Kant's Theory of Knowledge - Harold Prichard - ebook

Kant's Theory of Knowledge ebook

Harold Prichard



Human reason is called upon to consider certain questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer. These questions relate to God, freedom of the will, and immortality. And the name for the subject which has to deal with these questions is metaphysics. At one time metaphysics was regarded as the queen of all the sciences, and the importance of its aim justified the title...

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Harold Prichard


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Metaphysic. (The pages referred to are those of the first edition;

these are also to be found in the text of the second edition.)



THE PROBLEM OF THE CRITIQUE may be stated in outline and approximately in Kant’s own words as follows.

Human reason is called upon to consider certain questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer. These questions relate to God, freedom of the will, and immortality. And the name for the subject which has to deal with these questions is metaphysics. At one time metaphysics was regarded as the queen of all the sciences, and the importance of its aim justified the title. At first the subject, propounding as it did a dogmatic system, exercised a despotic sway. But its subsequent failure brought it into disrepute. It has constantly been compelled to retrace its steps; there has been fundamental disagreement among philosophers, and no philosopher has successfully refuted his critics. Consequently the current attitude to the subject is one of weariness and indifference. Yet humanity cannot really be indifferent to such problems; even those who profess indifference inevitably make metaphysical assertions; and the current attitude is a sign not of levity but of a refusal to put up with the illusory knowledge offered by contemporary philosophy. Now the objects of metaphysics, God, freedom, and immortality, are not objects of experience in the sense in which a tree or a stone is an object of experience. Hence our views about them cannot be due to experience; they must somehow be apprehended by pure reason, i. e. by thinking and without appeal to experience. Moreover, it is in fact by thinking that men have always tried to solve the problems concerning God, freedom, and immortality. What, then, is the cause of the unsatisfactory treatment of these problems and men’s consequent indifference? It must, in some way, lie in a failure to attain the sure scientific method, and really consists in the neglect of an inquiry which should be a preliminary to all others in metaphysics. Men ought to have begun with a critical investigation of pure reason itself. Reason should have examined its own nature, to ascertain in general the extent to which it is capable of attaining knowledge without the aid of experience. This examination will decide whether reason is able to deal with the problems of God, freedom, and immortality at all; and without it no discussion of these problems will have a solid foundation. It is this preliminary investigation which the Critique of Pure Reason proposes to undertake. Its aim is to answer the question, ‘How far can reason go, without the material presented and the aid furnished by experience?’ and the result furnishes the solution, or at least the key to the solution, of all metaphysical problems.

Kant’s problem, then, is similar to Locke’s. Locke states that his purpose is to inquire into the original, certainty, and extent of human knowledge; and he says, “If, by this inquiry into the nature of the understanding I can discover the powers thereof; how far they reach, to what things they are in any degree proportionate, and where they fail us; I suppose it may be of use to prevail with the busy mind of man, to be more cautious in meddling with things exceeding its comprehension; to stop when it is at the utmost extent of its tether; and to sit down in a quiet ignorance of those things, which, upon examination, are found to be beyond the reach of our capacities.” Thus, to use Dr. Caird’s analogy, the task which both Locke and Kant set themselves resembled that of investigating a telescope, before turning it upon the stars, to determine its competence for the work.

The above outline of Kant’s problem is of course only an outline. Its definite formulation is expressed in the well-known question, ‘How are a priori synthetic judgements possible?’ To determine the meaning of this question it is necessary to begin with some consideration of the terms ‘a priori‘ and ‘synthetic’.

While there is no difficulty in determining what Kant would have recognized as an a priori judgement, there is difficulty in determining what he meant by calling such a judgement a priori. The general account is given in the first two sections of the Introduction. An a priori judgement is introduced as something opposed to an a posteriori judgement, or a judgement which has its source in experience. Instances of the latter would be ‘This body is heavy’, and ‘This body is hot’. The point of the word ‘experience’ is that there is direct apprehension of some individual, e. g. an individual body. To say that a judgement has its source in experience is of course to imply a distinction between the judgement and experience, and the word ‘source’ may be taken to mean that the judgement depends for its validity upon the experience of the individual thing to which the judgement relates. An a priori judgement, then, as first described, is simply a judgement which is not a posteriori. It is independent of all experience; in other words, its validity does not depend on the experience of individual things. It might be illustrated by the judgement that all three-sided figures must have three angles. So far, then, no positive meaning has been given to a priori.

Kant then proceeds, not as we should expect, to state the positive meaning of a priori; but to give tests for what is a priori. Since a test implies a distinction between itself and what is tested, it is implied that the meaning of a priori is already known.

