The 14th of December 2013 marked the tercentennial of the birth of Martin Knutzen. Though he never travelled more than a few miles from his hometown, his impact was far-reaching. Knutzen, a philosophy professor, was for a time the intellectual mentor of one Immanuel Kant. In fact Knutzen introduced Kant to the work of Newton, which would have a large effect on Kant’s thinking, and by extension on Western philosophy.
Knutzen was born in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). He was the only child of a Danish merchant, who died not long after his birth. At age six, Knutzen became an orphan. He was spared a hellish existence by a relative, who not only provided for him but also made sure that the boy received the best possible education. When it came to studying, the boy, to his credit, was up to the task. Showing high levels of intelligence and scholarly discipline, Knutzen at age fifteen entered the University of Königsberg. There he indulged what would be his lifelong obsessions – science and philosophy.
Though he held the rationalist school in high regard, he was also heavily engaged by matters scientific; he tutored in astronomy, mathematics, and physics. He eventually introduced Kant to the physics of the day, as well as mechanics and optics.
Knutzen regarded philosophy as a branch of scientific knowledge, with its own established framework (just like the laws of physics, or the periodic table of chemistry). He drew on this framework for his best-known work, Philosophical Proof of the Truth of the Christian Religion, which consisted in a series of articles that had appeared in the Königsberger Intelligenzblätter and placed its author in the centre of Königsberg’s lively theological debates.
Knutzen – at the age of just twenty-one – had become a professor specialising in logic and metaphysics. Though he was not among the highest-ranking faculty members at the university, he might have been the most popular, as he was known for delivering captivating lectures. It seems these lectures were in high demand, for Knutzen was teaching six hours a day, a large teaching load by any standard. Along with these commitments, he wrote prodigiously on philosophy, science, and theology.
Drawing on such varied influences as German philosopher Christian Wolff and Newton, much of Knutzen’s work attempted to establish a relation between metaphysics and the quantitative proof of hard science – no doubt this had an effect on Kant too. In the Journal of Ecclesiastic History, W R Ward tells how Knutzen was “much impressed by the certainty of mathematical demonstration”. Feeling confident about his grasp of Newtonian physics, Knutzen endeavoured to demonstrate his own mathematical skill by predicting the return of a comet in 1744. When it appeared on schedule, Knutzen’s fame grew.
But the celebrations were cut short when a Swiss mathematician called Leonhard Euler (a longtime correspondent of Knutzen’s) demonstrated that the professor had predicted the arrival of the wrong comet, and had essentially just been lucky that a different comet happened to appear that year. If there were any doubts raised about Knutzen’s capabilities, his students looked past them.
Among his students was, of course, Kant. Ten years Knutzen’s junior, Kant regarded his professor as a mentor and – in their shared bookishness – a kindred spirit. Outside of class, they discussed scientific processes, as well as philosophical proofs of God’s existence and the truth of the Christian faith. Perhaps most importantly, Kant’s connection to Knutzen gave him access to his professor’s immense private library, and here Kant was exposed to the cutting edge science of the day, which of course shaped his later philosophical work.
Writing with great, even manic energy, Knutzen seems to have simply burned out at the age of thirty-seven, dying of apparent nervous exhaustion. At the time of his death, he had been translating John Locke’s essay “Of the Conduct of the Understanding”.
Fortunately for Kant, he would live more than twice as long as Knutzen; this is also to the benefit of philosophy, as most of Kant’s main works appeared in his later years. Like his reclusive former professor, Kant never saw much of the wider world firsthand. However, the wider world definitely heard from Kant, both during his life and long after his death. Knutzen, despite his former popularity and influence, is now largely forgotten. The majority of his works have yet to see an English translation. Whatever remaining notoriety his name might enjoy seems destined to be of the vicarious sort.