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Kant - Study Notes

KANT by Roger Scruton [OUP, 2001]

Roger Scruton is a professional philosopher who has held various senior academic posts and is the author of many books and articles. I should mention that in this summary of his book on Kant I have included comments and observations from other sources. I also seek to avoid some of the more ‘technical’ terminology that Kant used. Immanuel Kant is one of the most important philosophers of all time.

Chapter 1 of Scruton’s book is ‘Life, works and character’.
Kant was born in 1724 in Konigsberg, East Prussia. Brought up within a Lutheran background, Kant graduated from Konigsberg University at age 26. He then worked as a private tutor to the children of the well-to-do, and at 31 he obtained an unsalaried university position. He published various books on physics, dynamics and mathematics, but it was some years before he became a professor (of metaphysics and logic). He led the routine, uneventful life of a scholar, giving regular dinner parties for friends. He died in 1804 at the age of 80.

Chapter 2 is ‘The background of Kant’s thought’.
His Critique of Pure Reason (1781) is one of the most important and one of the most difficult philosophical works to have been published in modern times. There are also widespread and conflicting interpretations of it.

The basic question that concerned Kant was, how can I know the world as it is, in a way that is not just knowledge of how it seems? As Scruton says, ‘science, common sense, theology and personal life all suppose the possibility of objective knowledge’. But how can this be, if all we can be aware of is our perceptions which could, in theory at least, be misleading or even illusory? Kant agreed that the mind does not possess ‘innate ideas’ which are prior to sensory perceptions. But Kant did not agree it followed that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience alone. He suggested that the way we perceive, identify and think about objects may itself have a structure which ‘moulds or contributes to’ our experience. But he was not writing (as a neurologist might) about the ‘mechanics’ of perception such as how the optic nerve conveys data from the eye to the brain.

The question of objective knowledge, the objectivity of what we perceive, had been addressed by two of Kant’s predecessors, G.W. Leibnitz (1646-1716) and David Hume (1711-1776). Leibnitz claimed we could have ‘objective knowledge of the world uncontaminated by the point of view of any observer’. Leibnitz was a ‘rationalist’ claiming that ‘understanding contains within itself certain innate principles which it knows intuitively to be true... and do not depend upon experience for their confirmation’. He recognized ‘a division in thought between subject and predicate – corresponding to a distinction in reality between substance and property... The fundamental objects in the world are substances and their properties’. For example this table [subject] is solid and brown [predicates]. Reason must operate through such ‘innate ideas’ which accurately reflect objective reality.

But according to Hume, reason can only tell us of the ‘relations of ideas’, for example that ‘all triangles have three sides’. This is only trivial knowledge, often derived from the meanings of words. Hume was an ‘empiricist’; arguing that ‘knowledge comes through experience alone’ with ‘no possibility of separating knowledge from the subjective condition of the knower’. For Hume, ‘seeming is all there is’. There is only knowledge from my point of view. ‘When I refer to causal necessities [between one event and another such as a vase breaking if I drop it] all I am entitled to mean is the regular succession among experiences, together with the feeling of expectation or anticipation that arises from that’. I cannot say ‘every event has a cause’ because I have never observed every event.

And this was the aspect of Hume’s philosophy that most concerned Kant - the notion of causality. For Hume, there was no objective ‘necessity’ about causality, for all we can ever observe is that events of one type (e.g. vases falling) are regularly or always followed by events of another type (vases breaking), and that is all.

To Kant, this seemed to be completely wrong. Kant held that science ‘rests on the belief that there are real necessities’ inherent in and underlying events in the natural world. One note in passing – Kant’s scientific knowledge was good; he had studied science and written books about it. Scruton goes on: ‘Neither experience nor reason alone is able to provide knowledge. Only in their synthesis is knowledge possible; hence there is no knowledge that does not bear the marks of reason and of experience together. Such knowledge is, however, genuine and objective. It transcends the point of view of the person who possesses it, and makes legitimate claims about an independent world. Kant tries to show that, properly understood, the idea of ‘experience’ already carries the objective reference that Hume denied’. How can this be?

He explained that there are two sorts of truth –
(1) truths which have to be based upon experience (observation, test etc.) and
(2) “a priori” truths. A priori truths subdivide in turn into two different sorts.

The simplest are analytic which are true by definition, such as ‘a spouse is a married person’. These cannot be denied without producing a contradiction in terms such as ‘an unmarried spouse’. Then there are ‘synthetic a priori truths’ such as ‘every event has a cause’ which can be denied without self-contradiction but which are nevertheless known to be true a priori, independently of experience. How is this possible?

