Kant: Transcendental Idealism


Kant, like Descartes and Berkeley, asks the following question: how can we distinguish appearances from reality? Rationalists (like Descartes) tried to escape the epistemological confines of the mind by constructing knowledge of the external world, the self, the soul, God, ethics, and science out of the simplest, indubitable ideas possessed innately by the mind while Empiricists (like Berkeley) argued that human knowledge originates in our sensations. Kant’s great achievement was to show a way of overcoming this apparently irreconcilable divide. He does this by concentrating on the ‘transcendental structure’of experience.In Kant’s terms, something transcendental relates to the conditions of the possibility of experience: what must be the case for an experience of any sort to be possible at all. He takes ‘time’ and ‘space’ to be structures of this sort. These are not something that we learn from experience, and they are not something we can arrive at analytically through a priori reflection: they are the structures of conscious perception that underlying experience as such. Kant calls these innate structures of intuition the ‘forms of our sensibility’.

“My idealism concerns not the existence of things (the doubting of which, however, constitutes idealism in the ordinary sense), since it never came into my head to doubt it, but it concerns the sensuous representation of things, to which space and time especially belong. Of these [viz., space and time], consequently of all appearances in general, I have only shown, that they are neither things (but mere modes of representation), nor determinations belonging to things in themselves. But the word “transcendental,” which with me means a reference of our cognition, i.e., not to things, but only to the cognitive faculty, was meant to obviate this misconception. Yet rather than give further occasion to it by this word, I now retract it, and desire this idealism of mine to be called critical. But if it be really an objectionable idealism to convert actual things (not appearances) into mere representations… by what name shall we call him who conversely changes mere representations to things? It may, I think, be called “dreaming idealism,” in contradistinction to the former, which may be called “visionary,” both of which are to be refuted by my transcendental, or, better, critical idealism.” 

Kant, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics (Remark III)

Another way to understand Kant’s point here is that it is impossible for us to have any experience of objects that are not in time and space. Furthermore, space and time themselves cannot be perceived directly, so they must be the form by which experience of objects is had. The radical part of Kant’s epistemology was the suggestion that, rather than simply be a report on the outside world, the information we receive from our senses are organised by the faculties of the mind into a form that we can make sense of. This is an idea we are quite familiar with in modern times, but Kant was the first to advocate it.

“The solution of this difficulty rests on something that could have been very easily understood from the general bearing of the work, if the reader had only desired to do so. Space and time, together with all that they contain, are not things nor qualities in themselves, but belong merely to the appearances of the latter: up to this point I am one in confession with the above idealists. But these, and amongst them more particularly Berkeley, regarded space as a mere empirical presentation that, like the phenomenon it contains, is only known to us by means of experience or perception, together with its determinations. I, on the contrary, prove in the first place, that space (and also time, which Berkeley did not consider) and all its determinations a priori, can be known by us, because, no less than time, it inheres in our sensibility as a pure form before all perception or experience and makes all intuition of the same, and therefore all its phenomena, possible. It follows from this, that as truth rests on universal and necessary laws as its criteria, experience, according to Berkeley, can have no criteria of truth, because its phenomena (according to him) have nothing a priori at their foundation; whence it follows, that they are nothing but sheer illusion; whereas with us, space and time (in conjunction with the pure conceptions of the understanding) prescribe their law to all possible experience a priori, and at the same time afford the certain criterion for distinguishing truth from illusion therein. “My so-called (properly critical) Idealism is of quite a special character, in that it subverts the ordinary idealism, and that through it all cognition a priori, even that of geometry, first receives objective reality, which, without my demonstrated ideality of space and time, could not be maintained by the most zealous realists. This being the state of the case, I could have wished, in order to avoid all misunderstanding, to have named this conception of mine otherwise, but to alter it altogether was impossible. It may be permitted me however, in future, as has been above intimated, to term it the formal, or better still, the critical Idealism, to distinguish it from the dogmatic Idealism of Berkeley, and from the skeptical Idealism of Descartes.” 

Kant, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics (On A Specimen Of A Judgment Of The Critique Prior To Its Examination)

It should be pointed out that Kant is not endorsing the same kind of idealism about objects as Berkeley. That is, Kant does not believe that external material objects are unknowable or impossible. While Kant is a transcendental idealist – he believes the nature of objects as they are in themselves is unknowable to us – knowledge of appearances is nevertheless possible. Kant argues that the ordinary self-consciousness that Berkeley and Descartes would grant implies “the existence of objects in space outside me” (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason § B 275). Consciousness of myself would not be possible if I were not able to make determinant judgments about objects that exist outside of me and have states that are independent of the of my inner experience. Another way to put the point is to say that the fact that the mind of the knower makes the a priori contribution does not mean that space and time or the categories are mere figments of the imagination. Kant is an empirical realist about the world we experience; we can know objects as they appear to us. He gives a robust defense of science and the study of the natural world from his argument about the mind’s role in making nature. All discursive, rational beings must conceive of the physical world as spatially and temporally unified, he argues.Complicated stuff! But what does this all mean? Kant argues that skepticism about the external world is valid in so far as that we can never experience the unmediated content of reality (since it is always tempered by the active part of our own sensuous perception). So, for Kant we do not know ‘things-in-themselves’ (noumena) but we know them as far as we experience them (i.e. as phenomena). However, in as far as we experience phenomena, we share a common perception of them which enables us to judgements about the external world which are (universally) valid for all rational beings. This is Kant’s (direct) response to skepticism about the external world.You can find a copy of Kant’s Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics (1783) where he discusses Descartes and Berkeley directly at http://philosophy.eserver.org/kant-prolegomena.txt. A guide to the text can be found at http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/prolegomena/summary.html.


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