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Manfred Kuehn

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To purchase Kant

Title: Kant
Author: Manfred Kuehn
Genre: Biography
Written: 2001
Length: 422 pages
Availability: Kant - US
Kant - UK
Kant - Canada
Kant - Deutschland
  • A Biography
  • Includes a Cast of Characters and a Chronology of Kant's Life and Works

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine, readable, interesting introduction to Kant's life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 3/5/2001 .
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 12/11/2002 Otfried Höffe
The New Republic . 23/4/2001 Simon Blackburn
The Spectator . 4/8/2001 Jane O'Grady

  From the Reviews:
  • "Manfred Kuehn’s excellent new life is the first substantial biography of Kant since Germany’s historical catastrophe, and the figure who emerges is not the familiar caricature of a withdrawn Prussian professor." - The Economist

  • "Kuehn versteht sein Buch als intellektuelle Biographie, die ausdrücklich nicht bloss biographische Einzelheiten, sondern auch die philosophischen Gedanken vorstellen soll." - Otfried Höffe, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(I)n this exhaustive and fascinating biography, the distinguished German scholar Manfred Kuehn struggles to convince us that the bloodless, legalistic Kant is mainly a myth. (...) In his account, Kant was in the thick of a rich social and intellectual life." - Simon Blackburn, The New Republic

  • "Manfred Kuehn downplays the traditional stories of Kant’s rigid punctuality, but can do little to redeem his reputation as a dry old stick. (...) He can never be a fully fleshed character, but Kuehn gives excellent accounts of his philosophy, including the ‘pre-critical writings’." - Jane O'Grady, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Immanuel Kant seems an unlikely candidate for any sort of biographical study. Kantian lore has it that he lived the most limited of lives: strictly regimented, never leaving his hometown of Königsberg, a lifelong bachelor, ever-chaste, penning the dryest of philosophical tomes -- works whose obscurity is only eclipsed by their verbosity. In his prologue, Manfred Kuehn quotes from Heinrich Heine's description:

(H)e neither had a life nor a history. (...) I do not believe that the large clock of the Cathedral there completed its task with less passion and less regularity than its fellow citizen Immanuel Kant.
       The caricature -- of the man "who was all thought and no life" -- captured the popular imagination, but -- alas ? -- it is, of course, simply a gross simplification. As Kuehn shows in his biography, there was considerably more to the man.
       Part of the reason Kant's reputation is what it is -- focussed on the abstract rather than the real -- is because not much is known of his life. Biographies have been rare and far between. A few appeared around the time of his death. Currently little is available in English, as Kuehn reminds us:
Apart from J.W.H. Stuckenberg's dated The Life of Immanuel Kant of 1882, there exist only two recent translations of foreign titles, namely Ernst Cassirer's Kant's Life and Thought (from the German) and Gulyga's Immanuel Kant and his Life and Thought (from the Russian).
       Kuehn's biography finally offers a relatively full and in-depth study, focussed mainly on the life of the man, rather than the thought. And it was a reasonably interesting life, not quite as plain and predictable as commonly thought (though his sex life apparently was as boring as advertised).
       Kuehn does a particularly good job of describing the background around Kant: Königsberg and especially academic life there, the Pietists, the Russian occupation, German politics and religion. Kuehn also provides a "Cast of Characters" at the beginning, and he describes Kant's various friends, colleagues, students, and enemies and his relationships with them well, using these often forgotten and little know figures to good effect. Quite a few of them are fascinating characters in their own right, and they make a neat supporting cast here.
       When speaking of Kant, most focus on the later years, but Kuehn helpfully provides a great deal of information about his family, his youth, and his schooling, tracing Kant's slow rise. Academic life, and the hardships of teaching -- and the difficulties of earning an adequate living -- are among the fascinating sidelights Kuehn provides.
       Unfortunately, information about Kant's life is often sparse, details often missing. Kuehn chooses to deal with this by indulging in a bit too much hypothesizing, offering irrelevant pseudo-observations ("Kant would have made a good poker player") as well as making some entirely meaningless statements ("Kant may or may not have taken courses in philosophy from him", or suggesting that Kant "spent the afternoon in the company of his friends, talking about everything worth talking about (and probably some things not worth talking about)").
       Still, Kuehn generally does a fine job in describing Kant's day-to-day life: his friends, his interests, his schedule (especially his teaching schedule), even his eating habits.
       Perhaps too much emphasis is placed on the idea of two Kants -- the younger Kant, "something of a dandy, a foppish man of society", and the older Kant who, after his "mental rebirth", enjoyed "silent years of quiet resolution" -- but Kuehn does manage to paint a fairly rich portrait of the man. He is also particularly good in describing Kant's sad and not particularly swift decline.
       Kuehn also integrates much of Kant's work into the biography. The coverage is uneven, but certainly adequate, and nowhere does Kuehn overwhelm the reader with rarefied philosophical detail. He is particularly good at describing the reactions and counter-reactions to various works, resurrecting some of the fun intellectual feuds of the day.
       Kant's ideas and writing are presented fairly well, though Kuehn does occasionally make some odd choices. So, for example, when he discusses Kant's essay What is Enlightenment ?: he quotes several sections from the piece, but he chooses to paraphrase part of the beginning:
We should have the courage to think for ourselves. This is expressed by the motto of the Enlightenment "Semper aude !" or "Dare to be wise !"
       Compare this with Kant's own words, and especially his much freer translation of the Horatian quote:
Semper aude ! Habe Mut, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen ! ist also der Wahlspruch der Aufklärung.

(Semper aude ! Have the courage, that you make use of your own intellect ! is thus the motto of the Enlightenment.)
       Overall, however, Kuehn has written a solid biography about a life that was certainly more interesting than most people assume. Kuehn presents the life, and especially the surroundings and the times, well, and the book reads well. Given the dearth of information readily available -- Kuehn's is essentially the only biography out there -- it can certainly be recommended, and it is a very useful starting point in learning about both Kant the man and his work.

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Kant: Reviews: Immanuel Kant:
  • Immanuel Kant page at Books and Writers
  • Immanuel Kant page at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Kant on the Web -- excellent collection of links
  • Kant, a limerick sequence by Ernest D'Urfé at the complete review Quarterly
Manfred Kuehn: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Manfred Kuehn was born in 1947.

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