Kant’s Burning Question Is A Priori Knowledge of Objects Possible?

Mark Albert Selzer

*2nd Place Winner of the Prestigious Bassen Prize*

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In this essay, I will interpret a passage of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason according to how I understand it. This interpretation will proceed by an analysis of key excerpts, in the order in which they have been written, followed by an analysis of the passage as a whole. It is my hope that my interpretation of the passage I have selected will help you understand Kant’s ideas in the passage, and more importantly, that my interpretation will show you how Kant’s writing can be understood.

The passage begins with Kant mentioning the advantages of examining the methods of mathematics and science:

The examples of mathematics and natural science, which by a single and sudden revolution have become what they now are, seem to me sufficiently remarkable to suggest our considering what may have been the essential features in the changed point of view by which they have so greatly benefited. Their success should incline us, at least by way of experience, to imitate their procedure, so far as the analogy which, as a species of rational knowledge, they bear to metaphysics may permit (Kant 22).

In this excerpt, Kant is praising the success of both mathematics and science, and suggesting that metaphysics emulate their methods. At the time Kant had written the Critique of Pure Reason, the scientific revolution had recently taken place. The famous works of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton had been written and had received wide attention during the two centuries preceding the first publication of the Critique of Pure Reason. What explains the great success of mathematics and science in this age? Kant considers mathematics and science as paradigm examples of successful critical inquiries because of their apparent uniformity in contrast to the widespread disagreement within metaphysics. Kant recognizes that the natural sciences, as well as mathematics and logic, have clearly defined their boundaries, while metaphysics has failed to do so. In other words, each of those disciplines determined what they could claim and on what basis they could justify their claims. For example, the scientific revolution revolutionized our ways of thinking about the physical world, namely, by emphasizing experimentation and empirical evidence. Instead of merely speculating on what might follow a particular event, scientific experimentation aims to recreate an event and observe what actually happens. The natural sciences defined their universe of discourse strictly to the physical world, and then further limited their claims about the physical world to only those claims justified by experimentation and empirical evidence. Since Kant is concerned with metaphysics, which is beyond physical observations, the importance of these ways of thinking is not their emphasis on experimentation or empirical evidence, but their emphasis on methodology. In other words, the project of defining the boundaries of any thought within a discipline is what matters to Kant. Thus, Kant advises us to consider the methods of mathematics and science, so that certain advantages of their methods can be applied to develop a unified and more successful method for metaphysics. Kant compares this project of “cleaning up” metaphysics to the Copernican revolution because Kant aims to eliminate unnecessary speculation within metaphysics, just as Copernicus eradicated unnecessary speculation within astronomy. A ridiculously complex system that required tedious calculations existed before Copernicus dramatically simplified the revolutions of the planets. He accomplished this feat by positing the planets as revolving around the Sun rather than the Earth. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant aims to achieve an analogous simplification in metaphysics.

After setting his objective, Kant moves on to point out a grave error often committed by metaphysics:

Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption ended in failure (Kant 22).

The key concept in this passage is the notion of a priori knowledge, which means to understand something independently of experience, by reason alone. However, before further discussing this passage, it is important to note that, to Kant, metaphysics is that which is “beyond physics”. But first, it is necessary to understand what Kant calls synthetic propositions, which are statements whose truth are not based upon their meaning alone. The statement, “All children are innocent,” is an example of a synthetic proposition. Understanding the meaning of the statement is not enough to know if it is true or not. We have to go out into the world and verify its truth. As stated earlier, metaphysics is that which is “beyond physics.” This means that synthetic a priori propositions are the scope of all metaphysical inquiry since the synthetic a priori necessary lies “beyond physics”. Thus, metaphysics studies propositions whose truth is not based on meaning alone and that can be understood solely through reason. It is crucial to recognize that Kant thinks the synthetic a priori can have nothing to do with sensible objects (objects we know through our senses) since such objects are better studied empirically rather than metaphysically. Kant's understanding of metaphysics is more complex than this, but this brief sketch is sufficient for our present purpose. What is important is that, in this passage, Kant points out the error of assuming that we can have knowledge of sensible objects a priori (hereafter referred to as “the a priori assumption of metaphysics”). Kant claims that all previous attempts to arrive at a priori knowledge of such objects have failed. Therefore, misguided philosophical projects, such as determining the origin of everything or discovering the nature of the soul, have not succeeded because they try to arrive at a priori knowledge of sensible objects.