The tests given are necessity and strict universality.Since judgements which are necessary and strictly universal cannot be based on experience, their existence is said to indicate another source of knowledge. And Kant gives as illustrations, (1) any proposition in mathematics, and (2) the proposition ‘Every change must have a cause’.

So far Kant has said nothing which determines the positive meaning of a priori. A clue is, however, to be found in two subsequent phrases. He says that we may content ourselves with having established as a fact the pure use of our faculty of knowledge. And he adds that not only in judgements, but even in conceptions, is an a priori origin manifest. The second statement seems to make the a priori character of a judgement consist in its origin. As this origin cannot be experience, it must, as the first statement implies, lie in our faculty of knowledge. Kant’s point is that the existence of universal and necessary judgements shows that we must possess a faculty of knowledge capable of yielding knowledge without appeal to experience. The term a priori, then, has some reference to the existence of this faculty; in other words, it gives expression to a doctrine of ‘innate ideas’. Perhaps, however, it is hardly fair to press the phrase ‘test of a priori judgements’. If so, it may be said that on the whole, by a priori judgements Kant really means judgements which are universal and necessary, and that he regards them as implying a faculty which gives us knowledge without appeal to experience.

We may now turn to the term ‘synthetic judgement’. Kant distinguishes analytic and synthetic judgements thus. In any judgement the predicate B either belongs to the subject A, as something contained (though covertly) in the conception A, or lies completely outside the conception A, although it stands in relation to it. In the former case the judgement is called analytic, in the latter synthetic. ‘All bodies are extended’ is an analytic judgement; ‘All bodies are heavy’ is synthetic. It immediately follows that only synthetic judgements extend our knowledge; for in making an analytic judgement we are only clearing up our conception of the subject. This process yields no new knowledge, for it only gives us a clearer view of what we know already. Further, all judgements based on experience are synthetic, for it would be absurd to base an analytical judgement on experience, when to make the judgement we need not go beyond our own conceptions. On the other hand, a priori judgements are sometimes analytic and sometimes synthetic. For, besides analytical judgements, all judgements in mathematics and certain judgements which underlie physics are asserted independently of experience, and they are synthetic.

It should now be an easy matter to understand the problem expressed by the question, ‘How are a priori synthetic judgements possible?’ Its substance may be stated thus. The existence of a posteriori synthetic judgements presents no difficulty. For experience is equivalent to perception, and, as we suppose, in perception we are confronted with reality, and apprehend it as it is. If I am asked, ‘How do I know that my pen is black or my chair hard?’ I answer that it is because I see or feel it to be so. In such cases, then, when my assertion is challenged, I appeal to my experience or perception of the reality to which the assertion relates. My appeal raises no difficulty because it conforms to the universal belief that if judgements are to rank as knowledge, they must be made to conform to the nature of things, and that the conformity is established by appeal to actual experience of the things. But do a priori synthetic judgements satisfy this condition? Apparently not. For when I assert that every straight line is the shortest way between its extremities, I have not had, and never can have, experience of all possible straight lines. How then can I be sure that all cases will conform to my judgement? In fact, how can I anticipate my experience at all? How can I make an assertion about any individual until I have had actual experience of it? In an a priori synthetic judgement the mind in some way, in virtue of its own powers and independently of experience, makes an assertion to which it claims that reality must conform. Yet why should reality conform? A priori judgements of the other kind, viz. analytic judgements, offer no difficulty, since they are at bottom tautologies, and consequently denial of them is self-contradictory and meaningless. But there is difficulty where a judgement asserts that a term B is connected with another term A, B being neither identical with nor a part of A. In this case there is no contradiction in asserting that A is not B, and it would seem that only experience can determine whether all A is or is not B. Otherwise we are presupposing that things must conform to our ideas about them. Now metaphysics claims to make a priori synthetic judgements, for it does not base its results on any appeal to experience. Hence, before we enter upon metaphysics, we really ought to investigate our right to make a priorisynthetic judgements at all. Therein, in fact, lies the importance to metaphysics of the existence of such judgements in mathematics and physics. For it shows that the difficulty is not peculiar to metaphysics, but is a general one shared by other subjects; and the existence of such judgements in mathematics is specially important because there their validity or certainty has never been questioned. The success of mathematics shows that at any rate under certain conditionsa priori synthetic judgements are valid, and if we can determine these conditions, we shall be able to decide whether such judgements are possible in metaphysics. In this way we shall be able to settle a disputed case of their validity by examination of an undisputed case. The general problem, however, is simply to show what it is which makes a priori synthetic judgements as such possible; and there will be three cases, those of mathematics, of physics, and of metaphysics.