Chapter 3 is ‘The transcendental deduction’.
Kant’s argument comes in two parts – the ‘subjective’ deduction and the ‘objective’ deduction. The subjective deduction tries to show what is involved in holding something to be true or false. Kant emphasized that this ‘is not to be construed as empirical psychology’; it is not about the workings of the mind. It is a ‘theory of the understanding as such, telling us what it is, and how it must function if there are to be judgments at all’. What has to be true from the fact that we have experience at all?

His argument is ‘transcendental’ in the sense that it ‘transcends’ the limits of empirical enquiry. So it is not about the objects of our knowledge, it is about the conditions for our knowledge in the first place.
Knowledge is subject to (1) the forms of sensibility, and (2) the forms of the understanding. Knowledge as such is impossible without these.

(1) The ‘forms of sensibility’ are twofold: space and time. We can only view the world (or ‘reality’) as existing in space and time. These should not be considered as characteristics of ‘things in themselves’; nor are they concepts. They are a priori intuitions which we have. We could not know or understand the world without them.

(2) The ‘forms of the understanding’, called ‘categories’, are unity, plurality, totality, reality, negation, limitation, inherence, causality, reciprocity, possibility/impossibility, existence/non-existence, necessity/contingency. Again, we could not understand the world (or ‘reality’) without these a priori concepts which we automatically apply to our perceptions. The same applies to the concept of substance.

In fact we could not even think without the ‘forms of sensibility’ or the ‘forms of the understanding’ being within our minds already. An interesting point is that only a self-conscious being who can think is able to pose the sceptical question ‘are things as they seem to me?’. Kant’s conclusion is that the conditions of thought as outlined not only make scepticism possible but also show it to be false.

The ‘transcendental synthesis’ is important. Knowledge derives from two sources – sensory perceptions and understanding. Our sense-perceptions come to us through the five senses, sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. The understanding is the set of a priori concepts, or categories, as just explained. It is a mistake to think that these concepts are reducible to sensory perceptions. As Scruton puts it at p35, ‘Judgment requires the joint operation of sensibility and understanding. A mind without concepts would have no capacity to think; equally, a mind armed with concepts, but with no sensory data to which they could be applied, would have nothing to think about’.

Empiricism as advocated by Hume and others is the belief that all ideas, all concepts, are derived from perceptions through the five senses. It is in terms of such sensory perceptions that a concept has its meaning. Kant argued this was absurd; empiricists, he argued, confuse experience with sensation. Experience provides the grounds for the application of a concept only because it already contains a concept, as just explained.

It follows from the foregoing that the Leibnizian theory of ‘innate ideas’ appears to be substantially correct, and that ‘if we are to have knowledge at all, our intuitions must permit application of the categories’. Hume argued that knowledge is founded within experience, but Kant argued that experience is already organized in accordance with the a priori intuitions of space and time plus the a priori categories of substance, causality, etc..

According to Scruton Kant recognized two kinds of synthetic a priori truth: mathematics and metaphysics. But he also recognized that ‘mathematics is self-evident and obvious to all thinking beings, whereas metaphysics is essentially disputed, a matter over which people argue interminably’. We can agree, but we could add that in later years Frege and Russell were to argue (as did Hume) that the truths of mathematics are not synthetic but analytic, that is, true by definition, and the Logical Positivists were to argue that metaphysics was neither true nor false but meaningless. But let us not digress.

Kant needed a philosophical proof of objectivity, that is, the existence of the common-sense world of science and everyday perception. His phrase ‘the transcendental unity of apperception’ denotes the unity of self-conscious experience, that is, my awareness that my experience ‘belongs’ to me and that doubt about this is impossible. But this is not derived from experience; it is a presupposition of experience. And this is a point of view that is only possible in an objective world. So we have the ‘objective deduction’.

As Scruton puts it, even our inner experience (thoughts, feelings etc.) is only possible on the assumption of outer experience, that is, experience of an objective world. ‘But I can have knowledge of the object only if I identify it as continuous. Nothing can have temporal continuity (i.e. continuity in time) without also having the capacity to exist when unobserved. Its existence is therefore independent of my perception’ (p45). However, Scruton also says at p46, ‘It is fair to say that the transcendental deduction has never been considered to provide a satisfactory argument.’ We could add that the argument does seem somewhat ‘circular’ – that is, it presupposes the truth of its own conclusions.

