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

‘To comprehend what is, this is the task of philosophy, because what is, is reason. Whatever happens, every individual is a child of his time; so philosophy too is its own time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as absurd to fancy that a philosophy can transcend its contemporary world as it is to fancy that an individual can overleap his own age, jump over Rhodes. If his theory really goes beyond the world as it is and builds a world as it ought to be, that world exists indeed, but only in his opinions, a supple element in which anything you please may be constructed by the imagination’.

- Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, (1770–1831), ‘Philosophy of Right’

Is it possible for there to be a presuppositionless science? Can philosophy deliver a firm and unshakeable foundation for scientific knowledge cleansed of any and all dogmatic assumptions and prejudices? Hegel claims that his account of philosophical science, the ‘Science of Logic’, had to achieve the ‘complete absence of any presupposition’, and all ‘presuppositions or prejudices must be surrendered at the entry of science, whether they be taken from representation or from thought’, (that’s from the ‘Lesser Logic’). Logic cannot presuppose any ‘forms of reflection’ or ‘rules and laws of thinking’. There is much dispute about whether or not Hegel achieved this aim and if it is even possible (it would seem not) or whether he had his own special meaning for presupposition, (in which case perhaps it is possible after all), but one thing we can assuredly agree upon is that the philosopher can at the very least eschew question begging, assuming at the outset what he or she sets out to prove, and it is quite a charge to level at a philosopher that they are doing just that.

Especially if the philosopher in question is supposed to be the greatest philosopher of all time, Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804). And yet Hegel does appear to take the view that begging the question features in Kant’s reasoning in general, for instance, Kant claimed, as we saw in my previous article on the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, a putative discovery of the conditions of the possibility of our various realms of inquiry that are absolutely fixed and unchanging that requires accessing a vantage point that is wholly external or wholly on the other side of content, which is to say, Kant’s critical reflections are beholden to the realm of the actual. This discloses something about the nature of reflection in general. If Kant is unable to achieve this, and he is, then he has not discovered the conditions of the possibility of our various realms of inquiry that are absolutely fixed and unchanging. For Hegel the concepts and rules that Kant defends as universal and necessary are indeed mouldable and capable of assuming other forms, or, to characterize them in another way, they are the product of Kant’s empty formalism, (the focus being upon form or structure from a vantage point wholly on the other side of content), such a formalism that contends that at the basis of our various realms of inquiry are rules and concepts that precisely because of their formal or a priori status are universally and necessarily valid for discursive intellects of the kind that we possess, (so, an alien intellect that reasons differently would have at the basis of their reasoning different rules and concepts? One can see how the charge of question begging arises).

Far from merely conditionally valid or valid merely for some particular culture or historical epoch these are rules and concepts that according to Kant’s account ‘everyone must grant’. Underlying the rules or concepts Kant contends to be purely formal are the questions that he indeed begs, questions that reveal that, like any other thinker, as Hegel says, he is a ‘child of his time’. Consider Kant’s treatment of the arguments of the antinomies, for instance, the contradictions that follow necessarily from our endeavours to cognize the nature of transcendent reality by means of pure reason. Kant was alerted by the role of arguments (for whether or not the universe has a beginning in time and so on) to the reality of our discursivity and to the limitations implied by that reality as far as our knowledge is concerned. For Hegel, Kant’s treatment of such arguments is question-begging, and through a consideration of Hegel’s remarks upon Kant’s antinomies we can put to the test Hegel’s general interpretation of the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, his critique of the ritique.