The outline of the solution of this problem is contained in the Preface to the Second Edition. There Kant urges that the key is to be found by consideration of mathematics and physics. If the question be raised as to what it is that has enabled these subjects to advance, in both cases the answer will be found to lie in a change of method. “Since the earliest times to which the history of human reason reaches, mathematics has, among that wonderful nation the Greeks, followed the safe road of a science. Still it is not to be supposed that it was as easy for this science to strike into, or rather to construct for itself, that royal road, as it was for logic, in which reason has only to do with itself. On the contrary, I believe that it must have remained long in the stage of groping (chiefly among the Egyptians), and that this change is to be ascribed to a revolution, due to the happy thought of one man, through whose experiment the path to be followed was rendered unmistakable for future generations, and the certain way of a science was entered upon and sketched out once for all.... A new light shone upon the first man (Thales, or whatever may have been his name) who demonstrated the properties of the isosceles triangle; for he found that he ought not to investigate that which he saw in the figure or even the mere conception of the same, and learn its properties from this, but that he ought to produce the figure by virtue of that which he himself had thought into it a priori in accordance with conceptions and had represented (by means of a construction), and that in order to know something with certainty a priori he must not attribute to the figure any property other than that which necessarily follows from that which he has himself introduced into the figure, in accordance with his conception.”

Here Kant’s point is as follows. Geometry remained barren so long as men confined themselves either to the empirical study of individual figures, of which the properties were to be discovered by observation, or to the consideration of the mere conception of various kinds of figure, e. g. of an isosceles triangle. In order to advance, men had in some sense to produce the figure through their own activity, and in the act of constructing it to recognize that certain features were necessitated by those features which they had given to the figure in constructing it. Thus men had to make a triangle by drawing three straight lines so as to enclose a space, and then to recognize that three angles must have been made by the same process. In this way the mind discovered a general rule, which must apply to all cases, because the mind itself had determined the nature of the cases. A property B follows from a nature A; all instances of A must possess the property B, because they have solely that nature A which the mind has given them and whatever is involved in A. The mind’s own rule holds good in all cases, because the mind has itself determined the nature of the cases.

Kant’s statements about physics, though not the same, are analogous. Experiment, he holds, is only fruitful when reason does not follow nature in a passive spirit, but compels nature to answer its own questions. Thus, when Torricelli made an experiment to ascertain whether a certain column of air would sustain a given weight, he had previously calculated that the quantity of air was just sufficient to balance the weight, and the significance of the experiment lay in his expectation that nature would conform to his calculations and in the vindication of this expectation. Reason, Kant says, must approach nature not as a pupil but as a judge, and this attitude forms the condition of progress in physics.

The examples of mathematics and physics suggest, according to Kant, that metaphysics may require a similar revolution of standpoint, the lack of which will account for its past failure. An attempt should therefore be made to introduce such a change into metaphysics. The change is this. Hitherto it has been assumed that our knowledge must conform to objects. This assumption is the real cause of the failure to extend our knowledge a priori, for it limits thought to the analysis of conceptions, which can only yield tautological judgements. Let us therefore try the effect of assuming that objects must conform to our knowledge. Herein lies the Copernican revolution. We find that this reversal of the ordinary view of the relation of objects to the mind enables us for the first time to understand the possibility of a priori synthetic judgements, and even to demonstrate certain laws which lie at the basis of nature, e. g. the law of causality. It is true that the reversal also involves the surprising consequence that our faculty of knowledge is incapable of dealing with the objects of metaphysics proper, viz. God, freedom, and immortality, for the assumption limits our knowledge to objects of possible experience. But this very consequence, viz. the impossibility of metaphysics, serves to test and vindicate the assumption. For the view that our knowledge conforms to objects as things in themselves leads us into an insoluble contradiction when we go on, as we must, to seek for the unconditioned; while the assumption that objects must, as phenomena, conform to our way of representing them, removes the contradiction. Further, though the assumption leads to the denial of speculative knowledge in the sphere of metaphysics, it is still possible that reason in its practical aspect may step in to fill the gap. And the negative result of the assumption may even have a positive value. For if, as is the case, the moral reason, or reason in its practical aspect, involves certain postulates concerning God, freedom, and immortality, which are rejected by the speculative reason, it is important to be able to show that these objects fall beyond the scope of the speculative reason. And if we call reliance on these postulates, as being presuppositions of morality, faith, we may say that knowledge must be abolished to make room for faith.

This answer to the main problem, given in outline in the Preface, is undeniably plausible. Yet examination of it suggests two criticisms which affect Kant’s general position.

