What is Wrong with Kant's Philosophy?

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), German philosopher.

By Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

Background essay

The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant


David Hume (1711-1776), native of Edinburgh and a product of its university, denied the existence of all substantial reality, material or spiritual. In his Treatise on Human Nature he declares that man’s mind is only a collection of perceptions. These perceptions are either impressions or ideas. Impressions are sensations of pleasure, pain, awareness of qualities and relations. Ideas are but the faintly remembered images of impressions formerly experienced. This vague philosophy has a very modern sound: a collection of impressions collected nowhere; contents of a mind which is not a container. Here we have the smug unintelligibility of the modern neo-realist’s definition of mind as “a cross-section of the environment.” Hume holds that the only thing that can be said, with full certainty, to exist is our perceptions (impressions and ideas). In and among these perceptions there is no causal connection; indeed, there is no knowable causality anywhere. If things outside us really do exist, there is no proof of their existence available to us.

Kant Comes Out of His “Dogmatic Slumber”

Over in Germany, in his native city of Koenigsberg, a professor named Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) read Hume’s argument with dismay, and finally tossed them aside as “dogmatic dreams.” Hume takes away all grounds of certitude; the best a man might have of him is a thin probability, and this, as Kant noticed, is not usable knowledge at all. What a man needs, said Kant, and what he can have is truly scientific knowledge, that is, knowledge that is universally and necessarily true and reliable.

The experiences of the senses is individual, and, no matter how consistently and for how long a time the senses find a fact solid, there is always the possibility that the next experience will show it to vary. So far Kant agrees with Hume: sense-experience cannot give the mind more than probability. But, said Kant, there is another element in knowledge, an a priori and subjective element which is anterior to sense-experience and in no wise dependent on it. This is the element which enables us to have true and certain knowledge and to add item to item with complete security in building up the edifice of science.

We pause here to settle the meaning of important terms. Knowledge that we obtain through experience is a posteriori knowledge, that is, it comes after experience and is dependent upon it. Now, it is the Aristotelian, Thomistic, Scholastic, and Contextual Realist doctrine that all human knowledge is of this type; no knowledge is born in us; no item of knowledge exists in man except such as has been acquired.

Kant, however, insisted on the existence of certain “forms” or items of knowledge (space and time, certain regulative judgments, and certain master-ideas) as inborn and a priori. Of course, there is a legitimate use of the terms a priori and a posteriori (literally “from beforehand” and “from afterwards”) in describing types of argument. But there is no legitimate use of a priori as a term descriptive of knowledge itself. Kant uses the term so, and he follows the despised Hume so far as to make the knowledge described by this term a very part of the mind of man, an element of its being and not merely an element of its equipment.

To answer the basic question, “What can I know with scientific certitude?” Kant wrote his book The Critique of Pure Reason. In this work, Kant assigns to man a threefold knowing-power: sensibility, intellect, reason. Knowable things, on the other hand, are of two classes: appearances of things or phenomena, and essences of things or noumena. Man, by sensibility (that is, by his senses) takes in the phenomena of the world about him. Somehow, we know not how, the phenomena set his sense-power to work; we dare not say that the senses perceive even the phenomena as these exist in nature; we may only say that somehow phenomena stir the senses to act.

Now the formal constituent, the essential element, of the sensing-power or sensibility (that is, its character or “shape”) is the twofold determination of space-and-time. Man has sense-experiences “here” and “now,” and he recalls them as “there” and “then.” But this conditioning of phenomena by space and time is man’s own contribution to the knowledge-act. Space and time in no wise represent things, nor are they things; they are the inborn a priori element of the sensing-power. Just as a curiously shaped bottle will take in liquid or powder and conform the mass of the substance taken in to its own shape, so the sensing-power, which has the shape of space-and-time, takes in the action of phenomena on the senses and shapes these phenomena accordingly. The result (that is, phenomena-conditioned-by-space-and-time) is called empirical intuition.

Now, just as phenomena stir the sensibility to act, so the finished products of sensation (that is, empirical intuitions) stir the next knowing power, the intellect, to act. The intellect takes in the empirical intuitions and conforms them to its shape, its own inborn a priori forms. These forms are four sets of triple judgments, called the twelve categories. These are like grooves or molds into which the molten metal of empirical intuitions is poured, and the resultant piece of knowledge is, in each case, a judgment.

The four master categories (each of which has three branches) are: quantity, quality, relation, and modality. Thus the judgment “A comes from B as effect from cause” is not the objective knowing by the mind of a state of fact; it is merely the result of the action of intellect turning the sense-findings (or empirical intuitions) of A and B through the groove (or category) of relation, and through that branch of relation called cause-effect.

