On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’​: Making Honours of Men’s Impossibilities — Part Six

‘My mind to me a kingdom is’

Sir Edward Dyer (1543–1607)

My mind to me a kingdom is:

Such perfect joy therein I find

That it excels all other bliss

That God or nature hath assigned.

Though much I want, that most would have,

Yet still my mind forbids to crave.

No princely port, nor wealthy store,

No force to win a victory,

No wily wit to salve a sore,

No shape to win a loving eye;

To none of these I yield as thrall!

For why? my mind despise them all.

I see that plenty surfeits oft,

And hasty climbers soonest fall;

I see that such as are aloft,

Mishap doth threaten most of all.

These get with toil, and keep with fear:

Such cares my mind can never bear.

I press to bear no haughty sway,

I wish no more than may suffice,

I do no more, than well I may;

Look, what I want, my mind supplies.

Lo, thus I triumph like a king,

My mind content with any thing.

I laugh not at another’s loss,

Nor grudge not at another’s gain.

No worldly waves my mind can toss,

I brook that is another’s bane;

I fear no foe, nor fawn on friend,

I loathe not life nor dread mine end.

My wealth is health and perfect ease;

And conscience clear my chief defence;

I never seek by bribes to please,

Nor by desert to give offence,

Thus do I live, thus will I die:

Would all did so as well as I!

‘If you think about it, the inside of your own mind is the only thing you can be sure of’, said Thomas Nagel, (1937 — ).

I wonder if Nagel ever gets tired of being wrong all the time? And yes I know he was trying to be funny (I think) but the statement is grounded upon the Representationalist (see previous article) presupposition that the mind is a container of a particular kind with an ‘inside’ and with ‘thoughts’ as ‘contents’. Nagel continues (this is from ‘What Does It All Mean’?): ‘Whatever you believe — whether it’s about the sun, moon, and stars, the house and neighborhood in which you live, history, science, other people, even the existence of your own body -is based on your experiences and thoughts, feelings and sense impressions. That’s all you have to go on directly, whether you see the book in your hands, or feel the floor under your feet, or remember that George Washington was the first president of the United States, or that water is H 2O. Everything else is farther away from you than your inner experiences and thoughts, and reaches you only through them’. There is hardly anything in that passage that is not grounded upon highly questionable pre-suppositions some of which may be evident to you now if you have been following this series, if I may be so bold as to suggest so. Introductory books on philosophy are worse than useless, it is like trying to find out what is going on in the world by watching CNN or BBC News, it is much better just to jump straight into the deep end.

Don’t be like Scholasticus:

‘But the investigation of cognition cannot take place in any other way than cognitively; in the case of this so-called tool, the ‘investigation’ of it means nothing but the cognition of it. But to want to have cognition before we have any is as absurd as the wise resolve of Scholasticus to learn to swim before he ventured into the water’.

- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), ‘The Encyclopaedia Logic’

‘… our subsequent freedom, insofar as it is not our current possibility but the foundation of possibilities that we are not yet, constitutes something like an opacity in full translucency, something akin to what Barrès called a ‘mystery in full light’. That explains why, necessarily, we have to wait for ourselves. Our life is only one long waiting … ‘ said Jean-Paul Sartre, (1905–1980), whose cheerfulness kept him going. The mind is not something incomprehensible but rather a mystery in broad daylight, a nice turn of phrase that Sartre takes from the title of a novel, ‘Le Mystère en Pleine Lumière’, by Maurice Barrès, (1862–1923), which I have not read, nor have I read Barrès’ ‘The Cult of the Self’, 1888, but I must get around to it, sounds like a book for our times, albeit not how he intended because I understand it to be glorifying a humanistic love of the self … and so I would never call myself a humanist, nor an existentialist, (Sartre thought existentialism was a humanism recall), certainly not, however, I digress …

To pick up where I left off, we must give some further consideration of thought-forms as ‘empty’ and ‘external’. Hegel challenged the assumption of natural consciousness (see previous article) that cognition is a means and sought to close the gap between the knowing subject and a reality that is wholly mind-independent. With that objective in mind he encourages us to dispense with, not the endeavour to use cognition to get at the reality of things, but the conception of cognition that obstructs our moving forward. This conception that impedes us is the conception of cognition as a means, and we need to look more closely at the features that Hegel associates with this account of cognition and the point at which natural consciousness goes awry. There is a problem with what natural consciousness takes ‘for granted’, it takes for granted that the ‘absolute’ is ‘on one side’ and ‘cognition’ ‘on the other’. Matter and form are understood by ‘ordinary’ or ‘phenomenal’ consciousness to occupy ‘different spheres’. Ordinary consciousness assumes, on the one hand, that the content of thought is ‘outside’ thought. It judges that objects are complete on their own, they are supposed to occupy a ‘sheer beyond of thought’.

