Kant’s Transcendental Idealism

Kant was born in 1724 in Königsberg, East Prussia (what is now Kaliningrad, Russia). He died in 1804 in Königsberg. He lived his entire life in the city of his birth. He was educated and ultimately taught at the university there.

Kant never married, and lived with a very ordered schedule of eating, sleeping, lecturing, writing, socializing, and even daily walks. His schedule was so punctual that housewives were said to set their clocks based upon Kant’s appearance for his daily walks, trusting Kant’s punctuality more than the clock in the town square.

As Jill Buroker has summarized: This ordered life has led many to take a false view of Kant as a pure intellectual, a recluse without warmth or sympathetic ties to others, and as a stereotypical Puritanical Prussian.  This is a completely misleading picture, as this passage from the writing of Johann Gottfried Herder explains:

I have had the good fortune to know a philosopher.  He was my teacher.  In his prime he had the happy sprightliness of a youth;  he continued to have it, I believe, even as a very old man.  His broad forehead, built for thinking, was the seat of an imperturbable cheerfulness and joy.  Speech, the richest in thought, flowed from his lips.   Playfulness, wit, and humor were at his command.  His lectures were the most entertaining talks.  His mind, which examined Leibniz, Wolff, Baumgarten, Crusius, and Hume, and investigated the laws of nature of Newton, Kepler, and the physicists, comprehended equally the newest works of Rousseau…and the latest discoveries in science.  He weighed them all, and always came back to the unbiased knowledge of nature and to the moral worth of man.  The history of men and peoples, natural history and science, mathematics and observation, were the sources from which he enlivened his lectures and conversation.  He was indifferent to nothing worth knowing.  No cabal, no sect, no prejudice, no desire for fame could ever tempt him in the slightest away from broadening and illuminating the truth.  He incited and gently forced others to think for themselves;  despotism was foreign to his mind.  This man, whom I name with the greatest gratitude and respect, was Immanuel Kant.

As we see from Herder’s perspective, Kant was highly regarded, sociable, and intellectual without seeming “elitist” or regimented to his companions and students. As Buroker summarizes: Kant was a great favorite in Königsberg, highly social, a good conversationalist, the local intellectual hero, and highly respected. Who knew in his time how highly regarded he would become on the stage of world intellectual history?

These brief points about Kant’s lifestyle and personality are actually important as we delve into his philosophy, because Kant is often summarily dismissed by his critics as “formalized,” and rigid in his thinking: “Abstract to the point of being irrelevant to the world; idealistic to the point of absurdity.” In fact, the most sweeping criticism of Kant’s ethical theory, for example, is that it is internally consistent and rigorous, but nobody could actually live by such principles. In other words, it is easy to superficially dismiss Kant not only because he is so difficult to understand, but also because his philosophy is misunderstood to be a reflection of a false view of his personality.

Kant lived an ordered life. But his principles were enveloped in warmth and expressed in a personality that was engaging, lively, and endearing. People who knew Kant loved him. And this accurate picture of Kant coheres with his philosophy: Rigorous and ordered, its principles prove to be about the real world and have profoundly practical implications.

The problem with truly understanding Kant’s philosophy is that Kant’s thinking was indeed very deep and extremely abstract. More importantly, he was a terrible writer! Some commentators have attributed this apparent writing problem to bad translations from German to English, but we actually have some excellent translations, and the fact is that Kant was just not good at committing his ideas to paper. I used to tell students in my Kant classes, “Kant would get an A for the content of his thought and an F for his ability to convey his thoughts in writing. So don’t treat Kant’s writing as an excuse for writing poorly like him. I’ll grade you accordingly.”

I would also tell my students what I heard from Jill Buroker and came to believe on my own: “If you think you are seeing a problem in Kant’s philosophy, it is because you are confused. As you come to understand Kant, you will see more and more consistency, harmony, and brilliance emerge.”

Several Kant experts I know have said the same thing about Kant regarding contemporary philosophy in general: “Most of the philosophical problems Kant addressed in his writings, he solved. And much of philosophizing about a whole range of subjects today goes round and round on and on because people generally do not understand Kant.”

And some really well-known philosophers who have published about Kant for popular consumption, such as Mortimer Adler’s widely-read Ten Philosophical Mistakes, are themselves deeply confused about what Kant was really saying.

