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The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant

Kantian Criticism represents an attempt to unify Rationalism and Empiricism in a superior kind of phenomenalism. This superior phenomenalism consists in considering the human spirit as endowed with a priori forms, which are the subjective means of organizing the data of experience into perfect knowledge. Beyond these a priori forms there is no perfect science. Hence any metaphysics is impossible.

The philosophy is called "Criticism" (from the Greek "krinein -- to judge") because of the solution given to the problem of knowledge by means of different judgments. The result of Kant's Criticism is evident in all subsequent thought.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Immanuel Kant (picture) was born in Konigsberg in East Prussia on April 22, 1724. He began his studies at the Collegium Fredericianum, one of the celebrated centers of German Pietism. Later he enrolled in the school of philosophy at the University of Konigsberg, where he studied the rationalistic philosophy of Wolff and the mathematics and physics of Newton. On leaving the University he spent nine years as tutor in several distinguished families. In 1755 he became privat docent in the university by appointment. He was appointed professor of logic and mathematics in 1770, retiring from his professorship in 1797. Kant never traveled beyond the immediate vicinity of his native town.

Kant's chief works are the Critique of Pure Reason, in which he examines human reason and concludes that it is capable of constructing science but not metaphysics. In 1783 he published the Prolegomena or Prologues to Any Future Metaphysics, wherein he examines the problem from another point of view. In 1785 his Foundation for the Metaphysics of Ethics appeared, followed by the Critique of Practical Reason, in which he treats the moral problem according to the principles of transcendental criticism. In his Critique of Judgment he examines the problem of finalism in nature and the aesthetic problem. The three Critiques form a single masterpiece and are an exposition of Kant's definitive thought.


Kant's problem is to present a theory of knowledge securing the just claims of reason and investigating the possibilities of knowledge in its sources, extent, and boundaries. His rationalism (contributed by Wolff), and his attraction for English empiricism, had stirred his own thinking. His philosophical conclusions must penetrate the various currents of his age -- the Enlightenment, empiricism, skepticism, and mysticism. His problem becomes therefore:

To limit the skepticism of Hume; and

To destroy materialism, fatalism, and atheism.


Knowledge, Kant maintained, is universal and necessary. He agrees with the rationalists that such knowledge is in physics and mathematics. He agrees with the empiricists that knowledge is ideal knowledge, knowledge of phenomena, knowledge as it appears to our senses, not knowledge of things as they are in themselves. Hence a rational metaphysics is impossible.

Kant contends with the empiricists that we can know only what we experience, that sensation forms the material of our knowledge. He agrees with the rationalists that universal and necessary truth cannot be derived from experience. So:

The senses furnish the groundwork of knowledge;

The mind arranges knowledge by its own nature.

We have, therefore:

Universal and necessary knowledge of the order of ideas (rationalism);

No knowledge of things-in-themselves (skepticism);

The Contents of our knowledge are derived from experience (empiricism);

But the mind thinks its experiences, conceives them according to its a priori or rational ways (rationalism);

We can think things but not know the facts of the empirical world.

The moral consciousness (practical reason) enables us to know God, freedom, and immortality. Otherwise they would be unanswered. All we would know would be causal space and time-order.

Thus we discover two anti-intellectualistic strains in Kant, one proceeding from the skepticism of Hume, and the second from Neoplatonism. The skepticism of Hume gave Kant good reason for distrusting physical science as a complete explanation of knowledge. The Neoplatonic strain posited a supra-rational self which for Kant created relational links in the world of ethics. Kant's examination of Humean skepticism gave him the desire to investigate the possibility of knowledge. Knowledge, Kant declared, may be considered under two aspects: The sensory, which corresponds to what-we-perceive, the data of experience; and The logical, which corresponds to what we think about this experience. (Example: To perceive a color is sensory, to discriminate a color from among other colors is logical.)

Kant regarded sensations as interrelated and not as isolated raw products of the senses:

Sense data are always arranged in space;

Perceptual experiences vary but the mind can abstract from them their individual characteristics. Two things remain -- the data of experience are always in space (the outer sense), and in time (the inner, or intuitive).

The empiricists had declared that the actual stuff (sense data) of experiences, such as colors, sounds, etc., pour into human minds through the sense-organs;

Hence, nothing is in the intellect which was not previously in the senses, except (as Leibniz had said in his criticism of Locke) the intellect itself.

The subject-matter of knowledge comes from knowledge but this is only a fraction of knowledge. Whence then comes the relatedness of knowledge in space and time since we have no sense-organs for these aspects of experience?

Space and time must therefore be innate in us, a contribution of our minds to our perceptual data. They are conditions of experience and not abstractions from it.

Kant thought that geometry was the science of space, and arithmetic the science of time.

He declared the impossibility of making absolutely universal and necessary judgments about the facts of experience. Some facts, as in mathematical calculations, are independent of our experience. They are prior to experience and experience must be judged by such facts and facts by experience.


Kant observes that there are three kinds of judgment:

Analytical judgment, which is achieved when the predicate of a proposition is known through the analysis of the subject;

Synthetic a posteriori, which is achieved when the predicate is attributed to the subject by force of experience;

Synthetic a priori, or that which enjoys universality and necessity.