In the first place, the parallel of mathematics which suggests the ‘Copernican’ revolution does not really lead to the results which Kant supposes. Advance in mathematics is due to the adoption not of any conscious assumption but of a certain procedure, viz. that by which we draw a figure and thereby see the necessity of certain relations within it. To preserve the parallel, the revolution in metaphysics should have consisted in the adoption of a similar procedure, and advance should have been made dependent on the application of an at least quasi-mathematical method to the objects of metaphysics. Moreover, since these objects are God, freedom, and immortality, the conclusion should have been that we ought to study God, freedom, and immortality by somehow constructing them in perception and thereby gaining insight into the necessity of certain relations. Success or failure in metaphysics would therefore consist simply in success or failure to see the necessity of the relations involved. Kant, however, makes the condition of advance in metaphysics consist in the adoption not of a method of procedure but of an assumption, viz. that objects conform to the mind. And it is impossible to see how this assumption can assist what, on Kant’s theory, it ought to have assisted, viz. the study of God, freedom, and immortality, or indeed the study of anything. In geometry we presuppose that individual objects conform to the universal rules of relation which we discover. Now suppose we describe a geometrical judgement, e. g. that two straight lines cannot enclose a space, as a mental law, because we are bound to think it true. Then we may state the presupposition by saying that objects, e. g. individual pairs of straight lines, must conform to such a mental law. But the explicit recognition of this presupposition and the conscious assertion of it in no way assist the solution of particular geometrical problems. The presupposition is really a condition of geometrical thinking at all. Without it there is no geometrical thinking, and the recognition of it places us in no better position for the study of geometrical problems. Similarly, if we wish to think out the nature of God, freedom, and immortality, we are not assisted by assuming that these objects must conform to the laws of our thinking. We must presuppose this conformity if we are to think at all, and consciousness of the presupposition puts us in no better position. What is needed is an insight similar to that which we have in geometry, i. e. an insight into the necessity of the relations under consideration such as would enable us to see, for example, that being a man, as such, involves living for ever.

Kant has been led into the mistake by a momentary change in the meaning given to ‘metaphysics’. For the moment he is thinking of metaphysics, not as the inquiry concerned with God, freedom, and immortality, but as the inquiry which has to deal with the problem as to how we can know a priori. This problem is assisted, at any rate prima facie, by the assumption that things must conform to the mind. And this assumption can be said to be suggested by mathematics, inasmuch as the mathematician presupposes that particular objects must correspond to the general rules discovered by the mind. From this point of view Kant’s only mistake, if the parallelism is to be maintained, is that he takes for an assumption which enables the mathematician to advance a metaphysical presupposition of the advance, on which the mathematician never reflects, and awareness of which would in no way assist his mathematics.

In the second place the ‘Copernican’ revolution is not strictly the revolution which Kant supposes it to be. He speaks as though his aim is precisely to reverse the ordinary view of the relation of the mind to objects. Instead of the mind being conceived as having to conform to objects, objects are to be conceived as having to conform to the mind. But if we consider Kant’s real position, we see that these views are only verbally contrary, since the word object refers to something different in each case. On the ordinary view objects are something outside the mind, in the sense of independent of it, and the ideas, which must conform to objects, are something within the mind, in the sense of dependent upon it. The conformity then is of something within the mind to something outside it. Again, the conformity means that one of the terms, viz. the object, exists first and that then the other term, the idea, is fitted to or made to correspond to it. Hence the real contrary of this view is that ideas, within the mind, exist first and that objects outside the mind, coming into existence afterwards, must adapt themselves to the ideas. This of course strikes us as absurd, because we always think of the existence of the object as the presupposition of the existence of the knowledge of it; we do not think the existence of the knowledge as the presupposition of the existence of the object. Hence Kant only succeeds in stating the contrary of the ordinary view with any plausibility, because in doing so he makes the term object refer to something which like ‘knowledge’ is within the mind. His position is that objects within the mind must conform to our general ways of knowing. For Kant, therefore, the conformity is not between something within and something without the mind, but between two realities within the mind, viz. the individual object, as object of perception, i. e. aphenomenon, and our general ways of perceiving and thinking. But this view is only verbally the contrary of the ordinary view, and consequently Kant does not succeed in reversing the ordinary view that we know objects independent of or outside the mind, by bringing our ideas into conformity with them. In fact, his conclusion is that we do not know this object, i. e. the thing in itself, at all. Hence his real position should be stated by saying not that the ordinary view puts the conformity between mind and things in the wrong way, but that we ought not to speak of conformity at all. For the thing in itself being unknowable, our ideas can never be made to conform to it. Kant then only reaches a conclusion which is apparently the reverse of the ordinary view by substituting another object for the thing in itself, viz. the phenomenon or appearance of the thing in itself to us.

