Kantian Metaphysics DemystifiedPosted: October 21, 2011 | Author: Greg Linster | Filed under: Metaphysics | 1 Comment »
During the latter part of the Enlightenment there was a metaphorical battle that was being waged between empiricism and rationalism. The rationalists believed that we could discover knowledge via analytic (or a priori) truths. Empiricists, on the other hand, were skeptical of relying too heavily on the powers of human reason and believed that knowledge was only available a posteriori (or empirically through experience).
Immanuel Kant believed that both of these movements were both intrinsically flawed and, yet, he also believed that both had some validity. In this way, he was a rarity because he agreed with the empiricists that all knowledge begins with experience, but he didn’t agree that empiricism must be the only source of all knowledge. In rogue fashion at the time, his goal was thus to analyze the limits and scope of pure reason.
Kant realized that examining human reason is inherently problematic, namely because when humans try to examine metaphysical or even epistemological issues we can never do so outside the bounds of our own reasoning ability. In other words, the very faculties that would be required to understand the human ability to reason are simply inaccessible to humans because we have no apparatus in which to examine it outside of the thing itself. Kant, however, believed he understood the key to transforming human understanding of metaphysics by examining the “inventory of all our possessions acquired through pure reason, systematically arranged.” (Critique of Pure Reason, Axix, xx,xxi).
First and foremost, in order to understand the historically nebulous term, “metaphysics”, Kant thought it was imperative to understand the necessary conditions required for the possibility of experience. This, however, was no simple task.
Kant explains the problem by writing the following: “Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori… on this presupposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition…” (Critique of Pure Reason, Bxvi-xviii) In other words, Kant is trying to express that humans can have cognitions of objects, but not of things-in-themselves. Humans have limitations due to their reasoning faculties which allow them to have perceptions of objects that may exist in reality, but no access to how that reality exists in itself. Kant, later in this same passage, continues by writing:
If intuition has to conform to the constitution of the objects, then I do not see how we can know anything of them a priori… Yet because I cannot stop with these intuitions, if they are to become cognitions, but must refer them as representations to something as their object and determine this object through them, I can assume either that the concepts through which I bring about this determination also conform to the objects, and then I am once again in the same difficulty about how I could know anything about them a priori… since experience itself is a kind of cognition requiring the understanding, whose rule I have to presuppose in myself before any object is given to me, hence a priori, which rule is expressed in concepts a priori, to which all objects of experience must therefore necessarily conform, and with which they must agree.
In an attempt to simplify Kant’s methodology, then, one must understand a distinction between two types of knowledge: a priori and a posteriori. A priori knowledge is a type of knowledge that is true by definition, e.g., all boys are male. On the other hand, a posteriori knowledge is an empirically contingent truth, e.g., some males are taller than females.
The second distinction that is important to note is that between analytic and synthetic judgements. On the surface, analytic judgements seem to equate to a priori judgements and synthetic judgments seem to equate to a posteriori judgements, but this is not a precisely accurate way to define the terms. While all analytic judgements are a priori, synthetic judgments may be either a priori or a posteriori, according to Kant. In other words, a priori truths may be either analytic or synthetic. This is a key and fundamental Kantian distinction.
In order to understand how synthetic a priori knowledge is possible we must first examine the nature of space and time. Space, according to Kant, is a necessary and an a priori representation which provides the foundation for all external intuitions. “Space is nothing but the form of all appearances of outer sense; i.e., it is the subjective condition of sensibility, under which alone outer intuition is possible for us.” (Critique of Pure Reason, B42/A25) Additionally, “space does not represent a property of things as they are in themselves.” (Critique of Pure Reason, B42/A26)
Furthermore, time is also given to us as a necessary and an a priori representation. Kant writes, “time is a necessary representation that underlies all intuitions.” (Critique of Pure Reason/B46,47/A31,32) Time, however, also does not belong to things as they are in themselves.
According to Kant, “Time and space are, therefore, two sources of knowledge from which a variety of synthetic knowledge can be drawn a priori.” (Critique of Pure Reason, pg. 73) In other words, space and time are thus pure (a priori) intuitions, and are the subjective conditions that are necessary to establish a foundation for all other intuitions. Since we have these a priori intuitions that are necessary to experience the world, Kant argues that synthetic a priori truths are thus indeed possible. A classic example of a synthetic a priori truth is the mathematical statement 7+5=12.
In the Critique of Pure Reason, then, Kant’s main goal is to humbly prove that synthetic a priori truths exist. As such, he attempts to redefine how metaphysics should be understood and he claimed that there are metaphysical problems that are simply unanswerable because humans can never transcend the powers of their own reason. Kantian metaphysics explores if, and to what extent, humans can rely on a priori truths as a source of knowledge about the world.
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