kant’s mature physical theory is presented in its fullest form in Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786). This theory can be understood as an outgrowth and consequence of the transcendental theory of experience articulated in Critique of Pure Reason (see 2f above). Where the Critique had shown the necessary conceptual forms to which all possible objects of experience must conform, the Metaphysical Foundations specifies in greater detail what exactly the physical constitution of these objects must be like. The continuity with the theory of experience from the Critique is implicit in the very structure of the Metaphysical Foundations. Just as Kant’s theory of experience was divided into four sections corresponding to the four groups of categories (quantity, quality, relation, modality), the body of the Metaphysical Foundations is also divided along the same lines.
Like the theory of the Physical Monadology, the Metaphysical Foundations presents a “dynamical” theory of matter according to which material substance is constituted by an interaction between attractive and repulsive forces. The basic idea is that each volume of material substance possesses a brute tendency to expand and push away other volumes of substance (this is repulsive force) and each volume of substance possesses a brute tendency to contract and to attract other volumes of substance (this is attractive force). The repulsive force explains the solidity and impenetrability of bodies while the attractive force explains gravitation (and presumably also phenomena such as magnetic attraction). Further, any given volume of substance will possess these forces to a determinate degree: the matter in a volume can be more or less repulsive and more or less attractive. The ratio of attractive and repulsive force in a substance will determine how dense the body is. In this respect, Kant’s theory marks a sharp break from those of his mechanist predecessors. (Mechanists believed that all physical phenomena could be explained by appeal to the sizes, shapes, and velocities of material bodies.) The Cartesians thought that there is no true difference in density and that the appearance of differences in density could be explained by appeal to porosity in the body. Similarly, the atomists thought that density could be explained by differences in the ratio of atoms to void in any given volume. Thus for both of these theories, any time there was a volume completely filled in with material substance (no pores, no void), there could only be one possible value for mass divided by volume. According to Kant’s theory, by contrast, two volumes of equal size could be completely filled in with matter and yet differ in their quantity of matter (their mass), and hence differ in their density (mass divided by volume). Another consequence of Kant’s theory that puts him at odds with the Cartesians and atomists was his claim that matter is elastic, hence compressible: a completely filled volume of matter could be reduced in volume while the quantity of matter remained unchanged (hence it would become denser). The Cartesians and atomists took this to be impossible.
At the end of his career, Kant worked on a project that was supposed to complete the connection between the transcendental philosophy and physics. Among other things, Kant attempted to give a transcendental, a priori demonstration of the existence of a ubiquitous “ether” that permeates all of space. Although Kant never completed a manuscript for this project (due primarily to the deterioration of his mental faculties at the end of his life), he did leave behind many notes and partial drafts. Many of these notes and drafts have been edited and published under the title Opus Postumum.
b. Other Scientific Contributions
In addition to his major contributions to physics, Kant published various writings addressing different issues in the natural sciences. Early on he showed a great deal of interest in geology and earth science, as evidenced by the titles of some of his shorter essays: The question, Whether the Earth is Ageing, Considered from a Physical Point of View (1754); On the Causes of Earthquakes on the Occasion of the Calamity that Befell the Western Countries of Europe Towards the End of Last Year (1756); Continued Observations on the Earthquakes that Have been Experienced for Some Time (1756); New Notes to Explain the Theory of the Winds, in which, at the Same Time, He Invites Attendance to his Lectures (1756).
In 1755, he wrote the Succinct Exposition of Some Meditations on Fire (which he submitted to the university as a Master’s Thesis). There he argued, against the Cartesian mechanists, that physical phenomena such as fire can only be explained by appeal to elastic (that is, compressible) matter, which anticipated the mature physics of his Metaphysical Foundations (see 4a above).
One of Kant’s most lasting scientific contributions came from his early work in cosmology. In his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755), Kant gave a mechanical explanation of the formation of the solar system and the galaxies in terms of the principles of Newtonian physics. (A shorter version of the argument also appears in The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God from 1763.) Kant’s hypothesis was that a single mechanical process could explain why we observe an orbital motion of smaller bodies around larger ones at many different scales in the cosmos (moons around planets, planets around stars, and stars around the center of the galaxy). He proposed that at the beginning of creation, all matter was spread out more or less evenly and randomly in a kind of nebula. Since the various bits of matter all attracted each other through gravitation, bodies would move towards each other within local regions to form larger bodies. The largest of these became stars, and the smaller ones became moons or planets. Because everything was already in motion (due to the gravitational attraction of everything to everything), and because all objects would be pulled towards the center of mass of their local region (for example, the sun at the center of the solar system, or a planet at the center of its own smaller planetary system), the motion of objects within that region would become orbital motions (as described by Newton’s theory of gravity). Although the Universal Natural History was not widely read for most of Kant’s lifetime (due primarily to Kant’s publisher going bankrupt while the printed books remained in a warehouse), in 1796 Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) proposed a remarkably similar version of the same theory, and this caused renewed interest in Kant’s book. Today the theory is referred to as the “Kant-Laplace Nebular Hypothesis,” and a modified version of this theory is still held today.
Finally, in the second half of Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), Kant discusses the philosophical foundations of biology by way of an analysis of teleological judgments. While in no way a fully worked out biological theory per se, Kant connects his account of biological cognition in interesting ways to other important aspects of his philosophical system. First, natural organisms are essentially teleological, or “purposive.” This purposiveness is manifested through the organic structure of the organism: its many parts all work together to constitute the whole, and any one part only makes sense in terms of its relation to the healthy functioning of the whole. For instance, the teeth of an animal are designed to chew the kind of food that the animal is equipped to hunt or forage and that it is suited to digest. In this respect, biological entities bear a strong analogy to great works of art. Great works of art are also organic insofar as the parts only make sense in the context of the whole, and art displays a purposiveness similar to that found in nature (see section 7 below). Second, Kant discusses the importance of biology with respect to theological cognition. While he denies that the apparent design behind the purposiveness of organisms can be used as a proof for God’s existence (see 2g3 above), he does think that the purposiveness found in nature provides a sort of hint that there is an intelligible principle behind the observable, natural world, and hence that the ultimate purpose of all of nature is a rational one. In connection with his moral theory and theory of human history (see sections 5 and 6 below), Kant will argue that the teleology of nature can be understood as ultimately directed towards a culmination in a fully rational nature, that is, humanity in its (future) final form.
5. Moral Theory
Kant’s moral theory is organized around the idea that to act morally and to act in accordance with reason are one and the same. In virtue of being a rational agent (that is, in virtue of possessing practical reason, reason which is interested and goal-directed), one is obligated to follow the moral law that practical reason prescribes. To do otherwise is to act irrationally. Because Kant places his emphasis on the duty that comes with being a rational agent who is cognizant of the moral law, Kant’s theory is considered a form of deontology (deon- comes from the Greek for “duty” or “obligation”).
Like his theoretical philosophy, Kant’s practical philosophy is a priori, formal, and universal: the moral law is derived non-empirically from the very structure of practical reason itself (its form), and since all rational agents share the same practical reason, the moral law binds and obligates everyone equally. So what is this moral law that obligates all rational agents universally and a priori? The moral law is determined by what Kant refers to as the Categorical Imperative, which is the general principle that demands that one respect the humanity in oneself and in others, that one not make an exception for oneself when deliberating about how to act, and in general that one only act in accordance with rules that everyone could and should obey.
Although Kant insists that the moral law is equally binding for all rational agents, he also insists that the bindingness of the moral law is self-imposed: we autonomously prescribe the moral law to ourselves. Because Kant thinks that the kind of autonomy in question here is only possible under the presupposition of a transcendentally free basis of moral choice, the constraint that the moral law places on an agent is not only consistent with freedom of the will, it requires it. Hence, one of the most important aspects of Kant’s project is to show that we are justified in presupposing that our morally significant choices are grounded in a transcendental freedom (the very sort of freedom that Kant argued we could not prove through mere “theoretical” or “speculative” reason; see 2gii above).
This section aims to explain the structure and content of Kant’s moral theory (5a-b), and also Kant’s claims that belief in freedom, God, and the immortality of the soul are necessary “postulates” of practical reason (5c). (On the relation between Kant’s moral theory and his aesthetic theory, see 7c below.)
a. The Good Will and Duty
Kant lays out the case for his moral theory in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Critique of Practical Reason (also known as the “Second Critique”; 1788), and the Metaphysics of Morals (1797). His arguments from the Groundwork are his most well-known and influential, so the following focuses primarily on them.
Kant begins his argument from the premise that a moral theory must be grounded in an account of what is unconditionally good. If something is merely conditionally good, that is, if its goodness depends on something else, then that other thing will either be merely conditionally good as well, in which case its goodness depends on yet another thing, or it will be unconditionally good. All goodness, then, must ultimately be traceable to something that is unconditionally good. There are many things that we typically think of as good but that are not truly unconditionally good. Beneficial resources such as money or power are often good, but since these things can be used for evil purposes, their goodness is conditional on the use to which they are put. Strength of character is generally a good thing, but again, if someone uses a strong character to successfully carry out evil plans, then the strong character is not good. Even happiness, according to Kant, is not unconditionally good. Although all humans universally desire to be happy, if someone is happy but does not deserve their happiness (because, for instance, their happiness results from stealing from the elderly), then it is not good for the person to be happy. Happiness is only good on the condition that the happiness is deserved.