Further, this second line of criticism, if followed out, will be found to affect his statement of the problem as well as that of its solution. It will be seen that the problem is mis-stated, and that the solution offered presupposes it to be mis-stated. His statement of the problem takes the form of raising a difficulty which the existence of a priori knowledge presents to the ordinary view, according to which objects are independent of the mind, and ideas must be brought into conformity with them. In a synthetic a priori judgement we claim to discover the nature of certain objects by an act of our thinking, and independently of actual experience of them. Hence if a supporter of the ordinary view is asked to justify the conformity of this judgement or idea with the objects to which it relates, he can give no answer. The judgement having ex hypothesi been made without reference to the objects, the belief that the objects must conform to it is the merely arbitrary supposition that a reality independent of the mind must conform to the mind’s ideas. But Kant, in thus confining the difficulty to a priori judgements, implies that empirical judgements present no difficulty to the ordinary view; since they rest upon actual experience of the objects concerned, they are conformed to the objects by the very process through which they arise. He thereby fails to notice that empirical judgements present a precisely parallel difficulty. It can only be supposed that the conformity of empirical judgements to their objects is guaranteed by the experience upon which they rest, if it be assumed that in experience we apprehend objects as they are. But our experience or perception of individual objects is just as much mental as the thinking which originates a priori judgements. If we can question the truth of our thinking, we can likewise question the truth of our perception. If we can ask whether our ideas must correspond to their objects, we can likewise ask whether our perceptions must correspond to them. The problem relates solely to the correspondence between something within the mind and something outside it; it applies equally to perceiving and thinking, and concerns all judgements alike, empirical as well as a priori. Kant, therefore, has no right to imply that empirical judgements raise no problem, if he finds difficulty in a priori judgements. He is only able to draw a distinction between them, because, without being aware that he is doing so, he takes account of the relation of the object to the subject in the case of an a priori judgement, while in the case of an empirical judgement he ignores it. In other words, in dealing with the general connexion between the qualities of an object, he takes into account the fact that we are thinking it, but, in dealing with the perception of the coexistence of particular qualities of an object, he ignores the fact that we are perceiving it. Further, that the real problem concerns all synthetic judgements alike is shown by the solution which he eventually reaches. His conclusion turns out to be that while both empirical and a priori judgements are valid of phenomena, they are not valid of things in themselves; i. e. that of things in themselves we know nothing at all, not even their particular qualities. Since, then, his conclusion is that even empirical judgements are not valid of things in themselves, it shows that the problem cannot be confined to a priori judgements, and therefore constitutes an implicit criticism of his statement of the problem.

Must there not, however, be some problem peculiar to a priori judgements? Otherwise why should Kant have been led to suppose that his problem concerned them only? Further consideration will show that there is such a problem, and that it was only owing to the mistake indicated that Kant treated this problem as identical with that of which he actually offered a solution. In the universal judgements of mathematics we apprehend, as we think, general rules of connexion which must apply to all possible cases. Such judgements, then, presuppose a conformity between the connexions which we discover and all possible instances. Now Kant’s treatment of this conformity as a conformity between our ideas and things has two implications. In the first place, it implies, as has been pointed out, that relation to the subject, as thinking, is taken into account in the case of the universal connexion, and that relation to the subject, as perceiving, is ignored in the case of the individual thing. In the second place, it implies that what is related to the subject as the object of its thought must be subjective or mental; that because we have to think the general connexion, the connexion is only our own idea, the conformity of things to which may be questioned. But the treatment, to be consistent, should take account of relation to the subject in both cases or in neither. If the former alternative be accepted, then the subjective character attributed by Kant in virtue of this relation to what is object of thought, and equally attributable to what is object of perception, reduces the problem to that of the conformity in general of all ideas, including perceptions, within the mind to things outside it; and this problem does not relate specially to a priori judgements. To discover the problem which relates specially to them, the other alternative must be accepted, that of ignoring relation to the subject in both cases. The problem then becomes ‘What renders possible or is presupposed by the conformity of individual things to certain laws of connexion?’ And, inasmuch as to deny the conformity is really to deny that there are laws of connexion, the problem reduces itself to the question, ‘What is the presupposition of the existence of definite laws of connexion in the world?’ And the only answer possible is that reality is a system or a whole of connected parts, in other words, that nature is uniform. Thus it turns out that the problem relates to the uniformity of nature, and that the question ‘How are a priori synthetic judgements possible?’ has in reality nothing to do with the problem of the relation of reality to the knowing subject, but is concerned solely with the nature of reality.

