Immanuel Kant, 1724 - 1804

Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, was born at Königsberg, Prussia, on April 22, 1724, and died there on February 12, 1804.  He was the first philosopher to reconcile the conflicting empirical and rationalistic elements of the prevailing dogmatic philosophy.  His most famous and enduring work is the monumental Critique of Pure Reason (1781).
The New England Transcendentalists were influenced less through Kant's technical contributions to epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics than through the force of some of his general ideas.  With varying degrees of creative misunderstanding, but with uncanny success, the Transcendentalists made him a factor in their efforts at philosophical self-definition and invoked his authority in support of their brand of anti-Lockeanism.  Frederic Henry Hedge and Theodore Parker, nevertheless, did read his philosophical works carefully in the original.
Kant has been written about as follows by Octavius Brooks Frothingham, the first historian of American Transcendentalism.
The Transcendental Philosophy, so-called, had a distinct origin in Immanuel Kant, whose "Critique of Pure Reason" was published in 1781, and opened a new epoch in metaphysical thought. . . .  Thus far in the history of philosophy the human mind had not been fairly considered.  Thinkers had concerned themselves with the objects of knowledge, not with the mind that knows. . . .  Kant undertook to transfer contemplation from the objects that engaged the mind to the mind itself, and thus start philosophy on a new career.  He meditated a fresh departure, and proposed to effect in metaphysics a revolution parallel with that which Copernicus effected in astronomy. . . .  Kant . . . built great expectations on his method. . . .  He anticipated from it the overthrow of hypotheses which, having no legitimate title to authority, erected themselves to the dignity of dogmas, and assumed supreme rank in the realm of speculation.  That it would be the destruction of famous demonstrations, and would reduce renowned arguments to naught, might be foreseen; but in the place of pretended demonstrations, he was confident that solid ones would be established, and arguments that were merely specious would give room to arguments that were profound.  Schools might be broken up, but the interests of the human race would be secured.  At first it might appear as if cardinal beliefs of mankind must be menaced with extinction as the ancient supports one after another fell; but as soon as the new foundations were disclosed it was anticipated that faith would revive, and the great convictions would stand more securely than ever.  Whatever of truth the older systems had contained would receive fresh and trustworthy authentication; the false would be expelled; and a method laid down by which new discoveries in the intellectual sphere might be confidently predicted.
In this spirit the author of the transcendental philosophy began, continued, and finished his work.
The word "transcendental" was not new in philosophy.  The Schoolmen had used it to describe whatever could not be comprehended in or classified under the so-called categories of Aristotle, who was the recognized prince of the intellectual world. . . .
The word "transcendental" has become domesticated in science.  Transcendental anatomy inquires into the idea, the original conception or model on which the organic frame of animals is built, the unity of plan discernible throughout multitudinous genera and orders.  Transcendental curves are curves that cannot be defined by algebraic equations.  Transcendental equations express relations between transcendental qualities.  Transcendental physiology treats of the laws of development and function, which apply, not to particular kinds or classes of organisms, but to all organisms.  In the terminology of Kant the term "transcendent" was employed to designate qualities that lie outside of all "experience," that cannot be brought within the recognized formularies of thought, cannot be reached either by observation or reflection, or explained as the consequences of any discoverable antecedents.  The term "transcendental" designated the fundamental conceptions, the universal and necessary judgments, which transcend the sphere of experience, and at the same time impose the conditions that make experience tributary to knowledge.  The transcendental philosophy is the philosophy that is built on these necessary and universal principles, these primary laws of mind, which are the ground of absolute truth.  The supremacy given to these and the authority given to the truths that result from them entitle the philosophy to its name.  "I term all cognition transcendental which concerns itself not so much with objects, as with our mode of cognition of objects so far as this may be possible à priori.  A system of such conceptions would be called Transcendental Philosophy."
. . . The Critique of Pure Reason is precisely what the title imports--a searching analysis of the human mind; an attempt to get at the ultimate grounds of thought, to discover the à priori principles.  "Reason is the faculty which furnishes the principles of cognition à priori.  Therefore pure reason is that which contains the principles of knowing something, absolutely à priori.  An organon of pure reason would be a summary of these principles, according to which all pure cognition à priori can be obtained, and really accomplished.  The extended application of such an organon would furnish a system of pure reason."
The problem of modern philosophy may be thus stated: Have we or have we not ideas that are true of necessity, and absolutely?  Are there ideas that can fairly be pronounced independent in their origin of experience, and out of the reach of experience by their nature?  One party contended that all knowledge was derived from experience; that there was nothing in the intellect that had not previously been in the senses: the opposite party maintained that a portion, at least, of knowledge came from the mind itself; that the intellect contained powers of its own, and impressed its forms upon the phenomena of sense.  The extreme doctrine of the two schools was represented, on the one side by the materialists, on the other by the mystics.  Between these two extremes various degrees of compromise were offered.