After noting the problematic a priori assumption of metaphysics, Kant elaborates:

We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge. This would agree better with what is desired, namely, that it should be possible to have knowledge of objects a priori, determining something in regard to them prior to their being given (Kant 22).

Kant recommends that we investigate the question of whether the assumption that sensible objects must conform to our knowledge is useful or not. He claims that such an investigation will lead us to find out whether a priori knowledge of sensible objects is possible. Kant thinks that metaphysics typically posits purely speculative entities, which we have no sensible experience of, in order to extend our knowledge of sensible objects. Kant sees this wild metaphysical speculation as walking with no ground beneath it since such speculation is not based on any sensible experience whatsoever.

Since Kant calls into question the a priori assumption of metaphysics, he continues to emphasize that we should determine whether any a priori knowledge of objects is possible:

We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. Failing of satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved round the spectator, he tried whether he might not have better success if he made the spectator to revolve around the stars to remain at rest. A similar experiment can be tried in metaphysics, as regards the intuition of objects, as I do not see how we could know anything of the latter a priori; but if the object (as object of the senses) must conform to the constitution of our faculty of intuition, I have no difficulty in conceiving such a possibility (Kant 22).

Here, Kant refers to the Copernican revolution in astronomy, which revolutionized the model for the solar system. Prior to the Copernican revolution, the Earth was considered the center of the solar system. The standard understanding of planetary movements was that all the other planets revolved around the Earth. However, this conceptualization of the solar system led to many difficulties, especially in calculating planetary movements. The Copernican revolution completely discarded the earth-centered model of the solar system, in favor of our current, sun-centered model of the solar system.

Kant thinks that a similar revolution should be attempted in metaphysics. This revolution should be similar insofar as it eliminates unnecessary conceptual baggage. The Copernican revolution did away with a great deal of unnecessary aspects within the model of planetary movements by redefining the boundaries of the model. This was done by positing that planets revolve around the Sun. In order to pursue a metaphysical revolution, Kant advises that metaphysics should investigate into whether objects must conform to our intuition. Thus, we must first ask whether what we experience must conform to a certain way in which we understand things. The question Kant is asking here is whether we are “preprogrammed” to understand our experience in certain terms, such as in terms of space and time, sensory input, etc.

Kant thinks that we are indeed “preprogrammed” to understand our experience within certain terms. This is obvious when he claims “… experience is itself a species of knowledge which involves understanding; and understanding has rules which I must presuppose as being in me prior to objects being given to me, and therefore as being a priori” (Kant 23). Kant argues that there must be certain intuitions that our experiences conform to since our experiences are always presented in a particular uniformity. For example, our experiences of outer sense (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) are always presented to us through the intuitions of space and time. These experiences always occur within some space and in a certain temporal sequence. For example, when walking on a trail, I experience trees and bushes as separate from each other because they have different relative spatial locations. I approach those trees and bushes in a particular temporal order as I walk on the trail, and I am thereby able to recognize the order in which I saw particular trees and bushes. These intuitions, which shape and provide uniformity to all of our experiences, is what Kant believes the subject matter of metaphysics should be.

The passage from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that I just interpreted expounds how Kant thinks metaphysics can be raised to the level of a science. He thinks this is possible through defining the boundaries of metaphysics in a way that discards all unnecessary conceptual baggage. In order for metaphysics to be a unique discipline, this boundary must not overlap with other disciplines. The synthetic a priori is the proper subject matter of metaphysics for Kant. The synthetic a priori is concerned with the intuitions which all of our experiences must conform to. Thus, rather than concerning itself with experience itself (which Kant thinks is better left to empirical science), metaphysics should focus its attention on the preconditions for experience itself.

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Work Cited

  • Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Norman K. Smith. New York: St. Martin's, 1929. Print.