cover image Kant: A Biography

Kant: A Biography

Manfred Kuehn. Cambridge University Press, $120 (576pp) ISBN 978-0-521-49704-6

For opposite reasons, Kant's life (1724-1804) and ideas are equally difficult to expound engagingly: the ideas, because of their philosophical complexity; the life, because of its uneventful simplicity. Acknowledging as much in his prologue to this earnest biographical effort, Kuehn (of Philipps University in Germany) largely succeeds at this daunting, two-fold task. Nonspecialist readers in philosophy will be intrigued by the lesser-known works of Kant summarized here, such as Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, on the mystical theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, or, more relevant to our own copyright-obsessed times, ""On the Injustice of Counterfeiting Books."" Seasoned students of Kant will appreciate Kuehn's attention to the genesis of Kant's enormously influential critical philosophy in specific events and epiphanies of his life. Most notably, he explains how a foundational tenet of Kantian thought--that sensation and intellect are discontinuous (propounded in defiance of the then commonly received philosophy of Christian Wolff)--originates in a little-known Latin dissertation that Kant publicly defended in 1770, 11 years before the Critique of Pure Reason appeared. Or again, the categorical imperative, which defines Kantian ethics, owes in part, Kuehn suggests, to the influence on Kant of his long-time English friend, Joseph Green, who first lived the kind of principled life for which Kant then laid the theory. Kuehn's descriptions of Kant's richly inclusive social life, witty conversation and elegant dress will delight all who have wrongly identified the sage of K nigsberg with dour dispassion. The biography, however, suffers from repetition, digression and excessive attention to characters of only passing general interest. Still, as the first biography of the great philosopher in more than 50 years, this is a welcome addition to the literature. (Apr.)