The doctrine of innate ideas, ascribed to Descartes,--though he abandoned it as untenable in its crude form,--affirmed that certain cardinal ideas, such as causality, infinity, substance, eternity, were native to the mind, born in it as part of its organic constitution, wholly independent therefore of experience.  Locke claimed for the mind merely a power of reflection by which it was able to modify and alter the material given by the senses, thus exploding the doctrine of innate ideas.
Leibnitz, anxious to escape the danger into which Descartes fell, of making the outward world purely phenomenal, an expression of unalterable thought, and also to escape the consequences of Locke's position that all knowledge originates in the senses, suggested that the understanding itself was independent of experience, that though it did not contain ideas like a vessel, it was entitled to be called a power of forming ideas, which have, as in mathematics, a character of necessary truths.  These necessary laws of the understanding, which experience had no hand in creating, are, according to Leibnitz, the primordial conditions of human knowledge.
Hume, taking Locke at his word, that all knowledge came from experience, that the mind was a passive recipient of impressions, with no independent intellectual substratum, reasoned that mind was a fiction; and taking Berkeley at his word that the outward world had no material existence, and no apparent existence except to our perception, he reasoned that matter was a fiction.  Mind and matter both being fictions, there could be no certain knowledge; truth was unattainable; ideas were illusions.  The opposing schools of philosophers annihilated each other, and the result was scepticism.
Hume started Kant on his long and severe course of investigation, the result of which was, that neither of the antagonist parties could sustain itself: that Descartes was wrong in asserting that such abstract ideas as causality, infinity, substance, time, space, are independent of experience, since without experience they would not exist, and experience takes from them form only; that Locke was wrong in asserting that all ideas originated in experience, and were resolvable into it, since the ideas of causality, substance, infinity and others certainly did not so originate, and were not thus resolvable.  It is idle to dispute whether knowledge comes from one source or another--from without through sensation, or from within through intuition; the everlasting battle between idealism and realism, spiritualism and materialism, can never result in victory to either side.  Mind and universe, intelligence and experience, suppose each other; neither alone is operative to produce knowledge.  Knowledge is the product of their mutual co-operation.  Mind does not originate ideas, neither does sensation impart them.  Object and subject, sterile by themselves, become fruitful by conjunction.  There are not two sources of knowledge, but one only, and that one is produced by the union of the two apparent opposites.  Truth is the crystallization, so to speak, that results from the combined elements.
Let us follow the initial steps of Kant's analysis.  Mind and Universe--Subject and Object--Ego and Non-ego, stand opposite one another, front to front.  Mind is conscious only of its own operations: the subject alone considers.  The first fact noted is, that the subject is sensitive to impressions made by outward things, and is receptive of them.  Dwelling on this fact, we discover that while the impressions are many in number and of great variety, they all, whatever their character, fall within certain inflexible and unalterable conditions--those of space and time--which must, therefore, be regarded as pre-established forms of sensibility.  "Time is no empirical conception which can be deduced from experience.  Time is a necessary representation which lies at the foundation of all intuitions.  Time is given à priori.  In it alone is any reality of phenomena possible.  These disappear, but it cannot be annihilated."  So of space.  "Space is an intuition, met with in us à priori, antecedent to any perception of objects, a pure, not an empirical intuition."  These two forms of sensibility, inherent and invariable, to which all experiences are subject, are primeval facts of consciousness.  Kant's argument on the point whether or no space and time have an existence apart from the mind, is interesting, but need not detain us.
The materials furnished by sensibility are taken up by the understanding, which classifies, interprets, judges, compares, reduces to unity, eliminates, converts, and thus fashions sensations into conceptions, transmutes impressions into thoughts.  Here fresh processes of analysis are employed in classifying judgments, and determining their conditions.  All judgments, it is found, must conform to one of four invariable conditions.  I. Quantity, which may be subdivided into unity, plurality, and totality: the one, the many, the whole.  II. Quality, which is divisible as reality, negation, and limitation: something, nothing, and the more or less.  III. Relation, which also comprises three heads: substance and accident, cause and effect, reciprocity, or action and reaction.  IV. Modality, which embraces the possible and the impossible, the existent and the non-existent, the necessary and the contingent.  These categories, as they were called, after the terminology of Aristotle, were supposed to exhaust the forms of conception.