‘Der Wahnsinn’, (‘Madness’), 1904, Alfred Kubin

To begin on a positive note Hegel acknowledged Kant’s insight that there is essential and necessary contradiction in the determinations of the understanding as one of the ‘most important and deepest advances in philosophy in the modern period’, an insight that is a significant advance beyond the perspective of the older metaphysics according to which contradiction is a sign of nothing more than a ‘contingent confusion’ originating from an ‘error of inference and reasoning. On the other hand according to Hegel Kant’s solution to the antinomies is as ‘trivial’ as his insight is ‘deep’, indeed Kant fails to derive the correct conclusion from his reflections upon the arguments. Hegel has two principal charges to level at Kant upon this matter, first Kant’s solution to the arguments is ‘subjective’ as he makes the mistake of discovering contradiction in ‘thinking reason’ instead of in the objects themselves. As Hegel puts it, Kant locates the contradiction in reason because of his ‘tenderness for things of the world’. An interesting observation, perhaps I should cite more from the passage in question, (from the ‘Lesser Logic’):

‘And to offer the idea that the contradiction introduced into the world of Reason by the categories of Understanding is inevitable and essential, was to make one of the most important steps in the progress of Modern Philosophy. But the more important the issue thus raised the more trivial was the solution. Its only motive was an excess of tenderness for the things of the world. The blemish of contradiction, it seems, could not be allowed to mar the essence of the world: but there could be no objection to attach it to the thinking Reason, to the essence of mind. Probably nobody will feel disposed to deny that the phenomenal world presents contradictions to the observing mind; meaning by ‘phenomenal’ the world as it presents itself to the senses and understanding, to the subjective mind. But if a comparison is instituted between the essence of the world and the essence of the mind, it does seem strange to hear how calmly and confidently the modest dogma has been advanced by one, and repeated by others, that thought or Reason, and not the World, is the seat of contradiction’.

In the ‘Science of Logic’ Hegel wrote: ‘It shows an excessive tenderness for the world to remove contradiction from it and then to transfer the contradiction to spirit, to reason, where it is allowed to remain unresolved’, and in the ‘Lectures on the History of Philosophy’ Hegel contends that according to Kan, it would be ‘a pity, if [things] contradicted themselves’. However that may be, Kant assuredly does discover the source of the contradictions in reason, for upon his analysis the contradictions have at their basis the fallacious transcendental realist assumption that we can know things in themselves, but Hegel suggests that it is precisely this subjective treatment of the antinomies that prevents Kant from grasping their ‘true and positive meaning’, namely that ‘everything real contains in itself opposing determinations’. Or to put it another way, every concept is a unity containing opposed determinations and that ‘antinomy finds itself … in all objects of all kinds, in all representations, concepts and ideas’. .

Hegel’s second charge already noted is that Kant’s treatment of the antinomies is question-begging: ‘[T]he proofs that Kant brings forward for his theses and antitheses must be regarded as pseudo-proofs, because what is supposed to be proved is always already contained in the presuppositions that form the starting point’. Let us take for instance the thesis of the Second Antinomy formulated thus: ‘Every composite substance in the world consists of simple parts, and nothing exists anywhere except the simple or what is composed of simples’. The proof for this thesis employs the reductio strategy of drawing out the implications of affirming its contradictory. First, we are to deny the thesis and assert that ‘composite substances do not consist of simple parts’. This is a denial of the very existence of simples. Next, consider the implications of denying the existence both of simples and of composite substances. If we deny the existence of simples and also remove composition then ‘nothing at all would be left over’ and ‘no substance would be given’ which should alert us to the fact that since the thesis of this antinomy presupposes the existence of substances it must also be committed to the existence either of simples or of ‘what is composed of simples’. If we affirm the thesis but deny the existence either of simples or of composite substances then they we are in self-contradiction.

Next, consider the possibility that no simples exist but that composition remains, that is to say, assume that it is not possible to remove composition ‘in thought’. And then Kant proceeds to argue however that we can remove composition in thought, for ‘composition is only a contingent relation’ of substances and substances are ‘beings persisting by themselves’. Apart from composition which is ‘only a contingent relation’, substances ‘must subsist’. And then if we assume with the thesis that substances exist, however, and if we in addition grant that it is possible to remove composition in thought, then it must be the case that once we remove composition in thought, something is ‘left over that subsists without any composition, that is, the simple’. As Kant expresses it: ‘From this it follows immediately that all things in the world are simple beings, that composition is only an external state of these beings’. The assumption with which we began in the first step in the argument is false and its contradictory, the thesis, is thereby demonstrated to be true.

