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The Architectonic Form Of Kant

’s Copernican System Essay, Research Paper

The Architectonic Form of Kant’s Copernican System

Human reason is by nature architectonic. That is to say, it regards all our

knowledge as belonging to a possible system. [Kt1:502]

1. The Copernican Turn

The previous chapter provided not only concrete evidence that Kant’s

System is based on the principle of perspective [II.2-3], but also a general

outline of its perspectival structure [II.4]. The task this sets for the

interpreter is to establish in greater detail the extent to which the System

actually does unfold according to this pattern. This will be undertaken

primarily in Parts Two and Three. But before concluding Part One, it will

be helpful to examine in more detail the logical structure of the relationships

between the various parts of Kant’s System, and how they fit together to

compose what we have called Kant’s ‘Copernican Perspective’.

Kant rather boldly compares the contribution made to philosophy by

Kt1 with that which Copernicus made to astronomy. Copernicus explained

‘the movements of heavenly bodies’ (i.e., of the planets, stars and sun) by

denying ‘that they all revolved round the spectator’ (i.e., the earth), as they

indeed appear to do, and suggesting instead that the earth and other planets

revolve around the sun while the stars remain at rest. Likewise, Kant

attempts to explain our knowledge of objects in general by denying ‘that all

our knowledge must conform to objects’, as it indeed appears to do, and

suggesting instead ‘that objects must conform to our knowledge’ [Kt1:xvi;

cf. Kt65:83]. This metaphor, expressing the difference between appearance

and reality in the theories of both Copernicus and Kant, suggests the

following two models:

(a) Appearance (b) Reality

Figure III.1: The Two Aspects of a Copernican Revolution

These diagrams can be used to represent Kant’s Copernican revolution

simply by replacing ‘earth’ with ’subject’ and ’sun’ with ‘object’, and by

stipulating that motion represents the active, determining factor in

knowledge, while rest represents the passive factor. As a result, (a) would

depict the ordinary person’s (as such, quite legitimate) Empirical

Perspective on the world, while (b) would depict the philosopher’s special

Transcendental Perspective.

The ‘change in perspective’ [Kt1:xxii] required by the philosopher’s

switch from (a) to (b) is the revolutionary ‘touchstone’ of Kant’s entire

System [see II.1], for it reveals that ‘we can know a priori of things only

what we ourselves put into them’ [xviii]. The philosopher’s primary

attention, therefore, is directed away from the objects of knowledge and is

focused instead on the subject (i.e., on humanity) and our mental activities.

On this point, at least, there is widespread agreement among interpreters.

Kant’s Copernican revolution has been said to consist, for example, in

claims such as these:

human knowledge can only be understood if we hypothesize the activities of

the knower [C3:237];

the epistemological conditions for knowing natural entities are at the

same time the ontological conditions for their existence as such [i.e.,

empirically] [Y2:977];

the universality and necessity of synthetic a priori propositions as

established by … critical argumentation are … specifically relativized to the

workings of the human intellect [R4:318; cf. 321];

the objects of human knowledge can only be legitimately [described] …

if they are ‘considered’ in relation to the human mind and its conceptual


Unfortunately, the agreement among Kant-scholars on general matters

such as this does not carry over into matters of detailed interpretation or

critical evaluation. Indeed, inasmuch as Kant never provides a thorough and

consistent explanation of the logical relationships between the many

constitutive ‘elements’ in his three Critiques–such as those in Kt1

concerning knowledge, which he discusses in the Transcendental Doctrine

of Elements,2 there will probably never be widespread agreement

concerning their intended meanings and relative importance. But in spite of

the negative answer which the consensus of two centuries of interpretive

scholarship has given to the question of the unity of Kant’s System [cf.

I.1], it seems incongruous to regard Kant as a ‘megaphilosopher’ and yet to

confess that he failed in so basic a task. I shall therefore attempt in this

chapter to reveal the architectonic unity of his entire System by providing an

outline of its formal structure. My underlying goal will be to set the stage

for an analysis of the content, and thus of the detailed arguments, of the

three Critical systems [see Part Three]–one which could serve not only to

facilitate more widespread agreement among interpreters, but also to help us

understand why Kant believed his ‘critical philosophy opens up the

prospect of permanent peace among philosophers’ [Kt33:416(288); see