Thought, on the other hand, is assumed to be on the ‘other side’ of content. For ordinary consciousness thinking in its relation to content does not become ‘the other of’ or ‘go outside’ itself. Ordinary consciousness assumes that the forms we contribute in our endeavours to know are ‘empty’ as well as ‘external’ to every matter or content. And what of the emptiness of thought-forms? Hegel identified two senses in which thought-forms may be characterized as empty, first, their emptiness may be taken to derive from the fact that they are not themselves considered capable of generating sensible content, they fulfill their function as forms of knowing, or serve as elements of ‘actual cognition’ only when applied to a sense content that is independently given, their emptiness in this respect is a consequence of the discursive or dependent nature of our mode of cognition. Hegel concurs with Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), that our knowledge of nature requires not just the exercise of our cognitive powers but in addition the application of thought-forms to an independently given sense content, an aspect of the discursivity thesis that is evident enough.

Our thought-forms or concepts may well be empty in this sense but there is a further point brought out in Hegel’s critique of Kant and of the conception of cognition as a means, that is to say, the thought-forms are empty not merely in virtue of being unable to generate sensible content, they are empty if presupposed to be ‘external’ or on the ‘other side’ of content and thus an objection arises against the assumption of ‘absolute heterogeneity’ according to which our concepts are not taken to be part of an ‘original identity’. To assume that concepts or thought-forms are external in this sense is to presuppose their ‘independence from common reality’. Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, (1762–1814), and other philosophers of the Enlightenment take ‘reason [Vernunft ]’ to enjoy ‘independence from common reality’, nonetheless Hegel remarks that these philosophers grant the ‘pure concept [reine Begriff ]’ the status of ‘absolute identity and emptiness’. They insist upon a ‘strict opposition’ between the ‘infinite concept [unendliche Begriff ]’ and the ‘empirical’.

As ‘independent from common reality’, our concepts are taken to owe nothing of their nature and origin to objects known, to the process of knowing, to the relation of the knower to what is known, they are ‘external’ in that they are presumed to have a fixed and already given nature. Although there is progress in human knowledge such progress is not taken to affect the thought-forms themselves, nor do those thought-forms, if truly external, bear any responsibility for the progress of inquiry. Hence it seems that in criticizing the notion that cognition is a means Hegel’s target is this second account of the emptiness of our concepts, for to treat cognition as a means is to assume that we have thought forms that are empty in the sense of external, and it is to attribute to such thought-forms a nature that Hegel does not believe they possess. It is this conception of thought-forms that results in the scepticism that infects both natural consciousness and the ‘metaphysic of subjectivity’.

In the case of Kant this commitment to the externality of thought-forms manifests itself in various ways. Most evidently it manifests itself in his insistence that some of our concepts, rather than derived from experience, are a priori, and such concepts or categories are brought to experience by thinking and knowing subjects. As a priori, their validity is not merely contingent but rather universal and necessary, and Kant’s commitment to externality is furthermore apparent in his account of the suitable method for discovering our a priori forms, in his idea of critique. In virtue of the fact that Kant is persuaded of the fixed and already given nature of some of our thought-forms, namely, the categories, he believes his investigation into these forms calls for a special method, a method not modeled after modes of inquiry that take as their object a merely changeable reality. Rather than rely on the methods of the empirical sciences Kant therefore requires for his inquiry into the nature of these cognitive forms a fundamentally different kind of investigation.

Hegel unearths traces of the commitment to the externality of form in Kant’s idea of a critique of our cognitive powers, and he includes both John Locke, (1632–1704), and Kant among those who call for a critique of our means of knowing. Hegel includes Locke because even Locke holds that the examination of our cognitive faculties must be carried out before we can adequately determine the nature and extent of our knowledge (see the comment about Scholasticus above). Furthermore, for Locke as for Kant the investigation of our cognitive faculties is not just another exercise in empirical science, it is a meta-level inquiry into the conditions of the possibility of any science of nature. Of the two philosophers Kant more explicitly argues that the prior examination of our subjective forms of knowing must be something other than a mere extension or broader application of empirical inquiry, he insists that the discovery and ultimate justification of the nature and role of our most fundamental thought-forms has to be ‘transcendental’ rather than empirical. It is only by means of a transcendental justification or ‘deduction’ that we are able to establish the special status of the concepts without which we can neither think nor know objects. Hegel takes this project of transcendentally deducing pure concepts or categories to be a paradigmatic instance of the commitment to the externality of form, for Kant claims that the concepts his transcendental deduction is able to justify are a priori and as such absolutely independent from ‘common reality’.

