Monday, May 2, 2011

The Kantian Synthesis

Like many of the modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant became disillusioned with the philosophers before him. During his early years he was very sympathetic to the Leibnizian school. Eventually he was exposed to the writings of David Hume, and this helped him to see the weaknesses of rationalism and the importance of the empirical approach to philosophy. Rather than accepting the skeptical conclusions of Hume, Kant sought to save science and philosophy. He did not want to see the entire modern philosophical and scientific projects demolished.

Kant admired the certainty found in mathematics, but he also admired the scientific advances in physics (championed by Sir Isaac Newton). He realized that if he sided with the rationalists, he would have to minimize the importance of the physical sciences and hence the importance of the advancements made by recent scientists. If, on the other hand, he sided with the empiricists, he would have to give up certainty along with God and morality. Rather than siding with one school or the other, Kant created his own Copernican revolution in philosophy.
Problems with the Rationalist

Immanuel Kant’s early philosophical career was dominated by a desire to search out the foundations of metaphysics. He participated in discussions and debates between the Cartesian school and the Leibnizian school concerning the motion of bodies. His contributions to the debate involved a defense of the existence of monads and an exposition on the fundamental laws by which they are governed. However, in seeking a firm foundation for metaphysics, and ultimately for science, he came to realize that the rationalists were not able to prove their own principles of demonstration. The very rules by which they built their elaborate metaphysical systems had been left without justification.

Kant’s main blow to rationalism is found in his criticism of one of their major assumptions, namely that the law of identity can be the basis for the law of causality. Leibniz and Spinoza maintained that all propositions were analytic; that is, they are known to be true by virtue of the predicate being somehow contained in the subject.

Kant argued that the principle of causality could not be reduced to the principle of identity. In essence he was making a distinction that the rationalists had not made. He claimed that the rational is not identical with the real and the real is not identical with the rational.

A major implication of this distinction is that one could not simply deduce all truths about the world from pure reason alone. Even if one were to set forth axioms and carefully use the deductive method to work from those axioms, one is not assured that one’s philosophy will accurately accord with the world. His aim was to humble the dogmatic rationalist by helping him realize the limits of reason. Reason could not produce knowledge apart from the senses. Kant wanted to show the rationalists the necessity of empirical observation.

Problems with the Empiricist

Kant accepted the empiricist notion that we should not entertain ideas that transcend the bounds of human experience. It was from this empiricist principle that he mounted his attacks against rationalism. However, Kant was not satisfied with empiricism either. If dogmatism was the problem that plagued the rationalist, skepticism was the problem that plagued the empiricist. The rationalist thought that reason could solve all philosophical problems.

The empiricists, on the other hand, would eventually fall into skepticism because they had little or no confidence in reason’s ability to yield certain and necessary truths. Kant did not accept the skepticism of David Hume which reduced reason to psychology. He maintained a strong conviction that reason could produce some knowledge. However, nothing in the epistemology of the empiricists allowed for certain and necessary knowledge. The mind simply did not have the faculties for turning the raw data of experience into reliable knowledge. For the empiricist, knowledge was constructed by the mind out of mental atoms or impressions. There were no compelling reasons for thinking that we reliably ordered our impressions into true concepts and judgments. Kant therefore saw empiricism as a failure in that it could not establish the rules for thinking, nor could it provide a basis for certain knowledge.

The Kantian Synthesis

Kant wanted to maintain both the integrity of reason and the validity of empirical observation. However, to do this he would need a new method and a new conception of knowledge. The rationalist relied on deductions, but those deductions naïvely carried empirical content with them. The empiricists relied on the inductive method, but they could never have certainty of general conclusions. This was unacceptable to Kant because he was searching for a solid foundation upon which science could flourish.

The genius of Immanuel Kant was in how he solved this dilemma. He thought that the problem with both the rationalist project and the empiricist project was that they both thought that they could have knowledge of the objective world as it is in itself. Both schools of thought naïvely assumed that the object of their knowledge was the world. Accordingly, he faulted both for not understanding the proper object of knowledge and for not adequately accounting for the mind’s role in knowing.

To correct this problem, he claimed that the proper object of knowledge is the phenomena. The phenomena are the result of the mind’s putting together all the elements of knowing. He maintained that both the mind (pure understanding) and the world (sensation) contribute to the construction of the realm of the phenomena. His task was to elucidate the place of both of these faculties in the formation of concepts and judgments. However, in the process of elucidation, Kant placed reason (pure understanding) in one box and sensation in another box.

This dichotomy was latent in his philosophy before he even began his work because it was latent in the modern philosophers before him. Modern empiricist philosophers viewed sensation as disjointed episodes of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Since sensations arrive to us in a disorganized fashion, Kant reasoned that there must be something other than sensation that orders sensations. The faculty responsible for producing order from chaos is the pure understanding. In Kant’s philosophy, sensation and understanding are two radically different faculties that come together to produce the proper object of knowledge: namely the phenomena. Ironically, in order to unify the object of knowledge, Kant dichotomized the human faculties that produce knowledge.

Kant became an agnostic as soon as he located the object of knowledge within the mind. Rather than trying to prove that he could know the outside world, he simply redefined knowledge in order to make “knowing” possible again. Kant’s form of agnosticism is not the overly skeptical form held by the modern nihilist. He does not claim that one cannot know anything. Instead, he takes away one’s knowledge of the world and replaces it with “knowledge” of the phenomena. Perhaps it is appropriate to call this kind of agnosticism an optimistic kind of agnosticism because it seeks to replace what it has taken away.

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