Kant argues that there is only one thing that can be considered unconditionally good: a good will. A person has a good will insofar as they form their intentions on the basis of a self-conscious respect for the moral law, that is, for the rules regarding what a rational agent ought to do, one’s duty. The value of a good will lies in the principles on the basis of which it forms its intentions; it does not lie in the consequences of the actions that the intentions lead to. This is true even if a good will never leads to any desirable consequences at all: “Even if… this will should wholly lack the capacity to carry out its purpose… then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has its full worth in itself” (4:393). This is in line with Kant’s emphasis on the unconditional goodness of a good will: if a will were evaluated in terms of its consequences, then the goodness of the will would depend on (that is, would be conditioned on) those consequences. (In this respect, Kant’s deontology is in stark opposition to consequentialist moral theories, which base their moral evaluations on the consequences of actions rather than the intentions behind them.)
b. The Categorical Imperative
If a good will is one that forms its intentions on the basis of correct principles of action, then we want to know what sort of principles these are. A principle that commands an action is called an “imperative.” Most imperatives are “hypothetical imperatives,” that is, they are commands that hold only if certain conditions are met. For instance: “if you want to be a successful shopkeeper, then cultivate a reputation for honesty.” Since hypothetical imperatives are conditioned on desires and the intended consequences of actions, they cannot serve as the principles that determine the intentions and volitions of an unconditionally good will. Instead, we require what Kant calls a “categorical imperative.” Where hypothetical imperatives take the form, “if y is desired/intended/sought, do x,” categorical imperatives simply take the form, “do x.” Since a categorical imperative is stripped of all reference to the consequences of an action, it is thereby stripped of all determinate content, and hence it is purely formal. And since it is unconditional, it holds universally. Hence a categorical imperative expresses only the very form of a universally binding law: “nothing is left but the conformity of actions as such with universal law” (4:402). To act morally, then, is to form one’s intentions on the basis of the very idea of a universal principle of action.
This conception of a categorical imperative leads Kant to his first official formulation of the categorical imperative itself: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (4:421). A maxim is a general rule that can be used to determine particular courses of actions in particular circumstances. For instance, the maxim “I shall lie when it will get me out of trouble” can be used to determine the decision to lie about an adulterous liaison. The categorical imperative offers a decision procedure for determining whether a given course of action is in accordance with the moral law. After determining what maxim one would be basing the action in question on, one then asks whether it would be possible, given the power (in an imagined, hypothetical scenario), to choose that everyone act in accordance with that same maxim. If it is possible to will that everyone act according to that maxim, then the action under consideration is morally permissible. If it is not possible to will that everyone act according to that maxim, the action is morally impermissible. Lying to cover up adultery is thus immoral because one cannot will that everyone act according to the maxim, “I shall lie when it will get me out of trouble.” Note that it is not simply that it would be undesirable for everyone to act according to that maxim. Rather, it would be impossible. Since everyone would know that everyone else was acting according to that maxim, there would never be the presupposition that anyone was telling the truth; the very act of lying, of course, requires such a presupposition on the part of the one being lied to. Hence, the state of affairs where everyone lies to get out of trouble can never arise, so it cannot be willed to be a universal law. It fails the test of the categorical imperative.
The point of Kant’s appeal to the universal law formulation of the categorical imperative is to show that an action is morally permissible only if the maxim on which the action is based could be affirmed as a universal law that everyone obeys without exception. The mark of immorality, then, is that one makes an exception for oneself. That is, one acts in a way that they would not want everyone else to. When someone chooses to lie about an adulterous liaison, one is implicitly thinking, “in general people should tell the truth, but in this case I will be the exception to the rule.”
Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative describes it in terms of the very form of universal law itself. This formal account abstracts from any specific content that the moral law might have for living, breathing human beings. Kant offers a second formulation to address the material side of the moral law. Since the moral law has to do with actions, and all actions are by definition teleological (that is, goal-directed), a material formulation of the categorical imperative will require an appeal to the “ends” of human activity. Some ends are merely instrumental, that is, they are sought only because they serve as “means” towards further ends. Kant argues that the moral law must be aimed at an end that is not merely instrumental, but is rather an end in itself. Only rational agents, according to Kant, are ends in themselves. To act morally is thus to respect rational agents as ends in themselves. Accordingly, the categorical imperative can be reformulated as follows: “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (4:429). The basic idea here is that it is immoral to treat someone as a thing of merely instrumental value; persons have an intrinsic (non-instrumental) value, and the moral law demands that we respect this intrinsic value. To return to the example of the previous paragraphs, it would be wrong to lie about an adulterous liaison because by withholding the truth one is manipulating the other person to make things easier for oneself; this sort of manipulation, however, amounts to treating the other as a thing (as a mere means to the comfort of not getting in trouble), and not as a person deserving of respect and entitled to the truth.
The notion of a universal law provides the form of the categorical imperative and rational agents as ends in themselves provide the matter. These two sides of the categorical imperative are combined into yet a third formulation, which appeals to the notion of a “kingdom of ends.” A kingdom of ends can be thought of as a sort of perfectly just utopian ideal in which all citizens of this kingdom freely respect the intrinsic worth of the humanity in all others because of an autonomously self-imposed recognition of the bindingness of the universal moral law for all rational agents. The third formulation of the categorical imperative is simply the idea that one should act in whatever way a member of this perfectly just society would act: “act in accordance with the maxims of a member giving universal laws for a merely possible kingdom of ends” (4:439). The idea of a kingdom of ends is an ideal (hence the “merely possible”). Although humanity may never be able to achieve such a perfect state of utopian coexistence, we can at least strive to approximate this state to an ever greater degree.
c. Postulates of Practical Reason
In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant had argued that although we can acknowledge the bare logical possibility that humans possess free will, that there is an immortal soul, and that there is a God, he also argued that we can never have positive knowledge of these things (see 2g above). In his ethical writings, however, Kant complicates this story. He argues that despite the theoretical impossibility of knowledge of these objects, belief in them is nevertheless a precondition for moral action (and for practical cognition generally). Accordingly, freedom, immortality, and God are “postulates of practical reason.” (The following discussion draws primarily on Critique of Practical Reason.)
We will start with freedom. Kant argues that morality and the obligation that comes with it are only possible if humans have free will. This is because the universal laws prescribed by the categorical imperative presuppose autonomy (autos = self; nomos = law). To be autonomous is to be the free ground of one’s own principles, or “laws” of action. Kant argues that if we presuppose that humans are rational and have free will, then his entire moral theory follows directly. The problem, however, lies in justifying the belief that we are free. Kant had argued in the Second Analogy of Experience that every event in the natural world has a “determining ground,” that is, a cause, and so all human actions, as natural events, themselves have deterministic causes (see 2f above). The only room for freedom of the will would lie in the realm of things in themselves, which contains the noumenal correlate of my phenomenal self. Since things in themselves are unknowable, I can never look to them to get evidence that I possess transcendental freedom. Kant gives at least two arguments to justify belief in freedom as a precondition of his moral theory. (There is a great deal of controversy among commentators regarding the exact form of his arguments, as well as their success. It will not be possible to adjudicate those disputes in any detail here. See Section 10 (References and Further Readings) for references to some of these commentaries.)
In the Groundwork, Kant suggests that the presupposition that we are free follows as a consequence of the fact that we have practical reason and that we think of ourselves as practical agents. Any time I face a choice that requires deliberation, I must consider the options before me as really open. If I thought of my course of action as already determined ahead of time, then there would not really be any choice to make. Furthermore, in taking my deliberation to be real, I also think of the possible outcomes of my actions as caused by me. The notion of a causality that originates in the self is the notion of a free will.
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So the very fact that I do deliberate about what actions I will take means that I am presupposing that my choice is real and hence that I am free. As Kant puts it, all practical agents act “under the idea of freedom” (4:448). It is not obvious that this argument is strong enough for Kant’s purposes. The position seems to be that I must act as though I am free, but acting as though I am free in no way entails that I really am free. At best, it seems that since I act as though I am free, I thereby must act as though morality really does obligate me. This does not establish that the moral law really does obligate me.
In the Second Critique, Kant offers a different argument for the reality of freedom. He argues that it is a brute “fact of reason” (5:31) that the categorical imperative (and so morality generally) obligates us as rational agents. In other words, all rational agents are at least implicitly conscious of the bindingness of the moral law on us. Since morality requires freedom, it follows that if morality is real, then freedom must be real too. Thus this “fact of reason” allows for an inference to the reality of freedom. Although the conclusion of this argument is stronger than the earlier argument, its premise is more controversial. For instance, it is far from obvious that all rational agents are conscious of the moral law. If they were, how come no one discovered this exact moral law before 1785 when Kant wrote the Groundwork? Equally problematic, it is not clear why this “fact of reason” should count as knowledge of the bindingness of the moral law. It may just be that we cannot help but believe that the moral law obligates us, in which case we once again end up merely acting as though we are free and as though the moral law is real.
Again, there is much debate in the literature about the structure and success of Kant’s arguments. It is clear, however, that the success of Kant’s moral project stands or falls with his arguments for freedom of the will, and that the overall strength of this theory is determined to a high degree by the epistemic status of our belief in our own freedom.