‘Ein moderner Totentanz’, 1893, Die Josef Sattler

In his assault upon the thesis that cognition is a means Hegel’s objective is to challenge this second conception of the emptiness of form, their emptiness as external, and he questions the very notion of a special meta-level investigation of cognition suitable for the discovery and deduction of ‘external’ thought forms and cut off, and his manner of questioning such a notion takes the form of his objection to the project of critique. Natural consciousness calls for critique when it discovers that its initial effort to know things is unsuccessful, but critique, as Hegel sees it, is a failed strategy of those who stick with the conception of cognition as a means. The failure of critique according to Hegel is attributable to its adherence to this conception and Hegel unearths in Kant’s conception of critique evidence of his adherence to the thesis of the externality of form and derives a connection between the thesis of the externality of form and the thesis that cognition is a means. The moment we treat cognition as a means is the moment we display our commitment to the externality of form.

Let us look more closely at the features of Kantian critique that should make more clear one of the ways in which Kant regards form as external and which should assist us in our understanding of the target of Hegel’s objection to the project of critique. Critique, at least on a certain description, rests upon a mistaken view of conceptual form, and for this reason critique fails as a mode of knowledge. Not only is critique incapable of providing us with knowledge of objects, on Hegel’s analysis, it is equally ill suited to the task of yielding knowledge of the cognizing subject. Kant uses the term ‘critique’ in both a narrow and a broad sense. Narrowly defined, ‘critique’ refers to his project of identifying the a priori concepts and principles of theoretical cognition, concepts and principles that are constitutive of our cognition of nature. A principle is constitutive, in the context of theoretical inquiry, if its objects are appearances and if it is a condition of the possibility of our experience of appearances. (Kant distinguished between constitutive and regulative theoretical principles. The ‘constitutive’ use of our faculties helps to constitute the objects of knowledge by providing their form as objects of possible experience. Constitutive principles thereby have a strong objective standing for instance the categories of the understanding. Regulative principles on the other hand govern our theoretical activities but offer no (constitutive) guarantees about the objects under investigation. Activities must have goals if they are not to degenerate into merely random groping although I myself am not averse to a bit of random groping). Although our concepts or more strictly speaking our ‘ideas’ of things in themselves are at best merely regulative in the context of theoretical inquiry they may have a constitutive use in the realms of the practical or aesthetic, according to Kant. Because the constitutive a priori principles of theoretical cognition derive from the faculty of understanding, according to Kant, critique in the narrow sense confines its inquiry to that faculty.

Kant calls his work that is concerned to identify the a priori concepts and principles constitutive of theoretical cognition the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ and yet it is the faculty of understanding that is responsible for those concepts and principles. Although Kant calls the work the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ he portrays his task there as a critique of ‘pure understanding’. He informs us that he seeks to determine the objective validity of a priori concepts (categories) for objects of pure understanding, and he informs us further that he aims to ‘investigate the pure understanding itself, its possibility and the cognitive faculty upon which it rests’. Kant explains that he calls his first Critique the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ because his concern there is to make ‘secure’ against all other competitors the domain containing the constitutive principles of cognition, the domain of the understanding. That is to say, in virtue of reason tending to encroach upon the proper domain of the understanding it must be subject to critique, and a principal task of the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ is to expose the natural and persistent tendency of pure reason to compete with the role of pure understanding. Reason tries to present as ‘constitutive’ concepts that are at best ‘regulative’ of theoretical inquiry, and the first Critique is an investigation of the nature and limits of both faculties of understanding and reason. (Does his argument in the first Critique for the role of space and time as a priori forms of intuition properly belong to the project of critique as thus defined?).

