“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” -Immanuel Kant

The Routines of Immanuel Kant

Of Men, Animals and the Age of Self-Discipline

For years I toiled as a disability analyst, mostly lodged inside a five square-meter gray cubicle. I read thousands of pages of medical records. Aside from stumbling across an exotic disease, the job was tedious and repetitious, and often depressing.

But I perked up when it came to tours of other people’s daily lives. I also loved the predictable routine of the job, though didn’t appreciate until years after I left.

Besides medical records, I reviewed work histories and salaries. But the most fascinating glimpse into the world of my fellow Americans was a questionnaire called the “Activities of Daily Living” (known in the trade as the ADL).

Everyone who applied for disability was required to fill out an ADL.

This humble four-pager asked about routines, bathroom habits, hobbies, and relationships — among other topics. It was an unassuming series of questions about how each day unfolded.

I was surprised by the commonality in ADLs. It seemed as if most of us, unless profoundly and severely disabled, go about our days in much the same way.

Although most of our disability “claimants” were older and (even if ambulatory), dealing with some kind of impairment, their days were much like mine (sans my job), and I took deep comfort in this fact.

We awaken, feed our pets, zombie our way through a bathroom routine (most people shower daily), then make coffee or tea for ourselves and, often, someone else.

Most of us frequently sit for awhile at the kitchen table, perhaps just drinking in the quiet of the morning. Some of us read. In the days I worked as an analyst, flesh-and-blood newspapers were the go-to morning reading material.

I know that in the brave, new hyperworld of careers, people rarely “just sit”, but in much of America, many do.

As the morning fades into afternoon, people carry out a variety of minor chores. Checking the mail, tidying up the kitchen, looking in on a neighbor, or calling a family member.

Some spend their mornings, of course, feeding kids and getting them off to school. But older folks maintain the home and usually talk to a sibling, parent, or friend each day.

The Steadiest of Lives

In researching nihilism, I reviewed Immanuel Kant’s writings. Although he makes the short list as one of the most towering intellects of western thought (for example, he casually addressed our limitations in accurate self-knowledge long before anyone else), he lived an unassuming life.

I was particularly struck by his ADLs.

Kant was German philosopher who changed his birth name of Emmanual to the “I” spelling after studying Hebrew. He is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers in history, but he was never a wealthy man and many of his published works fell flat during his lifetime.

Neither was he a famous man, even in his later years after publishing his greatest work, The Critique of Pure Reason(CPR) in 1781(he was 57). Not a page-turner, he followed that one up four years later with the more approachable (but still dense) Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and, two years after that published The Critique of Practical Reason.

We read the first two in school. To make sense of CPR we formed a small group that included one of our tutors, Prof. Charles* (often half in the bag) and read one sentence at a time, aloud. Then, we discussed what we thought it meant.

I should point out: we were not reading CPR in the original German.

As I reviewed his contributions to western thought, and how the categorical imperative related to nihilism, I became curious about his life. (Possibly, my curiosity was piqued by the fact that I didn’t have the mental energy to revisit the difference between a priori and a posteriori knowledge).

Despite his impenetrable prose, relative obscurity and modest means, Kant was a well liked man and a popular teacher.

He was also, much like disability claimants, battling chronic health problems. His unwavering ADLs weren’t due to his health, as far as we know. He was simply a highly self-disciplined person with a strong sense of both routine and duty.

Kant’s neighbors claimed you could set your watch by his afternoon walk.

We also know he liked animals, and lived by a set of ethical principles that were at once boring and heroic.

Nearly Three Hundred Years Ago

It was 1724, the year Emmanuel happened into the world, in Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). He would later move to Konigsberg, Prussia (now Germany).

In 1724, George I ruled Britain and Handel’s music was all the rage in London. In the Americas, Vermont had its first settlement (Brattleboro); the Alamo was only two years old. And in the city that would become Kant’s home, bubonic plague had wiped out nearly 10,000 (about one in four) only 15 years before his birth.

Kant came from a middle-class family; his father worked as a master harness maker. Both parents were devoted Lutherans and it was through their church pastor that Kant’s path diverged — sharply — from the rest of his family (there were nine children; four others survived to adulthood).

The Pastor saw an exceptional mind.

