Introduction to Kant

  Dr Will Large

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. Kant was born April 22, 1724, in Köngisberg, Prussia (now Kalingrad in Western Russia) and died on February 12th 1804. 

The subject matter of this course is perhaps his most famous and influential work but also his most difficult and forbidding, The
Critique of Pure Reason.Well we should not scare ourselves too much. Even from our position of being absolute beginners we can get something from this text.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 is in reading the Critique the fogs of Königsberg appear to drift across
our souls 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 a 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 semester?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 heaven.Transcendental idealism is a reaction against two kinds of
philosophy of the 18th century, empiricism and rationalism.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 that did 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 there pure separation into two opposed spheres.Perhaps, thought 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 idiots 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. [3

Let us not get lost in trying here to find out what it was that Hume reminded Kant of, though we shall find out later in the
course, 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 can we 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 that one thing that I could not doubt is the cogito ergo sum, for even if I doubt everything I can not doubt the I that is so 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 do 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 Good must be a just.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 bases its certainty on what cannot be known, 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 a intervention that we ourselves could have no insight into. 

The fact that theology has sneaked into philosophy tells us something has gone wrong. Theology is usually philosophy gone a bit mad.This can make theology interesting, but also a little suspect in its own commitment to argument.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.And yet doesn’t this lead us astray? We supposed to be learning what transcendental idealism means, and yet we are told he explains the world immanently.We need to make a clear distinction between transcendence and transcendental in Kant’s philosophy.Transcendence is anything that is appealed to 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. 

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 reject the Humean argument that we know the object simply by adding up our sense impression.This is
because we can make a distinction between the form of our experiences and the content of our experiences. 

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 a content but a form, and it is this form which transcends both the individual object and the individual 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 or me,
for example, but is the form of the subjectivity itself.It is this last idea which is perhaps the most difficult to explain and to grasp it is to understand the heart of transcendental idealism itself.

[1]There is salvation near at hand though in the form of Howard Caygill’s A Kant Dictionary (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995),
[2]Let us say right from the start that transcendental here has no mystical or spiritual meaning as ‘transcendental meditation’.
[3]Kant, ‘Prolegomena’ in Kant Selections, ed. L. W. Beck, (London: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1988), p. 159.

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