However, Kant as well as using the term ‘critique’ to stand for the ‘inquiry into the possibility and bounds of a priori cognition’ the critique investigates not just the conditions of theoretical knowledge but the conditions governing the practical and aesthetic realms of inquiry as well. While our cognition of nature rests upon a priori concepts of the understanding practical cognition has at its basis an a priori concept of reason (the concept of freedom, Sartre take note). Mediating theoretical and practical forms of cognition is for Kant an a priori principle of the faculty of judgment, and hence in the broad or general sense critique investigates the a priori concepts and principles necessary for these three domains of inquiry. Critique (in the broad sense) is an inquiry into ‘the judging powers insofar as these are capable of a priori principles, no matter what their use may be (theoretical or practical)’. Critique as Kant see it is conducted at a high level of abstraction and it is not its affair to predict the behaviour of particular physical bodies or identify the specific causal laws governing their motion, nor is it the task of critique in the realm of the practical to unearth the concrete effects of the idea of a supreme being on individual lives or the empirical conditions that aid or hinder the practice of morality. Instead critique specifies the concepts and principles without which the domains of physics, ethics, and aesthetics would not be possible, hence the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ is described by Kant as a ‘treatise on method’ and not a ‘system of … science’. His aim is to illuminate the ‘internal structure [inneren Gliederbau]’ of the science of metaphysics, and in the context of theoretical philosophy critique is a ‘preparatory activity necessary for the advancement of metaphysics as a well-grounded science’, critique is a ‘preparatory’ or ‘propadeutic’ exercise (serving as an introduction to further study that is).

More generally critique is an inquiry into all of the ‘judging powers insofar as these are capable of a priori principles’, it is ‘propadeutic to all philosophy’ and is employed by Kant to identify concepts and principles that are a priori, and he ties critique to a priori cognition that is synthetic while characterizing a priori concepts and principles as ‘absolutely’ independent of experience. As ‘absolutely’ independent of experience such concepts and principles are not merely independent of our observations here and now, they are not, that is, ‘general rules’ resulting from well-confirmed inductive inferences, rather, a priori concepts and principles are ‘absolutely’ independent of experience in that they by no means rely for their derivation or for their justification upon the evidence of the senses. Furthermore it is the a priority of these concepts and principles that guarantees their ‘necessity and strict universality’. ‘Strict universality’, Kant explains, ‘points to [zeigt auf ]’ a ‘special source of cognition, namely a faculty of a priori cognition. Necessity and strict universality are therefore secure indications of a priori cognition’.

As ‘absolutely necessary’ a priori cognitions provide what Kant claims is the standard and example of ‘all apodictic (philosophical) certainty’ and heargues that a priori concepts and principles are brought to experience by a non-empirical or ‘transcendental’ form of self- consciousness. In virtue of this thesis regarding the origin of our a priori concepts and principles Kant will sometimes characterizes critique as an exercise in ‘self-knowledge [Selbsterkenntnis]’. His project in the first Critique, he explains, has to do ‘merely with reason itself and its pure thinking’ and there is no requirement for him to ‘see far beyond’ himself to gain ‘exhaustive acquaintance’ with his cognitive faculties because he encounters them in himself. A fruitful comparison may be made with René Descartes, (1596–1650), who, in the ‘Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Seeking the Truth in the Sciences’, reports that after he had spent some years ‘studying in the book of the world’ he ‘resolved … to study within [himself ] too’, and therefore his decision to shut himself up in his study and to ‘converse with [himself ] about [his] thoughts’. As he explains: ‘My plan has never gone beyond trying to reform my own thoughts and building upon a foundation which is completely my own’.

Because Kant has to do ‘merely with reason itself and its pure thinking’ he informs us that he is justified in asserting that the results of his critical enterprise enjoy ‘completeness’ as well as ‘certainty’, and in the ‘Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics’ Kant says that metaphysics ‘can be brought to such completion and fixity as to require no further change or be capable of any augmentation by new discoveries, because here reason has the sources of its knowledge in itself’. ‘Nothing here can escape us’, he explains, ‘because what reason brings forth entirely out of itself cannot be hidden’. The concepts and principles Kantian critique seeks to identify are the framework concepts and principles of a given realm of inquiry, necessary for the possibility of that realm of inquiry and these framework concepts and principles are a priori and as such universally and necessarily valid. But by what procedure does Kant believe he is able to identify these a priori concepts and principles? What exactly is the method of critique?

Kant describes critique as an exercise in ‘self-knowledge’ but how is self-knowledge attained? (Nosce te ipsum. Now there’s an old problem. How to to solve a mystery even one or especially one that is in broad daylight). Kant’s critical method is somewhat complex in virtue of the fact that Kant relies on no single argumentative strategy to establish his various conclusions and reference to ‘Kant’s method’ can really only be meant in the abstract. Furthermore, it is not easy to draw clear boundaries between Kant’s various methodological strategies. And what in particular are Kant’s argumentative moves that motivate Hegel’s critique? Hegel is bothered about the general aims and ambitions that Kant brings to his project of critique, aims and ambitions that accompany his various methodological strategies, Kant’s method applied to the domains of theoretical and practical philosophy, whereby Kant and Hegel defend markedly differing accounts both of the conditions of critique and of what critique can attain.

