Immanuel Kant

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Immanuel Kant

There have been many philosophical perspectives and debates held throughout the centuries on the foundations of human knowledge. The stand points that both Descartes and Locke have differ and both of these philosophers’ perspectives have contributed to the rational and empirical debate about the foundations of human knowledge. Descartes’ understanding of the foundations of human knowledge takes on a rational viewpoint and has lead to Locke’s response of an empirical proposition of this understanding.

Both of these philosophers’ understandings are two sides to the same coin according to Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s writing of Critique of Pure Reason he explains how both of these perspectives are intertwined and work together to as the foundations to forming human knowledge. To Kant empiricism and rationalism both play an important part to human beings acquiring knowledge. In the essay below, there will be a brief history on who Immanuel Kant was and a more detailed explanation of both Descartes’ and Locke’s comprehension of the foundations of human knowledge.

Following the dispute held between these two philosophers will be Kant’s solution to their debate, on how both the empirical and rational faculties of reality are important factors to gaining human knowledge. Kant was a German philosopher that was born April 24th, 1724 and died February 12th, 1804 and is often known as one of the most important philosopher of modern time. His writings are known to be one of the most difficult philosophers to understand which results in many challenging interpretations of his work. Kant is difficult to read because of the system he uses; he re-established this through the invention of critical philosophy.

Kant was raised to be a priestly household that stressed intense religious devotion and personal humility and many interpret his philosophy as an attempt to carry forward the interest of Christianity. He received a firm education, one that was disciplinary and held religious instruction over mathematics and science. His career seemed to take light at the high point of the Enlightenment where reason can be found to be at the center of his philosophy. He was enrolled at the University of Konigsberg at the age of sixteen and ended up spending his entire career there. He studied philosophy and was introduced to the mathematical physics of Newton.

There were major advances in the sciences that used reason and logic which was in opposition to empirical philosophy. Kant was a rationalist before he accepted the empiricist perception of knowledge. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was written in hopes of ending the scepticism of empirical logic that thinkers such as Descartes possessed. The position that Descartes takes on the foundations of human knowledge is a rationalist point of view. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy starts with his own experiences and discards all beliefs in all things that cannot be proven absolute. He then tries to establish what can be known for certain.

Each meditation refers to the last one as “yesterday”, as if the meditations were written in six consecutive days. The first meditation starts with Descartes doubting his reality, his being, and everything he knows because he believes that his senses are deceiving. Descartes reflects on a number of falsehoods which he believes forms faultiness in the foundation of his body of knowledge; he believes that the foundations need to be rebuilt. In understanding that his body of knowledge has derived from these falsehoods he comes to the conclusion that he must wipe clean and set aside all of his beliefs and start from the beginning.

He reasons that if he can doubt the foundations and basic principles in which his opinions and beliefs are founded on, then it is said to be false until it can be proven certain; all false knowledge should be discarded. The reasoning for Descartes doubting everything is due to his understanding that the senses have deceived him before and therefore cannot be trusted; if he has been mislead by his senses in the past than it is possible for him to be deceived by them at anytime.

He argues that all knowledge that is gained as a child should be doubted until proven to be true because the opinions and beliefs that we form as a child are brought forth through undeveloped and untrained faculties. Another argument that Descartes brings forth is the Dream Argument, arguing that when we are dreaming we cannot distinguish between the reality of our dream and real reality, which only in our waking experience does one realize that they were dreaming.

He then brings forth two more arguments justifying why he should doubt everything he knows, the first stating that empirical experiences (the senses) could be misleading and deceptive at times. At times our senses could make something seem as if it is something else. The second justification for his scepticism is his idea of the Evil Genius. It is a conception that an evil deity implements these false ideas into your head and gives one false perceptions of reality.

These four reasons suggest why Descartes doubts his truths and why he decides to give up all of his beliefs of the physical and empirical world unless they are proven to be certain. In his second meditation Descartes claims that the internal reality is known more easily then the body. He continues by arguing that our knowledge is not gained through experience, but rather it is innate knowledge. He understands that he must forget everything that has happened and persist on doubting everything until he can resist the doubt.

He supposes that everything that he sees does not exist, that he has no senses and no body, and that extension, place and movement are false notions. The only certainty there is, is that there is no certainty. He denies that he is any senses and body; he questions his existence and states that his mind is the firmest affirmation that he does exist. Descartes then comes to the conclusion that if he does not exist and an evil genius is tricking him, in order for him to be tricked or to be doubting everything he must exist for this to take place.

If everything is an illusion to him and is having false judgement, it is still him doing it, the fact that he doubts proves that he exists. Descartes understands that he cannot exist if he does not think and only exists as long as he is thinking. Therefore for Descartes thought above all else is inseparable from human beings. He separates the world into two substances Res Cogitans (thinking being) and Res Extensa (external being). Stating that he exists because he is the one that doubts and that thought could not be separated from him. The foundation for human rationality is Res Cogitans.