Further, it is important to see that the alternative of ignoring relation to the subject is the right one, not only from the point of view of the problem peculiar to a priori judgements, but also from the point of view of the nature of knowledge in general. Perceiving and thinking alike presuppose that reality is immediately object of the mind, and that the act of apprehension in no way affects or enters into the nature of what we apprehend about reality. If, for instance, I assert on the strength of perception that this table is round, I imply that I see the table, and that the shape which I judge it to have is not affected by the fact that I am perceiving it; for I mean that the table really is round. If some one then convinces me that I have made a mistake owing to an effect of foreshortening, and that the table is really oval, I amend my assertion, not by saying that the table is round but only to my apprehension, but by saying that it looks round. Thereby I cease to predicate roundness of the table altogether; for I mean that while it still looks round, it is not really so. The case of universal judgements is similar. The statement that a straight line is the shortest distance between its extremities means that it really is so. The fact is presupposed to be in no way altered by our having apprehended it. Moreover, reality is here just as much implied to be directly object of the mind as it is in the case of the singular judgement. Making the judgement consists, as we say, in seeing the connexion between the direction between two points and the shortest distance between them. The connexion of real characteristics is implied to be directly object of thought. Thus both perceiving and thinking presuppose that the reality to which they relate is directly object of the mind, and that the character of it which we apprehend in the resulting judgement is not affected or altered by the fact that we have had to perceive or conceive the reality.

Kant in the formulation of his problem implicitly admits this presupposition in the case of perception. He implies that empirical judgements involve no difficulty, because they rest upon the perception or experience of the objects to which they relate. On the other hand, he does not admit the presupposition in the case of conception, for he implies that in a priori judgements we are not confronted with reality but are confined to our own ideas. Hence we ought to ask why Kant is led to adopt an attitude in the latter case which he does not adopt in the former. The answer appears to be twofold. In the first place, there is an inveterate tendency to think of universals, and therefore of the connexions between them, as being not objective realities but mere ideas. In other words, we tend to adopt the conceptualist attitude, which regards individuals as the only reality, and universals as mental fictions. In consequence, we are apt to think that while in perception, which is of the individual, we are confronted by reality, in universal judgements, in which we apprehend connexions between universals, we have before us mere ideas. Kant may fairly be supposed to have been unconsciously under the influence of this tendency. In the second place, we apprehend a universal connexion by the operation of thinking. Thinking is essentially an activity; and since activity in the ordinary sense in which we oppose action to knowledge originates something, we tend to think of the activity of thinking as also originating something, viz. that which is our object when we think. Hence, since we think of what is real as independent of us and therefore as something which we may discover but can in no sense make, we tend to think of the object of thought as only an idea. On the other hand, what is ordinarily called perception, though it involves the activity of thinking, also involves an element in respect of which we are passive. This is the fact pointed to by Kant’s phrase ‘objects are given in perception’. In virtue of this passive element we are inclined to think that in perception we simply stand before the reality in a passive attitude. The reality perceived is thought to be, so to say, there, existing independently of us; relation to the subject is unnoticed because of our apparently wholly passive attitude. At times, and especially when he is thinking of the understanding as a faculty of spontaneity, Kant seems to have been under the influence of this second tendency.

The preceding summary of the problem of the Critique represents the account given in the two Prefaces and the Introduction. According to this account, the problem arises from the unquestioned existence of a priori knowledge in mathematics and physics and the problematic existence of such knowledge in metaphysics, and Kant’s aim is to determine the range within which a priori knowledge is possible. Thus the problem is introduced as relating to a prioriknowledge as such, no distinction being drawn between its character in different cases. Nevertheless the actual discussion of the problem in the body of the Critique implies a fundamental distinction between the nature of a prioriknowledge in mathematics and its nature in physics, and in order that a complete view of the problem may be given, this distinction must be stated.

The ‘Copernican’ revolution was brought about by consideration of the facts of mathematics. Kant accepted as an absolute starting-point the existence in mathematics of true universal and necessary judgements. He then asked, ‘What follows as to the nature of the objects known in mathematics from the fact that we really know them?’ Further, in his answer he accepted a distinction which he never examined or even questioned, viz. the distinction between things in themselves and phenomena. This distinction assumed, Kant inferred from the truth of mathematics that things in space and time are only phenomena. According to him mathematicians are able to make the true judgements that they do make only because they deal with phenomena. Thus Kant in no way sought to prove the truth of mathematics. On the contrary, he argued from the truth of mathematics to the nature of the world which we thereby know. The phenomenal character of the world being thus established, he was able to reverse the argument and to regard the phenomenal character of the world as explaining the validity of mathematical judgements. They are valid, because they relate to phenomena. And the consideration which led Kant to take mathematics as his starting-point seems to have been the self-evidence of mathematical judgements. As we directly apprehend their necessity, they admit of no reasonable doubt.