Kant describes one of his argumentative methods as ‘analytic’ or ‘regressive’, it commences with some concept or assumption that is ‘already known to be dependable’ and it subjects that concept or assumption to careful analysis and then argues regressively to the conditions of its possibility, a method already evident in the first Critique where he declares his intention to rescue or make room for metaphysics. It is evident that metaphysics needs rescuing he explains in virtue of human reason being unable to extricate itself from self-contradictions that threaten its employment and such self-contradictions or ‘antinomies’ arise when reason claims knowledge of the ultimate nature of experience, when it pronounces upon such topics as whether matter is simple or infinitely divisible, or whether the causal chain linking natural events does or does not have a first beginning or cause. And when reason is so bold as to suppose that it can settle such questions it finds itself in irresolvable conflicts. Kant claims that this is the ‘battlefield’ that in his time has destroyed the authority of metaphysics.

Kant suggests that he will rescue metaphysics through demonstrating that it can be put on the secure path of a science and he observes that his demonstration derives inspiration from the fields of mathematics and physics. Mathematics and physics already enjoy scientific status he claims precisely in virtue of each resting upon principles that are a priori, and furthermore the a priori principles at the basis of each of these sciences are of a special nature. As a priori, the principles are valid universally and necessarily but on Kant’s understanding neither mathematics nor physics dogmatically awards these principles unconditional validity, rather their universal and necessary validity is restricted to forms of cognition such as ours that depend upon objects being given through the pure forms of intuition, space and time. To put it another way Kant discerns in the sciences of mathematics and physics principles that, albeit a priori, are not conceptual or logical truths, he thereby discerns at the basis of mathematics and physics principles that are a priori as well as synthetic. (Kant derives this lesson from the history of mathematics … Hegel has some interesting points in connection with mathematics that I won’t go into here, maybe save it for a separate article).

‘Freundlicher Träum’, (‘Friendly Dreams’), 1920, Heinrich Hoerle

In virtue of these sciences being ‘actually given’ Kant says we are thereby justified in coming to the conclusion that they ‘must be possible’ (fair enough) and hence mathematics and physics can provide indications as to how we may also secure metaphysics as a science. The key is to establish that in common with mathematics and physics metaphysics rests upon principles that are both a priori and synthetic, metaphysics can be rescued as a science on Kant’s reasoning so long as it follows mathematics and physics in restricting the validity of its principles to objects of experience or ‘appearances’. We must be alert to the fact though that there is ambiguity in Kant’s use of the term ‘metaphysics’ (what does the word make you think about?), for at one point he identifies ‘two parts’ of metaphysics whereby only the first part is concerned with showing that we have a priori laws that ground our knowledge of nature while the second part has as its object the unconditioned or super-sensible (in the sense of being above and beyond what is apparent to the senses, and not extraordinarily sensible because metaphysics very often is not). Kant’s argument commences by taking the first step of the analytic method, which is to say, he initially isolates some fact or set of facts ‘already known to be dependable’, facts with which any rational nature like ours would agree. There is no need for doubt about metaphysics being in a trouble state in which it is unable to steer clear of perennial conflicts or antinomies when it endeavours to decide questions concerning ultimate reality, nor is there need for doubt about the possibility of pure mathematics or pure physics since as Kant points out each is already actual. Furthermore we can rest assured that both fields of inquiry already enjoy scientific status and that their fundamental principles are synthetic a priori, (so Kant supposes, an object lesson in over confidence there, Gottlob Frege, (1848–1925), showed them to be analytic).

As an instance of this methodological strategy in Kant’s endeavours in the first Critique to demonstrate the validity of particular synthetic a priori principles of experience there is the case of the principle of the permanence of substance, or the ‘First Analogy’. Kant established a set of three analogies named the ‘analogies of experience’ in order to demonstrate that ‘experience is possible only through the presentation of a necessary connection of perceptions’, that is to say, experience is the a posteriori synthetic unity of all our perceptions combined into one single consciousness. Kant demonstrates this by constructing three arguments revolving around the three aspects of what he terms the ‘inner sense’ or ‘inner intuition’ which you and me commonly refer to as time. And these three aspects of time are permanence, succession and community whereby each relies upon the former aspects in order for the entire argument to remain valid.