Chapter 4 is intriguingly entitled ‘The logic of illusion’.
Scruton says Kant often describes ‘transcendental idealism’ as the doctrine that we have knowledge only of ‘appearances’ and not of ‘things’ as they are in themselves. He also said, ‘a phenomenon is an object of possible experience, whereas a ‘noumenon’ is an object knowable to thought alone.’ It is impossible, of course, to understand exactly what he meant without prolonged, in-depth study, far beyond the scope of this brief summary. It is clearer when Kant argues that whilst the understanding yields genuine, objective knowledge, it also contains temptations to illusion which he seeks to diagnose and criticize.
He divides metaphysics into three parts:
(i) rational psychology, concerning the nature of the soul;
(ii) cosmology, concerning the nature of the universe and
(iii) theology, concerning the existence of God.

Kant says that ‘each proceeds in accordance with its own kind of illusory argument, not towards truth, but towards fallacy’. The errors they make follow a common pattern, and each ‘transgresses the limits of experience’. Concepts divorced from their empirical conditions are empty. But concepts contain within themselves a tendency towards unconditional application, transgressing the limits of experience so that ‘pure reason’ is liable to usurp its functions. It has to be said that Scruton’s summary of all this is somewhat ‘dense’, not helped by various ambiguities on Kant’s part. All I can do here and now is to give a very brief résumé.

The illusions of cosmology are called ‘antinomies’. An antinomy is a pair of unprovable ideas which cannot both be true but where each could have good reasons in its support. Suppose I think of the entire universe as it is situated in space and time. Is this totality limited or unlimited in space and time? Does it have boundaries or not? I can prove neither of these alternatives. Likewise if I assume there is an explanation for the existence of the universe, this might suggest there was a ‘first cause’ of some sort. But if so, we can still ask: what caused that? And so on and so on; we end up in an ‘infinite regress’. Scruton records that Kant never arrived at a conclusive answer (and nor could anyone else, I think).

In Theology the traditional arguments for God’s existence are classified by Kant into three kinds: the ‘cosmological’, the ‘ontological’ and the ‘physico-theological’, better known as the ‘argument from design’. The cosmological argument, also called the ‘first cause’ argument, asserts that God was the first cause of everything. But this has effectively been considered already in our discussion of cosmology. If God was the ‘first cause’, what caused God? - and so on and so on. Interestingly, I believe Kant was a religious man. He was much more sympathetic to the ‘argument from design’ that there must have been a ‘designer’ of the universe, which we call ‘God’. But he recognized its principal difficulty is that apart from the fact that a ‘Designer’ has never been observed, the notion of a ‘designer’ only brings us back to the cosmological argument. What caused or designed the designer?

Thirdly there is the ‘ontological argument’ that God must exist since the attribute of ‘existence’ belongs to the very concept of God as a perfect being. A perfect being would not be ‘perfect’ unless it existed. Kant refuted this argument through his anticipation of a point of modern logic – existence is not a predicate. Existence is not an ‘attribute’ at all. I can produce correct definitions of all sorts of things – ghosts, dinosaurs, imps or fairies – but to say that any of them exist does not follow from their definitions alone.

Scruton does not record whether Kant discussed the question of faith, the notion that religious belief is not a question of analytical explication but primarily a question of personal conviction. The difficulty here is contrariety – different people have different convictions which cannot all be true, so at least some of them must be mistaken or false. A criterion of some sort is needed to determine which are true and which are not, but it is never provided. So in Kant’s terminology, we have another ‘antinomy’. Nor does Scruton mention whether Kant said anything on the problem of evil. If God is all-good and all-powerful (as stated in the religious writings) what explains the existence of evil? An all-good God would want to prevent evil; an all-powerful God would be able to prevent evil, so why does it exist? This is yet another antinomy. A common answer is that human beings, possessing free will, are responsible for evil, but why did God create them like that in the first place?

Concerning the ‘soul’, Kant noted that ‘I’ am self-aware and I can maintain this self-awareness ‘even while doubting every other thing’. I am aware of my enduring continuity through time. I am tempted to think that the ‘immediacy and inviolability of self-awareness guarantees its content’, i.e. the veracity of my perceptions of the real world outside of myself – other people, objects, physical space. According to French philosopher Descartes (1596-1650), all these considerations give grounds for believing in the immateriality of the soul.