On the other hand, the general principles underlying physics, e. g. that every change must have a cause, or that in all change the quantum of matter is constant, appeared to Kant in a different light. Though certainly not based on experience, they did not seem to him self-evident. Hence, in the case of these principles, he sought to give what he did not seek to give in the case of mathematical judgements, viz. a proof of their truth. The nerve of the proof lies in the contention that these principles are involved not merely in any general judgement in physics, e. g. ‘All bodies are heavy,’ but even in any singular judgement, e. g. ‘This body is heavy,’ and that the validity of singular judgements is universally conceded. Thus here the fact upon which he takes his stand is not the admitted truth of the universal judgements under consideration, but the admitted truth of any singular judgement in physics. His treatment, then, of the universal judgements of mathematics and that of the principles underlying physics are distinguished by the fact that, while he accepts the former as needing no proof, he seeks to prove the latter from the admitted validity of singular judgements in physics. At the same time the acceptance of mathematical judgements and the proof of the a priori principles of physics have for Kant a common presupposition which distinguishes mathematics and physics from metaphysics. Like universal judgements in mathematics, singular judgements in physics, and therefore the principles which they presuppose, are true only if the objects to which they relate are phenomena. Both in mathematics and physics, therefore, it is a condition of a priori knowledge that it relates to phenomena and not to things in themselves. But, just for this reason, metaphysics is in a different position; since God, freedom, and immortality can never be objects of experience, a priori knowledge in metaphysics, and therefore metaphysics itself, is impossible. Thus for Kant the very condition, the realization of which justifies the acceptance of mathematical judgements and enables us to prove the principles of physics, involves the impossibility of metaphysics.

Further, the distinction drawn between a priori judgements in mathematics and in physics is largely responsible for the difficulty of understanding what Kant means by a priori. His unfortunate tendency to explain the term negatively could be remedied if it could be held either that the term refers solely to mathematical judgements or that he considers the truth of the law of causality to be apprehended in the same way that we see that two and two are four. For an a priori judgement could then be defined as one in which the mind, on the presentation of an individual in perception or imagination, and in virtue of its capacity of thinking, apprehends the necessity of a specific relation. But this definition is precluded by Kant’s view that the law of causality and similar principles, though a priori, are not self-evident.



THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN THE SENSIBILITY and the understanding is to Kant fundamental both in itself and in relation to the conclusions which he reaches. An outline, therefore, of this distinction must precede any statement or examination of the details of his position. Unfortunately, in spite of its fundamental character, Kant never thinks of questioning or criticizing the distinction in the form in which he draws it, and the presence of certain confusions often renders it difficult to be sure of his meaning.

The distinction may be stated in his own words thus: “There are two stems of human knowledge, which perhaps spring from a common but to us unknown root, namely sensibility and understanding.” “Our knowledge springs from two fundamental sources of the mind; the first receives representations (receptivity for impressions); the second is the power of knowing an object by means of these representations (spontaneity of conceptions). Through the first an object is given to us; through the second the object is thought in relation to the representation (which is a mere determination of the mind). Perception and conceptions constitute, therefore, the elements of all our knowledge, so that neither conceptions without a perception in some way corresponding to them, nor perception without conceptions can yield any knowledge.... Neither of these qualities has a preference over the other. Without sensibility no object would be given to us, and without understanding no object would be thought. Thoughts without content are empty, perceptions without conceptions are blind. Hence it is as necessary for the mind to make its conceptions sensuous (i. e. to add to them the object in perception) as to make its perceptions intelligible (i. e. to bring them under conceptions). Neither of these powers or faculties can exchange its function. The understanding cannot perceive, and the senses cannot think. Only by their union can knowledge arise.”

The distinction so stated appears straightforward and, on the whole, sound. And it is fairly referred to by Kant as the distinction between the faculties of perceiving and conceiving or thinking, provided that the terms perceiving and conceiving or thinking be taken to indicate a distinction within perception in the ordinary sense of the word. His meaning can be stated thus: ‘All knowledge requires the realization of two conditions; an individual must be presented to us in perception, and we as thinking beings must bring this individual under or recognize it as an instance of some universal. Thus, in order to judge ‘This is a house’ or ‘That is red’ we need the presence of the house or of the red colour in perception, and we must ‘recognize’ the house or the colour, i. e. apprehend the individual as a member of a certain kind. Suppose either condition unrealized. Then if we suppose a failure to conceive, i. e. to apprehend the individual as a member of some kind, we see that our perception—if it could be allowed to be anything at all—would be blind i. e. indeterminate, or a mere ‘blur’. What we perceived would be for us as good as nothing. In fact, we could not even say that we were perceiving. Again, if we suppose that we had merely the conception of a house, and neither perceived nor had perceived an individual to which it applied, we see that the conception, being without application, would be neither knowledge nor an element in knowledge. Moreover, the content of a conception is derived from perception; it is only through its relation to perceived individuals that we become aware of a universal. To know the meaning of ‘redness’ we must have experienced individual red things; to know the meaning of ‘house’ we must at least have had experience of individual men and of their physical needs. Hence ‘conceptions’ without ‘perceptions’ are void or empty. The existence of conceptions presupposes experience of corresponding individuals, even though it also implies the activity of thinking in relation to these individuals.’

