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300 Years of Immanuel Kant: A Reason to Believe

The 21st century has seen the emergence of hope for resolving long-standing challenges.

3 mins read
Immanuel Kant by Adolf von Heydeck [ Credit: the-tls.co.uk]

April 22, 2024, marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Immanuel Kant, one of the most significant figures in the history of philosophy. His life and works are inextricably linked to the University of Königsberg, which today bears the name of this great scholar as the Baltic Federal University, a major educational centre in Russia. In addition to celebrating the anniversary, a large-scale scientific conference dedicated to Kant is taking place at this institution. Alongside philosophical discussions, the conference is also focusing on contemporary issues. Kurt Lewin’s maxim “there is nothing as practical as a good theory” aptly describes the session of the Valdai Discussion Club devoted to issues of modern civilisation, the limits of human reason, progress, and the interpretation of historical events by present-day generations.

What should a just and equitable society be like, and according to what fundamental principles should human civilisation be founded? This question is as timeless as it is relevant, regardless of historical circumstances. According to Immanuel Kant, the answer can be found in the principles of the Enlightenment era, which were based on the belief in the transformative potential of the human intellect, able to overcome chaos, prejudices, and the excesses of human nature and society. The victory of reason, achieved through the historical evolution of the human species, enables the gradual establishment of forms of society which are based on rationality and morality. Despite the inherent tensions between individuals within society, these tensions stimulate development and order, leading to a more just and progressive society. As the human intellect overcomes chaos, justice and progress become possible.

However, is the human mind truly limitless? The history of the 20th century has clearly demonstrated the costs of progress. The development of nuclear weapons and the potential for self-destruction of human civilisation has become a symbol of the dangers of progress. During the nuclear era, the concept of a “risk society” emerged, and modern society was identified with the juggernaut, an unstoppable and destructive force that could destroy everything in its path. Environmental pollution has become an increasingly recognised consequence of modern economic development. In Westernised societies, the rationalisation of social control has led to a gradual restriction of human freedom and autonomy. People are grinded by soulless bureaucratic machinery and alienated from their own nature. At the same time, traditional values have been eroded, creating a void of spiritual guidance and a degradation of even strong social institutions such as the family. The philosophy of the 20th century has been permeated with a critique of modern society, reason’s potential, and the costs of progress. Additionally, history itself has begun to yield to historical mythmaking. Historical events have become fodder for “imagining” the identity of contemporary states. History as a scientific discipline has become the domain of a few select professional scholars who continue to preserve the field of study in a relatively apolitical form.

The 21st century has seen the emergence of hope for resolving long-standing challenges. In the realm of international relations, the early years of the century were marked by a remarkable period of peaceful coexistence among the major powers. For the first time in centuries, other civilisations, alongside the Western world, have made their presence felt on the global stage. The spectre of nuclear annihilation has receded, while the rapid advancement of information technology has led to the emergence of postmodern realities that permeate all societies, irrespective of their level of development. Bizarre combinations of diverse lifestyles have emerged, exemplified by the ubiquitous presence of the affordable and compact auto-rickshaw, where the driver uses a modern order-aggregator and a satellite navigation system. Individuals have gained the ability to pursue alternative forms of autonomy through immersion in virtual reality via the internet and social media. There has been a significant increase in the development of environmentally friendly technologies.

A quarter of the way though the century, the risks we face look even more concerning. The threat of nuclear weapons is back on the agenda, and the dialogue between civilisations is giving way to conflict. The advancement of information technology has created unprecedented opportunities for controlling human behaviour, and social media sites know more about users than they do themselves. Technological progress has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but social inequality still remains a glaring issue. Artificial intelligence is opening up new possibilities for revolutionising military affairs and other sectors, but it also brings new risks. It appears that humanity is once again approaching a significant turning point, where the cumulative impact of the costs associated with progress may lead to further calamities and disruptions. These events could serve as a powerful impetus for the human mind to reflect upon its limitations. However, if it is not too late, artificial intelligence may not become the only entity capable of providing such introspection.

First published in the Valdai Discussion Club

Ivan Timofeev

Ivan Timofeev is the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council. He is an author and co-author of more than 100 publications, issued in Russian and foreign academic press.

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