But Kant regarded this line of reasoning as erroneous. Although ‘there is a unity in my present consciousness, it tells me nothing else about the kind of thing that bears it. It is quite impossible, by means of simple self-consciousness, to determine the manner in which I exist, whether it be as substance or accident... If I cannot deduce that I am a substance, so much the less can I deduce that I am indivisible, indestructible, or immortal.’ He goes on, ‘It is no more possible for me to make the ‘I’ into the object of consciousness than it is to observe the limits of my own visual field. ‘I’ is the expression of my perspective, but denotes no item within it’. You will appreciate that this is so contrary to our common notion of the self and self-continuity that it has been debated ever since. But we also read (p72) that ‘Kant sought for a positive theory of the soul, not through pure reason, but through practical reason’.

This brings us to Chapter 5, ‘The categorical imperative’, which summarizes Kant’s moral philosophy as set out in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). According to Kant, reason determines what is true or false on factual questions through logic and empirical enquiry, but reason also determines the right thing to do through the concept of duty, or obligation. But, Scruton asks, ‘can we know what to do objectively, or must we simply rely on our subjective inclinations to guide us?’

Kant’s starting point is ‘the antinomy of freedom’. In one sense it is arguable that I am not ‘free’ in the sense that my actions are impelled by my feelings, desires and so on, but I am still ‘free’ in the sense that through being aware of my desires, motivations etc. I can consciously control them and freely decide what to do. Kant argues that ‘I must think of myself as free’ so that ‘the agent is the originator of what he does’. Is this the soul? If you think of yourself as a bundle of emotions, feelings, impulses, desires etc. that’s exactly what you will be. But if you can keep your balance between them, you will be in control. I once read somewhere that this is akin to the ‘knack’ of learning to maintain your balance whilst riding a bike, although I don’t think Kant would have put it that way (!).

This is all very debatable. But Kant never succeeded in defining ‘freedom’ or solving the age-old ‘free will/determinism’ puzzle. However, he acutely noted that without a concept of moral freedom of some sort we cannot have a coherent theory of ethics or of moral responsibility. If I read Scruton correctly, Kant said we have to accept the concept of moral freedom as a ‘transcendental fact’ (or words to that effect); ‘transcendental freedom’.

A central feature of ethics and moral discourse which Kant recognized and emphasized is that it is obligatory. If I say (for example) ‘murder is wrong’, this is not just a matter of personal opinion which can in principle be arbitrary or ‘relative’, it specifically means ‘do not murder’, period. But this is not a factual statement which could, in theory, be ‘disproved’ as can other factual statements, it is an imperative which does not ‘state a fact’, it is intended to guide or to regulate action. Kant distinguishes between ‘hypothetical imperatives’ such as ‘if you want to keep fit, take exercise’ which are contingent on what you want to do, and on the other hand categorical imperatives such as ‘do not murder’ or ‘murder is wrong’ which are not ‘relative’ or contingent upon other considerations.

What is needed is ‘an imperative that applies universally to all rational beings’. So how do we know what this is? Kant’s answer was startlingly simple. The ‘principle of universalizability’ means that in thinking about whether an action (or series of actions) is right or wrong, always ask yourself ‘what if everyone did that?’. The answer will usually be very clear and instructive. If we ask ‘is it right to be deceitful?’ the answer is clearly ‘no’ because if everyone were always deceitful human society and relationships would be impossible. But if we say ‘respect the rights of other people’ for example, I think most people would agree that if this were applied universally the world would be a much better place. Scruton says Kant regarded the categorical imperative as ‘the philosophical basis of the famous golden rule, that we should do as we would be done by’.

It is also the philosophical basis of moral equality, the duty to respect the rights and interests of others, and the duty of moral impartiality. So it encapsulates our fundamental intuitions about justice (which we also look at in Chapter 7). As moral agents, the conscience is of fundamental importance, as is the distinction between being motivated by duty or by desire. Kant did not query our ordinary everyday beliefs about moral issues. He kept them as they are – patience, kindness, charity are moral virtues, whilst stealing, murder, lying and so on are moral wrongs. Lying is interesting because Kant held it was always wrong. Even if you tell a lie to your friend’s mortal enemy about your friend’s whereabouts, that would be a moral wrong. But I think many of us would disagree. Kant says ‘the moral life imposes an intuition of transcendental reality; we feel compelled towards the belief in God.’ But here again, I think some of us would disagree.

