John Locke and Immanuel Kant

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 5 November 2016

John Locke and Immanuel Kant

We are here concerned with the relationship between the human mind, somatic-sensory perceptions, objects of perception, and claims of knowledge arising from their interaction, through the philosophies of John Locke and Immanuel Kant. Confounding the ability to find solid epistemological ground, philosophers have, generally speaking, debated whether ‘what’ we know is prima facie determined by the objective, as-they-are, characteristics of the external world 1(epistemological realism) or if the mind determines, as-it-is, the nature of objects through its own experiential deductions (epistemological idealism).

The purpose of this paper is to use the synthetical approach of Immanuel Kant, who utilizes a logical schematization of cognition along with experience (transcendental idealism), in the attaining of knowledge, to criticize Locke’s claims against innate ideas, and subsequently, origin and attainment of knowledge. In the first part of this paper, I will explain the major differences which distinguish epistemological realism and idealism.

This disambiguation of philosophical jargon is to allow the reader to understand why the debate exists, how it impacts what human’s claims as ‘knowledge’, and whether or not the debate has any contemporary philosophical importance. This last feature is a relevant aspect of the debate since ‘knowledge’ applies to a great many areas of human life, including, but not limited to, the sciences, morality and ethics, and aesthetics.

In the second part of this paper, I will outline Kant’s idealism, otherwise known as, transcendental idealism. This section will lay out the terminology in Kant’s epistemology which will act as a backdrop for comparing and contrasting the theory of Locke. This section will also describe the foundation of Kant’s epistemological claims. As mentioned in the introduction, the mind, the somatic-sensory perceptions, and objects of perception are to be accounted for in the debate between idealism and realism.

Thus, the second part of the paper will conclude with an understanding of how knowledge arises under the rubric of Kant’s transcendental idealism. The third part of this paper is then dedicated to providing an account of Lockean innate knowledge and its place in our epistemological enquiry. It is presumed that several deficiencies, to be discussed, are apparent in Locke’s epistemological realism without the use of innate ‘ideas’. These deficiencies, however, are percolated only in light of the Kantian juxtaposition for which this section serves the purpose.

In the final part of this paper, I will conclude that while Locke’s epistemological theories h ave had a great influence on the progress of epistemology, especially as a critique against rationalism, the idea of no innate ideas impressed upon the mind prior to experience ultimately leads Lockean realism to base claims that all knowledge arises solely from experience as inexhaustively question-begging without Kant’s transcendentalism. Dealing with the problems of realism and idealism can be seen in humans as young as three years old. Although it may not be so apparent to parents at the time, when a child asks, “How do you know that? ” they are challenging the method in which a person uses to ‘know’ what they know.

However, children, like philosophers, might not be satisfied with the first answer and continue with a meta-inquiry: “How do you know that? ” While this interrogative approach to understanding the world can be frustrating it does illuminate a particular problem in reasoning, generally. That is, at some point we are forced to answer, vacuously, “I know, because I know. ” However, the persistent child philosopher can rebut with, “How do you know that you know? The problems intrinsic to the line of questioning above demonstrate a broad epistemological problem. To solve the problem philosophers have sought out ways in order to make ‘what we know’ or explaining ‘how we know’ a bit more reliable or certain. That is, to provide an answer to our inquisitive three year old that breaks the meta-inquiry of knowable certitude. Knowledge, however, is a little tricky because there is an identity problem between the world and the ideas, or thoughts, in our minds. In making claims of knowledge we must presume certain things are true.

To say that you know something assumes that you (1) believe the world represented in your mind is exactly as it is whether you perceive it or not and what we have to say about the world must correspond to the way the world is perceived, (2) the world gives us information about objects, which can be accurate, but our minds are the final decision makers about the nature of those objects which can lead to skepticism, or (3) there is nothing stable about the appearances of the world as presented to our minds, and what we know is solely the product of collective reflection, otherwise known as easoning. In the context of my thesis, it could be argued that if a set of instructions were provided, such as innate ideas in the mind, these three broad, epistemological viewpoints would be narrowed down to one. The first assumption, (1), is the philosophical position known, broadly, as epistemological realism. The second assumption, (2), is more of a dualism in that it is believed there is enough perceived objectivity in the world to have some certain knowledge of it, but it is still subjected to our experiential bias (intuition plays a more integral role in this doctrine).

This is a kind of realism in that certain properties about the objects we perceive are unalterable or indisputable since they would retain those characteristics whether or not they are observed. The third position is epistemological idealism. This position holds, generally, that knowledge is not a product of the nature of objects, but instead, derived from the nature of the mind. In other words, the certainty of knowledge is granted through the nature of the mind found within the species deliberating over certain claims.

As mentioned, the debate between idealism and realism does have, beyond satisfying the curiosity of toddlers, implications in other areas of philosophy. It is not the focus of this paper, but an example that illustrates potential problems is that of ethics and morality. In epistemological realism, it may be the case that certain acts produce pain in humans, but there is nothing, it is alleged, which a person can point to in the world that would verify this (kind of) pain as bad, good, rightly, wrongly imposed.

In other words, epistemological realism holds that we can know facts about the way the world is because our mind is receptive and capable of reproducing them accurately in our minds, but it is another thing to try to extrapolate from these facts/experiences a particular value/meaning to attach to prescriptive claims. In the extreme case, an epistemological realist might claim that all rules of morality are completely made up and merely appeal to our feelings about facts, but we cannot know for certain.