Hegel contends that Kant’s proof for the thesis of this antinomy is ‘entirely correct’ but a ‘tautological superfluity’. The conclusion of the proof states that all things in the world are simple beings and that composition is a merely a ‘contingent’ or ‘external state’ of substances. As Hegel expresses it: ‘Here we see … the contingency of composition put forward as a consequence after it had already been introduced parenthetically and used in the proof. Hegel is thinking of Kant’s definition of composition as ‘only a contingent relation’ of substances, but according to Hegel composition is simply defined in the proof as not ‘in and for itself one’ but as an ‘external’ collection of other things. Composition is thereby assumed to be dependent upon the existence of prior self-subsistent parts and this assumption is not itself defended. Substance is presupposed to be what remains, what is self-subsistent, while composition is defined as an accidental property, and given these definitions as Hegel points out there is no need to go to the trouble of providing a proof: ‘[T]he claim of the simplicity of parts is only tautological’ and ‘the proof … is at fault not so much for sophism as for its unnecessary tortuous complexity, which serves only to provide the external form of a proof rather than make transparent the fact that what was supposed to appear as a consequence, is in fact given in parenthesis as that upon which the proof hinges. We are given absolutely no proof, but only a presupposition’. That proof is tautological because the truth of the conclusion is presupposed in the proof ‘s premises.

‘Die Sehnsucht’, aus: ‘er Sacrum’, 1903, Emma Schlangenhausen

Kant might respond that Hegel is apparently ignoring the fact that the proofs Kant lays out in the Critique, not just of the thesis of the Second Antinomy but of the arguments of all four antinomies, are not in fact his, he is not presenting his own arguments but rather presenting arguments of a rational cosmologist in the grip of transcendental illusion. The arguments of both sides of the antinomies are not Kant’s but rather those of his transcendental realist opponents. Kant made clear the ‘unavoidable’ and ‘entirely natural’ character of the conflicts and never characterizes the cosmological conflicts as his own invention but represents them instead as standing for ‘pure empiricism’ or ‘Epicureanism’, on the one side, and for ‘Platonism’ or the ‘dogmatism of pure reason’ on the other. (Epicurus, (341–270 B.C.), held that the elementary constituents of nature are undifferentiated matter, in the form of discrete, solid and indivisible particles (‘atoms’) below the threshold of perception, plus empty space, that is, the complement of matter or where matter is not. Plato, (c. 429–347 B.C.), presents his anti-atomism in the ‘Timaeus’, see my article On Plato’s ‘Timaeus’ — the World Soul, wherein the universe is presented as an almost perfect sphere filled by tiny invisible particles having the form of four regular polyhedrons, a view that is sometimes referred to as mathematical atomism wholly misleadingly. Aristotle, (384–322 BC),made a clear distinction between Plato and the atomists).

So the objection goes that if we grant with Hegel that the proofs are tautological superfluities it is not Kant who is guilty of tautology. However, it may well be the case that Kant never claims that the arguments are his own invention and that he affirms the view that their long history reveals an important feature of the nature of reason itself, but as he put it the antinomies concern ‘not an arbitrary question that one might raise only at one’s option, but one that every human reason must necessarily come up against in the course of its progress’. And furthermore antinomy is ‘a wholly natural antithetic … into which reason falls of itself and indeed unavoidably’. Kant in fact predicts that the conflicts will persist even after he has exposed the illusion upon which they rest. And further, it is true that Kant finds the arguments defective because of their commitment to transcendental realism, but it is not true that he judges the arguments wholly unacceptable. He identifies the proofs on both sides as ‘well grounded, each of the arguments, as he says, ‘is not only without contradiction in itself but even meets with conditions of its necessity in the nature of reason itself’. It is therefore mistaken to suggest that in presenting the proofs of the four antinomies Kant is simply recording the arguments of others and is completely neutral with regard to their respective merits, for taken as they are in abstraction from the illusion upon which they are based the theses and antitheses of the arguments are contradictories, on his account. Kant identifies the arguments as contradictories because he accepts the definitions of key concepts on which the arguments depend, were he not to accept the definitions as they are, and were he not to find the arguments ‘well grounded’ he would have had no reason to judge the antinomies a serious threat to reason’s calling.

