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Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant (1788)

THE IDEA OF TRANSCENDENTAL PHILOSOPHY

[Experience1 is no doubt the first product of our understanding, while employed in fashioning the raw material of our sensations. It is therefore our first instruction, and in its progress so rich in new lessons that the chain of all future generations will never be in want of new information that may be gathered on that field. Nevertheless, experience is by no means the only field to which our understanding can be confined. Experience tells us what is, but not that it must be necessarily as it is, and not otherwise. It therefore never gives us any really general truths, and our reason, which is particularly anxious for that class of knowledge, is roused by it rather than satisfied. General truths, which at the same time [p. 2] bear the character of an inward necessity, must be independent of experience, — clear and certain by themselves. They are therefore called knowledge a priori, while what is simply taken from experience is said to be, in ordinary parlance, known a posteriori or empirically only.

Now it appears, and this is extremely curious, that even with our experiences different kinds of knowledge are mixed up, which must have their origin a priori, and which perhaps serve only to produce a certain connection between our sensuous representations. For even if we remove from experience everything that belongs to the senses, there remain nevertheless certain original concepts, and certain judgments derived from them, which must have had their origin entirely a priori, and independent of all experience, because it is owing to them that we are able, or imagine we are able, to predicate more of the objects of our senses than can be learnt from mere experience, and that our propositions contain real generality and strict necessity, such as mere empirical knowledge can never supply.]

But1 what is still more extraordinary is this, that certain kinds of knowledge leave the field of all possible [p. 3] experience, and seem to enlarge the sphere of our judgments beyond the limits of experience by means of concepts to which experience can never supply any corresponding objects.

And it is in this very kind of knowledge which transcends the world of the senses, and where experience can neither guide nor correct us, that reason prosecutes its investigations, which by their importance we consider far more excellent and by their tendency far more elevated than anything the understanding can find in the sphere of phenomena. Nay, we risk rather anything, even at the peril of error, than that we should surrender such investigations, either on the ground of their uncertainty, or from any feeling of indifference or contempt.1

Now it might seem natural that, after we have left the solid ground of experience, we should not at once proceed to erect an edifice with knowledge which we possess without knowing whence it came, and trust to principles the origin of which is unknown, without having made sure of the safety of the foundations by means of careful examination. It would seem natural, I say, that philosophers should first of all have asked the question how the mere understanding could arrive at all this knowledge a priori, and what extent, what truth, and what value it could possess. If we take natural [p. 4] to mean what is just and reasonable, then indeed nothing could be more natural. But if we understand by natural what takes place ordinarily, then, on the contrary, nothing is more natural and more intelligible than that this examination should have been neglected for so long a time. For one part of this knowledge, namely, the mathematical, has always been in possession of perfect trustworthiness; and thus produces a favourable presumption with regard to other parts also, although these may be of a totally different nature. Besides, once beyond the precincts of experience, and we are certain that experience can never contradict us, while the charm of enlarging our knowledge is so great that nothing will stop our progress until we encounter a clear contradiction. This can be avoided if only we are cautious in our imaginations, which nevertheless remain what they are, imaginations only. How far we can advance independent of all experience in a priori knowledge is shown by the brilliant example of mathematics. It is true they deal with objects and knowledge so far only as they can be represented in intuition. But this is easily overlooked, because that intuition itself may be given a priori, and be difficult to distinguish from a pure concept. Thus inspirited [p. 5] by a splendid proof of the power of reason, the desire of enlarging our knowledge sees no limits. The light dove, piercing in her easy flight the air and perceiving its resistance, imagines that flight would be easier still in empty space. It was thus that Plato left the world of sense, as opposing so many hindrances to our understanding, and ventured beyond on the wings of his ideas into the empty space of pure understanding. He did not perceive that he was making no progress by these endeavours, because he had no resistance as a fulcrum on which to rest or to apply his powers, in order to cause the understanding to advance. It is indeed a very common fate of human reason first of all to finish its speculative edifice as soon as possible, and then only to enquire whether the foundation be sure. Then all sorts of excuses are made in order to assure us as to its solidity, or to decline altogether such a late and dangerous enquiry. The reason why during the time of building we feel free from all anxiety and suspicion and believe in the apparent solidity of our foundation, is this: — A great, perhaps the greatest portion of what our reason finds to do consists in the analysis of our concepts of objects. This gives us a great deal of knowledge which, though it consists in no more man in simplifications and explanations of [p. 6] what is comprehended in our concepts (though in a confused manner), is yet considered as equal, at least in form, to new knowledge. It only separates and arranges our concepts, it does not enlarge them in matter or contents. As by this process we gain a kind of real knowledge a priori, which progresses safely and usefully, it happens that our reason, without being aware of it, appropriates under that pretence propositions of a totally different character, adding to given concepts new and strange ones a priori, without knowing whence they come, nay without even thinking of such a question. I shall therefore at the very outset treat of the distinction between these two kinds of knowledge.

