Background, Importance And Essence Of Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” In Philosophy Essay, Research Paper
It is beyond doubt that Immanuel Kant is one of the most important and influential philosophers in the history of western philosophy. In the same vein, the assertion that his major work, Critique of Pure Reason, represents a turning point in philosophical thinking could hardly be refuted. In other words, it paves the way for a radically new understanding of what a “rational human being” is and, more importantly, how knowledge is derived.
In my paper I will try to defend the thesis that Kant was particularly successful in justifying the assertion that in knowing, it is not the mind that conforms to objects but vice versa — it is objects that conform to the mind. I will concentrate primarily on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and, only indirectly, on Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. First, I shall try decipher the hidden meaning of the term “Copernican revolution”. Second, I shall set out some of the background that is indispensable for understanding Kant’s
philosophy. Third, I shall try to justify his efforts to put knowledge on a radically new and scientific basis. And, finally, I shall close my paper with several brief remarks.
“Copernican Revolution” is a metaphor that Kant himself proudly uses to describe the intentions of his philosophical endeavor. Usually philosophers use this metaphor to demarcate a radical change made in the epistemological realm. Indeed, behind Kant’s intentions stands his ardent desire to put metaphysics on a firm foundation. In other words, what he endeavors to show is that there can exist such a knowledge (cognition) which is based on a scientific and reasonable ground, not on dogmatic footing. Kant believes that such knowledge must be a priori, i.e. it should not be dependent on facts that happen to prove or defy it but on principles which yield new knowledge. What Kant means by that is exactly a priori synthetic knowledge. It differs from analytic a priori knowledge in that the latter does not produce new concepts; it only divides itself into parts that intuitively imply each other. For instance, the assertion “all physical bodies are extended” is a priori analytic because extension is contained in the nature of the very subject “physical bodies.” In other words, every object presupposes extension and it would be nonsense to check all possible physical bodies to prove that. By the same token, it would be irrational to claim that this assertion gives us new knowledge. Indeed, it is experience that produces new knowledge and that is why all assertions based on experience are synthetic — the subject and the predicate are two different concepts and the one in no way contains or presupposes the other. An example of this kind is the proposition “If A happens, then B follows.”
However, experience is finite and there is no logic in maintaining that knowledge can be based solely on experience because, in the long run, we acquire new knowledge without experiencing objects and phenomena infinitely. Thus we are certain of the veracity of the claim that “all events have a cause” without necessarily having checked absolutely all events and their causes. Therefore, the question concerning knowledge that can and must be true in any particular case can be expressed in the following way: How are synthetic a priori judgments possible? However, since this is the quintessence of Kant’s philosophy it should be provided with adequate background before being rendered the proper attention.
To understand Kant’s task it is necessary that one understand to what he was attempting to respond. Generally speaking Kant was trying to respond to the philosophical traditions of rationalism and empiricism, and to Newtonian science. As the first rationalist, Descartes turned philosophy towards the knower. This emphasis on subjectivity was at variance with all that went before him. Plato, Aristotle, and the medieval philosophers concerned themselves with reality; that which was out there. The question was always: How can we know reality? Descartes handled this question by trying to answer whether we could know anything. In his Meditations he introduced his notion of radical or hyperbolic doubt. Postulating an evil genius intent on deceiving him, Descartes believed that perhaps nothing could withstand doubt. Then he discovered his cogito, his “I think.” As long as he was thinking that he existed, that itself guaranteed that he existed.
The next question was: what type of existence was it? In order to answer this thoroughly he turned to the question of the existence of God. After providing two not very convincing (in my humble opinion) arguments for God’s existence (namely, the cosmological and the ontological arguments), Descartes utilized the goodness and benevolence of God to guarantee that which he believed he knew. As long as he used his various mental faculties in the proper way he could not be afraid of being deceived. God, therefore, secured for Descartes all knowledge, ranging from the highest mathematical truths to the lowest impressions of external objects.
The empiricists objected to Cartesian philosophy on a number of grounds, including its lowly ranking of sense impressions. Empiricists also criticized rationalists’ exclusive dependence on reason. For them, the rationalists were in error in holding that reason was all powerful, and that one with a sufficient intellect could penetrate all mysteries, solve every problem, in short, to know all. While the rationalists conceded that only God possessed such an intellect, from the conception of such an all-knowing (and all good) God they derived the principle of Sufficient Reason. This principle states that for every event and thing there is a reason why it is so and not any other way. The most important philosopher to wield this principle was the distinguished rationalist Leibniz. Of course, Leibniz was attacked by the empiricist John Locke.