Kant’s arguments for immortality and God as postulates of practical reason presuppose that the reality of the moral law and the freedom of the will have been established, and they also depend on the principle that “‘ought’ implies ‘can’”: one cannot be obligated to do something unless the thing in question is doable. For instance, there is no sense in which I am obligated to single-handedly solve global poverty, because it is not within my power to do so. According to Kant, the ultimate aim of a rational moral agent should be to become perfectly moral. We are obligated to strive to become ever more moral. Given the “ought implies can” principle, if we ought to work towards moral perfection, then moral perfection must be possible and we can become perfect. However, Kant holds that moral perfection is something that finite rational agents such as humans can only progress towards, but not actually attain in any finite amount of time, and certainly not within any one human lifetime. Thus the moral law demands an “endless progress” towards “complete conformity of the will with the moral law” (5:122). This endless progress towards perfection can only be demanded of us if our own existence is endless. In short, one’s belief that one should strive towards moral perfection presupposes the belief in the immortality of the soul.
In addition to the “ought implies can” principle, Kant’s argument about belief in God also involves an elaboration of the notion of the “highest good” at which all moral action aims (at least indirectly). According to Kant, the highest good, that is, the most perfect possible state for a community of rational agents, is not only one in which all agents act in complete conformity with the moral law. It is also a state in which these agents are happy. Kant had argued that although everyone naturally desires to be happy, happiness is only good when one deserves to be happy. In the ideal scenario of a morally perfect community of rational agents, everyone deserves to be happy. Since a deserved happiness is a good thing, the highest good will involve a situation in which everyone acts in complete conformity with the moral law and everyone is completely happy because they deserve to be. Now since we are obligated to work towards this highest good, this complete, universal, morally justified happiness must be possible (again, because “ought” implies “can”). This is where a puzzle arises. Although happiness is connected to morality at the conceptual level when one deserves happiness, there is no natural connection between morality and happiness. Our happiness depends on the natural world (for example, whether we are healthy, whether natural disasters affect us), and the natural world operates according to laws that are completely separate from the laws of morality. Accordingly, acting morally is in general no guarantee that nature will make it possible for one to be happy. If anything, behaving morally will often decrease one’s happiness (for doing the right thing often involves doing the uncomfortable, difficult thing). And we all have plenty of empirical evidence from the world we live in that often bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Thus if the highest good (in which happiness is proportioned to virtue) is possible, then somehow there must be a way for the laws of nature to eventually lead to a situation in which happiness is proportioned to virtue. (Note that since at this point in the argument, Kant takes himself to have established immortality as a postulate of practical reason, this “eventually” may very well be far in the future). Since the laws of nature and the laws of morality are completely separate on their own, the only way that the two could come together such that happiness ends up proportioned to virtue would be if the ultimate cause and ground of nature set up the world in such a way that the laws of nature would eventually lead to the perfect state in question. Therefore, the possibility of the highest good requires the presupposition that the cause of the world is intelligent and powerful enough to set nature up in the right way, and also that it wills in accordance with justice that eventually the laws of nature will indeed lead to a state in which the happiness of rational agents is proportioned to their virtue. This intelligent, powerful, and just cause of the world is what traditionally goes by the name of “God.” Hence God is a postulate of practical reason.
6. Political Theory and Theory of Human History
Kant’s ethical theory emphasized reason, autonomy, and a respect for the humanity of others. These central aspects of his theory of individual moral choice are carried over to his theories of humanity’s history and of ideal political organization. This section covers Kant’s teleological history of the human race (6a), the basic elements of his political theory (6b), and his theory of the possibility of world peace (6c).
a. Human History and the Age of Enlightenment
Kant’s socio-political philosophy must be understood in terms of his understanding of the history of humanity, of its teleology, and in terms of his particular time and place: Europe during the Enlightenment.
In his short essay “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” (1784), Kant outlines a speculative sketch of humanity’s history organized around his conception of the teleology intrinsic to the species. The natural purpose of humanity is the development of reason. This development is not something that can take place in one individual lifetime, but is instead the ongoing project of humanity across the generations. Nature fosters this goal through both human physiology and human psychology. Humans have no fur, claws, or sharp teeth, and so if we are to be sheltered and fed, we must use our reason to create the tools necessary to satisfy our needs. More importantly, at the cultural level, Kant argues that human society is characterized by an “unsocial sociability”: on the one hand, humans need to live with other humans and we feel incomplete in isolation; but on the other, we frequently disagree with each other and are frustrated when others don’t agree with us on important matters. The frustration brought on by disagreement serves as an incentive to develop our capacity to reason so that we can argue persuasively and convince others to agree with us.
By means of our physiological deficiencies and our unsocial sociability, nature has nudged us, generation by generation, to develop our capacity for reason and slowly to emerge from the hazy fog of pre-history up to the present. This development is not yet complete. Kant takes stock of where we were in his day, in late 18 th c. Prussia) in his short, popular essay: “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784). To be enlightened, he argues, is to determine one’s beliefs and actions in accordance with the free use of one’s reason. The process of enlightenment is humanity’s “emergence from its self-incurred immaturity” (8:35), that is, the emergence from an uncritical reliance on the authority of others (for example, parents, monarchs, or priests). This is a slow, on-going process. Kant thought that his own age was an age of enlightenment, but not yet a fully enlightened age.
The goal of humanity is to reach a point where all interpersonal interactions are conducted in accordance with reason, and hence in accordance with the moral law (this is the idea of a kingdom of ends described in 5b above). Kant thinks that there are two significant conditions that must be in place before such an enlightened age can come to be. First, humans must live in a perfectly just society under a perfectly just constitution. Second, the nations of the world must coexist as an international federation in a state of “perpetual peace.” Some aspects of the first condition are discussed in 6b, and of the second in 6c.
b. Political Theory
Kant fullest articulation of his political theory appears in the “Doctrine of Right,” which is the first half of Metaphysics of Morals (1797). In line with his belief that a freedom grounded in rationality is what bestows dignity upon human beings, Kant organizes his theory of justice around the notion of freedom: “Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law” (6:230). Implicit in this definition is a theory of equality: everyone should be granted the same degree of freedom. Although a state, through the passing and enforcing of laws, necessarily restricts freedom to some degree, Kant argues that this is necessary for the preservation of equality of human freedom. This is because when the freedoms of all are unchecked (for example, in the state of nature, which is also a condition of anarchy), the strong will overpower the weak and infringe on their freedoms, in which case freedoms will not be distributed equally, contrary to Kant’s basic principle of right. Hence a fair and lawful coercion that restricts freedom is consistent with and required by maximal and equal degrees of freedom for all.
Kant holds that republicanism is the ideal form of government. In a republic, voters elect representatives and these representatives decide on particular laws on behalf of the people. (Kant shows that he was not free of the prejudices of his day, and claims, with little argument, that neither women nor the poor should be full citizens with voting rights.) Representatives are duty-bound to choose these laws from the perspective of the “general will” (a term Kant borrows from Rousseau), rather than from the perspective of the interests of any one individual or group within society. Even though the entire population does not vote on each individual law, a law is said to be just only in case an entire population of rational agents could and would consent to the law. In this respect, Kant’s theory of just law is analogous to his universal law formulation of the categorical imperative: both demand that it be possible in principle for everyone to affirm the rule in question (see 5b above).
Among the freedoms that ought to be respected in a just society (republican or otherwise) are the freedom to pursue happiness in any way one chooses (so long as this pursuit does not infringe the rights of others, of course), freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. These last two are especially important to Kant and he associated them with the ongoing enlightenment of humanity in “What is Enlightenment?” He argues that it “would be a crime against human nature” (8:39) to legislate religious doctrine because doing so would be to deny to humans the very free use of reason that makes them human. Similarly, restrictions on what Kant calls the “public use of one’s reason” are contrary to the most basic teleology of the human species, namely, the development of reason. Kant himself had felt the sting of an infringement on these rights when the government of Friedrich Wilhelm II (the successor to Frederick the Great) prohibited Kant from publishing anything further on matters pertaining to religion.
c. Perpetual Peace
Kant elaborates the cosmopolitan theory first proposed in “Idea for a Universal History” in his Towards Perpetual Peace (1795). The basic idea is that world peace can be achieved only when international relations mirror, in certain respects, the relations between individuals in a just society. Just as people cannot be traded as things, so too states cannot be traded as though they were mere property. Just as individuals must respect others’ rights to free self-determination, so too, “no state shall forcibly interfere in the constitution and government of another state” (8:346). And in general, just as individuals need to arrange themselves into just societies, states, considered as individuals themselves, must arrange themselves into a global federation, a “league of nations” (8:354). Of course, until a state of perpetual peace is reached, wars will be inevitable. Even in times of wars, however, certain laws must be respected. For instance, it is never permissible for hostilities to become so violent as to undermine the possibility of a future peace treaty.
Kant argued that republicanism is especially conducive to peace, and he argued that perpetual peace would require that all states be republics. This is because the people will only consent to a war if they are willing to bear the economic burdens that war brings, and such a cost will only be worthwhile when there is a truly dire threat. If only the will of the monarch is required to go to war, since the monarch will not have to bear the full burden of the war (the cost will be distributed among the subjects), there is much less disincentive against war.
According to Kant, war is the result of an imbalance or disequilibrium in international relations. Although wars are never desirable, they lead to new conditions in international relations, and sometimes these new conditions are more balanced than the previous ones. When they are more balanced, there is less chance of new war occurring. Overall then, although the progression is messy and violent along the way, the slow march towards perpetual peace is a process in which all the states of the world slowly work towards a condition of balance and equilibrium.
