Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – Lecture 1

Those who have attended my lectures in the past know that I do not go in for intellectual biography.  I am interested in Kant the philosopher, the writer, and not Kant the man.  This does not mean of course that the social situation in which Kant wrote had no significance whatsoever on what he wrote, but the twist and turns of the relation between life and writing are far more complex and intertwining than any intellectual biography with its supposedly significant events and happenings of human life, like so many birthdays and Christmases, can give. So here are the dates if anyone wants them: Kant was born  April 22, 1724, in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kalingrad in Western Russia) and died on February 12th 1804.

Even from are position of being absolute beginners we can get something from this The Critique of Pure Reason.  And that is what we should be happy with. Why do we think that philosophical works are simply vessels of information that we can dip our hands into and get what we want without really making an effort?  On the other hand, let’s not sanctify Kant too much. Let us admit that in reading the Critique the fogs of Königsberg appear to drift across our minds making everything obscure and indistinct.  Kant was a veritable machine of concepts. This means that above all he invented a whole new language. Anyone who has attempted to learn a language knows how difficult this is, because it is not merely a matter of understanding, but of putting something in an alien expression into your own words. Reading Kant could be compared with reading Chinese in this regard. One hardly knows how to advance through the strange hieroglyphs.[1]

What is it that Kant was meant to have invented, and which we shall be trying to get our heads around this lecture?  The answer to this question is transcendental idealism.[2] Now like any philosophical doctrine the best way to begin to understand it is to grasp what it is a reaction against. No philosopher writes in isolation, but always in reaction to those who have written before hand, because no problem simple falls from the heavens.  Transcendental idealism is a reaction against two kinds of philosophy of the 18th century, empiricism and rationalism (Kant himself invented these labels or at least their use). This might seem very peculiar to us, since we might think that these two kinds of philosophy are the only two ways of doing philosophy, and thus to reject both is to reject philosophy altogether.  How can there be a philosophy that is neither rational nor empirical? You can see why Kant had to invent a whole new language of philosophy to express this third alternative, which does not fit into the traditional way of talking about things, even amongst those who disagreed vehemently against one another.

We said that transcendental idealism is opposed to both rationalism and empiricism, but it would be just as well to say that it is an amalgam of both. What it is opposed to is their pure separation into two opposed spheres.  Perhaps though, and we shall see that this can only be the most preliminary and loose explanation, we can come to the first definition of transcendental idealism as a kind of rational empiricism or empiricist rationalism. We can see that this might mean by looking at some quotes from Kant, though we shall not be quoted the Critique of Pure Reason, but what is called Prolegomena to every Future Metaphysics, and which Kant wrote as a kind of guide to the much bigger and more complicated first book, but which is unfortunately not much simpler:

I openly confess that a reminder by David Hume was the very thing which many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy quite a new direction.[…] If we start from a well-founded though undeveloped thought which another has bequeathed to us, we may well hope by continued reflection to advance farther than the acute man to whom we owe the first spark of light. (Kant 1988, p.159)

Let us not get lost in trying here to find out what it was that Hume reminded Kant of (we shall do that in another lecture), but simply pay attention to the rather ambiguous nature of this passage.  In one sense, Kant’s philosophy owes everything to Hume’s empirical scepticism, but in another it goes quite further than it.  In what way is transcendental idealism more than empiricism? Not an easy question, as we shall see, but let us here begin to set the ground as how it will be answered.

The question is how we can get to know something and to see how Kant gets awoken from his ‘dogmatic slumber’ we need to go back to Descartes. As you all remember, Descartes put forward the interesting idea that I could doubt the whole existence of the world, but the one thing that I could not doubt is the cogito ergo sum, for even if I doubt everything I cannot doubt the I that is doubting.  This means that everything that is contained in this I also cannot be doubted.  I can think of a cup.  I might doubt the existence of cup in the real world, it might be a figment of my imagination, but I cannot doubt the idea of the cup in my mind, for it wholly present to the thought that thinks it.  The problem for Descartes is how we get from the certainty of my inner mental world, to the uncertainty of my knowledge of the external world.  The answer is God, which is why Descartes needs the philosophical proofs of God’s existence.  If God exists, which Descartes believes can be demonstrated philosophically in the form of the ontological argument, then this God must be a just, since an unjust God would be imperfect and thus contradicts His essence.  A just God ensures that the external world, which he created, corresponds to my inner world.  Thus I can be sure that my idea of the cup, which I am entirely certain of, is the same as the actual cup which exists in the external world.

What Kant calls a ‘dogmatic slumber’ is this heady mix of theology and philosophy. Kant’s argument will be how can philosophy be certain of its knowledge of the external world, when it basis its certainty on what cannot be experienced, namely God (thus, as we shall see, it is just as important for Kant to show that there can be no proof for God’s existence, as it is for Descartes to have this proof).  It would mean that our knowledge of the cup could only be guaranteed by divine intervention, and an intervention that we ourselves could have no insight into.