Locke took to task the principle of Sufficient Reason, the belief in innate ideas, and other rationalist tenets. His fellow empiricist, Bishop Berkeley, and then David Hume, drew devastating conclusions from the premises that Locke had originated. Berkeley relied exclusively on sense-data and sense impressions. His credo was immaterialism — to exist is to perceive or to be perceived. Hume also turned a jaundiced eye towards the rationalist’s claim that reason is all powerful. If it is all powerful, he asked, then why is it not the foundation for the most important of all philosophical relations: causality?
Empiricists and rationalists alike contended that causality must hold in all cases: causality demonstrated strict necessity and universality — the fundamental characteristics of Relations of Ideas. If A, then B follows necessarily and in every particular instance. As Hume amply demonstrated, reason does not and cannot provide a basis for causality. Furthermore, experience cannot justify it either, for experience shows only that events have occurred in a particular way; not that they must occur that way in the future. Hume then argued that neither reason nor experience is the basis for causality; instead, there is a natural human predisposition to believe. Thus, belief, or custom, is the great guide to human life. However, I do assert that Hume’s philosophy led to a greater or lesser extent to skepticism.
Other intellectual innovations were also leading to problematic results. The natural science investigations and theories of Isaak Newton were definitely leading to some major philosophical and theological difficulties. The Newtonian notion of absolute space as being some type of eternal and infinite container led some critics, notably Leibniz, to charge that there would be two such entities: space and God. Instead, Leibniz (as I will discourse on this particular issue later in my paper) argued that space was not a thing at all; it was a type of relation.
Kant paid close and adequate attention to all of these debates — the one between the rationalists and the empiricists on what can reason know, and the one between the Newtonians and the Leibnizians on the nature of space and time. Kant took upon himself the challenging task to find some middle ways through these various positions.
As Kant himself acknowledges in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, David Hume had waken him from his dogmatic (or rationalist) slumber. Yet Newton and Leibniz had done their share to arouse him, too. Once provoked and motivated, Kant began a long search for the answers to the questions: what is the nature of space and time? Is there some way to avoid Hume’s “psychological predisposition to believe” which leads to, at best contingency and at worst, skepticism? What is the proper role and scope of metaphysics? Is metaphysics really the queen of sciences, as the philosophical tradition since Aristotle had held? Kant provided his genuine answers to these questions when, in 1781, he published his Kritik der reinen Vernuft, referred to in English usually as The Critique of Pure Reason.
What Kant means by “pure reason” is, simplistically put, reason independent of all experience. His fundamental question was: what and how much, apart from experience, can we know? He was, therefore, not concerned with the objects of knowledge, rather with the conditions under which we can know anything. Kant preserved the Cartesian emphasis on subjectivity, but he was not particularly interested in it, as Descartes was, for providing a basis of knowing about objects. Kant’s subjective concerns were for the formal conditions under which we can know.
Philosophy has always rotated around this issue and has sought to solve it through different ontological means. Kant approaches this issue by claiming in the Introduction of The Critique of Pure Reason that,
Hitherto it has been assumed that 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. We must therefore make trial to whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics if we suppose that objects must conform to knowledge.
Thus Kant does something comparable to the endeavor that Copernicus had undertaken by radically shifting human understanding of the polar system. After the unsuccessful trials to examine the stars and their motion through the view-point of the observer, he tried to handle this problematic issue by leaving the stars in peace and making the observer “turn around them.” Kant does a similar thing in the realm of metaphysics. If we grant that the mind conforms to what it perceives, i.e. the physical objects, it would be impossible to show that there can exist a priori knowledge. But if we make the object of sensitivity conform to the nature of our capability to have sense experience, then the existence of a priori knowledge becomes plausible.
In order to deal with the above mentioned questions, Kant divided his Kritik into different sections. Besides the Prefaces and Introductions, there are the “Transcendental Doctrine of Elements” and the much smaller section named “Transcendental Doctrine of Method.” The Elements section is in turn subdivided into the “Transcendental Aesthetic” and the “Transcendental Logic.” These two subdivisions correspond to the twin stems of knowledge — sensibility and understanding. Kant devotes the “Aesthetic” to sensibility and the “Logic” to understanding. As he makes it abundantly clear, both are necessary for knowledge.