7. Theory of Art and Beauty
Kant’s most worked out presentation of his views on aesthetics appears in Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), also known as the “Third Critique.” As the title implies, Kant’s aesthetic theory is cashed out through an analysis of the operations of the faculty of judgment. That is, Kant explains what it is for something to be beautiful by explaining what goes into the judgment that something is beautiful. This section explains the structure of aesthetic judgments of the beautiful and the sublime (7a), summarizes Kant’s theory of art and the genius behind art (7b), and finally explains the connection between Kant’s aesthetic theory and his moral theory (7c).
a. The Beautiful and the Sublime
Kant holds that there are three different types of aesthetic judgments: judgments of the agreeable, of the beautiful, and of the sublime. The first is not particularly interesting, because it pertains simply to whatever objects happen to cause us (personally) pleasure or pain. There is nothing universal about such judgments. If one person finds botanical gin pleasant and another does not, there is no disagreement, simply different responses to the stimulus. Judgments of the beautiful and the sublime, however, are more interesting and worth spending some time on.
Let us consider judgments of beauty (which Kant calls “judgments of taste”) first. Kant argues that all judgments of taste involve four components, or “moments.” First, judgments of taste involve a subjective yet disinterested enjoyment. We have an appreciation for the object without desiring it. This contrasts judgments of taste from both cognitions, which represent objects as they are rather than how they affect us, and desires, which represent objects in terms of what we want. Second, judgments of taste involve universality. When we judge an object to be beautiful, implicit in the judgment is the belief that everyone should judge the object in the same way. Third, judgments of taste involve the form of purposiveness, or “purposeless purposiveness.” Beautiful objects seem to be “for” something, even though there is nothing determinate that they are for. Fourth, judgments of taste involve necessity. When presented with a beautiful object, I take it that I ought to judge it as beautiful. Taken together, the theory is this: when I judge something as beautiful, I enjoy the object without having any desires with respect to it, I believe that everyone should judge the object to be beautiful, I represent some kind of purposiveness in it, but without applying any concepts that would determine its specific purpose, and I also represent myself as being obligated to judge it to be beautiful. Judgments of beauty are thus quite peculiar. On the one hand, when we say an object is beautiful, it is not the same sort of predication as when I say something is green, is a horse, or fits in a breadbox. Yet it is not for that reason a purely subjective, personal judgment because of the necessity and intersubjective universality involved in such judgments.
A further remark is in order regarding the “form of purposiveness” in judgments of taste. Kant wants to emphasize that no determinate concepts are involved in judgments of taste, but that the “reflective” power of judgment (that is, judgment’s ability to seek to find a suitable concept to fit an object) is nevertheless very active during such judgments. When I encounter an unfamiliar object, my reflective judgment is set in motion and seeks a concept until I figure out what sort of thing the object is. When I encounter a beautiful object, the form of purposiveness in the object also sets my reflecting judgment in motion, but no determinate concept is ever found for the object. Although this might be expected to lead to frustration, Kant instead claims that it provokes a “free play” (5:217) between the imagination and understanding. Kant does not say as much about this “free play” as one would like, but the idea seems to be that since the experience is not constrained by a determinate concept that must be applied to the object, the imagination and understanding are free to give in to a lively interplay of thought and emotion in response to the object. The experience of this free play of the faculties is the part of the aesthetic experience that we take to be enjoyable.
Aside from judgments of taste, there is another important form of aesthetic experience: the experience of the sublime. According to Kant, the experience of the sublime occurs when we face things (whether natural or manmade) that dwarf the imagination and make us feel tiny and insignificant in comparison. When we face something so large that we cannot come up with a concept to adequately capture its magnitude, we experience a feeling akin to vertigo. A good example of this is the “Deep Field” photographs from the Hubble Telescope. We already have trouble comprehending the enormity of the Milky Way, but when we see an image containing thousands of other galaxies of approximately the same size, the mind cannot even hope to comprehend the immensity of what is depicted. Although this sort of experience can be disconcerting, Kant also says that a disinterested pleasure (similar to the pleasure in the beautiful) is experienced when the ideas of reason pertaining to the totality of the cosmos are brought into play. Although the understanding can have no empirical concept of such an indeterminable magnitude, reason has such an idea (in Kant’s technical sense of “idea”; see 2g above), namely, the idea of the world as an indefinitely large totality. This feeling that reason can subsume and capture even the totality of the immeasurable cosmos leads to the peculiar pleasure of the sublime.
b. Theory of Art
Both natural objects and manmade art can be judged to be beautiful. Kant suggests that natural beauties are purest, but works of art are especially interesting because they result from human genius. The following briefly summarizes Kant’s theory of art and genius.
Although art must be manmade and not natural, Kant holds that art is beautiful insofar as it imitates the beauty of nature. Specifically, a beautiful work of art must display the “form of purposiveness” (described above, 7a) that can be encountered in the natural world. What makes great art truly great, though, is that it is the result of genius in the artist. According to Kant, genius is the innate talent possessed by the exceptional, gifted individual that allows that individual to translate an intangible “aesthetic idea” into a tangible work of art. Aesthetic ideas are the counterparts to the ideas of reason (see 2g above): where ideas of reason are concepts for which no sensible intuition is adequate, aesthetic ideas are representations of the imagination for which no concept is adequate (this is in line with Kant’s claim that beauty is not determinately conceptualizable). When a genius is successful at exhibiting an aesthetic idea in a beautiful work of art, the work will provoke the “free play” of the faculties described above (7a).
Kant divides the arts into three groups: the arts of speech (rhetoric and poetry), pictorial arts (sculpture, architecture, and painting), and the art of the play of sensations (music and “the art of colors”) (5:321ff.). These can, of course, be combined together. For instance opera combines music and poetry into song, and combines this with theatre (which Kant considers a form of painting). Kant deems poetry the greatest of the arts because of its ability to stimulate the imagination and understanding and expand the mind through reflection. Music is the most successful if judged in terms of “charm and movement of the mind” (5:328), because it evokes the affect and feeling of human speech, but without being constrained by the determinate concepts of actual words. However, if the question is which art advances culture the most, Kant thinks that painting is better than music.
One consequence of Kant’s theory of art is that the contemporary notion of “conceptual art” is a contradiction in terms: if there is a specific point or message (a determinate concept) that the artist is trying to get across, then the work cannot provoke the indeterminate free play that is necessary for the experience of the beautiful. At best, such works can be interesting or provocative, but not truly beautiful and hence not truly art.
c. Relation to Moral Theory
A final important aspect of Kant’s aesthetic theory is his claim that beauty is a “symbol” of morality (5:351ff.), and aesthetic judgment thereby functions as a sort of “propaedeutic” for moral cognition. This is because certain aspects of judgments of taste (see 7a above) are analogous in important respects to moral judgments. The immediacy and disinterestedness of aesthetic appreciation corresponds to the demand that moral virtue be praised even when it does not lead to tangibly beneficial consequences: it is good in itself. The free play of the faculties involved in appreciation of the beautiful reminds one of the freedom necessary for and presupposed by morality. And the universality and necessity involved in aesthetic judgments correspond to the universality and necessity of the moral law. In short, Kant holds that a cultivated sensitivity to aesthetic pleasures helps prepare the mind for moral cognition. Aesthetic appreciation makes one sensitive to the fact that there are pleasures beyond the merely agreeable just as there are goods beyond the merely instrumental.
8. Pragmatic Anthropology
Together with a course on “physical geography” (a study of the world), Kant taught a class on “pragmatic anthropology” almost every year of his career as a university teacher. Towards the end of his career, Kant allowed his collected lecture notes for his anthropology course to be edited and published as Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1789). Anthropology, for Kant, is simply the study of human nature. Pragmatic anthropology is useful, practical knowledge that students would need in order to successfully navigate the world and get through life.
The Anthropology is interesting in two very different ways. First, Kant presents detailed discussions of his views on issues related to empirical psychology, moral psychology, and aesthetic taste that fill out and give substance to the highly abstract presentations of his writings in pure theoretical philosophy. For instance, although in the theory of experience from Critique of Pure Reason Kant argues that we need sensory intuitions in order to have empirical cognition of the world, he does not explain in any detail how our specific senses—sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell—contribute to this cognition. The Anthropology fills in a lot of this story. For instance, we learn that sight and hearing are necessary for us to represent objects as public and intersubjectively available. And we learn that touch is necessary for us to represent objects as solid, and hence as substantial. With respect to his moral theory, many of Kant’s ethical writings can give the impression that emotions and sentiments can only work against morality, and that only pure reason can incline one towards the good. In the Anthropology Kant complicates this story, informing us that nature has implanted sentiments of compassion to incline us towards the good, even in the absence of a developed reason. Once reason has been developed, it can promote an “enthusiasm of good resolution” (7:254) through attention to concrete instances of virtuous action, in which case desire can work in cooperation with reason’s moral law, not against it. Kant also supplements his moral theory through pedagogical advice about how to cultivate an inclination towards moral behavior.