As for idealism, morality appears as a less problematic discourse since the very proprietor of knowledge is that which is arbitrating over moral disputes. However, the kind of facts and/or values which moral claims arise, for idealists, are of a strictly theoretical nature and can be said to carry as much empirical or logical certainty as those doubted in the case of realism. At best they are egocentric and/or egotistic. Even in contemporary debates, which diverge subtly from the philosophies this paper examines, the entailment of moral truths from realist or idealist doctrines remains unsolved.

In some cases, such as Marxist philosophy, there can be a real confusion about which doctrine actually prevails. The Communist rule of Stalin and Mao is arguably a perversion of epistemological realism for what was actually and indiscernibly expressed as an idealist project. It was in the Critique of Pure Reason that the philosopher Immanuel Kant attempted to settle the problem of epistemological certainty and skepticism.

Recalling the relationship between the mind, objects of the world, our perceptive apparatuses, and knowledge, Kant opens up the Critique of Pure Reason with two allusive statements[1]: (1) “…no knowledge our ours is antecedent to experience, but begins with it. ” (2) “…though all of our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience. ” Situating these two phrases within the context of realism and idealism requires parsing out the some key phrases within these statements.

The first key phrase or term is “begins. ” Kant tells us that “knowledge begins with experience. ” That is, in order to say “I know,” one must first have an object which makes some kind of sensory impression on the mind. [2]“For how is it possible,” Kant asks, “that the faculty of cognition should be awakened into exercise otherwise by means of objects which affect our senses…so to convert the raw material of our sensuous impressions into a knowledge of objects? It is, therefore, objects in the world that first supply us with the “raw material” for ‘beginning’ the process of attaining knowledge; the term ‘process’ is important here, because the two statements above allude to two different kinds of knowledge. It is not the case, claims Kant, all knowledge is a direct derivative of compounding impressions of raw data. For Kant, and this point lays the foundation of idealism, the mind plays a much more integral role in determining how those impressions are arranged in pre-conscious faculties.

This difference plays an important role in the realism/idealism debate since the relationship between the minds’ functioning and knowledge claims depends upon disassociating two different kinds of demonstrations: (1) a method of proving what is known, (2) the acquisition of knowledge. More specifically, the debate between realism and idealism must in some ways reconcile itself with knowledge claims that are a priori and/or a posteriori.

The former refers to rationalized knowledge which is universal, necessary and independent of experience (though this last condition, as we will see, is not so clear in Kant’s idealism). The latter is empirical knowledge which is acquired directly through our sensory perception and is validated by the relationship between what is stated and the way the world appears to be. For example, the claim that ‘snow is cold’ is a posteriori since the concept of ‘cold’ is not directly related to ‘snow’ independent of human experience.

What is a priori knowledge is the fundamental subject of Kant’s transcendental idealism. According to Kant, a priori knowledge is not just about a method of proof, but also about how we attain a priori knowledge. As mentioned above, Kant is concerned with not only the knowledge that comes from experience, but also knowledge that arises from experience. That is, Kant seeks to settle how a priori knowledge, knowledge that lends epistemological certitude regarding to certain claims, is attained and verified without relying on facts about an external world.

It is here that we see explicitly how a priori knowledge and epistemological idealism are integral and linked to the realism/idealism discussion; a priori knowledge is attained through a logical rationalization of concepts about objects that does not require a direct experience of them. In other words, a priori knowledge is knowledge which, according to Kant, begins with experience, but does not necessarily arise from that experience. To unpack this influx of these epistemological connections, it will be instructive to begin with what Kant calls the Transcendental Aesthetic.

There is, states Kant, an arrangement to the mind which makes experience possible. This arrangement, or what Kant calls ‘schematism’ not only makes experience possible, but it also limits the scope of possible experiences. To refocus, Kant’s position is that space and time are the two most fundamental conditions for having an experience. All objects which are presented to the mind are done so, necessarily, in time and in space. It is important to recall that objects of perception/experience make impressions on the mind which is done through any or all of the five senses.

This means that space and time, in order to be objects of the external world, must possess the property of being sensible. But if space is the condition for which objects are experienced, then space can only exist because space exists (this kind of paradox is addressed in the Antinomies). The same applies to time. Kant, therefore, purports that space and time are mere formal conditionings of objects via the minds operation providing, at the same time, the possibility of experience and experiential limitations. The upshot for Kant is that he loses nothing with this claim.

The reality of space and time, as external objects, would lend no more validity to knowledge claims since the properties of space and time are necessary conditions for experience. Thus, making knowledge claims do not change whether space and time are properties of realist or idealist doctrines. In addition, Kant avoids the paradoxes which arise from claiming space and as objects of external reality by placing them as antecedent conditions for experience, as is needed, in the mind. This leads us to what Kant calls ‘synthetical’ claims a priori.

By placing objects in space and in time there are going to be properties pertaining to the relations of objects to other objects and properties of objects that will follow the logic of being so represented. When Kant says that knowledge can arise from experience he is referring to the synthetical claims a priori which are determined by the logic of space and time as formal conditions for experiential representations. This is how Kant is able to famously answer how ‘every change has cause’ is necessary without realist fact. Kant admits that change is something that must be experienced, but change is an experience in space and in time.

Since time is represented as a succession or the proceeding of an object through/from time t1 to time t2, and change is a relation of cause and effect, and since a cause cannot be its effect (see the paradox of space and time being the conditions of their own existence above), then once we are able to experience an event as ‘change’ in relation to an object (in time and space), we can, and with no further experience, strictly use the concepts of ‘cause’, ‘event’, and ‘change’, to make the a priori claim that ‘every change has a cause’; note, not just a change, or some changes, but every change has a cause.

In other words, because of Kant’s transcendental idealism, we are logically justified in attaching certain knowledge of properties and relations in and between objects beyond what is provided by what we know a posteriori.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 5 November 2016

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