Immanuel Kant - A critique

1724 - 1804

by Raymond Taouk

Person & Influences

In the earlier part of his life, he was a keen student of natural sciences, taking for granted the existence of a world of real objects. However after reading Hume's skepticism of causality he claims to have awakened from this "dogmatic slumber". In fact Hume's work had such an impact on him that he began to ask if a science of metaphysics is even possible. How can we put any faith in Human reason?

Even though the science of physics went through as many fluctuations as metaphysics, yet Kant was taken in by the hype of the times regarding scientific discoveries (i.e. those of Issac Newton) and seemed to be so fascinated by the immemorial stability of mathematics that he accepted such practical sciences without distinction.

However he began to be convinced that the material of sensation did not intrinsically manifest features by which the mind could be stimulated to make perceptual judgments and to build up an ordered view of the world

This meant that the was constrained to believe that the objective world as we experience it was partly the creation of forms of sensibility and categories of understanding inherent in the mind itself.


Hume was not the only influence on the formation of Kant's thinking. Both Newton and Rousseau had an impact on him also. Newton, he thought had penetrated God's design in the universe to discover how all things ran according to immutable law. While Rousseau thought he had discovered the freedom and dignity of man, whose worth was independent of his social position or the opinion of his fellow men. Newton's world machine on the other hand, disallowed human freedom by making each man merely a nut or a bolt in the vast universal machine. Thus Kant set out on devising a system that would reconcile the claims of both Newtonian Science and Rousseauvian morality which stood like two philosophical giants opposing each other. This new philosophical system of is would offer a foundation for Newton's science and Rousseau's morality, both of which Kant was convinced were true and therefore demanding of preservation.


Thus did he set out to justify the validity of all human knowledge - first, of the sciences, and then of metaphysics, which he wished to establish as solidly as were the sciences. Yet with his false starting points and erroneous understanding of things he fell into disastrous errors which had filled his philosophical system with an un-escapable criticism.


His Thought: 


In building his system Kant saw himself faced with the skeptic problem; "Can we know things? If so, what can we know? And under what conditions is knowledge authentic?

Kant began by distinguishing the world as we know it from the world as it is. The world we know consists of phenomena, of things as they appear to us. But we can never know to what extent they correspond to the real world. We can know what is in the looking glass, but we cannot be sure it gives us a true reflection of things outside. And so he rejected all possibility of proving the existence of a coherent external world because he denied the reality of one's sense impressions, and because he held that even if one could attain such real impressions, one could not logically apply the principle of causality to them in order to infer a real cause.

Yet he did not assert that each man made a world all his own but rather that the man-made phenomenal world, is the same for all men in which the phenomenal reality conforms to the idea the human mind has of it. Thus for him all knowledge is at the same time both thoroughly objective and thoroughly subjective.

By this he destroys the distinction between object and subject by making all knowledge at at once subjective and objective.

Kant starts with the idea and the external object (what we term reality). And so the sense impressions of an unordered real world which provides the raw material (the clay) of perception is orderly arranged in space and time by the unconscious faculties (mechanisms) of sensation and intelligence which impress order and classification into different categories by means of purely (instinctive & unconscious) a priori forms (made by the individual), in a similar way as a potter would make different figures out of pre-existent clay. Thus he held that the order which we perceive in the world around us is merely phenomenal, that is a purely subjective product of the mind.

However although he did admit the existence of universal concepts, he some what contradicts it by denying that they represent reality in a true sense. Thus for Kant it was impossible to know reality, but instead of demonstrating this he merely presupposes it as self evident!

Kant distinguished between analytic judgments (which he regarded as mere tautologies) and Synthetic judgments, which he subdivided into two classes, which he terms synthetic a poteriori judgments and synthetic a priori judgments (previously made by the mind unconsciously).  The total action of sensible intuition is thus composed of a matter and a form with the elaborated sensible object being called phenomenon. Hence in order to attain truth something sensibly given is always necessary (against the rationalists) and it alone s insufficient (against the empiricists).

For Kant the subject and the predicate are joined purely by the mechanism of the mind ( by what he terms a priori judgments) thus a proposition like 7+5=12 is not an analytic judgment of the intellect but a synthetic a priori judgment  caused purely by the natural activity of the mind, independently of any evidence supplied by an examination of the objects (in this case the numbers) under consideration. Thus as Kant puts it, "it is reason which thinks  in a vacuum on the unknowable thing (noumenon  vs phenomenon) by means of ideas which make up the science of metaphysics. Thus all human knowledge begins with intuitions, then goes to concepts, and is completed in ideas". It was the understanding which constitutes a sensible thing as an object of thought. In this we see the Kantian idealism, which opposes the thing in itself and the thing within us.

Science having phenomena for its object was to be expressed though mathematical laws for Kant. The only valid science he held was that which was experimental. This is because he affirms that the phenomenon, after the elaborations which it undergoes, retains only a validity which is mainly subjective as the nature which science describes is not a true data reflected, but merely an ensemble of forms which properly pertains to our understanding and which clothes the vague sort of reality of a thing in itself, unknown but made evident at the source of sensation. Sadly enough he thought this was his great revolutionary break through as by means of it he claimed to maintain the necessity, universality and truth of science.