The other aspect of the Anthropology (and the student transcripts of his actual lectures) that makes it so interesting is that the wealth and range of examples and discussions gives a much fuller picture of Kant the person than we can get from his more technical writings. The many examples present a picture of a man with wide-ranging opinions on all aspects of the human experience. There are discussions of dreams, humor, boredom, personality-types, facial expressions, pride and greed, gender and race issues, and more. We even get some fashion advice: it is acceptable to wear yellow under a blue coat, but gaudy to wear blue under a yellow coat. There has been a great deal of renewed interest in Kant’s anthropological writings and many commentators have been appealing to these often neglected texts as a helpful resource that provides contextualization of Kant’s more widely studied theoretical output.
9. References and Further Reading
a. Primary Literature
The best scholarly, English translations of Kant’s work are published by Cambridge University Press as the Cambridge Editions of the Works of Immanuel Kant. The following are from that collection and contain some of Kant’s most important and influential writings.
- Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. (Contains most of Kant’s ethical writings, including Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals,Critique of Practical Reason, and Metaphysics of Morals.)
- Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- Theoretical Philosophy 1755-1770, ed. David Walford. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. (Contains most of Kant’s “pre-critical” writings in theoretical philosophy.)
- Theoretical Philosophy after 1781, eds. Henry Allison and Peter Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002 (Contains Kant’s mature writings in theoretical philosophy, including Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics and Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science.)
- History, Anthropology, and Education, eds. Günter Zöller and Robert Louden. . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. (Contains, among other writings, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View.)
Amazing Grace Philosophy for women
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I have it: 893 I had it: 335 I want it: 258 My signature: 13
Amazing Grace by Philosophy is a Floral fragrance for women. Top notes are mandarin orange, grapefruit and bergamot; middle notes are freesia, jasmine and rose; base note is musk.
Perfume rating: 3.68 out of 5 with 1016 votes.
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Amazing Grace Fragrance Reviews
I once loved this scent very much. Unfortunately, when Coty bought and reformulated this scent (EDT), they murdered the longevity and sillage. I literally have to bathe in this scent for it to last only a few hours, if I'm lucky, as it wears off promptly after spraying. I definitely have to layer with the lotion for even modest longevity. Attempting all of the above adds up in price, so buyer beware. A soft, clean floral that no longer lives up to it's name. The only upside to this fleeting fragrance after reformulation is that it is less powdery on my skin, even though other reviews note a strong baby powder scent.
I smelled this on a lady years ago and asked her what she was wearing. It smelled so incredibly great,I knew I had to have it. This is a fresh-out-of-the-shower subtle clean scent that never offends. No blasts of atomic fruit or flowers.Just a delightful scent experience.
I just bought this again after not having it for a year or two. Um Philosophy has really perfected this. The bottle I had before was NOT as pretty as this. So good on you Philosophy. I have fallen in love. I have the edt also. Bought in Dec 2017 at Ulta. Batch code 7208 made in July 2017
Added thoughts. I have been using this almost exclusively since I bought it. It is my go to for everyday. Absolutely obsessed with this! :)
This is missing a note in the description: Lily of the Valley.
Blind bought this today and tested it.. It's very nice and airy, kind of reminds me of an angel on a cloud (the name probably gives that impression too) but so far I don't find it groundbreaking. I know a lot of people have said that Coty may have messed around with it so I'm conscious that the reformulation may be what's made it less appealing. Would be interested to see if I could find an original to compare them both. I do like it but not that amazed overall, I get the florals and I smell a little powder (which weirdly is not listed in the notes). I think it would have been my favourite scent if I'd got it in my younger days. A good day time scent anyway.
*** After wearing it properly for one whole day I am definitely going to pass this on. It doesn't last at all on my skin and I can't escape the soapy note :/ Disappointed ***
Amazing Grace is amazing! I love it. It's a very fresh floral with freesia and rose over clean musk. It's soft and light and a perfect everyday fragrance for spring and summer.
I found an old bottle in the back of my closet. It's the bottle with stickers on both sides. Wow Coty really changed the scent. The old Amazing Grace is strong and lovely. The new Amazing Grace really is a shadow of its former self. They muted down the original Amazing Grace scent and added a lot of musk.
Like Simply Belle, Amazing Grace EDT is straight up glue (I probably had some amazing glue in my childhood because several perfumes smell like glue to me) with a hint of soap. Good thing is it’s light enough that I can’t smell it. There a hint of green floral here and there. Not my cup of tea.
There was a very fragrant climbing rose in my friend’s garden. It was a “blue” rose, which means it’s actually a deep purply color that’s sort of close to “blue.” Anyway I can’t recall what the name of this rose was, I believe it was “climbing blue moon.” This was sentimental to me because it smelled very much like that rose, which at the time had special meaning for us. I see that most people smell the musk most prominently in this- but I always smelled a strong sweet rose smell. Nothing like the “green” rose in perfumer’s workshop tea rose. This is sweet and soft - and tea rose smells quite like mosquito repellent to me.
I found a mini of EDP in my stuff don’t have a clue where it came from I guess I’m a little underwhelmed by AG I expected a fancier smell from all the reviews on here and QVC its just a Meh scent to me not bad but not great just okay.
This is a very soft scent.
It starts fresh. After a few minutes it becomes more flowery but still very soft. Then you get the musk. Everything is very subtle.
I would describe the scent in three words - innocence, purity, and virginity.
Light and comfortable.
Maybe nothing special but very clean and pretty.
It is not loud, it is not exaggerated. It's gentle.
I would recommend this for work, a date or anytime, if you want to wear a gentle and discreet perfume.
Unfortunately . light sillage and longevity.
Somehow this is a nostalgic scent. it reminds me of elementary school. It makes me think of pencil shavings ! Am I the only one that smells this ?
It smells closely to the gap fragrance near. It's just average citrus and musk the dry down is bad.
This smells very fresh and light. Perfect for spring and summer.
This perfume reminds a bit of Gucci Envy, very fresh and clean. I like it a lot, but it does not really relate to glamour or something, more like inner peace.
I never owned this fragrance or sampled it prior to the reformulation that reviewers are speaking of, so this review is coming from a sample after reformulation.
I really wish I could have smelled this before the reformulation- sounds like it was much more interesting!
obsessed with this scent. At first it is a beachy clean smell but then the light citrus and gentle floral are subtle and delicate. However it is not complex or super perfumey. I personally love that it is not a powerful scent. It might only be detected in small bursts or in a hug. And I can reapply.
This is my first experience with this fragrance. I adore it! It reminds me of a great smelling sunscreen and sunbathing on the beach. I can almost feel the coastal breezes and smell the salty air when I spray this scent and boy, do I spray it! My husband and son purchased this fragrance for Mother's Day and they agree that it smells like a nice sunscreen which they both like. Amazing Grace is amazingly fresh, as in just-out-of-the-shower fresh. The two times I've worn this scent this week, I've received very enthusiastic compliments on how great I smell. Just yesterday a lady asked "What perfume are you wearing? You smell so good!" This afternoon, a young lady and her male friend were waiting while I finished talking with a colleague in an office close by to find out what I had on.
Maar voor een placebo hoef je écht geen 50 euro, of meer, neer te leggen.
The young lady said when I walked in, she couldn't get over the scent, that I smelled incredible, just awesome! Her male friend was all smiles and going crazy with curiosity to find out the name. He said I smelled "AMAZING" after I shared the name and wished me an awesome afternoon. What more can we say!? Amazing Grace is a keeper.
To me, this is the essence of the word "beautiful". I love that it's a bit shy and not too overpowering. The citrus lasts about an hour. Yet in the drydown, it develops into something even lovelier, and on me, there is great longevity. I seem to get a bit more rose than what I'm seeing from other users. Sillage is more than than I was aware of when I first began using Amazing Grace.
Amazing Grace seems to be simple. Citrus, light florals and musk.
If I have to describe it in one word I would say: innocence. It has that "pure" and "clean" quality.
It doesn't strike as sophisticated or complex and yet its simplicity is captivating.
I'm sure this fragrance may pass as bland and utterly uninteresting to some people, especially if you prefer exotic, avant garde and unexpected scents. But for me, Amazing Grace is a fragrance that defies all the crazy niche creations. It's comforting, easy and beautiful.
Sweetened floral, mostly freesia anchored in a light musk. The musk is not sharp
This used to be my signature scent, but after the company was purchsed my Coty, it was just not the same anymore. I continue to wear it from time to time, but this perfume is a shadow of it's former self. I used to get compliments every time I wore this, but no one ever seems to notice it anymore.
Oh, and another thing ! What's with all the hate on this fragrance?!
Look, I don't want to toot my horn, but I could, slightly, maybe be classified as a perfume snob, ESPECIALLY anything with white florals.
This doesn't offend me *gasssp* it's not too bad. I like it even more with the layer I mentioned but overall it's nice and clean.
Quick tip : layer this with Molecule 01. This will catapult this fragrance into new places ! This makes it shine, makes it strong and reach its full potential.
Amazing Grace, that save a wrench like me <3
This scent is lovely, clean and soft. The only problem, and it's a big one, it does not last! Because of this I will not repurchase the perfume :( However, the Amazing Grace firming body emulsion jas the same beautiful scent and the lotion feels amazing on my skin. The scent does last longer when using the lotion and I will definitely consider repurchase of the lotion for these reasons.
I tried a sample of this which was a "dab" instead of a "spray" type. If I smelled this on another person, I would think it was nice (male or female). It's so close to the way bath soap smells though (or at least used to). Kind of powdery, lightly floral, and soap-like. I would not buy this for myself. When I wear a fragrance, I like it to be more of a statement. When I want to go without a fragrance, I smell kind of like this already.