Kant’s treatment of the antinomies discloses that Hegel’s issue about the tautological nature of the proofs is not simply directed at features internal to the arguments themselves, for in addition Hegel is concerned to demonstrate that Kant’s reasoning is tautological in some way, his treatment of the antinomies is question-begging, and as such it is insufficiently critical. According to Hegel Kant’s solution to the antinomies ‘presupposes that cognition has no other forms of thought than finite categories’. Commenting on the Second Antinomy in particular Hegel objects that the argument begins, on the side of the thesis, with the ‘one-sided’ assertion of discreteness, and on the side of the antithesis, with the equally ‘one-sided’ assertion of continuity or infinite divisibility’. He explains: The ‘whole antinomy reduces to the separation of the two moments of quantity and the direct assertion of them as absolutely separate’. Hegel made a similar comment about Kant’s treatment of the First Antinomy (of space and time, thesis: The world has a beginning in time, and is also limited as regards space. Anti-thesis: The world has no beginning, and no limits in space; it is infinite as regards both time and space): ‘This simple, ordinary dialectic rests on holding fast to the opposition of being and nothing’.

‘The Kantian antinomies’, Hegel wrote, ‘contain nothing more than the entirely simple categorical assertion of each of the two opposed moments of a determination, each taken as for itself isolated from the other’. Hegel thereby suggests that the question-begging nature of Kant’s discussion is tied to his failure to entertain the possibility that the opposed concepts could be understood as something other than ‘finite categories’ and it is because Kant accepts the definitions according to which each of the concepts is ‘one-sided’ that he identifies the arguments as contradictories. And this is why his treatment of the arguments reveals itself to be uncritical. With regard to the Second Antinomy Kant does not consider the possibility that, rather than absolutely separate, ‘the moment of the atom is contained in continuity itself’. Kant does not consider this possibility according to Hegel because of his more general failure to appreciate that ‘antinomy finds itself … in all objects of all kinds, in all representations, concepts and ideas’. In taking for granted that the concepts of discreteness and continuity must be understood as ‘absolutely separate’ Kant thereby reveals his commitment to ‘finite categories’ and he puts out of the picture from the very start the dialectical nature of concepts whereas as Hegel informs us dialectic is the ‘true nature’ of our ‘thought determinations’.

‘Apparition in the Window’, c. 1892, Odilon Redon

‘Contradiction is in everything that surrounds us’, (side note: I know you may bridle at such as thought as you may at Karl Marx, (1818–1883, helping himself to this Hegelian notion with his thesis of the contradiction between the production and circulation of capital being internal to capitalism, see my articles The Visible Divinity — parts one to three. Surely, I hear you object, contradiction denotes a relation of opposition between ideas or propositions and it is not something that exists in the real world. But just as with pre-supposition Hegel has his own take upon contradiction, a relation of difference or opposition). We would not be inclined to judge the antinomies a threat to the employment of reason if we see contradiction in everything that surrounds us, and we would subsequently need to direct our efforts to discovering a solution for the arguments. Kant’s search for a solution to the conflicts, his conviction given his ‘tenderness for things of the world’ that the solution must be subjective and thus expose a fallacy of reason, his purely negative result, that is to say, his discovery that we solve the conflicts by denying that we can know things in themselves, all of this is predicated, according to Hegel, upon a failure to appreciate the ‘true and positive meaning’ of the arguments. Their ‘true and positive meaning’, said Hegel, is that ‘everything real contains in itself contradictory determinations’.

Ah, Kant’s ‘tenderness for things of the world’, because of which he is unwilling to grant that antinomy is in everything real and explains why his solution has to be subjective for he must needs locate the source of the contradictions in reason. But in addition Hegel also appears to imply by this that Kant’s treatment of the arguments suffers from its preoccupation with the question of the concrete application of the arguments, that is to say, Kant’s chief concern is to determine whether the arguments on both sides make claims that are valid for objects of experience and he ultimately judges the arguments deficient because their claims fail in this respect. One result of Kant’s narrow focus upon concrete application, according to Hegel, is that the ‘content of the thought, on its own account, doesn’t come under discussion’. As Hegel explains, to consider antinomy in its ‘purity the determinations of thought must not be taken in their application to and entanglement in the general idea of the world, of space, time, matter, etc.’

