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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.1 (2002) 127-128
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Kant: A Biography
Manfred Kuehn. Kant: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xxii + 544. Cloth, $34.95.
Kuehn's biography of Kant is an extraordinary scholarly and literary accomplishment. In nine masterful chapters (along with a prologue), Kuehn draws on an incredibly comprehensive and varied repository of historical evidence in painting a detailed, yet also widely accessible picture of the successive stages of Kant's life and of how his major and minor writings emerge from them, a picture that is both more accurate and more informative than what could ever be pieced together from existing biographies, even those written in German or at a time much closer to Kant's own.
What is distinctive about Kuehn's methodology--and part, but only part, of what makes his work superior to other Kant biographies--is the way in which he focuses on Kant's intellectual context. For Kuehn, to understand Kant requires understanding him not just in the global context of modern European philosophy or even German philosophy, but also in his local context of Prussia and Königsberg. Accordingly, in the first chapter Kuehn does not merely list the biographical details of Kant's family and the name of the school he attended, but rather explains what it would have meant for Kant's father to be a member of a guild in eighteenth-century Prussia, what values that guild incorporated, what consequences his parents' Pietism would have for him, and what the intellectual and social life of the Collegium Fridericianum was like. Kuehn's proper emphasis on figures and events in Königsberg runs throughout the book. Thus in the second chapter, Kuehn describes the various faculty members Kant would have encountered as a student, what philosophical [End Page 127] views they held, how Kant's own activities as a student deviated from those of the "typical" student, what religious movements became influential at what time in the university, and what political consequences they would have had on a student's intellectual life. In the third chapter (devoted to 1755-64), Kuehn reveals how Kant, forming a wide circle of friends that would include Hamann, Herder, Hippel, and the family of Count Keyserlingk, "became a person of elegance during this period, someone who shone at social events with his intelligence and wit" (115). In chapter 4 (1764-69), Kuehn describes how Kant developed a close friendship with Green that would radically change his life. In fact, Kuehn claims that it was at the age of forty and due to the influence of Green that Kant underwent a conversion or rebirth by coming to understand the centrality of character and the role that maxims play in it. Moreover, in describing the radical changes of position initiated in his inaugural dissertation and completed in the three Critiques, Kuehn connects biography and philosophy by positing that Kant saw these works as providing "his newfound character with a philosophical justification and defense" (187).
While one might think that chapter 5, which covers the 1770s, would have to be very short, given Kant's sparse publications during this period, Kuehn describes at length the rich set of interactions that Kant had with Mendelssohn, Herz, Lambert, Kraus, Herder, and Hamann, exchanges that would be crucial in the final articulation of his mature view. Kuehn devotes chapters 6 and 7 to the period during which Kant published his mature theoretical and practical works, most notably the Critique of Pure Reason and the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, and it is here that Kuehn's contextualism has perhaps its greatest philosophical payoff. For the close attention Kuehn has paid to Kant's interactions with his immediate contemporaries reveals that he did not understand Hume's position as we might today, namely as advocating global skepticism about knowledge of the external world. Rather, Kant saw Hume's skepticism as being local and methodological in combating rationalism and dogmatism. As a result, Kant saw Hume mainly as an ally, not an adversary. Kuehn...