Smells great on a guy like me. Used to be my signature scent. Lasts all day long especially when layered with the lotion. My office mates used to compliment me a lot, saying I smell like a baby. They never said anything about me smelling "feminine"
This fragrance has been in my perfume rotation for about 10 years now. It's one of those scents that you can't quite put your finger on. It's floral, musky, a little citrus, and very clean. But I feel that the specific combination of the notes and how they are blended make this fragrance unique in my opinion. This scent just evokes gentle and positive feelings every time I wear it. Not to mention, you can wear this at any time of day for any occasion, and anyone could pull it off. Amazing Grace is one of those scents that just smell divine on everyone, including men. I do feel that this scent can be girly, But, if a man wears this i'm sure he would get complimented on how good he smells. And I feel that's where this scent wanted to become, not just another "fragrance" or "perfume" but a scent. When wearing this, people never ask what perfume i'm wearing, they always just comment on how good I smell. I do have to be honest though, it's not strong and it doesn't seem to last as long as it should for the price tag. My best advice is to layer and maybe just go for the body spray.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this laundry detergent whatsoever. It smells fresh and clean. It does exactly what a laundry soap should; it doesn't offend (or affect) any of my senses. Wait. is this perfume?
I recently purchased a four pack of Philosophy fragrances and this was in it. I have water to try this for ages and never was able to find it in any of my local stores. I should also say that fresh scents are my absolute favorite type of perfume and when I started looking up top ten fresh scent perfumes and this was on that list. I have to say, I do really like it. BUT. it smells like one of those been there done that tyr scents. Its nice, retty and girly and finding it for a great price would be the only way I wpud buy a fill size bottle. Sadly it's just not that special!
yet another phillosophy fragrance weakened when reformulated by coty.
My true thoughts about a fragrance often happen in the middle of the night, I woke up and in a half daze wondered why I could smell my friends fragrance SJP's Lovely, lay there in the dark trying to recall what fragrance I'd worn the previous day, ah it was Amazing Grace!
Then I learnt they are both produced by Coty, I was given the bottle of AG but I wouldn't buy as it's a lot more expensive than Lovely.
My mother's signature fragrance, and I absolutely love it on her! It smells sweeter on her than on me. It is a clean, innocent scent. I always think of some lovely bubble bath when I smell it.
I think she was drawn to it because she's a nurse and it's something she can wear to work. She says the doctors compliment her a lot on her perfume! Which makes me suspect the sillage is a little better than most people think. Longetivity is also better than this graph shows. It lingers on clothes for ages!
As someone who is generally drawn to heavy scents, Amazing Grace is an outlier in my typical selection. However, there is something really charming in this fragrance that makes me really enjoy it.
This is my spring/summer perfume. It stays so close to the skin that instead of being noticeable I just give the impression of being very clean. It's definitely a "clean girl" smell and reminds me a bit of floral soap and baby powder without being a soapy or powdery scent at all. It's just very soft and light and pleasant.
This had been my favorite perfume for a year. It's inoffensive. Soft floral. I usually dislike citruses but this has a nice gentle top notes of citrus. It dries down to a powdery floral and musk. So gentle.
To me this is a very very soft scent. It begins a tiny bit citrucy and fresh. After a few minutes it becomes more floraly but still very soft. Then you get the musk. All very softly and pretty. It stays like that a while and then dries down to a very powdery smell with a hint of rose.
It is unnofensive unless you don't like powdery scents. It's sillage is very soft. After 4 hours becomes a skin scent and after 6 is gone. Its not a bad scent, it's something you would wear when you want to wear perfume but don't want people to really notice it. Its just there to smell good and that's it.
I would not buy it again. I don't really like it but I don't dislike it either. Its just too powdery for my taste and too soft for me. Actually thats how I would describe this in one word: soft.
I love the scent but it's really weak. Gone in 15 minutes.
WHY oh WHY did they have to change this? I adored the EDP version of this fragrance. I just purchased a new bottle after finishing my old one off. IT'S horrible, just horrible. Don't bother wasting your time or hard earned money on this cheap reformulation. I've literally had to mourn the passing of my old bottle of Amazing Grace. Thanks for nothing Philosophy.
I love this. Scents trigger my migraines, so I have to be very careful,but this is perfect. Very soft. It doesn't follow me through a room or slap everyone else in the face with the smell. It's also good for me personally because I am a massage therapist, and strong scents can bother my clients.
I expected to like this — I really enjoy other Philosophy fragrances (Falling in Love, Unconditional Love, Fresh Cream), and I also love a good, clean, floral scent. But boy, howdy, I sure do dislike Amazing Grace. The floral notes are very antiseptic, and it has a powdery dry down that makes the whole concoction smell like someone just cleaned the nursery. I don't think I could even use this as an air freshener.
Well, Amazing Grace is a breeze of fresh air. Very unoffensive, clean like pure water. This is a mild, beautiful floral scent. Its like 11 am in a warm morning on a working day, when you go to your home because you got a holiday, the silent breeze, fluttering leaves, its all about serenity.
I do not usually repurchase a scent, but this one is my second bottle. I don't really ever get complimented on my perfumes either and this is one of them I do. This is a safe, clean, fresh, loving hug. will always have this in my collection.
I'm not a fan of this. Did a blind buy because of the popularity and reviews. Hubs said I smelled like Aunt Nancy, and she may actually wear this but I haven't asked. Smell faded after 4 hours. I found it to be a floral musky scent and not something I associate with "clean" fragrances. This review is for the original formulation.
Smells like you're fresh out the shower and rubbed on some sunscreen. I actually kind of enjoy it. It's a sunny beach day in a bottle!
For some reason this reminds me of trips to the zoo. It has a musty floral thing going on which makes me think of the smell of all the animals floating in the air and the sunscreen mixing with the plants growing everywhere. Sounds weird right? I really like it, it brings back good memories of summer and family vacations.
I decided to spritz this on today from a bottle that is around 12 years old. Tried to date it but the code comes up as an error. The label on the bottom has a copyright of 2004.
A clean-white T-shirt hanging from old-fashioned wooden clothes hooks on a line under the summer sun. Opens with fresh, juicy citrus, followed by sweet, clean white flowers and rose, finished up with a generous dose of soapy laundry musk.
Leaving a review for both "Amazing Grace" and "Live Joyously" (which isn't in the database)
"dryer sheets" vibe.
If we could use the term "starter" scent, this should be under the definition and close to the top of the list. Safe, un-offensive, something for the masses, enjoyed it.
this is very clean soapy scent that its so light that you can barely smell it. This is for people who don't like perfume(at least in my opinion).
There is no lasting power here at all. It disappears in no time.
If you want clean soapy scent that last, get Casual by Paul Sebastian. You can find it for a song online. It last very long time.
Amazing grace is definitely NOT Amazing to me.
What a lovely scent! Very clean, fresh and light. Great scent for the office if you work in close quarters or where your co-workers may have allergies. I especially enjoy the positive message behind this scent. This one is a winner and very likable.
A clean, fresh scent when I just want to wear something that isn't overpowering. It's calm and airy, and yes, does remind me of dryer sheets. But for some, fresh laundry is a warm, relaxing, good feeling. It's seasonless and can be worn anywhere without offending anyone. Definitely a skin-scent, Amazing Grace has its purpose in the world of perfumes. For those who want to wear perfumes but can't overload those around them, or for those who might be ill and can't stomach over-bearing scents that are too brash, too cloying or just too opulent for the moment, Amazing Grace serves its purpose. A little bit of citrus, a hint of tea, a tad of pepper all wrapped in a gentle musk that sits close to the skin for a few hours. Nothing spectacular, just gently fresh, clean and pretty. Kind of like "the girl next door".Amazing Grace does its job well. It's not loud, it's not over-bearing. It's gentle.
Used to love this, but the new version is terrible! Same with Pure Grace. Coty, what have you done?! Doesn't smell the same and lasts a mere 30 minutes. Back to the store it went. Do you even remotely care about the opinions of your long-standing customers? All the recent reviews on your website of your fragrance reformulations are ridden with complaints, and not a single response (that I know of).
I'm a nurse and love this for work- this and pure grace have gotten me more compliments FROM PATIENTS, than anything else. That being said, I'm sometimes confused by the "people who like, may also like" column that I see on the website. This one is listed with Hypnotic Poison and Viva La Juicy- two perfumes I love but would never wear to work, kinda hard for blind buys.
Edit: so I just recently bought my yearly set from QVC of this, and Coty has done another hatchet job on a well liked perfume. I've worn this for about ten years and have probably received the most compliments on this perfume. Now I'm debating finding another similar one to take its place. Longevity is now poor, silage dismal and I smell too much alcohol. Go look on the QVC forums to read about the new vs. old after Coty bought out Philosophy.
I received this as a gift a few years ago. While I didn't like it at first, the scent grew on me. I received the body wash of this scent with my gift as well. I'm glad I did, because it helped me ween myself into wearing the fragrance. I don't sense any of the top notes unfortunately, but sense the clean, white floral scent. While I enjoy this scent, I don't think I'll replace the bottle when I run out as there are other fragrances I'd rather wear. However, if you're a lover of light, soft, white floral scents, this is for you!