Kant asserts that our reason is autonomous and imposes its laws on reality, but only with the qualification that these laws also dominate the individual.

Nevertheless Kant did not deny the existence of things in themselves, of the raw facts. He simply insisted that they could not be known. However this thing in itself he held to be object to metaphysics (Vs other sciences). His problem was; "does it exist and in what measure do our true judgments permit us to know it?

He answers it by saying that one must first assert the real existence of a thing in itself. He then distinguishes in the human intelligence two faculties. The first is understanding which scientifically explains the phenomena by means of concepts. The other is the reason, which thinks about the hypothetical substance (noumenon) by means of ideas. But since we cannot know it (the substance) any pretension of philosophers to explain substances is but a (natural - as it flows from the laws of our intelligence) "transcendental illusion" for those who do not forearm themselves with the critique. 

In the field of theology we may say that Kant merely wrote religion off as some sort of doctrineless affair equated with morality. Kant rejected the Metaphysical proofs for God's existence and asserted instead that He cannot be an object of knowledge, nor can He be arrived at by pure reason and yet he insists that human nature demands that he live as though he could. This was to serve as Kant's answer for duty and moral obligation, which were to be governed by reason (which he call the Good will and source of every virtuous act) and kept merely for the sake of it ("live as though God existed"!).

Application & Consequences for Truth

From such an erroneous philosophical system one can only draw conclusions that bring about the death of true knowledge for how can we be certain of our knowledge if they are not in conformity with concrete reality.

Kant's system of thought has simply bequeathed to philosophy the legacy of subjectivism for he denied the possibility of our knowing reality in the raw. He held that the phenomenal world which we come to know is in some measure the world of our own making; the objects we know are objects in space and time, and both space and time are subjective elements.

This element of subjectivism (to which farmers or any worker for that matter, have never quite conformed to) has vitiated the world of knowledge destroying the old demarcation between the subject and the object ever since Kant's critique.

This subjectivism inevitable saw it's way into the field of morality and brought about a great development in individualism in which each man is a self legislative creature. This would however lead to greater emphasis upon the will rather than the intellect as through the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth the will tends more and more to replace the intellect and will become with some philosophers the measure of truth or with others the ultimate measure.

Legacy of Kant

After Kant comes intellectual agnosticism and moral subjectivism. Secular philosophy truly divides itself into pre-Kantian and post-Kantian.

Kant ideas, were later to embraced by a greater part of protestant philosophers and preachers. As professor Thomas Neill points out, the whole movement of protestant philosophy and of religion throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has taken its direction from Kant, and his influence has therefore steeped down from the universities and pulpits of Europe and America to the multitudes.

Kant's notion of duty for duties sake, succeeded in bringing about the terrible formalism that has ever since plagued the western world. It was productive of a negative morality that has made goodness synonymous with sternness, hardness, sobriety, pleasure to be synonymous with sin and virtue synonymous with sorrow and gloom. This finally reduces religion to a formalistic & empty morality in which Kant lived so many years in blind belief of .

Further his phenomenal system, had to rule out a God for in such a system there was no reason for such things as creation in time, providence, miracles, prophecy or the intrusion by God in any way into the phenomenal world. Following Kant it becomes possible to have a religion without a creed or worship. As a result of such false notions, religion for the vast majority has come to consist in believing and doing, as one feels best.

Kants philosophy was later to be taken up by a number of well known erroneous philosophers who were to develop t into a system of their own. In Germany he found some bold disciples, unafraid of pushing the logic of his thought further than he did (i.e. Hegel & Fichte).

Hegel for example made reality simply a product of the mind with the "idea" of Kant being the ultimate reality, yet many philosophers claim that Hegel is only Kant being consistent with himself.

Thus these are the fruits of Kantian philosophy - Idealistic pantheism.


Firstly in order to find the ultimate criterion of truth, I must analyze why it is that I assent to certain propositions and not others. Yet any analysis clearly shows that the reason why I assent to a given proposition is because the nature of its terms force my mind to affirm the bond of equality which joins the two (i.e. 2+2=4). In short we give assent because of the objective evidence that is presented to the mind.  Hence our common experience contradicts Kant's theory that the subject and predicate are joined purely by the mechanism of the mind (a priori). On the contrary, consciousness reveals that one does not make judgments until after the nature of the terms have been consciously examined.

The same may be said regarding Kant's idealism which puts forward an opposition between the thing in itself and the thing known. Kant's notion of science gives rise to positivism as its object is restrained to the sensible experience and idealism since the great part of it is conceived "a priori" by the thinking subject.

Kant's conclusion on the subject of metaphysics is agnostic - Man can never attain scientific knowledge of substances. His distinction between the thing and the thing in itself renders the production of a true and scientific judgment impossible since it doesn't conform to the nature (substance) of the thing.

In reality with Kantian philosophy we could never really be certain of anything and so how could we be so daring as to affirm something if we can be sure of it even, if we admit phenomena can we really be certain of it, and if so just how certain?

Further if a philosophical system were ultimately based on subjective instincts instead of objective evidence (of things in reality) it would be fundamentally irrational, and consequently untenable. For this reason Kantian phenomenalism will not do as a fundamental and universal theory of Knowledge.