The second analogy is dedicated to the temporal mode of succession wherein Kant tries to persuade us that: ‘All changes occur according to the law of the connection of cause and effect’ because all appearances succeed one another since we apply our cognition to connect our perceptions in time, thus cause and effect is a synthesising product born out of our cognition. However Kant later adds to this point: ‘But a concept carrying with it a necessity of synthetic unity can only be a pure concept of understanding’ hence cause and effect is a key part of our faculty of understanding and therefore needed if we are to attain knowledge of phenomena, in virtue of the fact that when we perceive phenomena we never actually perceive the object in itself. For instance (this is not Kant’s example, he gives very few examples to back up his arguments, one wonders why), were you gazing adorably upon your mistress you would not actually be perceiving your mistress herself but only the manifold of all the appearances your mistress presents to your sense of perception, thus objects such as your mistress in themselves remain unknown to us and the stirring in your genitals is not the result of perceiving your mistress but perceiving the manifold of all appearances your mistress presents to you. And this is not the only thing that Kant believes to be beyond our comprehension, he also claims that ‘an actuality succeeding in empty time … cannot be apprehended any more than empty time’ and the reasoning behind this is that to have empty time there must be non-existence yet in the previous analogy (persistance) he concluded that substance is permanent, hence persists in every point of time making the notion of empty time absurd, from this we can make the inductive leap that cause and effect in all probability relies upon substance being permanent. Kant has therefore argued that cause and effect is the necessary synthetic unity binding time to phenomena via succession which relies upon the permanence of substance if a posteriori knowledge of phenomena is to be possible.

Kant’s starting point is once again some fact or set of facts he believes he is warranted in taking for granted (remember that Hegel believes a feature of Kant’s philosophy to be question begging) and with the Second Analogy he starts with assumptions not even his opponent David Hume, (1711–1776), can doubt, (smart move, remember that Kant famously said ‘it was the objection of David Hume that first, many years ago, interrupted my dogmatic slumber’), in particular that we perceive alteration and that the perception of alteration is not possible without the accompanying perception of an underlying permanent, and Kant proceeds to argue that this uncontroversial fact can only be adequately accounted for if we grant the conditions of its possibility and to grant the conditions of its possibility is to accept a fact that escaped Hume’s attention, namely, that we bring to our perception of alteration a rule that is a priori, the a priori synthetic rule of the permanence of substance.

Similar argumentative moves are at work in Kant’s practical philosophy, for instance in the ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals’ he informs us that his starting place is a universally accepted conception of moral obligation and that he is involved in the project of explicating the ‘generally received concept of morality’. Moral concepts, he happily asserts, have their origin in common reason, (and he presents similar points in the first Critique). He says: ‘Everyone must grant that a law, if it is to hold morally, that is, as a ground of obligation, must carry with it absolute necessity; that, for example, the command, ‘thou shalt not lie’, does not hold only for human beings, as if other rational beings did not have to heed it’. From which we can see that Kant judges it to be uncontroversial that all rational natures agree that a law holds morally only if it carries with it ‘absolute necessity’ and ge then informs us that if we regress to the conditions of the possibility of this fact we discover that the ‘ground of obligation’ cannot be nature or experience, but must rather be sought ‘a priori … in concepts of pure reason’.

Kant originally set up the Analogies of Experience in response to Hume’s arguments of cause and effect in the hope that it would disprove Hume’s argument but what exactly was this argument? it goes like this: ‘It is evident, that there is a principle of connection between the different thoughts … in the mind … To me, there appear to be only three principles of connection among ideas … resemblance, contiguity in time and place, and cause or effect’. It is apparent that Hume, like Kant, accepts that time must be permanent and cause and effect must also exist if knowledge derived from our perceptions is to be obtainable, but there the similarity ends, because for Hume knowledge must only be based upon empirical methods and hence we can only hope to achieve a posteriori knowledge which is subjective due to our own relative experiences of the world, and the thought underlying this is that if ‘we must enquire how we arrive at the knowledge of cause and effect … knowledge of this relation is not … attained by reasonings a priori’, it is simply through our experience of phenomena that we conceive the concept of cause and effect, for instance if given two billiard balls we would never accept that the first would cause the second to move if it rolled into it unless we had seen this to be the case on a number of previous occasions so that it became a fixed continuity of how things are in accordance with the laws of Isaac Newton’s, (1643–1727), physics. And yet Hume not once accepts that cause and effect exists as part of phenomena as it can not be perceived, rather it is a cognitive synthesiser uniting two separate events together consistently to produce a manifold of presentations. Hence if we cannot perceive cause and effect and yet it still performs the same operation as Kant believes it does then we can say that cause and effect lies within noumena (things in themselves) along with time and substance, thereby Hume and Kant albeit go about it by alternative methods appear to arrive at similar conclusions as to the nature of time, causality and substance.