Very fresh scent, but a bit too much of a cleaning supplies smell. I guess it's the very acidic smelly citrus, like graprfruit/orange/lime mixed with some flowers (rose? freesia?) It's an everyday scent that isn't too overly sexy or nighttime, and I would feel comfortable wearing it to work, or to run errands. but it doesn't grab me. I don't love it.
Very lovely fragrance, but what happened ? I had this perfume years ago and bought a new bottle this week, looks like the staying power is almost zero. Dissapears after 45 minutes. Such a pity.
When this fragrance first came out on QVC is when I tried it and fell in love, I went through 3 bottles in a row. Then I took a break, when I came back to it it was different, not the same as before, nothing was said about a reformulat ion. Now so many older women are wearing it (I'm thinking QVC junkies) they spray it so heavy I can smell it a mile away, all I can say is ladies back off with the spritzes, maybe 2or 3 will do it, not 15 it smells horrible. Now I'll get down from my soapbox.
Amazing Grace (AG)reminds of a weaker version of the later Chloe, Chloe (edt) but yet at a fraction of the cost. Have never tested AG or other Philosophy scents before but couldn't help but fall in love with this one as I walked away after having sampling several other brands and fragrances.
I tried this at Sephora today. It smelled clean but in an I just cleaned my bathroom kind of way. It smells like a cleaning supply to me. I didn't smell flowers, just cleanliness. This is hard to describe. It didn't smell like perfume to me.
So I tried it at Dillard's then at Ulta. However at Ulta there were two Amazing Grace bottles, one had a white sticker and smelled like the one at Dillard's: soapy, quite strong. And the other bottle's sticker was pink and smelled lighter(better) than the other bottle. So.. are there two different ones? Maybe EDT and EDP? Regardless, I love unusual scents and this reminds me of clean cotton sheets at an expensive hotel and shiny bathrooms with light blue and cotton flower blue tile, all of that located at the beach. There's something summery in this scent, something from the sea too.
This is blandness in perfume form. Soapy fabric conditioner in a bottle. I'd be happy for my clothes to smell like this, but not me.
Yeesh. Different strokes for different folks, I know, and I'm no big-time perfumista myself, but I just don't GET the AG line at all. To my nose, they manage to combine brutal artificiality with blandness. I mean, how is that even possible? I don't pick up any freesia from this at all, not even in the bottle. I can only smell a shampoo base, as if I spilled a little J & J No More Tears on my skin and forgot to wash it off. Let's face it, if I wanted to smell "clean," I could achieve the same effect with actual shampoo and a wet washcloth, and get a better hygienic result for less money. Oh well, life would be boring if we all had exactly the same aesthetic sense.
Was in Macy's today. Sprayed some Amazing Grace on my wirst and went on my way. In fact I forgot I had sprayed it. i only remember as I kept pushing my hair out of my face and kept smelling shampoo. Pantene shampoo. I thought omg how come I smell so much this shampoo. I washed my hair yesterday and did't use pantene. I smelled my hair and nothing. Then I smelled my wirts and bam! It was the Amazing Grace.
But to each its own. If this perfume is in production it's because it must work for many women.
I don't see anything 'clean' and 'fresh' about it -
it feels like someone has stuffed soap into my nostrils.
I do feel Soapy, yes, but not clean.
This floral is clean and just a bit heavier than a lot of what is out there right now. That's good. It's not fruity or sweet, nice in this case. There is an almost polished or sophisticated style to Amazing Grace. Unfortunately it really doesn't suit me. It's a bit too bold and formal smelling for me. Sampling this, I feel like a little girl playing dress up with my mom or grandma's scent. This would be great on the right lady though.
Fresh clean soap & freesia is pretty much all I pick up I this perfume. I have a love/hate for it lol sometimes when I wear this its amazing other times its overwhelming lol
This is downright soapy, but in a good way.
I always read fragrantica's perfume review and watch youtuber's review on a perfume before I blind buy it. I bought the edt version of this. Horrible! All I can smell is soap and alcohol. No grace at all. Sorry for those who like this perfume but this is not what I expected base on my research. It's my own fault. Never ever blind buy again.
I adore Amazing Grace & it's wonderful range of matching body lotions, creams & scrubs.
Definitely floral and musky with slight hints of citrus. It's such a clean and feminine fragrance but I also find it to be a bit strong so I wear it away from my face so as to only catch occasional whiffs of it throughout the day.
I enjoy this fragrance quite a bit and used to buy the lotion reularly when I could afford it. Even though it is not all that expensive, I can't justify the cost of it because it doesn't seem to last more than 15 minutes on me.
This is a very green perfume that evokes memories of a beautiful spring day. It's a very clean floral without being soapy. The problem with it though is that I wonder if anyone else can even smell it because it's so light! I think of this more as a comfort scent to wear to bed or to just snuggle up with under a blanket with a book. After a couple hours I really have to concentrate in order to smell it. too bad :(
I reviewed this scent already some time ago, but I need to add that something changed my opinion. I ran out of my body spritz and bought a new one. Apparently they have changed the formula of this as well. It is indeed less impressive now, but more important: it has no staying power anymore. It does not stay with you all day long, like it used to. More like half an hour. What to use it for, then? I still like the bodywash, but well, to be honest, there are a lot of other nice bodywashes to choose from if it does not necessarily have to match your fragrance (most of them a lot cheaper too!). I am sorry I must say so, but when I will have finished my current bottles, I will not buy this again.
What happened to you AG? You've changed.
This is the perfume for lacrosse moms who have "Live Laugh Love" stenciled on their living room wall. It's clean and well put together, but utterly unremarkable.
I wish neutral were an option on how I feel about this. It's meh.
This is one of those fragrances that still smell nice the next day, lingering in your clothes. Although I agree with those of you who say that the new formula does not last as long as it used to, it does stay in your clothes, somehow. But I always combine the body spritz with the eau de parfum. It does not really smell like perfume, since it only smells nice and clean, like fresh washed clothes. So it is actually quite expensive for a fragrance that goes unnoticed as such. But I always take it with me when I travel, since that may be exactly what you need in many circumstances: a comforthy smell that makes you feel clean and confident.
This works so good with my body chemistry, it is just divine. When i smell it on me i actually do have a feeling of amazing grace. Lingers for hours, clean and pure. There is a children's book with the title 'A sound like someone trying not to make a sound' well this perfume reminds me of that book, a perfume trying not to be a perfume.
This is one of my favorite fragrances. It has wonderful longevity, and people often complement me when I wear it. It is not disturbing (like Chanel N5) on me.
It is clean, fresh, and simply amazing. I am loving it!
Fresh. Clean. A little warm. That's what I get from this. It's a nice floral. It's not offensive at all. Someone could walk by and if this scent wafted to my nose, I would find it very pleasant. Slight fresh shower soap scent. Very lady like and soft, with a touch of familiar cozyness. I feel like it reminds me of a hug from someone and me catching the scent warm against their skin.
If I could create a perfume, it would smell something like Amazing Grace. This is truly the purest, cleanest, most fresh fragrance I know, and without that disturbing sour note that is so typical to scents in this category (compare Clean). I don't find anything synthetic in this. This is a perfume that doesn't smell like perfume - it smells pure and clean.
I definitely want this!
This was my favorite all time scent and something changed about it. I used to be able to smell it on my scarves hanging in the closet. Now it cannot even compare.
I've only tried vintage EdP. I can see the appeal. It lasts well with reasonable projection and doesn't go too far in any one direction to become irritating. On the other hand, I would rather wear Happy than this one, if I wanted to go in this direction. That one is a bit more interesting to me. After a few hours I decided to layer two others with AG and it actually worked out well, which I wasn't expecting. I certainly agree that this is a great office scent, and at least close to being unisex, particularly in "formal" situations and in warm weather, if worn discreetly. For rose that is a bit "feminine," I'd likely reach for Fresh's Cannabis Rose, as that one has clearer and more interesting notes (to me). I wouldn't want AG to be any weaker than the formulation I have, so I can understand disappointment with the EdT or the newest, which I think is called "fragrance spray."
Hands down my favorite everyday scent.
I always find the perfumes in the "Grace" range not memorable, but this one is. Bad news is: it's not in a good way.
I'm wearing 'Amazing Grace' as I write this review. I find that the freesia and musk notes make it seem really clean, so for me it's the perfect perfume to wear after a bath or shower. However I was just in a lift in my apartment building, when a girl said to her partner "Something smells like poo" I immediately held my breath so that I wouldn't inhale said faecal matter. The girl's partner made a reference to his jumper (yuck!) but she disagreed and seemed to incline her head in my direction. I was so embarrassed and luckily at that moment I reached my floor and couldn't get out of there quickly enough! Has anyone else ever experienced an indolic/faecal accord with this fragrance? Could it be the jasmine? I'm clearly oblivious to it!
Very pure and soapy. Very good choice for summer. This is little bit too sharp and synthetic for my taste, so I will not purchase it.
I tried so hard to like this, trying grace and amazing grace, but i gave them away. It never smelled like anything more than alcohol and Tide detergent to me. I like a clean smell, but if I'm putting putting a fragrance on after a shower, I like a little floral or citrus or SOMETHING pretty to sniff on my wrist.
I tried this today and it is straight forward freesia on me. I there is no blending of the scents and I was disappointed at the simplicity of it.
Headache inducing soapy monstrosity.