He then concludes that he is not just something that thinks, wills, and understands but also something that imagines and senses even if these faculties are not truthful. Descartes comes to understand that his body is separate from his mind; his senses can change things and make them appears otherwise. He uses an example of wax, when you place the wax near fire it melts and takes a different form but he still understands that it is wax. It is in this moment that Descartes realizes that his Res Cogitans is needed for the senses to be able to distinguish that the wax is still wax even if has taken on another form.

This understanding does not come from the faculties of the senses, since all of its sensible properties have changed; he knows the wax by means of the intellect alone. The third meditation concerns the existence of God. He questions what he knows of himself and how he knows what he knows. His reflection on this knowledge is that God is the ultimate foundation of knowledge. The minds possession of knowledge allows one to have knowledge; one has a body of knowledge innate that allows them to perceive the external world. Descartes understands that he has thoughts that are not gained through experiences, the idea of God.

God cannot be known by the senses, for the knowledge of God is ultimate. He questions then how one could attain the knowledge unless this knowledge was innate, he thinks of God so therefore God exists. If there is an evil deity that exists that is as powerful as God then one can be reassured that God does exist, and if God does exist then the evil deity cannot be sustainable, therefore he does not exist. Descartes then continue to state that God not only exists but he has also placed these thoughts of perfection in one’s mind, a priori knowledge.

He then comes to conclude that pure reason is knowledge gained by innate knowledge not by the experience of the senses. He reasons that all ideas are modes of thought and that the idea of God must have a far greater purpose then any other. The fact the Descartes is a finite substance he does not have the capability on his own to originate the idea of God, and therefore concludes that God being infinite caused this idea making him exist. Within his reason (thoughts) his clear and distinct ideas are truth, with the senses one is in danger in confusing things.

To Descartes God is the necessary condition of reality and knowledge and God to his knowledge is innate. One cannot experience God’s attributes, therefore they are innate attributes. This is how he came to the conclusion that God has placed this idea in his mind. Because he came to know that there was a God through rational knowledge, there is an innate nature of God within his thoughts. Descartes conclude that there are two sources that we engage with the world ones will and senses. It is not the will that misleads one but the misconception between the two.

To Descartes the external world exists but in order to understand the external world one has innate knowledge of the world. Human beings possess innate and a priori knowledge that gives the possibility of understanding the knowledge of the empirical world. John Locke’s perception of the foundations of knowledge is in opposition to Descartes’ philosophy. Locke argues that we do not have innate or a priori knowledge of God. Locke perceives to be a blank slate; at first the mind does not contain any notions whatsoever, it is empty. All the ideas that we have are gained through experience; the human mind is born without no built in context.

He attacks the notion set forth by Descartes and other philosophers on the theory that human beings are born knowing certain things. Humans gain knowledge from the world they don’t start off with knowledge. For Locke empirical knowledge gains our further inquiry into knowledge. It is only when we come in contact with things through experience that we gain knowledge. Locke believes and feels strongly that all of our ideas come from experience and the material that we have to work with is extremely limited; the knowledge in which we attain about the nature of things is limited and one can never really have a systematic body of knowledge.

We can only observe and experience certain qualities within the world, and this however according to Locke limits our knowledge of the nature of things. Knowledge is built on ideas and we get our ideas from our experience of the senses. He explains that there are two basic types of ideas simple and complex ideas. We gain our simple ideas through our senses, through the faculties of sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste; we reflect on the external world and our complex ideas are built off of simple ideas.

He explains that this form of knowledge cannot be innate because this theory contradicts itself. If there were innate principles to knowledge then everyone would agree to them, and not everyone agrees to innate principles therefore there can be no innate principles. Locke presents four arguments as to why knowledge cannot be innate and a priori because it would contradict itself. If they were innate this would imply that ideas and images are imprinted on everyone’s mind not just certain individuals.

Children should have access to this kind of knowledge but they don’t, they only ever seem to have ideas to the things they have experienced. This makes the claim that knowledge is innate contradict itself because if it were a priori and innate children would have this kind of knowledge that Descartes talks about. If children were born with these ideas they would not find it so difficult to grasp. He also states that if there is some kind of knowledge that is innate then everyone should posses a level of awareness of this but this is not the case. It is not possible for this to be and not be at the same time.

The ideas that make up the propositions of existence and identity are least likely to be innate because they are too obscure and confusing for them to be clear without any form of degree. He also raises an argument on the understanding of God. The idea of God cannot be innate because there are some cultures that don’t recognize God or any god for that matter. Locke is a sceptic of the know ability of God, for we are finite beings and God is infinite and if we don’t possess innate knowledge then the only notions we can generate is through empirical objects.

Therefore according to Locke this proves that knowledge is not innate and is only gained through experience. In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason he aims to unite reason with experience, both Descartes’ and Locke’s perspective on the foundation of human Knowledge. Reason is the highest authority for Kant, judging even our knowledge of God. His hope is that he can save knowledge from scepticism (Hume’s criticism) and show the deep roots of knowledge in the cognitive structures of the thinking subject. His philosophy has a unity under reason, but reason has its limits and distinct applications.