Once more, just as the finished products of sensibility (that is, empirical intuitions) stir the intellect to the act of judging, so the judgments of the intellect stir the reason to its action. The innate a priori shape of reason is determined by three master-ideas: the idea of the self, the idea of the no-self, the idea of the super-self. In other words, the three regulative ideas of reason are the ideas of self, the world, and God. The judgments of intellect are poured through the threefold mold of reason, and the result is reasoned knowledge.

Now, the essential thing about knowledge, when we attempt to fix its value on the score of truth and certitude, centers in judgments. After all, reason merely handles judgments and learns from them. Upon judgments we must fix our attention. There are two types of judgment, a priori and a posteriori. Looked at in another way, there are two other types: synthetic and analytic. We already know the meaning of a priori and a posteriori, and indeed, according to Kant, all judgments are a priori. We must look at the other terms.

A judgment is rightly called synthetic when it is “put together,” for that is precisely what the word synthetic means. If I make the judgment, “John is sick,” I have a synthetic judgment; the predicate does not necessarily belong to the subject, but I put it with the subject because I have learned from John or from his doctor that it happens to belong there. But if I make the judgment, “A circle is round,” I have an analytic judgment; for by analyzing the subject, by studying it and knowing just what it is, I learn that the predicate used belongs there, since a circle to be a circle must be round.

Kant held that the only judgment which can give absolute certitude must be a priori, since, indeed, he admits no other type. But, he maintains, an a priori judgment that is analytic marks no advance in knowledge. To build up science, there must be growth, development, advancement. Hence there must be synthetic judgments which are also a prior.

The synthetic a priori judgment may be called the heart of Kant’s philosophy. And we may say now in passing that the synthetic a priori judgment is a contradiction in terms and in thought; it is an impossibility.

The examples offered by Kant are either (in our terminology) a posteriori judgments, or they are analytic judgments. For instance, Kant says that the judgment “five plus seven equals twelve” is a synthetic a priori judgment. It is nothing of the kind. It is a simple analytic judgment. Replace the words or the figures for five and seven and twelve by an equivalent number of dots or strokes; you will have exactly the same thing on either side of the equals-mark. The judgment is as plainly analytic as “A is A.”

Let us cast back a moment, and make a summing up of the Kantian theory of human knowing:

  • Phenomena of bodily things somehow stir man’s sensibility to action, and sense takes in phenomena in its own way, shaping and conditioning them by its innate forms of space-and-time, thus producing empirical intuitions.
  • The empirical intuitions somehow stir man’s intellect to take them in and run them through its forms or categories, thus producing judgments, the truly certain and valuable judgment always being synthetic a priori.
  • Finally, the judgments of intellect somehow stir the reason to take them in and view them in the light of its regulative ideas of self, the world, and God.

Notice that the sole point of connection of man’s knowledge with reality outside the mind is the vague influence of phenomena on the sensing-power. From that point on, the whole process of knowing, and its products, are man’s own. Here is idealism, here is subjectivism with a vengeance. And Kant plainly asserts that the noumena or essences of things cannot be known by man. The phenomenon is not strictly knowable, but it moves the sense to act; the noumenon is not knowable at all. The noumenon (Das Ding an sich) lies outside the reach of mortal man.

So Kant is as subjectivistic as Hume ever dared be. And yet this is the man who threw Hume’s book aside with the sneer, “Dogmatic dreams!” What singular smugness could have made Kant suppose that he was dealing with the problem of knowledge critically and not dogmatically? Yet he calls his system “transcendental criticism.”

Metaphysics Becomes Impossible

Since we cannot know noumena, the science of metaphysics, the very heart of philosophy as the Greeks and Scholastics and other followers of the Perennial Philosophy understand it, becomes illusory and impossible.

Is it not strange that a man of Kant’s undoubted intellectual gifts did not notice here an absurd contradiction? Why, he has just finished explaining to us, in great detail, the whole nature of the human mind; and now he concludes that we cannot know the nature of anything!

And his reasoning about the character of the mind, and about the nature of phenomena and noumena, is actually interwoven with terms and thoughts metaphysical; yet he says that metaphysics is illusory and impossible!

So much for Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It will be noticed that the doctrine contained in this work opens the way to complete skepticism, and therewith it opens the way to a denial of moral obligation and of purpose in human existence. For if nothing can be known with certitude, as skepticism maintains, then there are no certainties in the realm of morals, religion, or social duties; then there is no certainty that man is made for a purpose at all, or even that man exists.

Whether Kant noticed this fact, and, as a Lutheran, deplored it, or whether (as has been said) his Emperor summoned him and demanded that he furnish a philosophical basis for morals and religion, cannot be said. But Kant wrote a second book, The Critique of Practical Reason, to supply the defect mentioned.