I don't smell citrus. I smell powdery smell. It's very soft. It doesn't last extremely long. It's May and as we celebrate mothers' day, I think it's a perfect scent for mums. It can also be used for work, not offensive at all. I wish a wonderful day to all the women out there whether our grandmas, moms or sisters or friends that stand by our side
I agree with Ummimtrish's review below and would add that along with the chemical note she is speaking of, it also smelled like play-doh on my skin in the dry-down. Her advise to try before you buy is wise because I'm glad I did.
LOL. My BF smelled this on me and said it smelled like dishwashing detergent, but nice. Like Dawn, or something, but nice! Heehee. I am getting a very soapy vibe as well. I used to get more floral from it, but now it's just clean soap, but not the same as Pure Grace. A more floral version of it.
I think this scent is my favorite of all the Philosophy scents.. It is comforting and soft. I just smile when I soray this on and know that I will get whiffs of it coming off of me all day. I try to use body lotion before applying for longevity and it really seems to work.. I am a huge fan of this fragrance. You won't be sorry if you buy this one.
I absolutely just plain LOVE his scent!! I hoard it when i find it at marshalls and tj maxx. lol. The dry down is impeccable. Amazing Grace will not disappoint.
A coworker walked past me and I immediately got a hint of maternity wards and newborn babies. It was this scent. I dont think ill like it on me but working around her was an absolute delight. Very clean and fresh, doesnt seem like the type of scent you get a lot of wear out of, since its so light.
I've read many comments on how the scent does not last. You are correct. Philosophy was bought out a few years ago by Coty and it's been downhill since then. This fragrance used to last all day while still being a subtle fragrance. My dirty clothes in the laundry basket used to smell good but now the fragrance only last maybe 15 minutes. I pulled out an old bottle of perfume prior to the buyout and it clearly shows that Coty changed the formula but they won't admit it. This is like trying to tell everybody that the "new coke" was the same as old "coke" . I wish Coty would listen to their customers and go back to the old formula.
A work colleague wafted past me and I was like a dog sniffing a bone. What was that glorious smell? She shuffled around from one foot to another and reluctantly said it was Amazing Grace.
I ordered my sample and here is my review.
Well, she lied to me because this is totally different to the fragrance that she was wearing, but this is a lovely fragrance in its own right and I'm very glad that I got the opportunity to sample it.
It opens with a fresh and gentle citrus breeze which tones down to a very lovely floral heart. The jasmine is very gentle and sweet and is never harsh or strong in this perfume.
AG is a soft and gentle lemony fragrance which dries down sweetly but sits very close to the wearer and is very much a skin scent. This perfume is feminine and elegant and perfect for the summer. Other reviewers have said that it doesn't last very long but this is a very reasonable fragrance so a few re spritzes are no big deal.
I'm going to let you into a secret, because you're my fellow perfumistas and Fragrantica rocks!! If you want this perfume to smell utterly outstanding, irresistible, unique, addictive and stunningly amazing, layer it with Jessica Simpson Fancy Nights!
This is my second review (my first being more about the notes of this scent). Here I wish to make a point about this fragrance and explain why people might enjoy wearing it. Many here stated that this is a nondescript perfume that doesn't make any statement. I beg to differ.
I think this may be my new favorite perfume. I love the initial spray as well as the dry down.. It has great lasting power and I get several compliments every time I wear it.. I have the Fine Perfume and will be buying more Philiosophy scents in the future..
Amazing Grace smells.. well.. amazing! It's such a soft, clean smell. It smells like everything soft and wonderful- babies, kittens, really soft, freshly-laundered picnic blankets lying in sunshine. It doesn't last too terribly long on my skin but lasts awhile on clothes. I wore Amazing Grace on my wedding day because it pretty much embodies the feeling of being all warm & fuzzy & in love.
PERFUME TESTER WARNINGS.
My Ulta has an entire wall of perfume right in front of the window (shame on you!) which the sun ruins all of the testers so they smell putrid.. luckily I smelled this at a different store and it changed my mind. So get second opinions at different stores!
Amazing Grace is one of my all time favorite perfumes. Definitely my go-to for summer. I love that I smell "just out of the shower" clean when I wear it. This past summer I had someone tell me I always smell just bathed.
Smells like a good quality French milled soap.
I'm out now of all my AM products but I tend to buy the liquid bath soap & AG scented lotion when I buy the EDP as well. Definitely stick with the EDP. It lasts MUCH longer than the EDT but still doesn't linger nearly long enough hence my reason for wearing with the bath soap & scented lotion. I've even used the deodorant (which I adore) and it lasts a long time but it's expensive and difficult to find.
I smelled this perfume yesterday while at the fragrance wall at Sephora. It smells great. if you like the smell of suntan lotion. Reminds me of summer just for that aspect. Does it smell nice, yes. but I like the smell of suntan lotion. Would I seriously wear it? Never. Kinda bummed since I heard so many good things about this perfume.
I am so happy I got myself a little sample before buying a full bottle. This is vile on my skin. A horrible mixture of musk and jasmine with a bit of rose. It smells like old baby powder. No freesia whatsoever. Disappointed.
When I look at the notes listed here and then what I'm smelling, I think "are we talking about the same scent here"? Fragrantica, you might want to check on this so people blind buying won't be misled.
I have the solid of this and the word that first comes to mind for me is gentle. It's sweet and soft and kind of cuddly feeling, like a soft white sweater you wear to stay warm on an early spring walk. Really enjoy it. It's become one of my traveling fragrances since it's a solid.
Wow! I just wore this yesterday, I hadnt used it in a while I just wanted to have on a scent that was ethereal, pretty, feminine, and soft, glad I did I received so many compliments at work both from women and men. I was told it was so unique and such a beautiful scent. I'm definately wearing this more often! I had to let them know what I was wearing! Kudos to you Philosophy!
this is a nice go-to scent for those days when you just want to smell clean, fresh, soft, feminine, and pretty! I think it is very nice, safe, inoffensive scent- you can't really go wrong with it! And the staying power is not bad on me!: )
I wear this to work all the time. I am a hairstylist and many clients say they hate overly perfumed people, they get headaches from it. I can wear this and I always get compliments even from perfume haters :). To me it smells like a super soft sweater washed in tide with downy and then on a line near a field of wild flowers . So, basically like fresh laundry, but in a lovely way. So, I would say perfect for work or going to a family supper , but I like something more intense for special occasions. I can wear it any wear and people only notice if they come in for a hug, but I think that is what the philosophy scents aim for.
A friend and I beelined straight for Mecca Cosmetica to spritz ourselves with this perfume. A green curry and a few moscatos later, my wrists seemed to attach themselves to my face. I could not get enough of the smell, and despite the public setting, I was not subtle with the self-sniffing.
Beautiful scent. I sprayed it about 6 times this morning and I can still smell it in the afternoon.
I love this scent so much and it's perfect for my job (medical field) but it doesn't last very long on my skin or clothes. For the price, I don't want to have to reapply all the time. I know it's a layering scent so I might have to get the lotion and the body wash but that's additional cost as well.
Philosophy Amazing Grace is a fresh, clean fragrance. If you want to be scented like just coming out of the shower, this is for you. The muguet shines through. I have the set: Body wash is good, lots of lather. The lotion is good, too: Carries the scent a long time and is great for dry skin. However, I'm not sold on the EDT or EDP. They evaporate so very fast, by comparing them to other fragrances, they are not worth the price. Have tried to find them discounted at perfume stores, however they are usually regular price, unless you buy the set (Ulta). If you enjoy this fragrance, stay with the body wash and lotion; don't waste your money on the EDT or EDP.
Smells like laundry detergent, which isn't a bad thing if you just want to smell freshly showered. However, it is certainly far more soapy than floral, I'm sure you could achieve a similar effect by wearing freshly-washed clothing. I imagine it works well in humid climates.
I really like this perfume--very fresh and clean-smelling. I had the EDT roller ball, but was frustrated because the fragrance had no staying power. A salewoman convinced me that the EDP was much stronger and gave me a decant of it. It was minimally better. The EDT lasts 1-2 hours, while the EDP lasts 2-3 hours on me.
first of all. the notes listed are wrong. the "official" notes are "Bergamot, Muguet Blossoms, Musk." the other notes may be in here. but they aren't officially listed anywhere.
I never pay for a perfume that doesn't last. I think most of the Philosophy scents are a gimmick and they want you to layer them with body products (just like BBW does). These are watered down and weak, and it's rather sad because I think they're pleasant. QVC always convinces people to buy it in large amounts or in sets, but I think it's a rip off. Buy it only if you want something weaker than body spray.
This is just a fresh clean powder scent.
I don't get any of the florals or fruits listed, but instead just a light gentle powdery dry musk.
It would be perfect for after bath/before bed, and even nice to scent your linens with.
Light sillage and longevity.
Life is too short so let's wear the good stuff.
Very fresh scent, but quite different from your typical "fresh" fragrances. It's soft and clean, a feminine, "fresh from the shower" scent, without smelling soapy or powdery the way so many other "fresh" frangrances do.
I don't remember liking this before. I had to smell it again from my sample set and it's not that bad. Jasmine and musk stands out the most here. This is heavy on first application and fades really quickly. Smells clean and pleasent, soapy scent. It's strange how taste and body chemistry changes over time.
It's just okay. Definatley not boring at all, but it is a take-it-or-leave-it for me. The first thing that hits me is an immense powdery smell (weird because this actually isn't even classified as powder) followed by very sweet white-floral notes.