Finally, students will now and then tell me (thinking to impress me), “I’m really excited about Kant, and I’m going to read the Critique of Pure Reason over the summer.” I must then gently explain to them that such a project will be an utter waste of their time and effort. Worse, such an effort will introduce in them vast confusions that they will then have to unlearn. The Critique of Pure Reason is one of the densest, most jargon-laden, most terminologically inconsistent, and most abstract writings ever produced. Without expert guidance, you are just going to get lost. Here is just one classic excerpt from the Critique of Pure Reason, and it shows how a critical passage is virtually impossible to understand:

Being an act of the self-activity of the subject, it [the act of synthesis] cannot be executed save by the subject itself. It will easily be observed that this action is originally one and is equipollent for all combination, and that its dissolution, namely, analysis, which appears to be its opposite, yet always presupposes it. For where the understanding has not previously combined, it cannot dissolve, since only as having been combined by the understanding can anything that allows of analysis be given to the faculty of representation.

Yeah, okay… right. Got it now?

And over the summer, for fun, you’ll immerse yourself in 669 pages (in the Kemp-Smith edition) of such scintillating writing?

With guidance, however, such a passage actually makes complete sense and is seen to be a very important argument in Kant’s big picture.

For our purposes, we do not need to “immerse ourselves” in the whole Critique of Pure Reason. Instead, we are going to focus upon just those aspects of Kant’s view to see their relation to philosophy of mind. We are going to see the contrast between Kant’s view and that of empiricists about mind, and Kant’s perspective will quickly emerge as vastly superior in every respect. For our purposes, we just need to realize that we are taking a very, very superficial (although correct) glance at Kant’s overarching philosophy. There is a vast goldmine there from which we will extract just a few nuggets. It will feel as though we are going “very deep” and “extremely abstract,” but we are literally scratching the surface of Kant’s contemplation of the fabric of reality… just enough to serve our present purposes.

If you’ll remember our brief overview of Hume’s empiricist framework, we introduced some terms that we will now further develop in the Kantian context. Let’s start by looking at a diagram of knowledge from a Kantian perspective, so that we can denote some crucial differences from Hume’s perspective of knowledge.



A priori synthetic knowledge

Remember that Hume had exactly two forms of knowledge: a priori analytic and a posteriori synthetic. Kant adds a third form of knowledge: a priori synthetic. Hume denied that this form of knowledge was possible, but Kant explains the mistakes Hume made in thinking this was impossible. And in this very explanation, we lay the groundwork for the philosophy of mind that depends upon it.

First, Hume was mistaken to differentiate only between “relations of ideas” and “matters of fact.” Kant argues that that distinction really does not map neatly onto the analytic/synthetic distinction, and Kant’s third form of knowledge is neither a “relation of ideas” nor a “matter of fact.”

Notice in the above diagram that some of Hume’s “relations of ideas” are moved into the “matters of fact” row. However, that row should now really be called strictly “synthetic” because that row is really not just like Hume’s comparable row. Here is why.

Hume believed that “matters of fact” are about the world, but they are so because they are derived from the world. Remember that empiricism’s pillar principle is that all ideas originate from antecedent sensory impressions. So, for Hume, all ideas that are about the world must come from the world and simply be received by the perceiver. To know anything about the world, you must wait to receive sensory impressions from the world, and the ideas that arise from those impressions will therefore be about the world. If you want to do metaphysics, you want to know about the world as it really is. To do that, you must depend upon the world to tell you. And the world only tells you through the senses. Put simply, the empiricist model of knowledge is this:

Knowledge must conform to objects.

By sharp contrast, Kant recognized that we know some things about the world that do not have the attributes of a posteriori knowledge, namely: unreliability, contingency, and particularity. We know, for example, that the Pythagorean Theorem is absolutely, certainly, universally correct… and it actually tells us something about the world! We don’t wait for the world to tell us, because the world has no way to tell us via the senses! Instead, before ever having the slightest sensory experience of right triangles (because that would be impossible), we can derive the Pythagorean Theorem. But we can then use the Pythagorean Theorem to build a house, because (somehow) the world conforms to that theorem.

Kant asked the question: How can the world conform itself to a mere “relation of ideas” in Hume’s sense? How is that possible?

And he recognized: It is not possible. If knowledge like the Pythagorean Theorem were merely “relations of ideas” as Hume thought, then it would have no necessary connection to the way the world really is. It would be merely conceptual manipulation, a playing around with definitions. But instead, the Pythagorean Theorem is (somehow) universally true of real-world right triangles! How can our concepts not only tell us about the world but seem to make the world conform to them?

So, Kant recognized a core principle of metaphysics, which is: The mind cannot in principle know anything that does not originate from within it. This principle bears a lot of scrutiny, and we will get to that.

Kant viewed his realization as akin to the “Copernican revolution in astronomy.” Ptolemy explained planetary motion by having everything revolve around the Earth. Copernicus solved the many problems emerging with Ptolemy’s model by turning everything on its head, so to speak, and having all of the planets, including the Earth, revolve around the Sun.

