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Germany, Leibniz and Kant

A scientific academy arose in Berlin in 1707, forty-seven years after the creation of Britain's Royal Society. Berlin's came seventeen years before a science academy began in St. Petersburg, thirty years before an academy in Stockholm and thirty-eight years before one in Copenhagen.

To Protestant Germany also came a belief in Deism, but to only a few. In all countries interest in what would be called the Enlightenment would be limited to a minority, especially among the Germans. At the beginning of the 1700s, most Germans remained illiterate, and authorities in Prussia and the surrounding German states were not interested in having them educated.

Among the Germans who could read, the dominant trend was Pietism, a movement that sought truths from a literal interpretation of the Bible. Pietism was against the authority of clergy between God and the faithful, and it followers believed in the unostentatious living of the early Christians.

Wilhelm Leibniz

Something of the Enlightenment had reached the town of Leipzig, in Saxony, where Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), the son of a university professor, invented infinitesimal calculus independent of Newton. He quickly learned Newton's new physics, and like Newton he tried to put the new physics within traditional Christianity.

Regarding the ideas of a slightly older English contemporary, John Locke, Leibniz objected to morality as derived from reason applied to sense experience. For Leibniz, morality was derived from the God Jehovah. God, he believed, had made this the best of all possible worlds – a view that Voltaire was to satirize in his little novel, Candide, with Leibniz as Dr. Pangloss.

The philosophy that Leibniz published adhered to the scholastic tradition. Like Descartes he was a rationalist and believed in deductive reasoning – in keeping with mathematics. But Bertrand Russell was to describe Leibniz as leaving his best writing "unpublished in his desk." What he published," wrote Russell, "was designed to win the approbation of princes and princesses." Unpublished works being "slowly unearthed from his manuscripts" Russell described as "profound, coherent, largely Spinozistic, and amazingly logical."

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Following Leibniz, another philosopher arose to notoriety among the Protestant Germans: Immanuel Kant of Königsberg (in East Prussia), a grandson of a Scottish immigrant. He had been influenced by Lutheranism, Pietism and an encyclopedic German philosopher forty-five years older than he: Christian von Wolff.

In an essay titled "What is Enlightenment," Kant wrote of the courage to use one's own intelligence. "Dare to know," he wrote. "Have the courage to use your own understanding." He saw the Enlightenment as liberating humanity from what he called immaturity, deferring serious thought to some authority figure. The Enlightenment for Kant was freedom. And with this attitude he became a supporter of the American and then French revolutions.

Like the British empiricists, Kant dwelled on sense experience as the source of knowledge, but he believed that David Hume had gone too far in his skepticism. Kant argued against the empiricist position that the mind was a blank slate upon which sense experience is written – John Locke's belief. And Kant argued against the proposition that we have knowledge or concepts completely separate from the world of sense experience. In other words, Kant argued that one could not start from a premise and build logically to real knowledge – as Aristotle and others after Aristotle thought they had done. Kant held that the human mind arranged sense experiences, making generalizations. (Our sense of motion and space derives from experience. So too is the imagined sense of the supernatural, anthropomorphical or not.)


Kant described knowledge as a synthesis of both rationality and empiricism. He put humans at the center of philosophical inquiry. With Kant there was no philosophizing about things independent of the person doing the perceiving and thinking.

Kant believed that there were limits to what people could know, but he believed that by weighing thoughts in a disciplined manner we could, within this limitation, establish certainties.

Kant believed that he was uniting philosophy with science. He urged people to use scientific thinking to understand their own nature and nature outside of themselves. With such thinking, he claimed, religion could transcend tradition and dogmatism. He criticized church ritual, superstition and hierarchical church order. People gathering knowledge and thinking for themselves, he believed, could determine what they should do. And knowledge, he believed, was the proper source of rational religion and morality.

Knowledge for Kant was seeing differences, so that everything was not a blur, and knowledge was seeing connections. Seeing a balloon rise is an awareness of the many things. In his "Critique of Pure Reason" Kant claimed that the brain connects a lot of matters into a unified experience. This is corroborated by 21st century neuroscience. Instead of locating awareness at a single point in the brain, neuroscientists find consciousness as an integration of flashing connections from different places in the brain.


"Enlightened Enemies," by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, (David Hume's quarrel with Rousseau), The Guardian, 28 April 2006

Freedom in the Modern World, Chapter 1, by Herbert J Muller, 1966

A History of Western Society, Volume Two, Chapter 18, by John P. McKay, Bennet D. Hill and John Buckler, 1995

Wisdom of the West, by Bertrand Russell, 1959

A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion, by Sir William Dampier, 1948

Philosopher King: the Humanist Pope, Benedict XIV, by Renée Haynes, 1970

Western Civilization, by Steven Hause and William Maltby, 2004

The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans, by Margaret C Jacob, 2006

A Philosphical Dictionary, by Voltaire, translated by William F. Fleming, 1901

Candide, by Voltaire, 1759

Encylopedia Wikipedia

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