Kant makes a distinction between appearances and things in themselves. He also says that things in themselves exist, and that we have no knowledge of things in themselves. No matter how many laps on the track of metaphysics Kant takes us through, he is still widely held as one of the greatest modern philosophers of our time. Let us explore the schools of rationalism and empiricism and compare his views with that of other rationalists and empiricists (mainly Hume), and see where he ends up on the finish line towards the nature of human knowledge.
The term rationalism is used to designate any mode of thought in which human reason holds the place of supreme truth. Knowledge in this school of thought must be founded upon necessary truths (those that must be true and cannot be false); our ideas are derived from our experience; everything we experience is finite, but we do have the idea of infinity or else we couldn t conceive of things as finite. Descartes and Leibniz are well-known rationalists (handout on Rationalism versus Empiricism).
Empiricism, on the other hand, is the concept that knowledge is grounded in experience, not reason, and our minds begin as a tabula rasa (term used by the great empiricist, John Locke meaning blank slate). Reason, for empiricists, can only process the ideas experience gives us. Knowledge is also founded on contingent truths (those that can be false and true); necessary truths are only good for organizing our ideas, as in mathematics, but that is all. There are also no innate ideas in empiricism; all of our ideas are built up from the raw materials given by our experience.
Well-known empiricists include Locke, Berkeley, and Hume (handout on Rationalism versus Empiricism). So now that we know where the rationalists and empiricists generally stand, let us see where Kant generally stands. For Kant, human thought exist at three (closely interrelated and interconnected) levels (Ross, 2000). Sensibility conforms our perception of space and time. Understanding corresponds with our individual judgments regarding thought. Reason is the totality of our judgments. Their relationship is crucial in Kant s theory of the thing in itself.
The thing in itself is the product of our mind s commitment to thinking about the phenomena (the items of our experience) as appearances (Ross, 2000). It might seem inappropriate to describe Kant as an empiricist. He believed, contrary to the basic empiricist principle, that there are important propositions that can be known independently of experience. He devoted, virtually all of his efforts as researcher to discovering how it is possible for us to have a synthetic a priori knowledge. However, Kant also believed that there are some things that we can know only through sensory experience as well.
Kant appears to have left experience in charge of our knowledge (Ross, 2000). But, let us not concede yet. In Kant s Critique of Pure Reason (Transcendental Deduction), in the middle of his argument for why certain concepts would be necessary and known a priori with respect to experience, Kant realized that “synthesis” would have to produce, not just a structure of thought, but the entire structure of consciousness within which perception also occurs. He says that what is first given to us is appearance, and then combined with consciousness we have perception.
It is the structure of consciousness that turns appearances into objects and perceptions, without which they would be nothing. Kant made synthesis a function of imagination rather than thought, though this creates its own confusions. Synthesis therefore brings things into consciousness, making it possible for us to recognize that our consciousness exists and that there are things in it (Ross, 2000). Let us now briefly look at Kant and his position with rationalism. Kant always believed that reason connected us directly to things in themselves.
Kant’s notion that reason connects us directly to things in themselves does not allow for metaphysics as practiced by the rationalists because reason alone does not determine any positive content of knowledge (Ross, 2000). Kant’s theory as one of empirical realism is still very difficult to understand. Since phenomena are mental contents, a point repeatedly stressed by Kant, it is natural and easy to infer from this a Cartesian transcendental realism according to which “real” objects, which are not mental contents, are things that we do not experience.
A transcendental realism (rational) clearly contradicts Kant’s transcendental idealism (empirical), but we can still be left thinking that what we really have is an empirical idealism. For me, the lack of clear settlement in this area of basic thought is the one of the most difficult problems in Kant’s philosophy. The confusion of Kant when it comes to his theory of empirical realism and transcendental idealism is largely due to his language and the difficulties of reconciling parts of his theory (Ross, 2000).
Let us now compare some of the other modern philosophers to some of Kant s ideology. Berkeley was an idealist and the characteristic empiricist, while Descartes was a realist, believing reasonably that objects exist independent of us, but who also thought that we could only know their essences through “clear and distinct” innate ideas, not experience. This made Descartes a rationalist. For Descartes, any notion that could be conceived “clearly and distinctly” could be used without hesitation or doubt, a procedure familiar and unobjectionable in mathematics.
It was the empiricists who started demanding certificates of authenticity, since they wanted to trace all knowledge back to experience (Ross, 2000). Locke was not aware, so much as Berkeley and Hume, that everything familiar from traditional philosophy (or even mathematics) was not going to be so traceable. Berkeley’s rejection of material substance sparked skepticism. Thus, Kant begins, like Hume, asking about the legitimacy of concepts (Ross, 2000). In Hume critique of the concept of cause and effect, he did question the principle of causality, and the way in which he expressed the defect of such a principle made sense to Kant. Hume had decided that the lack of certainty for cause and effect was because of the nature of the relationship of the two events (Ross, 2000). Just like Hume, Kant does not feel that rationality should be the basis for morality. While it is common to say that Hume denied the existence of synthetic a priori propositions, there is some question about whether he actually does.
He says that the relationship of cause and effect is not discovered or known by any reasoning a priori, but that is not the same thing. A synthetic a priori proposition is not known from any reasoning. In fact, Hume does not see that the relationship of cause and effect is discovered or known from anything, since it is not justified by experience, in which there is no necessary connection between cause and effect, and there is in fact nothing in the cause to even suggest the effect, much less than the effect must follow.
Hume felt that we become accustomed to the association of certain events (causes) with others (effects); but this carries no weight about the nature of things, which is what makes Hume a skeptic (Ross, 2000). In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, however, believes that concepts like causality are “conditions of the possibility of experience,” because they are the rules by which perception and experience are united into a single consciousness called “synthesis”.
Once the existence of consciousness is accepted then whatever is necessary for the existence of consciousness must be accepted. His is a strong argument and is of great value, especially when we untangle it from the earlier views of perception in the Critique. However, it suffers from a couple of drawbacks. One is that, like Hume’s own explanation, it is an approach that does not necessarily tell us anything about objects. Kant seemed to recognize this himself when he said that none of this gives us any knowledge of things in themselves.
Kant never properly sorted out this problem. The second drawback of Kant’s argument is that it would only work for the possibility of experience, and not for any other matters, which seem to me, to involve synthetic a priori propositions. The ideas proposed in this paper were very difficult to interpret on my part. Through reading Kant s Critique of Pure Reason (Transcendental Aesthetic and Analytic) over and over again, I think I got most of what he was trying to say. I am sure my intimidation as a college student is not the only one of it s kind.
Philosophers and essayists around the world have made and are still making numerous attempts at cracking the code to Kant s cryptic hypotheses. I cannot help but to still wonder if Kant agreed more with rationalists or empiricists. If he were alive today, maybe he wouldn t choose either side. So, as for the race for who is more accurate at explaining the nature of human knowledge, it turns out that Kant is not a participant in the race after all. Nevertheless, he stands at the sidelines and fires the gun, and awaits the other modern philosophers to complete their race towards the finish line.