The fact that theology has sneaked into philosophy tells us something has gone wrong. Theology in this form (as opposed to theology proper) is usually philosophy gone a bit mad.  This can make philosophical theology interesting, but also a little suspect in its own commitment to an immanent source of human knowledge. Thus what we need to do is go back to the relation of knowledge itself, and see what really appears there without introducing a deus ex machina, or other metaphysical hobgoblins.  First of all there is subject and there is an object that confronts this subject.  What the subject knows about this object, in one sense comes from the object itself, and in another sense comes from the subject  (when we come to look at the subject in greater detail we will need to ask who this subject is – is it me or you or something greater than both of us?).  We can say therefore that unlike Descartes and all the other metaphysical dogmatists, Kant tries to understand our world immanently, rather than appealing to something transcendent.[3]

Kant is rejecting Descartes’ transcendent argument that we can only know the object by the mediation of the divine power, but at the same time he will also reject the Humean argument that we know the object simply by ‘adding up’ our sense impressions. This is because we can make a distinction between the form of our experiences and the content of our experiences. This is why transcendental idealism cannot be understood simply as the unity of rationalism and empiricism. Let us say something briefly now about why, even though Hume awakens Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumber’, he rejects crude empiricism.

Now the content of our experience does belong to the object, and Kant will call this, perhaps slightly confusingly for our purposes, sensible intuition.  But this intuition does not merely have content but also a form, and it is this form that transcends both the individual object and the subject.  It is this transcendence that Kant is referring to in the expression ‘transcendental’. It is the proof of these forms that Kant hopes to demonstrate in The Critique of Pure Reason. They are space and time, and the categories of the understanding.  What is significant here, and we shall go both in their demonstration and description by Kant later, is that these forms of the object, which are true of every object of human experience, belong to the subject. This is why Kant’s explanation of the world is immanent, for he makes no appeal to anything that might go beyond the subject that experiences. Yet, this subject, which is the source of the form of objects, is not any subject.  It is neither you nor me, for example, but is the form of the subjectivity itself; that is to say, the form of pure thought. For this subject is nothing else than reason or rationality itself.  It is this last idea which is perhaps the most difficult to explain and to grasp, as it is to understand the heart of transcendental idealism itself.

How then the Critique of Pure Reason [hereafter CPR] organised and what is does Kant think that he is doing in it? Let us look at the content page.[4] The book is divided into two parts, the ‘Doctrine of Elements’ and the ‘Doctrine of Method’. In traditional logic books in Germany at the time, this distinction between two doctrines expressed a difference between two kinds of logic, ‘general logic’ and ‘applied logic’. With Kant, however, they had a specific meaning. In the ‘Doctrine of Elements’, he treats the a priori nature of human knowledge and what are its limits, and in the ‘Doctrine of Method’, what are the implications or consequence of this a priori knowledge and its limits and how does this method differ from other methods, such as mathematical reasoning, or other ways of doing philosophy. ‘The Doctrine of Elements’ itself is also divided into two: ‘Transcendental Aesthetic’ and ‘Transcendental Logic’, which is a division that he got from a contemporary German philosopher Baumgarten.[5] The ‘Transcendental Aesthetic’ treats human sensibility and especially the pure forms of time and space, whereas the ‘Transcendental Logic’ is a description of the pure categories of the understanding. One side, therefore, has to do with sensation or sensibility, and the other, the intellect. These for Kant are the two and the only two sources of human knowledge: intuitions and concepts. The ‘Transcendental Logic’ is then also split into two, the ‘Transcendental Analytic’ and the ‘Transcendental Dialectic’.  The first has to with the positive contribution of the pure categories of the understanding to human knowledge, and the second with the negative; that is, how the misuse of these categories leads to philosophical disputes that are never ending and thus false problems. The ‘Transcendental Analytic’ itself is then further divided into two parts, the ‘Analytic of Concepts’ and the ‘Analytic of Principle’, where the first has to do with the proof of the pure categories and their number, and the second with their empirical application. Finally, the ‘Transcendental Dialectic’ is divided into two into the ‘On the Concepts of Pure Reason’ and ‘On the Dialectical Inferences of Pure Reason’, where the latter itself is divided into three, ‘The Paralogisms of Pure Reason’, ‘The Antinomy of Pure Reason’ and ‘The Ideal of Pure Reason’, which have to do with nature of the soul, the universe and God respectively and again which are basic divisions in metaphysics and logic that Kant would know at the time. His method is both positive and negative. Negative, in that he wants to demolish the old metaphysics which he believes can no longer resist the new scepticism embodied by such philosophers like Hume, and positive, in that want to replace this old metaphysics with a new one that has a more secure founding in the necessary limits of human reason. This dual approach is what Kant means by ‘critique’, which he believed was a new method in philosophy, and is why this book is called the Critique of Pure Reason.

Works Cited

Caygill, H., 1995. A Kant Dictionary, Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Kant, I., 1998. Critique of Pure Reason P. Guyer & A. W. Wood, eds., Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, I., 1988. Kant : Selections L. W. Beck, ed., New York; London: Macmillan ; Collier Macmillan.


[1] There is salvation near at hand though in A Kant Dictionary (Caygill 1995).

[2] Let us say right from the start that transcendental here has not mystical or spiritual meaning as ‘transcendental meditation’.

[3] It is important here to make a clear distinction between transcendence and transcendental in Kant’s philosophy.  Transcendence is anything that appeals to a region beyond human sensibility, and in our tradition that is usually God.  The meaning of transcendental is obviously going to be more difficult and we are only going to get to its meaning by going back to this relation between the subject and the object.

[4] See the introduction to the Cambridge edition of the CPR, which gives a good explanation of its origin and structure (Kant 1998).

[5] For many years Kant used his textbook on logic to teach metaphysics to his students, so would have been very familiar with his works. Aesthetics here must be sharply distinguished from aesthetics as the study of art, thought confusing Baumgarten was the first philosopher to use this word for precisely that purpose, and later on Kant, in the Critique of Judgment also used it in that way. In the CPR, however, the word still has its ancient Greek meaning which is ‘sensation’ in the general sense and not the specific experience of artworks.

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