The Critique of Practical Reason

Kant said that pure reason is not enough for man; he must live by practical reason as well. In his first book, Kant sought the answer to the question, “What can man know with certitude?” The answer was, “He can have true certitude by his synthetic a priori judgments.” But this is mere statement. The real answer to which Kant’s work inclines the thinking mind is, “Man can know nothing with certitude.”

Kant’s second book, The Critique of Practical Reason, answered the question, “Are there certitudes, outside the reach of pure reason, that I must recognize and act upon?” Kant answers with an emphatic, There are.” These truths are known with certitude by practical reason. First, a man is aware of duty. He knows with clear certitude that murder and stealing are wrong, and that he has the indispensable duty of avoiding such things. He knows that there are certain loyalties which indicate things that he is in duty bound to observe and do. By his practical reason, man is aware of the inner command, “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.” This command is categorical, that is, it is unconditional; it is not, “Do this, if you please,” “Avoid that when convenient”; it is a matter of simple “Do” and “Avoid.” Kant calls this inner voice The Categorical Imperative.

A Christian would call it conscience, and would explain that it is the voice of reason (the same reason with which we work out a theorem in geometry) pronouncing on the agreement or disagreement of a situation (here and now to be decided) with the norm or law of morality. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is like conscience in its clear decision and unequivocal command; it is entirely unlike conscience in its blindly unreasoning assumption of authority.

First, then, man’s awareness of duty is a certitude; it is a certitude because of The Categorical Imperative. Now, this Categorical Imperative is a law. But a law must come from a lawmaker. Neither I myself have set up my Categorical Imperative (for it often orders me to do what I should like to avoid, and to shun what I would willingly do) nor has it come from any earthly king, court, or senate, for it speaks with an authority that is absolute and not one supported by temporal sanctions of fine or imprisonment. It is a supreme law; it is an absolute law. It must come then from the Supreme and Absolute Being. That is, it must come from God. Therefore, God exists.

Further, the Categorical Imperative makes a man aware, not only of duty, but of the fact that he must freely embrace the performance of duty. He is aware that he can disregard, although he cannot be ignorant of, this law of conduct. In a word, he is aware, and with true certitude, that he is a free and responsible being.

Again, man, a free and responsible being, is aware that by freely acting in accordance with the commands of the Categorical Imperative he perfects himself. And he is aware that this self-perfecting may go on through the longest life without reaching the limits of its capability. Therefore, he concludes, he can go on becoming more and more perfect forever. In other words, man is aware of endless existence before him; he knows he has an immortal soul. Thus out of the cunning device of The Categorical Imperative Kant draws the doctrines that satisfy his Lutheranism (or his Emperor), although his basic philosophy of “transcendental criticism” knows nothing of these doctrines. He sets forth, in orthodox fashion, the practical truths of the existence of God, the fact of moral duty, the immortality of the soul, the freedom of the human will.

Note: Kant wrote a third book, The Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, in which he brings out the attractiveness of moral goodness in a manner more striking than that of The Critique of Practical Reason.

Despite errors, absurdities, and contradictions, Kant’s philosophy — notably that of The Critique of Pure Reason — has exercised a tremendous influence upon human thinking for almost two centuries.

It exhibits the roots of those weaknesses we have come to regard as characteristic of what is loosely called “the German philosophy.”

  • It refuses to face reality (witness the wholly subjectivistic character of knowledge);
  • It unduly stresses the ego (witness the inner and autonomous character of knowledge and morality);
  • It proclaims the perfectibility of the will, upon which the followers of Kant were soon to harp most strongly — and from Nietzsche to Hitler we are to hear of “the will to power,” the will which makes “the superman” and “the master race.”

A Final Word on Kant

In offering and defending his low estimate of pure reason as incapable of achieving certitude (apart from the mysterious judgments which are synthetic a priori) Kant appeals to his so-called “antinomies” or “contradictions.” He holds that when pure reason tries to apply the categories in the abstract realm of logical inference (whereas its business is to pour findings through fixed molds) it gets beyond itself and comes a cropper. It finds that it can prove, with equal facility, things directly opposed. Thus, he says, it can prove that space is finite, and also infinite; it can prove matter divisible and indivisible; it can prove human freedom existent and nonexistent; it can prove that God is necessary and also non-necessary.

In all this, and in the examples offered in proof of it, Kant is entirely gratuitous and sophistical. Besides, he stands self-condemned in using logical reasoning to establish the fact that logical reasoning is useless.

We merely mention the “antinomies” because we discern in them an element of materialism in the heart of an idealistic theory. This materialism was to appear in full form in later philosophies which took inspiration, at least in part, from the doctrines of Immanuel Kant.

Kant’s philosophy is fundamentally wrong and is one of the major contributors to the intellectual insanity which we see today.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.