Immanuel Kant & Human Nature

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Application to Education

Immanuel Kant was a paradigm change in philosophy as he altered the fundamental way human nature and experience was understood. Kant achievements would alter both the way human nature and knowledge are understood and this would have a lasting impact on education. Kant’s philosophy is best understood as a crisis which he discusses in the “Critique of Reason”. According to Kant, the Enlightenment, which dictated that reason was ultimately autonomous rational discovery and provided the ability to exercise reason in matter of morality and traditions, but this pure reason that was provided by the Enlightenment was contradictory (Guyer & Wood, 1992). Because the Enlightenment had been born out of mechanistic thinking, most notably physics, then the nature of all things are mechanical and casual. Within this framework of thought, reason could not be authoritative and determine morality because nature was the cause of all things which presents what Kant referred to as a crisis of the Enlightenment.

In order to resolve the crisis of the Enlightenment, Kant devises a theory of knowledge based on nature which is both a priori and a posteriori. Kant combines these opposing elements by altering the way it is theorized that humans understand the world. Rather than learning about the world through pure reason humans learn by experiencing objects in the world and having one’s posteriori knowledge shaped by this experience which ultimately forms the knowledge and understanding that a person holds of the world around them. The distinction is subtle between a priori and Kant’s reasoning. Kant explains this distinction best when he states that there must exist some knowledge that is a priori such as the concept of space. Humans understand space in conjunction with objects without experiencing this element. Concepts that are a priori are then used in conjunction with knowledge which is acquired a posteriori such as objects in reality like a stone. Thus, a person can then construct knowledge based on combinations of knowledge and can imagine some new form of building based on both experience and pure reason.

Kant’s theory of knowledge has tremendous implications for education as it defines human nature in a manner that makes education a necessity rather than an option for a person. According to Kant, unlike animals, humans lack the instinct to survive and operate in the world independently (Cahn, 2012). This means that both knowledge for morality as well as for survival must be taught to a person. Kant discusses education in two vital concepts: discipline and instruction (Cahn, 2012). These concepts must both be applied in order for a person to become properly educated.

Discipline is the necessary component of education, according to Kant, because discipline develops the human being and keeps him or her from becoming savage and animal like (Cahn, 2012). Humans must be developed morally within this context of education and discipline maintains the ability of the person to be a good person.

Instruction is the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next and Kant sees this process as something that should improve over time. By applying discipline and refining the process of education, Kant believes that humans are ultimately fulfilling their purpose comparing this process of education with the fulfilment of a creator who has given the human a life and even expresses this in terms of “go forth” (Cahn, 2012).

Kant’s view, concerning education is groundbreaking because it provides a justification beyond pure reason for the importance of educating children. If humans must be developed morally and through education than this makes the education process paramount to the advancement of society. Unlike other philosophers such as Rousseau, Kant would disagree with allowing too liberal of an education in youth because this would degrade discipline and would not allow for proper moral development and ultimately would erode the education process. Similarly, Kant would disagree with Locke in the idea that children are inclined to logic because their knowledge can be appropriated incorrectly when they are not educated properly. However, Kant may be more inclined to agree with Rousseau with the idea that education should be handled by well-educated instructors and states this as,

Accordingly, the set-up of the schools should depend entirely on the judgment of the most enlightened experts. All culture begins with the private individuals and extends outward from there. It is only through the efforts of people of more extended inclinations, who take an interest in the best world and who are capable of conceiving the idea of a future improved condition (Cahn, 2012).

Accordingly, the set-up of the schools should depend entirely on the judgment of the most enlightened experts. All culture begins with the private individuals and extends outward from there. It is only through the efforts of people of more extended inclinations, who take an interest in the best world and who are capable of conceiving the idea of a future improved condition (Cahn, 2012).

Within this scope, Kant would also be opposed with Locke’s liberal education view and would likely see this as detrimental due to the fact that discipline is necessary to maintain a proper education process.

Critique of Kant’s Education Theory

While there is merit to the concept that education cultivates humans in to moral agents as well as preparing them for live this view is problematic. One of the primary criticisms of Kant’s theory is the fact that he has based education in his moral theory which consists of moral maxims derived through is view of knowledge. In particular the concept of morality which he is most famous, the Categorical Imperative, is a large influencer on his view of education. Within Kant’s deontology, ethics are based on the duties of individuals (Guyer & Wood, 1992). Immanuel Kant believed that ethics are the duty of individuals to uphold and perform due to maxims or imperatives. Kant assumes that humans are rational agents and believes that a set of imperatives can be derived from universal ideas such as a rational agent not desiring murder (Boylan, 2009). This is referred to as a categorical imperative. Thus, moral rules are categorical imperatives because rational beings would not desire to murder or be murdered and this is a universal. From these concepts, Kant derives the Categorical Imperative which states “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as means” (Boylan, 2009). Within this context rational beings do not desire to be murdered and they universally agree to this moral.

In the categorical imperative, Kant is stating that people (rational agents) must be treated as an end in them self, rather than as a means to an end. This argument is based on Kant’s view moral obligations are categorical imperatives and these imperatives apply to people universally without consideration of interests. For example, murder is universally immoral such that it cannot be conditioned as “Murder is bad because you got to jail.” All rational beings have a self-interest stake in the imperative (this makes it universal) such that morality cannot be conditioned. Since morality is unconditional and it only applies to rational agents, this means that humans cannot be conditioned or used as a means because they fall within the category of universal law and must be treated equally within the scope of the universal law (Boylan, 2009). Thus if one uses another person such as cheating them in a business deal or abusing them, they are violating universal law because they are using the person for self-interest and this violates universal imperatives.

Kant applies this thinking to education, most notably within the context of moral development. Kant states that,

The human being should not merely be skilled for all sorts of ends, but should also acquire the disposition to choose nothing but good ends. Good ends are those which are necessarily approved by everyone and which can be the simultaneously ends of everyone (Cahn, 2012).

The thinking is problematic with education because morality is not easily deciphered in the manner that Kant claims. While people might (necessarily) agree with the idea that slavery is wrong, this does not mean that cultures do not practice it but call it something else. For example, from a western view, Islamic women might be considered enslaved due to religious practices and rules which limit their freedom and behaviors within society. The problem is that what Kant refers to as a maxim is not a consistent standard and can easily be manipulated due to the vast differences in what ethics and morality can be interpreted as across cultures and nations. This presents a severe issue for Kant’s view of education because it cannot be easily applied due to the fact that there are vast differences between groups concerning morality. This becomes further complicated in societies which practice diversity and have open education where many different cultures may interact.

There are also issues with Kant’s view of the authorities concerning education. Kant states that education should be determined by “enlightened experts” (Cahn, 2012). The problem in this case is- who will determine these experts” What is the criteria for determining the people who control the education process? More importantly is having only a select few in control of education a wise action? Education that is limited to scholastics and experts may have negative consequences because there is no outside input to question practices. This can lead to homogenized thinking such as in countries where education is highly controlled such as in countries where religion is a controlling force in education and free thought is not cultivated or respected above tradition and morality. While there is merit to Kant’s education views it may not be realistic in application.


Boylan, M. (2009). Basic ethics: Basic ethics in action (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Cahn, S. M. (2012). Classic and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Guyer, P., & Wood, A. (1992). The cambridge edition of the works of immanuel kant. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Thu, Feb 18, 2021. Immanuel Kant & Human Nature Retrieved from

Need similar articles?

Education Or Philosophy
Back to: Ten Years of Academic Writing