Synthetic a priori judgments alone are the foundation of perfect science. Kant undertakes the study of these judgments in his Critique of Pure Reason, which is divided as follows.

Transcendental Aesthetic

Kant studies the a prior forms, which organize sensible perceptions (or pure intuitions). These forms are two: space and time. The sciences which are founded on space and time are geometry and arithmetic; they enjoy universality and necessity by virtue of the subjective forms of space and time.

Transcendental Analytic

The forms of space and time have given us a manifold series of pure intuitions. The human spirit, which tends to the unification of knowledge, feels impelled to progress to a higher degree of understanding, which is centered in the intellect. The intellect is endowed with twelve a priori forms, called categories. In virtue of these, the intellect collects and makes stable many data of experience under the concept of substance; it connects phenomena by means of the concept of cause and effect. Substance and causality are categories of the intellect. These categories give us an understanding of the physical world. Hence physics is endowed with universality and necessity, not because its laws represent a universal and necessary aspect of reality but because the intellect gives the phenomena such universality and necessity by virtue of its categories.

Transcendental Dialectic

The unification of phenomena through the categories is not absolute. The spirit, which tends to the absolute unity of all knowledge, reorganizes the data of the intellect in a higher degree. The a priori forms of this reorganization are called ideas; reason is the faculty directing this operation.

The reorganizing ideas are three:

The idea of the external world -- this idea is a form under which all exterior phenomena are collected;

The idea of soul -- this is a form under which all interior phenomena are collected;

The idea of God -- this is the idea which collects the totality of phenomena.

For Kant these three ideas of reason are beyond true knowledge; for true knowledge can only be drawn from a phenomenon perceived according to the categories of the intellect. God, the soul, and the world belong to the noumenal world, in which there is no such thing as phenomenal perception.


In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant studies the problem of what makes a human action morally good. Kant resolves the question by means of the categorical imperative, which imposes itself with the force of duty, without any regard for the good or evil that may result from it. The categorical imperative enjoys universality and necessity; hence it comes from the subject, that is, from the will itself. Thus it is an a priori form of will.

Kant observes that the a priori forms of the intellect are empty and need to be applied to some empirical element in order to become effective. On the other hand, the categorical imperative is already determined in itself and itself determines the empirical element (the human action to be performed); it is the will which make the human act good, not vice versa. Thus the will belongs to the world of the noumena, of the absolute and unconditioned. Kant teaches that the categorical imperatives can only be explained on the basis of three postulates: namely, liberty, the immortality of the soul, and God. Thus Kant believed not only that he had reconstructed metaphysics, but also that he had reestablished it on a more solid basis.


In the Critique of Judgment, Kant studies the judgments of sentiment. He believed that the two aspects of reality (phenomenal and noumenal) are synthesized, through the judgment of sentiment, into a single act of perception of the thinking-ego.

Judgments of sentiment arise:

From the finality of nature -- the ego, reflecting upon the mechanical succession of nature, notes a harmonious ordering of the different parts to the same end and judges this to be the result of the purposeful action of a rational mind;

From an aesthetic vision -- here the ego considers the elements of nature as the means by which its spiritual faculties can be satisfied.

In both judgments, the ego is not subordinate to the phenomena; on the contrary, the phenomena are supposed to be subordinate to the ego. Thus the ego is conscious of itself as a person, as a reality of the absolute and unconditioned world.


Kant does not deny the existence of God, the soul and the world; but he holds that we cannot have perfect knowledge of them. And he holds this because of the prejudice that man can have perfect knowledge only of the world of phenomena.

Confusion in thought reigned after Kant -- the philosopher of reformed thinking. Kant was variously regarded. Some thought him to be a skeptic, others held he was the savior of religious faith. Some successors to Kant, such as Schiller, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, made philosophy the time honored mental discipline.

Kantian epistemology needed to be developed. The Kantian dualism of the intelligible and phenomenal worlds, freedom and mechanism, form and matter, knowledge and faith, practical and theoretical reason, presented many problems. The Kantian critical foundation became the challenge left to Kant's followers: Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel.

But some critics of Kant appear. Herder opposes the Kantian dualism of mental faculties and urges the unity of the soul-life. Thought and will, he maintained, spring from a common ground. The history of mankind is a process of evolution directed toward the ideal of humanity. Our rational capacity should therefore be educated and fashioned into reason, our more refined senses into art, our impulses into genuine freedom and beauty, our motives into the love of humanity.

Jacobi declared that the Critique logically ends in subjective idealism, and rejected its conclusions. Jacob Fries seeks to combine the teachings of Kant and Jacobi.

The positive contributions of Immanuel Kant to the Perennial Philosophy

None. But despite errors, absurdities, and contradictions, Kant's philosophy has exercised a tremendous influence upon human thinking for over a century and a half. It exhibits the roots of those weaknesses we have come to regard as characteristic of what is loosely called "the German philosophy." It refuses to face reality (witness the wholly subjectivistic character of knowledge); it unduly stresses the ego (witness the inner and autonomous character of knowledge and morality); it proclaims the perfectibility of the will, upon which the followers of Kant were soon to harp most strongly -- and from Nietzsche to Hitler we are to hear of "the will to power," the will which makes "the superman" and "the master race." Many historians of philosophy consider Immanuel Kant to be the father of modern Idealism.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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