Kant acknowledges in his work that human reason strives to answer certain fundamentally important questions, yet by its inherent limitations it is unable to do so. The battlefield for this struggle is “metaphysics” and, until now there are two competing sides — the dogmatists (or rationalists) contended against the skeptics (or empiricists), as I have mentioned earlier in my paper. Kant believes that he can finally put an end to this controversy by providing an exact analysis of human mental powers. He attempts to show that knowledge is safe-guarded against skepticism by showing first that there exists a priori knowledge and that it is possible that we have it. Against the dogmatists Kant demonstrates that while we can and do have knowledge, the conditions that make it possible are at the same time that which limit knowledge to experience. As I have already mentioned, Kant believes that his task is to set out the formal conditions that make knowledge possible. By marking out the limits of knowledge and by restricting it to experience, Kant is ruling out the possibility of knowledge concerning the three important issues of the existence of God, freedom and the immortality of the soul. The fact that there cannot exist knowledge concerning these three questions does no render them worthless, however. Kant instead maintains that the idea of God as opposed to knowledge of him, has, what Kant calls, a regulative use. We must, he insists, believe as if there is a God. For questions of morality this is equally crucial. While we cannot prove that we are able to act independently of any and all empirical determining factors, we must act as if we can. One might object to this by saying that if our actions are determined, then we are not free autonomous agents; and if we have no autonomy, then we cannot be held accountable for our actions. Morality, then, is impossible. But if, as Kant maintains, we act in the noumenal realm where causality does not and cannot apply, then we act as free agents and we are bound by the respect for duty to the moral laws. That is why Kant claims that he has limited knowledge in order to make room for belief. In other words, he has limited knowledge to the realm of appearances so that there can be moral autonomy and belief. While we cannot have any knowledge of the “transcendent realm” we can and ought to make use of the ideas to reason which pertain to it. These ideas of reason, as Kant sees them are not pieces of knowledge but rather serve only as “regulative” ideas in the practical sphere, that is, in our conduct.
To get back to Kant’s theory of knowledge, I cannot help acknowledging his explicit contention that knowledge is restricted to experience. However, although all knowledge may begin with experience, this does not mean that experience is the sole source of knowledge. What he means is that knowledge must have two parts — the material part that is first given to us and then the formal part that we bring to bear on that material. This formal part is crucial because we cannot derive knowledge simply from what is empirically given to us. Here is the place to remind that, as Hume had shown, experience does not possess the two ingredients that are the hallmarks of knowledge — necessity and universality. Thus Kant reaches the gist of his philosophical endeavor — if objects do not and cannot give us knowledge, then we must make knowledge possible, i.e. rather than continuing to believe that knowledge conforms to objects, we must shift our understanding and accept that objects conform to what we make. In order to clarify Kant’s intention I need to treat the distinction between a priori and a posteriori, and analytic and synthetic judgments.
A priori means roughly what is prior to or independent of all experience. A posteriori is, again generally, posterior or derived from experience. “The sun rises in the morning” is an example of a posteriori statement, because it is proven true by experience. Experience gives us the ground to believe in the veracity of this statement. On the other hand, “the sum of the angles in a triangle is equal to a hundred and eighty degrees” is an example of a priori statement. Experience has nothing to do with its correctness; it is so independently of any and all experience. Even if humans have never known of the existence of triangles and their properties, it would still hold true.
As to the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments, an example of the former type is the proposition “all bachelors are unmarried men.” This is true by definition. The predicate “unmarried men” is exactly another way of expressing “bachelors.” The predicate makes no addition to our knowledge for, i.e. do not expand our knowledge of bachelors by knowing that they are unmarried men. “The cat is gray” is an example of a synthetic statement. With the predicate “gray” we learn something more about the subject which in this particular case is “cat.” The predicate serves to demarcate this cat from all others that are black, white or brown. And, by doing so, it, as Kant maintains, “amplifies” the subject.
Expressed with different terms, analytic a priori judgments are thought through identity and there exists no real difference between the subject and the predicate. Synthetic a posteriori statements, on the other hand, are thought without identity and are constituted of different distinct heterogeneous events (X*Y). Having discussed the different types of statements I may now turn to Kant’s notion of synthetic a priori knowledge.