Rather than the empiricist principle that says, “knowledge must conform to objects,” Kant turned that relation on its head and argued for a new principle:

Objects must conform to knowledge.

How would such a relation be possible?

How would such a relation not immediately lead to a radical subjectivism, where “my world” is nothing like “your world,” because our “two worlds” were just creations of our minds?

And here is just one of many unfortunate choices of terminology Kant employs, as he calls his model “transcendental idealism.” By calling it any species of idealism, Kant seemingly aligns himself with the likes of George Berkeley’s famous empiricist idealism. However, Kant’s philosophy actually bears little resemblance to Berkeley’s! And the term “transcendental” just confuses people. So, for now, let’s just say that Kant’s model is “idealism” only insofar as it has real-world objects conforming themselves to ideas. However, in every sense, Kant means something vastly different by that sentence than does Berkeley.

We must get this “idealism” principle right, and to do so, we must explain what Kant really meant by it. To do that, we must first visit the notion of primary and secondary qualities.


Primary and Secondary Qualities

We have talked about “qualities” or properties of things. “My dog, Thor, is black.” And so on. My dog, Thor was an “object,” a “substance,” to which properties could be ascribed. These properties, or “qualities,” can also be called “accidents” because they are only “accidentally” (rather than necessarily) attached to my dog Thor. My dog could have been green or red, for example, depending upon what color of paint he “accidentally” dumped onto himself.

However, by contrast, it also seems that there are some necessary qualities that cannot ever be “accidents.”

At first, you might think, “Well, certainly his dogness was an essential quality. Thor would not have even been a dog without having dogness.” So, you might think that “black” would be a “secondary” or “accidental” quality of Thor, while his dogness would be a “primary” or “essential” quality of Thor.

This would be mistaken, because it is not thinking as a metaphysician thinks about objects. Remember Occam’s Razor and the goal of metaphysics. We are after the most basic “stuff,” and that “stuff” is the “substance” that has all the “accidents” happening to it. Remember that materialists think that the “stuff” is matter, and there is nothing else besides matter. So, for a materialist metaphysician, “Thor” is itself an “accident” of matter: “This matter is Thor.”

So, the real issue with primary qualities is to determine what are the essential qualities of the “basic stuff.” Nothing about Thor is essential to the “basic stuff,” so it’s a mistake to start thinking about Thor in particular when doing metaphysics! Instead, we want to ask: “What does Thor have in common with all of matter?” You see now that we don’t care about color, size, smell, nor a host of many other “secondary” qualities of Thor, and that is because none of those are common to all of matter itself.

Over thousands of years of thinking about this distinction, the notion of primary and secondary qualities got more and more refined until Locke. Locke differentiated the two sorts of qualities into those qualities that we contribute to the object and those qualities that are inherent in the object itself, as it is in itself.

Let’s take color as an example. What is color?

Color is merely a wavelength of light as it is bounced off of an object and the received by our eyes, converted to neuro-chemical reactions, and ultimately “parsed” by our brains into sensation. Our minds then interpret that sensation as “red” or “blue” or whatever.

Is the color in the object itself? We know that the answer is clearly “no,” because you can change to all different sorts of light and thereby change the apparent color of the object. The object is not contributing the color. The color is independent of the object as it is in itself.

Another way to think about it is to ask: Is an atom red or blue or some other color? We know that they are not. Atoms as they are in themselves are too small to be perceived or to be colorized. Take a big pile of some element, say gold, which is all the same atoms, and you might be tempted to say, “Yeah, see. Get enough of the same atoms together, and you see that they are gold.” But that is the fallacy of division. Just because a collection has a certain property does not mean that all of the individual parts of that collection have that same property. And in this case, it is the totality itself that can appear gold to us. The individual atoms themselves do not reflect any wavelength of light that can appear to us as gold.

Now, notice the phrase “appear to us as.” This is critical! It leads to another distinction that correlates with the primary and secondary qualities distinction.


Appearances vs. Things in Themselves

Simple common sense tells us that we are often confused about the way things “really are.” We mistake shapes at a distance. We must always wonder what color something “really is” because we must always question: “Is this in white light?” And we must always wonder what we are “contributing” to our own experience. When you go to a 3D movie, you forget that you are really watching a series of still images on a flat, 2D screen! The “reality” of what is happening is nothing like how you perceive it! Engineers have simply learned how we process information, so they design a series of still images that are superimposed on each other but slightly “off,” and then use polarized glasses to trick our brains into “composing” motion where there is none and depth where there is none. In short, we contribute all of the 3D motion to the experience! The experience we are having of such a “movie” is almost entirely “in us.”

