Intros to European Philosophy: Kant

IMMANUEL KANT (1724-1804)

Previously read: I used his rejection of the transcendental argument for God’s existence in a paper (though I didn’t understand it well), but mostly encountered him through secondary sources and key ideas in other people’s courses – both in undergrad and graduate studies.  It’s nice to at least dig into the abridged text of Critique here.

Key texts: Critique of Pure Reason (abr)

Overall impression: It feels like dealing with Kant in an abridged form is at once necessary and lamentable.  I’d really like to trace his complete thought, and I’m almost ready to fruitfully understand him I feel, but I must admit I don’t have the time to treat him as his status deserves.    Perhaps one day I’ll do better, for now I’ve merely sharpened my teeth a little more for that day when I can begin this task in earnest. 

His contributions to metaphysics and ethics are unavoidable even in their secondary form in academia.  So this was a frustrated but perhaps fruitful familiarizing with several important philosophical utterances sourced in one voice.


“There can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience… In the order of time, therefore, we have no knowledge antecedent to experience, and with experience all knowledge begins. (European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley, p. 375)”


“In what follows, therefore, we shall understand by a priori knowledge, not knowledge independent of this or that experience, but knowledge absolutely independent of all experience.  Opposed to its empirical knowledge, which is knowledge possible only a posteriori, that is, through experience. (ibidem, p. 376)”

  • “Experience teaches us that a thing is so and so, but not that it cannot be otherwise. (p. 376)”  This meets well with Ghazali’s critique of the philosophers in Incoherence/Tahafut.  It’s easy to assume that a thing can be no other way than what it has been previously, but our experience is far too limited to tell us how probable or exclusive such knowledge is.  “Secondly, experience never confers on its judgments true or strict, but only assumed and comparative universality, through induction. (ibidem)” 


  • Analytic judgments are connected by means of identity; without identity it would be synthetic (p. 380).  So all judgments of experience are synthetic. 


  • Space is a pure intuition according to Kant.  To me that’s brilliant.  We necessarily intuit it in order to try to locate our world.  Even when we speak of multiple spaces, we are only representing to ourselves that one space (p. 389).  So, perhaps space is that which I project to the world around me in order to understand it.  In this sense, space may not be infinite in the sense that it is endlessly extensible but it is certainly indefinite in that it is the background against which all events in time are located.  “Space is nothing but the form of all appearances of outer sense. (p. 391)” 


“Permanence, as the abiding correlate of all existence of appearances, of all change and of all concomitance, expresses time in general.  For change does not affect time itself, but only appearances in time.  (Coexistence is not a mode of time itself: for none of the parts of time coexist; they are all in succession to one another.)  If we ascribe succession to time itself, we must think yet another time, in which the sequence would be possible. (p. 402)”

  • “[T]ruth consists in the agreement of knowledge with the object… (p. 404)”  Perceptio is representation with consciousness; a sensation is a perception which ‘relates solely to the subject as the modification of its state’ – we only notice a smell or a sound when it demonstrates change; knowledge is an objective perception – whether intuition or concept (empirical or pure); the pure concept is called a notion.  “A concept formed from notions and transcending the possibility of experience is an idea or concept of reason…” (pp. 414-415)  An idea, therefore, can have no sense-experience matching it.  Whew, maybe it’s easier to use Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


  • “Reason does not really generate any concept.  The most it can do is to free a concept of understanding from the unavoidable limitations of possible experience, and so to endeavor to extend it beyond the limits of the empirical, though still, indeed, in terms of its relation to the empirical. (p. 419 found in Ch 2: ‘The Antinomy of Pure Reason’, Section 1)”  It seems that reason makes demands of understanding, and so constrains it or reminds it of the natural boundaries, but is not itself a system by which to produce concepts.  Understanding is by way of experience and we choose concepts or recognize their value by way of reason, but reason does not itself give rise to them.  It seems interesting that reason, as Kant would have it, is the very thing which reminds us of its own division from the conditioned.  Reason is herein its own limit (or the limit of our reason-discourse).  [Nothing is ever interesting if I have to say ‘it seems interesting’, but still I offend.]

“[Humanity] is thus to [it]self, on the one hand phenomenon, and on the other hand, in respect of certain faculties the action of which cannot be ascribed to the receptivity of sensibility, a purely intelligible object.  We entitle these faculties understanding and reason.  The latter, in particular, we distinguish in a quite peculiar and especial way from all empirically conditioned powers. (p. 446)” 

This aligns, I believe, with what I have attempted to say about understanding and reason in the previous segment. 

“That our reason has causality, or that we at least represent it to ourselves as having causality, is evident from the imperatives which in all matters of conduct we impose as rules upon our active powers.  ‘Ought’ expresses a kind of necessity and of connection with grounds which is found nowhere else in the whole of nature.  The understanding can know in nature only what is, what has been, or what will be. (ibidem)” 

He goes on to say that our ‘ought’ has no meaning when applied to nature.  It is simply our projection upon our experiences – our expectations.  This is ever so like Ghazali’s critique of those who would claim causality’s rulership as part of the world rather than God’s decision in Incoherence.  Causality is a concept we impose, not something inherently true of experience – at least it cannot be determined by way of experience.

  • “Therefore there is only one categorical imperative, namely this: Act only on a maxim by which you can will that it, at the same time, should become a general law. (p. 473)”  Is it possible that any such maxim can exist?  That we should wish for its existence is reasonable enough – who could then argue with it?  But it ‘s not so simple. 


Concluding Remark:

This is already too long, but summarizing Kant is (at this moment for me at least) an absurd task.  Please treat these as thoughtful musings, worthy of rebuke and further instruction, which may one day reach toward some useful understanding.  As of today they are still speaking a foreign language, but one which may one day be more familiar.

Helpful links:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: (Michael Rohlf)


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