The History of Pure Reason [p. 852]

This title stands here only in order to indicate the place in the system which remains empty for the present and has to be filled hereafter. I content myself with casting a cursory glance, from a purely transcendental point of view, namely, that of the nature of pure reason, on the labours of former philosophers, which presents to my eyes many structures, but in ruins only.

It is very remarkable, though naturally it could not well have been otherwise, that in the very infancy of philosophy men began where we should like to end, namely, with studying the knowledge of God and the hope or even the nature of a future world. However crude the religious concepts might be which owed their origin to the old customs, as remnants of the savage state of humanity, this did not prevent the more enlightened classes from devoting themselves to free investigations of these matters, and they soon perceived that there could be no better and surer way of pleasing that invisible power which governs the world, in order to be happy at least in another world, than good conduct. Thus theology and morals [p. 853] became the two springs, or rather the points of attraction for all abstract enquiries of reason in later times, though it was chiefly the former which gradually drew speculative reason into those labours which afterwards became so celebrated under the name of metaphysic.

I shall not attempt at present to distinguish the periods of history in which this or that change of metaphysic took place, but only draw a rapid sketch of the difference of the ideas which caused the principal revolutions in metaphysic. And here I find three aims with which the most important changes on this arena were brought about.

1. With reference to the object of all knowledge of our reason, some philosophers were mere sensualists, others mere intellectualists. Epicurus may be regarded as the first among the former, Plato as the first among the latter. The distinction of these two schools, subtle as it is, dates from the earliest days, and has long been maintained. Those who belong to the former school maintained that reality exists in the objects of the senses alone, everything else being imagination; those of the second school, on the contrary, maintained, that in the senses there is nothing but illusion, and that the true is known by the [p. 854] understanding only. The former did not, therefore, deny all reality to the concepts of the understanding, but that reality was with them logical only, with the others it was mystical. The former admitted intellectual concepts, but accepted sensible objects only. The latter required that true objects should be intelligible only, and maintained an intuition peculiar to the understanding, separated from the senses which, in their opinion, could only confuse it.

2. With reference to the origin of the pure concepts of reason, and whether they are derived from experience, or have their origin independent of experience, in reason. Aristotle may be considered as the head of the empiricists,Plato as that of the noologists. Locke, who in modern times followed Aristotle, and Leibniz, who followed Plato (though at a sufficient distance from his mystical system), have not been able to bring this dispute to any conclusion. Epicurus at least was far more consistent in his sensual system (for he never allowed his syllogisms to go beyond the limits of experience) than Aristotle and Locke, more particularly the latter, who, after having derived all concepts and principles from experience, goes so far in their application as to maintain that the existence of God and the immortality of the soul (though both lie entirely outside the limits of all possible experience) could [p. 855] be proved with the same evidence as any mathematical proposition.

3. With reference to method. If anything is to be called method, it must be a procedure according to principles. The method at present prevailing in this field of enquiry may be divided into the naturalistic and the scientific. The naturalist of pure reason lays it down as his principle that, with reference to the highest questions which form the problems of metaphysic, more can be achieved by means of common reason without science (which he calls sound reason), than through speculation. This is the same as if we should maintain that the magnitude and distance of the moon can be better determined by the naked eye than by roundabout mathematical calculations. This is pure misology reduced to principles, and, what is the most absurd, the neglect of all artificial means is recommended as the best way of enlarging our knowledge. As regards those who are naturalists because they know no better, they are really not to be blamed. They simply follow ordinary reason, but they do not boast of their ignorance, as the method which contains the secret how we are to fetch the truth from the bottom of the well of Democritus. ‘Quod sapio satis est mihi, non ego curo, esse quod Arcesilas aerumnosique Solones’ (Pers.), is the motto with which they may lead a happy and honoured life, without meddling with science or muddling it. [p. 856]

As regards those who follow a scientific method, they have the choice to proceed either dogmatically or sceptically, but at all events, systematically. When I have mentioned in relation to the former the celebrated Wolf, and in relation to the other David Hume, I may for my present purpose leave all the rest unnamed.

The only path that is still open is the critical. If the reader has been kind and patient enough to follow me to the end along this path, he may judge for himself whether, if he will help, as far as in him lies, towards making this footpath a highroad, it may not be possible to achieve, even before the close of the present century, what so many centuries have not been able to achieve, namely, to give complete satisfaction to human reason with regard to those questions which have in all ages exercised its desire for knowledge, though hitherto in vain.

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