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Quotes From the Masters: Immanuel Kant

May 26, 2013

critique of pure reason

THAT all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt. For how is it possible that the faculty of cognition should be awakened into exercise otherwise than by means of objects which affect our senses…,

But, though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience. For, on the contrary, it is quite possible that our empirical knowledge is a compound of that which we receive through impressions, and that which the faculty of cognition supplies from itself (sensuous impressions giving merely the occasion), an addition which we cannot distinguish from the original element given by sense, till long practice has made us attentive to, and skilful in separating it.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique Of Pure Reason (Kindle Locations 907-910).

In taking a quote from Kant the easy option would be to opt for his statements on what the enlightenment is, or on his moral notion of treating all human beings as ends in themselves, or one of his other formulations of the categorical imperative. But these are quite cliché comments, and do not really get to the depth of Kant’s insight and influence on philosophy.

The quote I have offered here is a bit more complex, a bit more typical of Kant in weaving its way towards what he wants to say via many terms and qualifications. But it does provide access, I believe, to the fundamental insight of the Kantian philosophy. An absolutely valuable insight that has given philosophers down to this day a rich field of inquiry to explore.

The insight is how our own mental apparatus influences the formation of our experience of the world. It had been thought, or assumed, that the world as presented to our senses was pretty much reliable. There may be issues of illusions and errors and limitations. But no one had thought to suggest that our experience may be systematically regulated by our own subjective constitution and mental apparatus. This was the Kantian claim, as illustrated by this quote taken from the beginning of the Critique of Pure Reason.

Concepts such as Space and Time, Causality, Kant argued, are necessary to us, not because of a necessity inherent in the world. For the empirical world can only give us inductive habitual patterns. But because these concepts inhere in our very mental constitution, and underlie all our experiences of the world. What this means is that any experience we have takes for granted these notions, like a framework for our experience, that gives our experience an order and makes it comprehensible to us.

For what is an experience? A relation between phenomena that we observe. But can we imagine an experience that did not relate phenomena spatially and temporally. Can we experience the world without making judgments about one thing causing another? This latter may be more contentious. But the former seems intuitively obvious that we cannot imagine an experience without it being in some sort of spatial and temporal framework. And from here we can begin to analyze and consider other notions that may underlie the possibility for us to experience the world. This way we have a whole new perspective from which to understand metaphysics and epistemology. A new philosophical approach with a rich field of study for consideration through reflection, imagination and discussion.

I don’t think it is possible to over-estimate the historical importance of this event in philosophy. It is a ground-breaking insight. To this day it is something we must account for.

The criticism often comes regarding the transcendental aspect of Kant’s philosophy. This was inherited by Edmund Husserl, who had a similar interest in the transcendental approach. The reason for this was that they wanted philosophy to have an independent, autonomous domain for discussion. They did not want it to get caught up in issues of contextual relativity, undermining the universality of their claims.

Later thinkers have embraced the contextualisation of our knowledge. Notably Maurice Merleau-Ponty with his notion of the embodied subject. But also many others including existentialist thinkers such as Sartre and Heidegger, and Nietzsche, who was probably the first one to embrace this view.

Can we retain an autonomy for philosophy if we accept there is no transcendent to appeal to. Can we retain a notion of reason as empowering independent of historical contingencies? These are big questions for our time, and it is all the result of the direction western philosophy has taken since the time of Immanuel Kant.

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