‘Eine Mahnung zur Vorsicht bei der Arbeit’, (‘A Warning To Be Careful While Working’), Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945)

And so albeit Kant set off to argue against the subjective empiricism of Hume he actually constructed a set of arguments similar to Hume based upon a transcendental empiricism (?) aka transcendental idealism, one can imagine Plato, (c 429–347 B.C.), approving and yet do dangers lurk within such a realm of objective knowledge? Might it not be sensible to persist satisfied within Humean subjective empiricism? I shall leave that hanging. For now, another question: what features do these three instances of Kant’s analytic method share in common? In each case Kant’s objective is to establish that at the basis of a particular realm of inquiry or form of experience are synthetic a priori principles, and with that end in view he engages the method of critique in that he undertakes an investigation of our cognitive and practical faculties. In the cases just considered he commences by isolating some fact or set of facts that may be assumed to be beyond doubt, facts with which any rational nature (or ‘common understanding’) would agree. ‘Common understanding’ or ‘common human reason’ yields insight into principles that are universally and necessarily valid and hence ought not to be confused with what Kant refers to in the Groundwork as ‘popular opinion’, for all that ‘popular opinion’ is able to produce, he tells us though you would prefer it if he said what he really thought without holding back, is a ‘disgusting hodge-podge of patchwork observations and half-rationalized principles’.

He commences with these facts and subjects them to analysis and thereby makes explicit the conditions upon which they rest. By analyzing the concept of moral obligation that ‘everyone must grant’ he determines that a priori concepts of reason must lie at its basis. By analyzing what even Hume admits is the fact of our perception of alteration he is able to discover the a priori principle that is a condition of its possibility. By analyzing the concepts of the four antinomies, (see part two of this series), he discloses that each thesis and antithesis rests upon a mistaken assumption about the extent and proper objects of human knowledge. And with the work of analytical clarification done Kant can subsequently progress to the third and final step of his analytic procedure. By regressing from a fact that can be taken for granted he can justify the conditions of its possibility and this justificatory component of his critical method aims to establish, for instance, that we are justified in thinking of ourselves as beings bound by a priori practical laws. In the realm of the theoretical its aim is to demonstrate that the perception of alteration would not be possible did our faculty of understanding not supply the a priori rule of permanence to objects of experience. And further, it aims to demonstrate that metaphysics can indeed be rescued as a science since like mathematics and physics it rests upon a priori synthetic laws. Nonetheless the analytic method is only one among Kant’s argumentative strategies for he at times utilises a method he describes as ‘synthetic’ or ‘progressive’. For instance, an additional method Kant explicitly employs in the first Critique is in the section on the antinomies where he refers to his employment of a ‘sceptical method’ whereby he ‘watches’ or perhaps even ‘occasions’ a dispute between assertions in order to determine whether ‘the object of the dispute is not perhaps a mere mirage’.

The first Critique incorporates instances of analytic argumentation though Kant nonetheless describes the argumentative strategy of this first Critique as a whole as synthetic, a point he makes in the ‘Prolegomena’ where he informs us that his method in that work is ‘analytic’ in contrast to the ‘synthetic’ method of the first Critique. He states that he will commence with ‘something already known to be dependable, from which we can go forward with confidence and ascend to the sources which are not yet known, and whose discovery not only will explain what is known already, but will also exhibit an area with many cognitions that all arise from these same sources’. Subsequently he describes the analytic procedure thus: ‘one proceeds from that which is sought as if it were given, and ascends to the conditions under which alone it is possible’. Such is the analytic or regressive method. The ‘synthetic’ argument of the first ‘Critique’ however is ‘progressive’ or forward moving, and Kant provides a clear instance of the difference between these two methods in the ‘Groundwork’ where he notes that the first two sections of the work are ‘analytic’ and the third section ‘synthetic’. The ‘Groundwork’ commences with the concept of a ‘good will’ a concept Kant asserts is available to the common understanding (is it?). As a consequence of the work he undergoes in explicating that concept we eventually learn that the concept of a good will rests upon the concept of autonomy, and thus the ‘synthetic’ part of the work commences with the concept of autonomy and then sets out to justify our idea of ourselves as autonomous.

