It is fairly easy to argue that the ideas of the most notable philosophers in history (those whose names are familiar to laymen) have had effects on society beyond just their influence on other philosophers. Plato, Aristotle, DesCartes, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, have all had tangible effects on modern western society - if only by providing us with well known aphorisms. Even some lesser known thinkers (again from a laymen's point of view), such as Russell, Mill, James, have had tangible effects on modern culture.

Kant is one of the greatest and most influential philosophers ever.

  1. Can Kant be said to have such an effect (i.e. beyond philosophy) on our culture?
  2. If one wanted to explain Kant's influence to a layman, how would he go about doing so?

For example: Marx has had an effect on political ideology, DesCartes gave us Cartesian coordinates and the mind-body problem, etc...

5 Answers 5


His main impact may be through the notion of human dignity.

I have recently talked to a professor that stated that this term is very vivid in Germany because of the strong kantian tradition, while almost never heard in the Netherlands regarding academic discussions about ethics (she has been a professor for applied ethics there for years). There, interesting enough, Hegel might be of more importance according to the introduction of my edition of the Phenomenology of Mind (Meiner).

But apart from that, one of Kant's main impacts on culture is his difference between the price of things and the dignity of persons: they have worth beyond price that cannot be taken from them (in his critical philosophy first stated in GMM, Ak.434-35).

This is manifestating in many modern constitutions (e.g. the german Grundgesetz, Article 1) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1. And the notion has strong effects in movements for equality of whatever kind between humans.


One interesting aspect of Kants cultural influence is Asimovs three laws of robotics, and his zeroth law - by which he investigates various ethical dilemmas that the introduction of robots have in human society; these are I would suggest direct or indirectly influenced by the various formulas of Kants categorical imperative.

The other possible influence is one suggested by Bardis Fifth Postulate, where he writes that Gauss after reaching the University of Gottingen in the early 19C

read [Kants first] Critique five times, because it conceptualised space

This raises the possibility, given that Gauss is generally given the credit for discovering non-Euclidean geometry (though Bolyai and Lobachevsky published first) that he was directly influenced by Kantian concepts; this reading definitely goes against almost all secondary literature I've seen - for example Bardi himself repeats this, as does Deutsch; however when one actually turns to the primary literature and examines the section in question where Kant touches on concepts of space (The Transcendental Aesthetic - A25), one finds:

Space is not a discursive, or as is said, a general concept of things in relation, but a pure intuition ... from this it follows that in respect to it an a priori intuition (which is not empirical) grounds all concepts of it.

Thus also all geometrical principles, e.g. that in a triangle two sides together of a triangle are always greater than the third, are never derived from general concepts of line and triangle, but rather are derived from intuition, and indeed are derived with apodictic certainty.

In Kants compressed language, this means that it is not neccessarily the case that triangles, given their axiomatic definition in (Euclidean) Geometry, must have the sum of any two sides greater than the third.

This isn't how non-Euclidean geometry is usually presented; a more standard treatment would most likely state that triangles do not neccesarily have their internal angles add up to 180 degrees (less would be hyperbolic, more is spherical); here however, is Cavailles exegesis:

A triangle is a closed figure, with three sides and three angles. If we analyse the concept of a triangle, the concept of the angle of a triangle, can we deduce purely from these concepts that the angles should [neccesarily] add upto 180 degrees? Kant holds we cannot. (Therefore the judgement is synthetic)

The parallels with the actual extract from Kant should be clear.

It's worth noting here the parallel denial of neccessity by Gauss in a letter written to Olbers in 1816, and referenced by Bardi:

I am becoming more and more convinced that the neccesity of our geometry cannot be proved.

This to me, makes it very plausible, despite the large secondary literature which says otherwise, that Gauss was directly influenced by Kant in guiding his attention to discovering a consistent non-Euclidean geometry by opening the possibility that there could possibly be one.

Of course, this would mean that Kant would have had an indirect influence on Einsteins SR and GR - given their use of such geometries.


Keynes once remarked that many persons who scoff at intellectuals and believe they are simply speaking their minds are in fact parroting the ideas of some long-dead economist... or in this case philosopher.

Kant's influence on modern thought is so broad and deep it is hard to fully trace. First, he is considered the great philosopher of the modern Enlightenment or the "bourgeois revolutions," if you prefer. As Philip Klocking has noted, ideals of human dignity, universal human rights, freedom, individualism, reason, and world peace all find a deep grounding in Kant, one that differs in many ways from those of Locke and the "liberal" empiricists. These continue to have a profound influence on jurisprudence and government, and Kant was among the first to suggest the idea of a "League of Nations," inspiring later politicians such as Wilson.

In addition, his demonstration of the "limits of pure reason" helped, I believe, to clarify the scientific method, of which he was an astute analyst. He was also among the first to introduce aesthetics as a serious topic in philosophy and in theory generally. More difficult to state concisely is his enormous impact on our modern conception of "the individual," the "subject-centered" cosmos misleadingly called his "Copernican turn," with all its moral, psychological, and civil ramifications.

Freedom was perhaps the foremost issue of the Enlightenment, and continues to be central to modern thought. Kant was certainly one of the great foundational thinkers of modern freedom. But here, unfortunately, he may not hold the popular sway of more "libertarian" views. He saw human freedom from dogma and nature as inextricably entwined with reason and duty, possible only by virtue of its self-governance, or autonomy.

Despite all this, it must be said that this broad influence and "common appeal" of the Kantian philosophy lies atop a critical philosophy that is complex, difficult, and not at all as "commonsensical" as its conclusions.


What makes up “our culture”? I assume you mean the Western culture, as prominent in Europe, in USA and in Canada. Besides philosophy I consider fundamental components of this culture

• Education in school and university • Arts • Science • Techology • Politics • Economics • Jurisprudence • Religion.