Further, it is true to say that as perceiving we are passive; we do not do anything. This, as has been pointed out, is the element of truth contained in the statement that objects are given to us. On the other hand, it may be truly said that as conceiving, in the sense of bringing an individual under a universal, we are essentially active. This is presupposed by the notice or attention involved in perception ordinarily so called, i. e. perception in the full sense in which it includes conceiving as well as perceiving. Kant, therefore, is justified in referring to the sensibility as a ‘receptivity’ and to the understanding as a ‘spontaneity’.

The distinction, so stated, appears, as has been already said, intelligible and, in the main, valid. Kant, however, renders the elucidation of his meaning difficult by combining with this view of the distinction an incompatible and unwarranted theory of perception. He supposes, without ever questioning the supposition, that perception is due to the operation of things outside the mind, which act upon our sensibility and thereby produce sensations. On this supposition, what we perceive is not, as the distinction just stated implies, the thing itself, but a sensation produced by it. Consequently a problem arises as to the meaning on this supposition of the statements ‘by the sensibility objects are given to us’ and ‘by the understanding they are thought’. The former statement must mean that when a thing affects us there is a sensation. It cannot mean that by the sensibility we know that there exists a thing which causes the sensation, for this knowledge would imply the activity of thinking; nor can it mean that in virtue of the sensibility the thing itself is presented to us. The latter statement must mean that when sensation arises, the understanding judges that there is something causing it; and this assertion must really be a priori, because not dependent upon experience. Unfortunately the two statements so interpreted are wholly inconsistent with the account of the functions of the sensibility and the understanding which has just been quoted.

Further, this theory of perception has two forms. In its first form the theory is physical rather than metaphysical, and is based upon our possession of physical organs. It assumes that the reality to be apprehended is the world of space and time, and it asserts that by the action of bodies upon our physical organs our sensibility is affected, and that thereby sensations are originated in us. Thereupon a problem arises. For if the contribution of the sensibility to our knowledge of the physical world is limited to a succession of sensations, explanation must be given of the fact that we have succeeded with an experience confined to these sensations in acquiring knowledge of a world which does not consist of sensations. Kant, in fact, in the Aesthetic has this problem continually before him, and tries to solve it. He holds that the mind, by means of its forms of perception and its conceptions of the understanding, superinduces upon sensations, as data, spatial and other relations, in such a way that it acquires knowledge of the spatial world.

An inherent difficulty, however, of this ‘physical’ theory of perception leads to a transformation of it. If, as the theory supposes, the cause of sensation is outside or beyond the mind, it cannot be known. Hence the initial assumption that this cause is the physical world has to be withdrawn, and the cause of sensation comes to be thought of as the thing in itself of which we can know nothing. This is undoubtedly the normal form of the theory in Kant’s mind.

It may be objected that to attribute to Kant at any time the physical form of the theory is to accuse him of an impossibly crude confusion between things in themselves and the spatial world, and that he can never have thought that the cause of sensation, being as it is outside the mind, is spatial. But the answer is to be found in the fact that the problem just referred to as occupying Kant’s attention in the Aesthetic is only a problem at all so long as the cause of sensation is thought of as a physical body. For the problem ‘How do we, beginning with mere sensation, come to know a spatial and temporal world?’ is only a problem so long as it is supposed that the cause of sensation is a spatial and temporal world or a part of it, and that this world is what we come to know. If the cause of sensation, as being beyond the mind, is held to be unknowable and so not known to be spatial or temporal, the problem has disappeared. Corroboration is given by certain passages in the Critique which definitely mention ‘the senses’, a term which refers to bodily organs, and by others to which meaning can be given only if they are taken to imply that the objects which affect our sensibility are not unknown things in themselves, but things known to be spatial. Even the use of the plural in the term ‘things in themselves’ implies a tendency to identify the unknowable reality beyond the mind with bodies in space. For the implication that different sensations are due to different things in themselves originates in the view that different sensations are due to the operation of different spatial bodies.

It is now necessary to consider how the distinction between the sensibility and the understanding contributes