To consider a relatively obvious instance of his synthetic or progressive method, in the ‘Transcendental Aesthetic’ Kant argues progressively for the status of space as an a priori form of intuition and he outlines positive features of our representation of space, features he believes cannot be accommodated by either Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s, (1646–1716), ‘relational’ or Newtonian ‘absolutist’ theories. In opposition to Leibniz he argues that the fact that spatial representation for us is always singular implies that space must be a pure form of intuition rather than a concept, and furthermore it is not possible to account for the notion or concept we have of space simply with reference to our observations of the relations of objects in space, for the fact that we observe objects as spatially related is itself evidence that we bring to our experience the a priori intuition of space. And in opposition to Newton Kant insists that there is insufficient evidence to support the thesis that space is a container of ‘absolute’ reality, the very most we can establish is that space is an a priori form of human experience. If this is indeed how Kant’s argumentative strategy in the ‘Transcendental Aesthetic’ proceeds then it suggests that his argument for the nature of space and time as a priori forms of intuition need not be taken to depend upon presuppositions about the nature and validity of the sciences of geometry and arithmetic, that is to say, it suggests that instead of setting out from some presumably uncontroversial fact (in this case a fact about the validity of the sciences of geometry and arithmetic) and arguing regressively to space and time as necessary conditions of their possibility, Kant instead begins his argument in the ‘Aesthetic’ with a discussion of features of spatial and temporal representation.

And so we arrive at the concerns Hegel evinces with regard to Kant’s reliance upon the analytic method, he was especially impatient with regard to Kant’s confidence in the supposedly unassailable assumptions of ‘common understanding’. However, Hegel does not single out just the analytic method for attack, in the ‘Encyclopaedia Logic] he informs us that both analytic and synthetic methods are defective, both are at fault, he says, for ‘starting from something that is externally presupposed’. Hegel also has something to say concerning the distinction between ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’ methods. The primary target of Hegel’s objection to the two methods is the kind of conclusions Kant believes each is able to support. Whether Kant begins with the assumptions of ‘common understanding’ and argues regressively to expose their necessary conditions, or instead progressively defends positive features of (for instance) the nature of spatial-temporal representation his expectation is the same, that is to say, he believes that he can demonstrate that a particular domain of inquiry rests on a foundation of synthetic a priori principles.

Kant insists that if his critical method is to establish this kind of conclusion it must rely upon more than observation, for a merely empirical investigation is capable of yielding no better than inductively warranted rules or precepts. It can never therefore justify laws in the strict sense, that is, rules that are universally and necessarily valid. As Kant explains his critical method cannot proceed by means of conceptual analysis alone, for albeit his critical reflections make use of conceptual analysis, conceptual analysis awards us insight only into what is logically possible or thinkable without contradiction. However, Kant’s objective is to identify a priori conditions, not of the logically possible, but of theoretical or practical or aesthetic experience for discursive modes of understanding such as ours. Note particularly his confidence that his special form of critical reflection, whether undertaken progressively or regressively, is capable of establishing claims about the necessary and universal conditions of our form of experience, and he believes that he can discover a form that is fixed and thus in no way indebted to contingent, historical reality.

‘Ein moderner Totentanz’, 1893, Die Josef Sattler

‘Sebastian in Dream’ (excerpt)

by Georg Trakl (1887–1914)

Peace of the soul. Lonesome winter evening,

The dark figures of the shepherds by the old pond;

Infant in the hut of straw; o how quietly

The countenance sank in black fever.

Holy night.

Or when he at the hard hand of the father

Silently climbed the sinister Mount Calvary

And in dusking rock-niches

The blue figure of man went through his legend,

Blood ran purple from the wound under the heart.

O how quietly the cross rose up in the dark soul.

Love; when in black corners the snow melted,

A blue breeze cheerfully caught itself in the old elder,

In the shadowy arch of the walnut tree;

And quietly a rosy angel appeared to the boy.

Joy; when in cool rooms an evening sonata sounded,

In the brown rafters

A blue moth crept from its silver chrysalis.

O the nearness of death. In stony wall

A yellow head bent, silencing the child,

When in that March the moon decayed.

‘Winternacht/Erinnerung a‘Winternacht/Erinnerung an Georg Trakl’, 1914, Max von Esterlen Georg Trakl’, 1914, Max von Esterle



David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.