Kants essay “What is Enlightenment?” from 1784 sets the program of enlightenment. This essay is often read in school to encourage pupils to develop their maturity. But alike to others subjects one can question the validity of the old proverb “Non scholae, sed vitae discimus” also here. I went to school in the 60ties in Germany. I did not hear about other works of Kant, not even about the Critique of Pure Reason or about the Categorical Imperative. In these days, philosophy was not a subject in school. Hence I doubt whether many non-philosophers in the West associate with Kant more than the key words “enlightenment” and “Categorical Imperative”.

I agree with Philip’s answer that Kant gave a clear definition of his concept of human dignity. But Kant was neither the only one nor the first one who published about this theme, e.g. see antique Roman philosophers or European philosophers of law in the 17th century.

Kant has nearly no influence on science. His understanding of Newtonian physics as based on synthetical a priori statements is outdated. In addition, I do not know about any Kantian influence on later technology.

Kant had a certain influence on the philosophy of religion, because he gave a clear argument against the ontological “proof”. But Kant’s consideration on the field of philosophy of religion are not the subject of the present post. Kant’s influence on religious belief or practice in the Western world is negligible in comparison to e.g., Martin Luther.

Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics is nearly unknown outside the academic world. In my opinion, Kant has nothing to say to artists or performers. I do not consider Kant an artistically gifted person.

Kant has a certain influence on politics with his essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Scetch” from 1795. This essay is sometimes referred to in papers on the theory of the state.

So far my answer to your first question: Kant has a tremendous impact on philosophical thinking up until now. But outside philosophy his influence on Western culture is limited in comparison to contemporaries like Goethe, Schiller, the composers of Wiener Klassik and also in comparison with later political thinkers like Marx or Popper.

Concerning your second question: In a literal sense there is nothing to explain to a layman, because Kant did not have a deep influence on Western culture. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend to the layman to read the original text of Kant's essay on enlightenment. And to ask himself: Today, which steps should I take on my way to further enlightenment?

  • While I accept that it was written about something that was translated dignity; could you name the works of the 17th century, please so that I can read them?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 21, 2015 at 7:02
  • @Philip Klöcking E.g. Pufendorff uses the term dignity of man (German: Würde des Menschen); I add a quote in German from his book 1711; but note he lived in the 17th century. „Es erfordert die Würde und Vortrefflichkeit des Menschen, dadurch er alle anderen Kreaturen übertrifft, daß sein Tun und Lassen nach einer gewissen Richtschnur angestellt würde als ohne welche keine Ordnung, kein Wohlstand und keine Schönheit sein oder erdacht werden kann.
    – Jo Wehler
    Nov 21, 2015 at 11:07
  • Es gereicht zur größten Würde der Menschen, daß er eine unsterbliche Seele hat, welche mit dem Lichte des Verstandes und mit dem Vermögen, alle Sachen wohl zu unterscheiden und das Gute zu erwählen, ja mit einer vortrefflichen Geschicklichkeit, alle Künste und Wissenschaft zu erforschen, begabt ist.“ (Puffendorf, Samuel: Acht Bücher vom Natur- und Völkerrecht, Buch II, Kap. 1, §5 (1711); download 21.11.2015 digital.ub.uni-duesseldorf.de/urn/urn:nbn:de:hbz:061:1-5824)
    – Jo Wehler
    Nov 21, 2015 at 11:07
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    Though Pufendorf has been the only name in this context I know, too, I think that will he might have inspired Kant, he never had the effect of him. See here. But a good quote, definately!
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 21, 2015 at 11:59

Kant has had a very deep effect on modern culture albeit in a way that is not well understood.What Kant really did is to restore the doctrine of Two Truths. He attempted to belittle reason in order to offer more room for faith (this is his famous 'aufhebung'). However by circumscribing the small area of certainty for knowledge he provided the ground for later positivisms which developed into the analytical stance adopted in anglo-saxon academia. Most 19th c. influent German scientists are Kantians and also most 20th c. neo-postivists are disappointed Kantians. The effect of his critical thinking about thinking is indeed stronger than any other view expressed.

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    "What Kant really did is to restore the doctrine of Two Truths. He attempted to belittle reason in order to offer more room for faith." Err...but you did read him, did you? He did never belittle reason in any sense! One of his late works is named "Religion Within the Boundaries of Pure Reason". How is this compatible with your statements? Could you please name any source for it? The "Aufhebung" of knowledge, not reason to make room for faith (CPR B XXX) clearly refers to the three ideas of pure reason, their reality stated by pure practical reason.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 21, 2015 at 13:09
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    Victims of the rhetoric higher/lower i.e. vernunft vs verstand rarely get the point of the story (reading Meillassoux about the Kantian counter-revolution may help).
    – sand1
    Nov 21, 2015 at 15:08
  • I did not ask if you read one particular, not very well-known philosopher and his opinions, but if you actually read Kant. And as Meillassoux published after 2000, I think it is bold to state that this would be Kant's "real" cultural influence. Positivism is based on Compte rather than Kant, by the way. So would you please at least try to enrich your answer with some kind of reference or source.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 21, 2015 at 21:07
  • @PhilipKlöcking I would claim that Meillassoux and Kant would be similarly well known among modern students of philosophy, particularly French or American ones who tend to read fewer texts by German philosophers.
    – user8284
    Nov 22, 2015 at 23:29
  • Comte just gave a name to positisivism; analytical philosophy replaced the Kantian subject by language. Rorty's Mirror tells basically the same story as the answer above, or Meillasoux, but whithout the open hostility, the disapproval of Kant being rather bland.
    – sand1
    Nov 23, 2015 at 21:02

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