During his years as a schoolboy, he walked several miles each way to reach school at 7am, then returned each afternoon around 4pm to begin an intense homework regimen.

This was his life from primary through “high school” and the routine did not vary for eight years, from age 8 to his graduation at 16.

Kant enrolled in Konigsberg University but was unable to complete his degree. Although he had entered as a theology student, he soon became interested in physics and math — indeed, Kant might have rivaled Newton if someone had fostered his talent in math and science.

When Kant was 20, his father died and as the eldest son, he quit school to support the family. He supported his mother and sisters for the next ten years, earning money as a private tutor.

In 1755, he returned to school to complete his dissertation, which was titled “A Brief Outline of Some Meditations on Fire.”

That year, he was appointed at the university to give lectures. This job came with no salary; instead he would need to acquire private students for tutoring from among his audiences. Fortunately, Kant was a gifted and witty teacher so he was able to find students and earn a living.

He lectured on logic, physics, mathematics, philosophy, geography, ethics and metaphysics. Later, when he became more famous, he was consulted for his opinion on every subject under the sun.

Amazingly, he did not become a full professor for another fifteen years, but continued to publish scientific papers in his field of metaphysics (a difficult-to-categorize subject today, but it brushes up against both psychology and natural history) and philosophy.

He typically lectured between 25 and 30 hours a week which, if you’ve ever taught college, is a lot of hours. Although a skilled teacher, he still worked long hours to earn adequate legal tender.

Kant rarely traveled and chose to remain unmarried and childless.

He was popular as both a lecturer and social guest, and often entertained friends at home.

I have yet to read a full biography, as I’m sure there is far more known about his life, but we have a record of his ADLs.

Kant’s Daily Life

Had Kant filed for disability, he would have recorded a unique but unvarying set of habits, different perhaps not only from most modern Americans but also from his 18th century Prussian contemporaries.

He awoke at 5am each day, spending the next hour drinking tea and smoking his pipe, no doubt considering the nature of the universe or perhaps planning his next book.

He spent an hour, from 6 to 7, preparing for his students who arrived at his home at 7am and left at 9am.

From 9 until 1, Kant engaged in writing. (As writers, we could all take a lesson from the self-discipline involved in four hours of uninterrupted writing each day, but that is neither here nor there).

At 1, Kant had his only meal of the day, usually with friends. This meal lasted three hours, so we can imagine a multi-course feast involving perhaps some wine and most certainly a chef and server.

At four, Kant took a one-hour walk. He is known to have missed his scheduled walk only once, because he got caught up in a book that had just come out (Emile, by Rousseau). His daily walk lasted one hour, after which he returned home and spent the afternoon and evening hours doing what he most enjoyed (I believe): reading and writing.

Kant was a sought after socially, and several of his books were top sellers. He developed relationships with the wealthy and the famous, and was known as a fabulous conversationalist. At times, however, he would retreat for many years and avoid friends in order to complete a book.

In his later years, he gradually lost his memory. A sister cared for him until his death at the age of 80, on February 12, 1804.

Kant’s Lessons

I was utterly charmed when I first discovered Kant’s ADLs. Perhaps this is because their simplicity is in stark opposition to our 21st century lives. Or, perhaps it is because such an original and extraordinary mind needed a schedule, like everyone else.

Although we love exploring big ideas and worship at the altar of technology, in our hearts the human connection still reigns, and in our lives it is the day-to-day that links us.

In re-reading synopses of Kant’s life, I am struck by the fortitude and self-discipline it took to be so productive, while balancing friendship, wages, and exercise.

I admire much about Kant, but I like these take-homes best:

· Work without thought of profit

· Enjoy your friends, and host them

· Never rush through a meal

· Avoid distractions, even if it means solitude

· Don’t be afraid of walking long distances

· Keep to a routine

· Publish

I often yearn for quieter days of the 18th century (without the sexism). As we careen toward 2020, the distractions are almost worse than completing a dissertation but still having to drum up your own paying clients.

I suspect Kant would’ve had no trouble putting aside F*book and Twi*r, however, for his three-hour lunches and quiet evenings spent reading and writing.

*Not his real name



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Jean Campbell

Jean Campbell

Writer by day, reader by night, napper by afternoon.