Hegel’s accusations of tautology is directed not just at the individual proofs for the theses and antitheses of the four antinomies but at Kant’s own treatment of the arguments as well. In particular, Hegel’s accusation is directed at Kant’s understanding of key concepts of the conflicts and at his insistence that the conflicts demand a solution, a reflection of Kant’s own philosophical allegiances that reveals his ties to a particular intellectual tradition. Kant’s treatment of the arguments reflects these allegiances in spite of his insistence that, in employing his sceptical method, his role is that of an ‘impartial referee’. Kant’s philosophical preferences are evident in the solutions to the conflicts he does not consider, for instance, in the case of the Second Antinomy he does not consider the possibility that, as Hegel puts it: ‘the moment of the atom is contained in continuity itself’. In the case of the Third Antinomy, (of spontaneity and causal determinism), thesis: Causality in accordance with laws of nature is not the only causality from which the appearances of the world can one and all be derived. To explain these appearances it is necessary to assume that there is also another causality, that of Spontaneity. Anti-thesis: There is no Spontaneity; everything in the world takes place solely in accordance with laws of nature), it does not occur to him that, rather than absolutely opposed, neither freedom nor necessity ‘has any truth if separated from the other’. Because of his commitment to finite categories Kant does not entertain the possibility that, in Hegel’s words, our comprehension of an object amounts to our becoming ‘conscious of it as a concrete unity of opposed determinations’.

It may well also be pointed out that Kant’s analysis of the arguments reflects his philosophical preferences in that he brings to his consideration of the arguments what he calls transcendental as opposed to simply logical reflection. The task of transcendental reflection, Kant supposes, is to determine the kind of object to which our knowledge claims refer, it determines whether our object is an object of pure understanding or an object given in empirical intuition. It may be objected therefore that in relying upon the resources of transcendental reflection Kant’s treatment of the antinomies presupposes this distinction between two kinds of object. That is to say, his treatment presupposes his transcendental idealist distinction between things in themselves and appearances. Transcendental idealism is presupposed in his treatment of the antinomies. That is question begging is it not?

In the case of the Third Antinomy Hegel again discerns uncritical elements in Kant’s analysis of the arguments. As in the case of all four antinomies, Kant claims that the two sides of the Third Antinomy are locked in contradiction. The antithesis asserts that, ‘everything in the world takes place solely in accordance with laws of nature’. The thesis asserts the contradictory of the antithesis. It claims that in addition to a causality of nature, there is a ‘causality through freedom’. As with all four antinomies, Kant holds that it is possible to demonstrate the merely dialectical or illusory nature of the opposition by identifying the false assumption upon which each side rests. The opposition turns out to be merely dialectical, in his view, because each side is committed to the illusion that we can know things in themselves. Each side, in other words, is committed to transcendental realism, (is Kant trying to be funny there with that term? The ‘common prejudice’, the ‘common but fallacious presupposition’, the commonsense pre-theoretic view that objects in space and time are things in themselves).

Kant is convinced that the thesis and antithesis of the Third Antinomy are defective but finds the claims of both sides otherwise compelling. If we take away the transcendental realist commitment underlying the antithesis of the Third Antinomy what we are left with is a principle that Kant argues for in the ‘Transcendental Analytic’ of the Critique as a necessary condition of possible experience, the principle he refers to as the ‘Second Analogy’ which like the antithesis of the Third Antinomy affirms the causality of nature. It states that everything that happens in nature occurs, ‘in accordance with the law of the connection of cause and effect’. The sole respect with which the Second Analogy differs from the antithesis of the Third Antinomy is that it does not in addition claim that ‘there is no other causality than that in accordance with laws of nature’. Unlike the antithesis of the Third Antinomy, that is to say, the Second Analogy does not endorse the view that our experience of nature is the only form of experience there is. The Second Analogy is identical to the antithesis of the Third Antinomy, then, minus the latter’s transcendental realist assumption that our knowledge of appearances is in effect equivalent to knowledge of things in themselves.

