REVIEW: Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”


Originally published on Goodreads.

Both frightfully obscure and logically scrupulous, Kant functions sort of like a philosophical litmus test. Many a metaphysical charlatan (Lacan, Žižek, et. al.) has aped his mystifying prose-style without any attempt to match his rigour. And meanwhile, the most provincial of the analytic camp, unduly equating “abstruseness” with “bullshit,” write him off as a mere historical oddity.

But the truth of the matter is that the Critique—Kant’s magnum opus—constitutes one of the most inventive, meticulous and edifying works of philosophical mind-f****ery ever to be writ.

In a nutshell, the Critique finds Kant arguing for the doctrine of transcendental idealism, which asserts that our knowledge of the world only extends to the phenomenal (how things appear to us), rather than the noumenal (how things exist irrespective of us). Indeed, mustn’t all possible knowledge and experience first pass through the lens of our own subjectivity? (Not that everyone will agree with this claim.)

That being said, Kant’s view has more than its fair share of problems. For instance, the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” in which he argues that all (human) experience is spatially and temporally conditioned, seems rather problematic—especially in the face of modern scientific conceptions of space and time. Even so, it would still need to be determined which of Kant’s subsequent claims suffer as a result.

But perhaps the largest issue facing transcendental idealism is exegetical in nature.

Upon its initial publication, many readers of the Critique took it to express a particularly sophisticated version of Berkeley’s so-called “mystic idealism,” which led Kant to include a rather pointed rebuttal in subsequent pressings. And even though Kant takes obvious plains to differentiate logic from psychology (the Critique proceeds along the former grounds), some modern scientists have read Kant’s categories as anticipating certain neurological circuits.

However, one of the most important debates in Kantian scholarship has been between the dual object and dual aspect interpretations of the Critique. According to the former, Kant believed noumena and phenomena to be two related but ultimately separate types of entity, whereas the latter holds that phenomena simply constitute the perceptible “aspect” of noumena.

Thus, it’s not even clear what Kant’s view truly is—at least in its particulars. So perhaps it’d be best to withhold any judgment regarding its ultimate truth or falsity…

Yet if the Critique is so difficult, and its arguments so terribly obscure, why should we even bother with it in the first place? Whilst perusing this book—a process which took up the better part of two years—I assembled a list of reasons for why Critique deserves its elevated position within the history of Western philosophy. Here’s what I came up with:

(1) For taking the “negative” empiricism of Hume, which is as frightening as it is cogent, and combining it with an explanation for why the world still seems to make at least an iota of sense—i.e., finding a middle road between empiricism and rationalism.

(2) For constructing a devastating critique of speculative metaphysics. (Sorry, Leibnitz.)

(3) For replacing metaphysical arguments from speculative reason with metaphysical arguments from practical reason. That is, even if a metaphysical proposition is impossible to prove, it doesn’t follow that we should not believe in it.

(3.1) For instance, either (a) free will exists or (b) we live in a thoroughly deterministic universe. Let’s say we live in a thoroughly deterministic universe, in which case all of our beliefs will be accordingly determined, and hence we would simply and inexorably believe one of these propositions or the other. But now suppose that we truly enjoy the power of choice. If we have free will but fail to recognize this fact, we’ll likely also fail to take responsibility for our actions. Therefore, we should—according to the dictates of practical reason—believe in the existence of free will, even if we can’t come up with any airtight theoretical proof.

(4) For recognizing that all possible experience necessarily conforms to certain cognitive categories.

(5) For inventing the transcendental argument, in which the existence of some entity is deduced according to the preconditions for possible experience.

(6) For developing the doctrine of transcendental idealism.

(7) For formulating some pretty ingenious arguments against the then prominent theological proofs; and on the way, possibly laying the groundwork for second-order logic.

(8) For offering a (metalogical) account for why logic seems to be such a useful tool of inquiry, philosophical or otherwise.

A word of warning to the potential reader: this behemoth requires quite a lot of background knowledge—the empiricism of Locke, Berkeley and especially Hume; the rationalism of Leibniz; and even a dash of Newton (à propos the absolutist conception of space) and Aristotle (à propos the search for ontological categories) thrown in for good measure. But for those serious about philosophy, the Critique—Guyer and Wood’s top-notch translation in particular—makes for an indispensable read.

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