Having thus arrived at conceptions, thoughts, judgments, another faculty comes in to classify the conceptions, link the thoughts together, reduce the judgments to general laws, draw inferences, fix conclusions, proceed from the particular to the general, recede from the general to the particular, mount from the conditioned to the unconditioned, till it arrives at ultimate principles.  This faculty is reason,--the supreme faculty, above sensibility, above understanding.  Reason gives the final generalization, the idea of a universe comprehending the infinitude of details presented by the senses, and the worlds of knowledge shaped by the understanding; the idea of a personality embracing the infinite complexities of feeling, and gathering under one dominion the realms of consciousness; the idea of a supreme unity combining in itself both the other ideas; the absolute perfection, the infinite and eternal One, which men describe by the word God.
Here the thinker rested.  His search could be carried no further.  He had, as he believed, established the independent dominion of the mind, had mapped out its confines, had surveyed its surface; he had confronted the idealist with the reality of an external world; he had confronted the sceptic with laws of mind that were independent of experience; and, having done so much, he was satisfied, and refused to move an inch beyond the ground he occupied.  To those who applied to him for a system of positive doctrines, or for ground on which a system of positive doctrines could be erected, he declined to give aid.  The mind, he said, cannot go out of itself, cannot transgress its own limits.  It has no faculty by which it can perceive things as they are; no vision to behold objects corresponding to its ideas; no power to bridge over the gulf between its own consciousness and a world of realities existing apart from it.  Whether there be a spiritual universe answering to our conception, a Being justifying reason's idea of supreme unity, a soul that can exist in an eternal, supersensible world, are questions the philosopher declined to discuss.  The contents of his own mind were revealed to him, no more.  Kant laid the foundations, he built no structure.  He would not put one stone upon another; he declared it to be beyond the power of man to put one stone upon another.  The attempts which his earnest disciples--Fichte, for example--made to erect a temple on his foundation he repudiated.  As the existence of an external world, though a necessary postulate, could not be demonstrated, but only logically affirmed; so the existence of a spiritual world of substantial entities corresponding to our conceptions, though a necessary inference, could only be logically affirmed, not demonstrated.  Our idea of God is no proof that God exists.  That there is a God may be an irresistible persuasion, but it can be nothing more; it cannot be knowledge.  Of the facts of consciousness, the reality of the ideas in the mind, we may be certain; our belief in them is clear and solid; but from belief in them there is no bridge to them.
Kant asserted the veracity of consciousness, and demanded an absolute acknowledgment of that veracity.  The fidelity of the mind to itself was a first principle with him.  Having these ideas, of the soul, of God, of a moral law; being certain that they neither originated in experience, nor depended on experience for their validity, that they transcended experience altogether--man was committed to an unswerving and uncompromising loyalty to himself.  His prime duty consisted in deference to the integrity of his own mind.  The laws of his intellectual and moral nature were inviolable.  Whether there was or was not a God; whether there was or was not a substantial world of experience where the idea of rectitude could be realized, the dictate of duty justified, the soul's affirmation of good ratified by actual felicity,--rectitude was none the less incumbent on the rational mind; the law of duty was none the less imperative; the vision of good none the less glorious and inspiring.  Virtue had its principle in the constitution of the mind itself.  Every virtue had there its seat.  There was no sweetness of purity, no heroism of faith, that had not an abiding-place in this impregnable fortress.
Thus, while on the speculative side Kant came out a sceptic in regard to the dogmatic beliefs of mankind, on the practical side he remained the fast friend of intellectual truth and moral sanctity.  Practical ethics never had a more stanch supporter than Immanuel Kant.  If a man cannot pass beyond the confines of his own mind, he has, at all events, within his own mind a temple, a citadel, a home.
The "Critique of Pure Reason" made no impression on its first appearance.  But no sooner was its significance apprehended, than a storm of controversy betrayed the fact that even the friends of the new teacher were less content than he was to be shut up in their own minds.  The calm, passionless, imperturbable man smoked his pipe in the peace of meditation; eager thinkers, desirous of getting more out of the system than its author did, were impatient at his backwardness, and made the intellectual world ring with their calls to improve upon and complete his task.
The publication of Kant's great work did not put an end to the wars of philosophy.  On the contrary, they raged about it more furiously than ever.  As the two schools found in Locke fresh occasion for renewing their strife under the cover of that great name, so here again the latent elements of discord were discovered and speedily brought to the surface.  The sceptics seized on the sceptical bearings of the new analysis, and proceeded to build their castle from the materials it furnished; the idealists took advantage of the positions gained by the last champion, and pushed their lines forward in the direction of transcendental conquest. . . .