‘Athenodorus confronts the Spectre’, 1913, Henry Justice Ford. Pliny the Younger, (61 — c. 113 AD), tells of Athenodorus Cananites, (c. 74 BC — 7 AD), the Greek Stoic philosopher renting a Haunted house in Athens and he wary because the house was exceptionally cheap for its size, and as he was writing a book of philosophy late into the night (I’m a bit of a night owl myself) a ghost is said to have come to him, bound with chains, and beckoned Athenodorus to follow him, but was allegedly indicated by Athenodorus to wait. After he finished his writing, the ghost led him to a courtyard, and suddenly vanished. Athenodorus marked the spot, and the following day, with the permission of the city magistrates, he dug up the earth from that spot, where he found the skeleton of an old man, bound with chains. After the skeleton was given a proper burial with full honours, the ghost was said to have never haunted that house again. I am not sure if there is a moral to the story. If you are writing philosophy don’t be fazed even by a ghost, indeed, keep it waiting?

Kant identifies the antithesis of the Third Antinomy as a principle of empiricism that has become dogmatic because it assumes that the causality of nature is the only form of causality there is. as he puts it the antithesis ‘boldly denies whatever lies beyond the sphere of its intuitive cognitions’. Kant is equally committed to the thesis side of the Third Antinomy, his defense of a causality of freedom already being evident in his Prefaces to the Critique wherein he outlines his general objectives in that work. A key motivation of his entire Critical project he informs us there is to save freedom and the freedom he sets out to save is in essential respects identical to the freedom defended in the thesis of the Third Antinomy. It is a ‘spontaneous’ form of causality, a capacity to begin a state ‘from itself” without standing ‘under another cause determining it in time according with the law of nature’. Elsewhere Kant refers to freedom as a non-temporal form of determination. This freedom is distinct from the freedom defended in the thesis of the Third Antinomy only in that it is not assumed to be a possible object of our knowledge. Kant argues that a ‘spontaneous’ form of causality is a necessary idea of reason and without it we would have no grounds for practical imputation, (note that wherever arguments lead as far as freedom and causal determinism goes the philosopher always has a get out clause however outlandish to prevent us from saying, well there you have it, I am not responsible for my actions). Transcendental freedom and practical imputation thereby have a connection, the particular form of freedom that Kant thinks needs saving, and yet although this special causality of freedom is a necessary idea we could in no way encounter it in experience and it is not a possible object of our knowledge, (this is what I meant when I said at the beginning of my previous article that Kant’s transcendental idealism takes him to some strange places).

Kant’s solution to the Third Antinomy does not involve a wholesale repudiation of the claims of the thesis and the antithesis and he brings to light the illusion of their transcendental realist commitment, but he otherwise accepts the claims of the two sides as well as the definitions upon which they rest. His solution to the conflict does not call for revision therefore in our understanding of what is implied by the commitment of the antithesis to a causality of nature, it merely brings to light the illusion underlying the assumption that a causality of nature is the only form of causality there is. Nor does his solution to the Third Antinomy require us to revise the definition of freedom, expressed in the thesis as a spontaneous form, a causality, a capacity to initiate a causal series from a standpoint outside time. Far from requiring revision in this idea of freedom, Kant insists upon its necessity as a condition of practical imputation and his strategy for defending or saving that freedom requires only that we reject the transcendental realist assumption that it refers to an object we could possibly experience or know.