But the realization that some aspects of our experiences are “in us” just is Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities. And Kant takes that distinction to its logical conclusion with his distinction between appearances and things in themselves.

Let’s start with Locke.

Locke asked the right question (for an empiricist): “What qualities do we contribute to objects and what qualities are inherent in the objects themselves?”

His answer was that all objects (indeed all of matter as the basic “stuff”) occupies space, occupies time, and has a shape. These are the primary qualities of matter. These are the essential qualities of matter itself, as it is in itself.

Locke believed that the secondary qualities, such as color, were “emergent” qualities that we in part or in whole contribute to our experiences of the objects. Color, for example, is not all “in us,” because it depends upon the color of the light in which we are viewing an object, and even the “shape” of the underlying matter contributes. Matter in a certain combination is transparent. It is not that the matter itself is transparent! It is that the shapes of particles, coupled with the distance between the particles, can contribute to how they appear colored. The color is not in the matter in itself. But the primary qualities (the matter as it is in itself) contributes to color. Surrounding light contributes to color. And we ourselves contribute (greatly!) to how an object appears colorized to us.

For Locke, we don’t contribute space or time or shape. That inheres in the matter itself. Those are essential aspects of what “substance” means. Every “external” object we perceive, we perceive in space and time. Everything we experience, we experience in time (including “inner” experiences). And all objects in space occupy a particular part of space, which is their shape. So, these properties of objects are “objective” and in the things in themselves. We contribute nothing to these aspects of objects! Our perceptions of these properties come to us entirely from the objects. So, empirical metaphysics for Locke was much about categorizing the primary and secondary qualities of objects, thereby enabling us to distinguish in principle between “appearances” and “things in themselves”.

For both Locke and Hume (both empiricists), our perceptions must “wait” on the objects. The objects then contribute both primary and secondary qualities to us, we add in more secondary qualities, and we thereby have sensory experiences and the ideas that emerge from those experiences. Doing metaphysics is all about trying to sort through the appearances and get clear about the primary qualities, which then inform us about the things as they are in themselves. Hume ultimately denied that this sort of abstract metaphysics was even possible, as he denied the ideas of substance, causality, and many other common-sense ideas. In so doing, Hume gutted the very possibility of the practice of science as we know it; he did so with such rigor and compelling argumentation that it can well be said that all of contemporary philosophy of science is a response to Hume and an effort to reestablish the possibility of rational science.

Kant recognized the pit of skepticism into which Hume had plunged both science and metaphysics, and he realized that Hume was correct about the implications of empiricism! However, he also recognized the emptiness of the “dogmatic” rationalism that had, since Plato, attempted to do metaphysics by appeal strictly to the “pure” ideas that Hume would call “relations of ideas,” and Kant recognized that Hume was right that such “relations of ideas” could never tell us anything about the world!

With rationalism and empiricism both metaphysical dead-ends, Kant “thought outside the box” at a whole new level by taking everything that had been done with metaphysics for thousands of years and “rethinking” it.

Kant contemplated:

1) Are primary qualities really features of objects, or are even these qualities “in us”?

2) Is it possible to know anything about things in themselves, or are we necessarily locked into the realm of appearances?

3) Knowledge must be about the world, but what does the world contribute and what do we contribute to that knowledge?

4) Is metaphysics even possible, or is Hume correct that it is not?

5) If metaphysics is even possible, what are its core principles?

Some of these questions had been asked prior to Kant. But Kant came up with answers that we so shocking and even counterintuitive that for hundreds of years he has been widely misunderstood. People impose what they wish or think Kant had argued, because they cannot even imagine what Kant actually demonstrated. The Kantian model of metaphysics is so “strange” that it is much like modern quantum theory, of which Richard Feynman once said:

We always have had … a great deal of difficulty in understanding the world view that quantum mechanics represents. At least I do, because I’m an old enough man that I haven’t got to the point that this stuff is obvious to me. Okay, I still get nervous with it. And therefore, some of the younger students … you know how it always is, every new idea, it takes a generation or two until it becomes obvious that there’s no real problem. It has not yet become obvious to me that there’s no real problem.

People read Kant, do not understand it, think “there’s a real problem,” and they have never gotten over it, even after generations. So they either reject it outright or impose on Kant things he never intended. But Kant got it right, and you come to see that the better you understand what he actually intended to say.

In coming weeks, we are going to get clear about what he actually argued, although we will necessarily limit ourselves to those arguments that enable us to talk about the nature of mind.

Stay tuned!