He thinks that before we can philosophize we must first determine how reason works in its two basic manners. Kant places heavy emphasis on the a priori method. A priori refers to ideas or judgments, conclusions we can gather, based upon knowledge we have prior to, or without reference to, empirical experience. The opposite of a priori knowledge is a posteriori knowledge, which is dependent upon experience of the world outside of thought. Kant’s philosophy gives a very brief sketch and argues for the maintaining of a series of distinctions.

We are told that the realm of rational knowledge can be regarded in two ways, or through two sets of distinctions. On the one hand, rational knowledge can be viewed formally or materially. Formal knowledge is ordered by the universal laws of logic, which try to organize the rules of connecting and constructing ideas without any reference to objects. Material knowledge is concerned with physical objects and the laws of thinking through which we apprehend objects. Rational knowledge may be regarded as empirical or as pure.

Empirical knowledge is based on experience, whereas pure knowledge is based upon a priori principles. Kant applies two distinctions to generate a third category for knowledge. Reality to Kant is a joint creation of the external world and the human mind, in which it only regards the latter that we can acquire certain knowledge. Unlike Locke, Kant does not believe that the mind is a blank slate where the mind only receives information; it also gives shape to the information.

He believes that knowledge is something that is created by the mind though the filtering of sensations through the various mental faculties. These faculties determine the shape that knowledge takes once one has experienced the empirical world. Also, Kant differs from Descartes by claiming that pure reason can discern the form but not the substance of reality; one cannot come up with answers through just the exercise of pure reason. He believes that his forerunners did not provide a clear ground for metaphysical speculation, due to the fact that they assume that time, space, and causation are part of external reality that the mind has to reach out and grab.

He believes that time, space, and causation are not found in experience but rather from the form in which the mind gives to experience. He states that we can grasp this not because pure reason has been stated to have insight into the nature of reality, but rather pure reason has insight into the nature of ones own mental faculties. Our knowledge of things is how we come into contact with it; we can never know the true nature of the things in which we experience only God can. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant achieves a blend between the competing traditions of rationalism and empiricism.

He draws from rationalism that pure reason is capable of important knowledge, but however he rejects that pure reason can tell us anything about the natural things in themselves. He also draws from empiricism, stating that the idea of knowledge is essentially from experience, but discards that we can assume universal truths alone from experience. The two distinctions that Kant draws from that were mention earlier a priori and a posteriori knowledge. A posteriori knowledge is associated with synthetic judgment because this judgement is derived only through experience.

Analytic judgement is associated with a priori knowledge because this judgment is based on reason, the ability to have use ones own mental faculties. Kant states that pure reason is capable of knowing pure truths simply because one is capable of synthetic a priori knowledge, however pure reason does not have the power to grasp the mysteries of the universe. He believes that much of what we believe reality is shaped by the perception of the mind. The mind does not passively receive information by the senses but rather it actively shapes and makes sense of the information that it experiences.

Space and time according to Kant are intuitions of our faculties of the senses; sensory experience only makes sense because our faculties of our senses process it and organize it according to our intuitions of time and space. The events that take place within space and time would not make sense if it weren’t for the faculty of understanding, which according to Kant organizes our experiences. It is our senses that react to the objects from outside of the mind, and we only have knowledge to how they appear once they have been processed through the faculties of the senses and understanding.

One cannot know the true nature of what things are for only God can,; an individual can only have knowledge through the structure of the mind in which it experiences the world. Kant says that we have tools that are innate within us that allow us to understand what we have experienced in the world, but one can never truly understand things within themselves. According to Kant Metaphysics rely on the faculty of reason which allows and helps us to reason independently form experience, not to understand things in themselves.

In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant redefines the role of metaphysics as a critique of pure reason. It is understood that the role of reason is to understand itself, to explore the powers and the limits of reason. Kant makes it clear that we are incapable of knowing anything certain about things-in-themselves, but we can grow a clearer sense of what and how we may know by intensively overlooking the faculties of the mind. One comes to see how Kant brings both rationalism and empiricism and forms a new foundation on the acquiring of human knowledge. Work Cited.

“An Essay Concerning Human Understanding/Book I. ” – Wikisource. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. . “Critique of Pure Reason. ” (Aesthetic). Web. 10 Apr. 2012. . “Critique of Pure Reason. ” (Analytic of Concepts). Web. 10 Apr. 2012. . “Meditations on First Philosophy/Meditation I. ” – Wikisource. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. . “Meditations on First Philosophy/Meditation II. ” – Wikisource. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. . “Meditations on First Philosophy/Meditation III. ” – Wikisource. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. . Wilson, Gerald . Lecture 7: Kantian. Class notes PHI3183 Wednesday, February 29, 2012.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 15 November 2016

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