Kantian philosophy provides us with a soft and cosy cushion for the indolence of thought. How so? Well, Hegel’s critique of the Critique amounts to more than that the defect of Kant’s treatment of the antinomies does not enjoy the benefit of an Hegelian or dialectical understanding of the arguments’ key concepts. Kant should have recognized the ‘immanent plasticity’ of all our concepts. ‘The presentation of no subject matter can be in and for itself as strictly and immanently plastic as is that of thought in its necessary development’, said Hegel, ‘nor would any subject matter require such a presentation; in this respect, the science of logic must surpass even mathematics, for no subject matter intrinsically possesses this freedom and independence’. Kant should have understood that contradiction is in everything. In the case of the Second Antinomy he should have acknowledged that, rather than absolutely separate, ‘the moment of the atom is contained in continuity itself’. In the case of the Third Antinomy he should have recognized that neither freedom nor necessity ‘has any truth if separated from the other’ and that ‘the truth of necessity is freedom’. Hegel took an interest in the antinomies because it offered him an opportunity not to be missed to voice his dissatisfaction with some particular Kantian doctrines and it allowed him to highlight limitations, for example, in Kant’s account of the composition of substance and of the nature of human freedom.

Hegel evidently regarded Kant’s treatment of the cosmological arguments as defective in the above-mentioned respects and was convinced that philosophy in his own time had progressed beyond Kant’s rigid oppositions and had come to embrace a superior understanding of, among other things, the composition of substance and the nature of human freedom. And further, in commenting upon Kant’s treatment of the cosmological arguments Hegel means not just to take a swipe at Kant’s particular metaphysical views albeit this is surely one of his objectives but in addition he wants to direct our attention to the form of Kant’s arguments, that is to say, to their invariably question begging character. Hegel holds that in considering the arguments of the antinomies to be well grounded and in accepting the definitions of key concepts as they are Kant puts out into the open his own philosophical commitments. And with regard to the antithesis side of the arguments he reveals his adherence to the empiricist conception of nature as a realm without freedom, a realm entirely determined by causal mechanical laws, a realm that Hegel characterizes as ‘essentially determined and lifeless’.

The empiricist, Hegel said, treats nature as a ‘pure objective’ versus as ‘subject-object’ or as ‘identity of concept and being’ while Hegel contrasts this empiricist conception with the view of nature as an ‘immanent ideality’, as self-determining versus determined by a form that is ‘external’. Regarding the side of the thesis, Kant presupposes that if there is to be a first cause or unconditioned condition of the series of appearances it must lie outside the series itself. A causality of freedom is possible, he assumes, only if it is transcendental, only if it derives from a standpoint outside time. Kant does not subject these assumptions to question. He takes for granted that, ‘[o]ne can think of causality with respect to what happens in only two ways, either according to nature or from freedom’ and in addition he presupposes that the two concepts of causality must be contradictories. It does not occur to him that neither freedom nor necessity ‘has any truth if separated from the other’. Nor does he imagine that the crisis he perceives to be occasioned by the antinomies might be a consequence of assumptions he does not call into question.

Indeed Kant accepts only one solution to the conflict, that which requires us to grant that the absolute or unconditioned conditioned lies outside the series of appearances for precisely because the unconditioned condition (in this case, transcendental freedom) has its ground outside the series of appearances, outside the realm of the empirical, it does not contradict the laws governing the realm of the empirical. But another solution to the conflict may be drawn from Benedict Spinoza, (1632–1677), and was forwarded by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, (1743–1819), according to which the absolute or unconditioned condition is not transcendent to the empirical series as a whole but immanent within the series as a whole. Hegel draws attention to the question begging feature of Kant’s discussions in order to convey a point about the conditions of human reflection, not that Kant’s treatment of the cosmological arguments should have been free of unexamined presuppositions and therefore should have been in that respect more consistently critical. Hegel’s objective is not to suggest that Kant is at fault for having allowed his reflections on the arguments to be guided by his allegiance to a certain version of empiricism, on the one hand, and a certain version of rationalism, on the other, nor is his message that Kant’s treatment should not have reflected his commitment to finite categories. In highlighting the questions Kant begs Hegel cannot have such objectives in mind for he held that in thinking or in undertaking critique we cannot but take some definitions for granted, definitions we imagine to express the ‘accepted and familiar’ and ‘object and aim’ of our science. Hegel writes: ‘the definition with which any science makes an absolute beginning cannot contain anything other than the precise and correct expression of what is imagined to be the accepted and familiar object and aim of the science’.