I must emphasize that the summary I have just given on Kant’s moral philosophy is very brief and simplified, and we have to move on. Chapter 6 of Scruton’s book is ‘Beauty and design’, largely derived from Kant’s last major work, the Critique of Judgment (1790) which Scruton describes as ‘a disorganized and repetitious work’. All the same, he says it is ‘one of the most important works of aesthetics to have been composed in modern times’. The word ‘aesthetics’ has been defined as ‘the study of the nature of beauty; also the theory of taste and criticism in the creative and performing arts’.

For Kant the problem with saying something is beautiful is that it cannot at the same time be an expression of a subjective feeling and the claim that beauty is an objective quality or attribute which should have universal assent. This is arguable, but to Kant it gives us yet another ‘antinomy’. So Kant says ‘beauty itself is not a concept’. But the difficulty is, as Scruton says, ‘when I describe something as beautiful, I do not mean merely that it pleases me; I am also speaking about it, not about myself, and if challenged I try to find reasons for my view. I do not explain my feeling, but give grounds for it, by pointing to features of its object’. I think that’s well put.

The second part of Kant’s antinomy says that ‘the judgment of taste is based on concepts... otherwise there could be no room even for contention in the matter’. Kant’s answer is to give us yet another ‘transcendental deduction’ that the concept of beauty is ‘synthetic a priori’. But Scruton says his account is ‘wholly inadequate’. However, Kant also says that valid aesthetic judgments only come from consciously disinterested contemplation. In my own opinion ‘beauty’ does not lead to a genuine antinomy at all, but it is impossible to discuss this in detail here and now.

Chapter 7 is ‘Enlightenment and law’.
Scruton’s comments include the following:- ‘Kant’s critical philosophy examines the structure of thought, and tells us what can and cannot be proved by it. In his last years Kant turned his attention to politics, hoping by the use of the critical method to settle some of the vexing questions of legitimacy and right. Of ever-increasing importance to Kant’s contemporaries and to himself was the vision of human society and institutions that had been put forward by Rousseau that made the self-legislation of the free individual into the foundation of legitimate political order. This encouraged an increasing scepticism towards authority and gave precedence to the individual conscience over the dictates of church and state... Kant’s moral philosophy gave the ultimate philosophical endorsement to the new vision of politics.’ But although Kant was a republican, he was an opponent of revolution, seeing its violence as rendering the rule of reason impossible. He believed in the validity and legitimacy of private property, and it is fascinating to speculate what he would have made of Marxist ideology which did not arise, of course, until the middle of the 19th century.

He believed in ‘a single, universal human nature’ and that ‘practical reason (i.e. ethics, morality) is valid for all people everywhere. This suggested ‘a single set of laws for all mankind’, which in turn led Kant to ideas about trans-national legislation, a ‘federation of nations’ which would have world government as its logical outcome.

‘He followed Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau in proposing the social contract as the ultimate test of political legitimacy. Only if a political order can command the consent of those who are subject to it can it claim objective authority’. The basis of law should be ‘natural law’, which only owed its authority to human nature as such, not to ‘any local system of command’. For Kant, natural law was basically the ‘judicial translation’, so to speak, of the categorical imperative. This was his basic concept of justice, within which the concept of the person is central.

On ‘human rights’, Kant held that ‘every free action must accommodate the freedom of others’. All persons are to be treated as ‘ends in themselves’ – which rules out any form of exploitation. ‘I do not have a natural right to do as I please; rather I have a right to exercise such freedom as does not limit the freedom of others’. So there cannot be rights without duties towards others. There were no simplistic platitudes where ‘rights’ simply mean ‘do as you please’ or ‘have whatever you desire’.

Kant regarded legitimate political order as based essentially on republican principles, meaning representative government. That implies, again, universal suffrage, but for whom? Kant did have reservations about who should ‘qualify’ as a citizen – he seemed not to include servants, minors, apprentices or – apparently - women (maybe he hadn’t heard of Mary Wollstonecraft). He seemed not to favour democracy quite the way we understand it today.

Chapter 8, ‘Transcendental Philosophy’, is Scruton’s concluding chapter and it is very brief.
He relates how Kant’s influence on subsequent philosophy was profound, as well as provoking extensive debate and criticism. For example there was much discussion over whether Kant was ‘really’ a Leibnizian or ‘really’ a Humean, but neither interpretation was really tenable. Kant was a Kantian, period. His influence, even if contentious, was lasting, continuing to the present day. It was once said that you can agree with Kant or disagree with Kant, but you cannot philosophize without Kant.

Jan. 2015.