Prior to Kant, philosophers believed that all synthetic judgments were a posteriori. On the other hand, all analytic statements were considered to be a priori. Mathematical statements were given as prime examples of analytic and a priori propositions. Kant, however, challenged this view. He held that in 2+2=4 the 4 was not the simple restatement of 2+2. For him, mathematics was the most notable example of synthetic yet a priori knowledge. He has taken much pains to demonstrate that we do have such a priori and synthetic knowledge. Kant’s method of showing first that we have such knowledge, and, second, demonstrating how it is possible is, in my opinion, what he more or less means by a “transcendental deduction.” As I will try to explain more fully later, this transcendental deduction explains with what right we have to this knowledge.
But how does Kant prove that mathematics is constituted of synthetic a priori statements and propositions? And how is it possible? Kant deals with these questions both in his Prolegomena and The Critique. Since the necessity of mathematics does not and cannot be derived from mere experience, then its origin must be somewhere other than experience. Kant’s answer is that the certainty of mathematics is subjective in origin. That is, we supply the certainty, and we do this by means of what Kant calls “pure intuitions.” What Kant means by “pure” is empty of matter. In other words, a pure intuition is only the form of intuition. We have two of these pure intuitions and only two — space and time. Space is the special condition of all outer experiences and time is that of inner ones. However, time is also necessity for outer experiences, as well. These two pure intuitions, space and time, are formal conditions of experience and without them we cannot have experience. Furthermore, the formal conditions impart necessity to experience.
As I have mentioned, space and time form respectively the outer and the inner sense of the mind. Space is the form of all appearances of our outer sense, while time is a formal a priori condition of sensibility. The notions of space and time for Kant are very important in the context of their problemization by Newton and Leibniz. The former claimed that space was the necessary pre-condition for the existence of all physical objects, so it is prior to them. Leibniz, on the other hand, believed that space was a kind of relation among physical objects and, since relations are mind-dependent, it follows that space is in a way dependent on the physical objects. He contended, in other words, that first there must exist things and then the spatial relation among them.
Kant tries to find a middle path between these two assertions. He agrees to some extent with Leibniz in that space is a kind of relation. But he also accepts Newton’s claim that space is a “real” part of the apparatus of the mind and prior to objects. Thus Kant approaches the inference that space is a subjective formal working of the mind. It is a pure intuition, as is also time, which belongs a priori to the sensibility and is not acquired a posteriori. According to Kant we cannot imagine anything existing abstractly from space and time. That is why those two pure intuitions are absolutely necessary and indispensable for the formal workings of the mind. Expressed in a more loose fashion — we are in space and space is in us.
However, these formal conditions do have a limitation. They are limited to what Kant calls appearances. That is, appearances are that which is given to the sensibility. Therefore, they are the matter which will be “formed” by the formal conditions of space and time. Appearances compose that which we can sense and know. But we can sense and know things only as they appear to us. This is in contrast to things as they really are. We cannot have knowledge of those things because they are beyond our faculty of sensibility. And, we cannot know them because, as Kant repeatedly insists, we can know things only when we have the combination of sensibility and understanding. Having discusses sensibility, and having shown that only on the assumption that space and time are subjective, and are purely formal conditions of the mind, Kant turns to the other faculty: understanding.
Just as space and time are the formal conditions of sensibility that make mathematics possible, what Kant calls the categories are the forms of the understanding that make natural science possible. The notion of the categories dates back to Aristotle. Kant, however, insists that his categories are markedly improved over his predecessor. What gives him reason to believe so is that Aristotle’s categories are arrived at haphazardly and nothing that is haphazard can serve as a foundation for knowledge. Kant is again stressing universality and necessity. Kant finds the key to this by looking at the science of logic. Logic concerns only the formal conditions of thinking; it does not care for the content of thought. Its rules apply necessarily and universally to all thinking.
