Today is the birthday (1724) of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who is widely considered to be a central figure in the development of certain branches of modern philosophy. He argued that human concepts and categories structure our view of the world and its laws, and that, therefore, reason is the source of morality. Kant’s major work, the Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781), aimed to bring reason together with experience and to move beyond what he believed to be failures of traditional philosophy and metaphysics. He hoped to end an age of speculation in which objects outside of experience were used to support what he saw as futile theories, while also resisting skepticism.
Kant proposed a “Copernican Revolution-in-reverse.” In simple terms, Kant argued that our experiences are structured by necessary features of our minds. The mind shapes and structures experience so that, on an abstract level, all human experience shares certain essential structural features. Among other things, Kant believed that the concepts of space and time are integral to all human experience, as are our concepts of cause and effect. We never have direct experience of things, the noumenal world, and what we do experience is the phenomenal world as conveyed by our senses.
Kant published other works on ethics, religion, law, aesthetics, astronomy, and history. These include the Critique of Practical Reason (Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788), The Metaphysics of Morals (Die Metaphysik der Sitten, 1797), which dealt with ethics, and the Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790), which looks at aesthetics and teleology. He aimed to resolve disputes between empiricist and rationalist approaches. The former asserted that all knowledge comes through experience; the latter maintained that reason and innate ideas are prior. [There is a famous joke involving a rationalist and empiricist passing a flock of sheep. The rationalist says, “those sheep are white,” to which the empiricist replies, “on this side.”] Kant argued that experience is purely subjective without first being processed by pure reason; using reason without applying it to experience only leads to theoretical illusions. The free and proper exercise of reason by the individual was a major theme both of the Age of Enlightenment, and of Kant’s approaches to the various problems of philosophy.
I’m not going to launch into a treatise on the technical aspects of Kant’s work. You can look them up for yourselves if you are interested. Instead I am going to give a few biographical details followed by some quotes, and then a little discourse on his views on aesthetics as a prelude to a recipe.
Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in Königsberg then in Prussia (since 1946 the city of Kaliningrad in the Russian Federation). He was the fourth of nine children (four of them reached adulthood). He was baptized Emanuel but changed his name to Immanuel after learning Hebrew. In his entire life, he never traveled more than ten miles from Königsberg. His father, Johann Georg Kant (1682–1746), was a German harness maker from Memel, at the time Prussia’s most northeastern city (now Klaip?da in Lithuania). His mother, Anna Regina Reuter (1697–1737), was born in Nuremberg. Kant’s paternal grandfather, Hans Kant (in German), had emigrated from Scotland to East Prussia, and his father still spelled their family name “Cant.” In his youth, Kant was a solid, but undistinguished, student. He was brought up in a Pietist household that stressed intense religious devotion, personal humility, and complete faith in the authority of the Bible. Kant received a strict education that preferred Latin and religious instruction over mathematics and science. Despite his upbringing in a religious household and still maintaining a belief in God, he was skeptical of religion in later life. Thus he is often labeled as agnostic.
There are a great many stories about Kant’s personal mannerisms which are largely unfounded. It is often held, for example, that Kant lived such a strict and predictable life, that neighbors would set their clocks by his daily walks. He never married, but by all accounts had a rewarding social life. He was a popular teacher and a successful author even before starting on his major philosophical works.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes which give a small taste of the man:
Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another.
Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.
All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.
Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.
Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.
Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.
Kant trivialized gustatory experience as incapable of being truly aesthetic because it is driven by appetite and, therefore, cannot be separated from desire or utility (the need to satisfy hunger). Painting, by contrast, can be viewed in a “disinterested” way without reference to utility. I, and many others, have argued strongly against this narrow view of food as utilitarian – perhaps a product of his Puritanical upbringing? You only have to watch the judges’ table on Top Chef to see the gaping flaw in his reasoning.
Here is a recipe for Königsberger Klopse named for Kant’s home town, and one of the highlights of East Prussian cuisine. In the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the dish was officially renamed Kochklopse (“boiled meatballs”) to avoid any reference to its namesake city, which in the aftermath of World War II had been annexed by the Soviet Union. The city’s German inhabitants had been expelled, and the city had been repopulated with Russians and renamed after a close ally of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet leadership. The GDR forbade using the historic names of the annexed territories or cities. Königsberger Klopse were jokingly referred to as Revanchistenklopse (revanchist/revisionist meatballs).
The meatballs are made from very finely ground veal along with onions, eggs, and white pepper. The traditional recipe uses anchovy. If herring is substituted, the dish is called Rostocker Klopse. If both anchovy and herring are omitted, it is called Soßklopse. The meatballs are carefully simmered in veal stock, and the resulting broth is mixed with a roux, cream, and egg yolk to which capers are added. A simpler version of the recipe thickens the sauce with flour or starch only, omitting the egg yolk. A refined version uses only egg yolk as a thickener. Capers are an essential ingredient in all these versions. The dish is traditionally served with boiled potatoes.
1 day-old bread roll
1 tbsp lukewarm milk
1lb/500g ground veal
1 large egg, beaten
2-4 Anchovies, finely chopped
2 onions, finely chopped
1 tsp butter
1 bunch flat leaf parsley, ¾ of the bunch finely chopped
zest of 1 small lemon
1 ½ cups/400 ml light beef or veal stock
1 oz/30g butter
3 tablespoons capers
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsps cream
1 tbsp dry white wine
pinch of sugar
2 egg yolks, beaten
Tear the bread roll into small pieces and soak them in the milk. Squeeze out any excess milk and mix the bread together with the ground veal and beaten egg. Add the chopped parsley and lemon zest.
Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat until transparent. Add them to the ground veal mixture together with the finely chopped anchovies. Season with salt and pepper to taste and form the veal mix into approximately 16 meatballs.
Bring the stock to a gentle simmer, add the meatballs and cook them, covered for about 10 minutes. Do not overcook.
Remove the meatballs and keep them warm. Strain the stock and reserve it for the sauce.
For the sauce melt the butter in a heavy skillet. Add the flour and stir continuously to form a golden roux. Add the stock slowly, whisking constantly to form a smooth sauce. Add the capers along with their liquid, the lemon juice, cream and the wine. Season to taste with salt, sugar, and white pepper.
In a small bowl temper the egg yolks by adding a few tablespoons of hot sauce to them and whisking vigorously. Then add the tempered egg yolks to the sauce, whisking constantly, and making sure it does not boil.
Add the meatballs to the sauce and let them to heat through gently.
Serve garnished with the rest of the parsley and lemon wedges, and with boiled potatoes, buttered.