In beginning any inquiry, that is to say, we invariably ‘make a presupposition’ because it is not possible for us to abstract to a standpoint that is entirely external or independent from common reality and in this respect every starting point is a ‘result’. And so the problem is not that Kant begs the question in his treatment of the arguments of the antinomies but that Kant does not appreciate the question begging nature of his arguments, or to put it another way, the problem is with the expectations Kant brings to his critical reflections and these expectations are revealed, for instance, in his unyielding commitment to finite categories. In the context of the Third Antinomy they are revealed in his insistence that there are only two kinds of causality and that these must be contradictories. Kant’s expectations are furthermore apparent in his assumption that since the causalities of nature and of freedom are contradictories, their opposition represents a potential threat to reason, and hence a problem that must be solved. He holds that these assumptions exhaust the possible options, for it does not occur to him that his own analysis of the conflicts is governed by presuppositions that escape his critical scrutiny.

The fact that Kant does not appreciate the question-begging character of his arguments is particularly evident according to Hegel in the status he awards the results of his critical inquiries. For Kant a critical examination of the cosmological conflicts can lead to the discovery of features of human reason that are absolutely fixed, features that have universal and necessary validity. Critique can lead to the discovery, once and for all, of the proper objects and absolute limits of our knowledge and Kant is confident about all this only because he is insufficiently sensitive to conditions of his own philosophizing for he believes he can know before he knows and is convinced that as a critical thinker he can assume the role of a wholly impartial referee.

Hegel’s point is not that Kant’s treatment of the antinomies should have been presuppositionless but rather that Kant was wrong in expecting that his analysis could be presuppositionless for he should not have assumed that in undertaking critique he could make the conditions governing his own philosophizing completely transparent, he should not have supposed it possible to perform critique from a vantage point wholly on the ‘other side’ of content, he should not have expected that his critical reflections would yield timeless truths that revealing the nature and limits of human reason once and for all. Hegel accepts Kant’s honest efforts to carry out his critical inquiries in a thoroughly rigorous and self-conscious manner, but he does charge Kant with a certain indolence or laziness of thought that, for all its noble intensions, is insufficiently self-conscious or self-critical and ‘comforts itself with the conviction that everything is already proved and settled’.

To quote the passage in full from the ‘Science of Logic’:

‘I should point out that in this work I make frequent references to the Kantian philosophy (which to many might seem superfluous) because, whatever might be said here or elsewhere of its distinctive character or of particular parts of its exposition, it constitutes the foundation and the starting point of the new German philosophy, and this is a merit of which it can boast undiminished by whatever fault may be found in it. An added reason for these frequent references in the objective logic is that Kantian philosophy delves deeply into important, more specific aspects of the logic, whereas later philosophical expositions have paid little attention to these aspects and in some instances have even expressed crude — though not unavenged — contempt for them. The philosophizing most widespread among us does not reach past the Kantian results that reason cannot cognize any true content, and that, when it comes to absolute truth, it must be directed to faith [he refers here to Jacobi]. But what for Kant is the result is for this philosophizing the immediate starting point, so that the exposition which precedes the result, from which this result is derived and which constitutes philosophical cognition, is excised beforehand. The philosophy of Kant thus serves as a cushion for an intellectual indolence which takes comfort in the fact that everything is already proved and settled. For cognition and a specific content of thought which is not found in such a barren and arid complacency, one must therefore turn to that preceding exposition’.

The same account of the powers of thought that Hegel holds responsible for the subjectivity of Kant’s idealism is also responsible for what he takes to be Kant’s unrealistic estimation of the achievements of critique. The same account of the powers and forms of thought that leaves us no means of avoiding contingency in the relation between our concepts and things is also at the basis of Kant’s claim to have gained insight into immutable features of our faculties of thinking and knowing. Despite Kant’s repeated caveats against the speculative flights of reason, despite his unwavering insistence upon modesty in our estimation of our cognitive powers, he was nonetheless too confident in the resources of critique, he was too confident in his own capacity as a critical thinker to abstract to a standpoint wholly ‘external’ to ‘common reality’.

I believe my posts should be more interactive and so I end with a question for you:

Kant, or Hegel?

To be continued …..

‘Geigenspiel am Grab’, 1904, Alberti Welti



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