There are, according to Kant, a total of twelve categories, divided into four sections, with each section having three sub-sections in it. The most important of these categories are substance, community and causality, and the latter, beyond doubt, is the most crucial. These twelve categories of logic have their counterparts in thinking. These counterparts are a special type of concept. Just as space and time are pure intuitions, the categories are pure concepts. These categories, or pure concepts of the understanding, are formal conditions of the understanding. Along with space and time, they are what is necessary for us to have knowledge. However, Kant needs to prove that these categories have justification. He provides it by what he calls a deduction. In our lives we use many terms; the question is: are they entitled to be used? Terms such as fate and fortune do not have any legitimate use, at least compared to terms such as desk and chair, because the legitimacy of the latter terms is derived from experience. Experience, however, as Kant continuously reminds, can yield only relative or comparative necessity. What Kant is seeking here is strict necessity for the basic terms and concepts of science. What makes science possible is not experience because science has strict necessity. It is based instead upon the pure concepts of the understanding. Kant’s twelve categories are subjective forms of the understanding; the necessity then is imparted by us. The final task of the understanding, as Kant puts it in the Kritik, is to “confer upon appearances their conformity to law, and so make experience possible.”
To get back to the question of synthetic a priori statements, Hume believed that he had shown that analytical statements possess strict necessity. Furthermore, he had demonstrated that the statement “it has always happened like that” does not necessarily imply that “it will, or must, happen like that.” That is because, in Kantian terms, this is a synthetic judgment, not analytic. Before Kant, no one seemed to believe that there could be synthetic judgments known a priori. Kant’s category (or pure concept) of cause and effect is just such a case of synthetic judgments that are known before experience. From whence comes the necessity of accompanying the a priori? — from the formal conditions of the mind. Our mind is constituted in such a way that whenever we see A happen, we are led by the formal conditions of the mind to expect that B will follow. Thus, according to Kant, the strict necessity is guaranteed by the formal workings of the mind. Finally, to express it in the style of the Kritik, in order to have pure concepts, we need the synthetic unity of apperception which eventually equals reason.
What role does imagination play in the process of cognition? Kant is clear — imagination produces immediating representation or intuition of an object that is not itself present. In conjunction with reason , imagination forms understanding.
The unity of apperception in relation to the synthesis of imagination is the understanding; and this same unity, with reference to the transcendental synthesis of the imagination, is the pure understanding… A pure imagination, which conditions all a priori knowledge, is thus one of the fundamental faculties of the human soul… (CPR, pp. 143-146)
Thus, the two parts of the mind — sensibility and understanding — are not abysmally remote because imaginations serves as a bridge between them. The two extremes are intimately close through the “mediation of the transcendental function of imagination.” Without imagination, sensibility would account for no objects of empirical knowledge. This fact consequently entails no experience although the latter produces appearances. Thus, by means of imagination “we bring the manifold of intuition on the one side, into connection with the condition of the necessary unity of pure apperception on the other.” (CPR,
Having discussed the two types of formal conditions of the mind, pure intuitions and pure concepts, and the role of imagination, Kant makes it explicitly clear — all three faculties are necessary; without them there can be no knowledge. Thus, in terms of employment for knowledge, the categories must be conjoined with the matter and form of sensibility. If one attempts to use the pure concepts without sensation then one is using these in a transcendent sense, i.e. they are being used beyond the bounds of sense. An important point here is the distinction between “transcendent” (or illegitimate) as opposed to “transcendental” (or legitimate). While the first can never yield knowledge it still can have a “regulative” use of the categories. The notion of regulative use leads to Kant’s practical or moral philosophy.
The regulative use is also bound up with Kant’s distinction between appearances (or the world of phenomena) and the things in themselves (or the noumenal realm). The strict necessity of causality is limited to the phenomenal realm: all things that are appearances are determined. The rule “if A happens, then B will follow” applies with no exception.
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a metaphysics of experience; he delineates the formal conditions of the mind that make experience possible. Reason and sensibility are the two stems of knowledge; they are simultaneously the formal conditions and the limitations of knowledge.
In my paper I have tried to examine and justify the challenging endeavor that Kant undertakes, his so-called “Copernican revolution.” The revolutionary element is present in the radical change of perception of the traditional philosophic concepts — knowledge, causality and reason — that Kant sets out to make. However, insofar as things can be knowable by what we input in them, they still remain ontologically only things by themselves, i.e. unknowable to us. Thus Kant’s Kritik der Reinen Vernuft is an ontology of the mind; it is an examination of its potentialities of having knowledge and, at the same time, of its limitations. Kant’s revolutionizing of the traditional philosophical understandings is a great achievement and, beyond doubt, paves the way for a radically new era — that of the transcendental self determining its own experiences.