The Metaphysics of Morality: Kantian Cognitive Ontology

The Enlightenment no doubt represents one of the most transformative periods in the history of civilization.  While it was primarily an intellectual (really philosophical) movement, with a locus in 8th century Europe, it is rooted in intellectual developments that took place a century or two prior during the so-called Scientific Revolution, when quite literally the model of the universe was overturned, and a new age of Science was ushered into Europe, challenged the authority of the Church which had reigned supreme for over a thousand years.

While the Enlightenment Era is identified primarily with intellectual (mainly philosophical) developments, it also represented a period of great social and political change and upheaval as well, providing the intellectual basis for, and driving force to a large degree, liberalist and democratic movements that underpinned both the French and American Revolutions in the latter part of the 18th century, forever changing the political landscape of the West by advancing democratic and liberal ideals and relegating authoritarianism and absolute monarchy to history.  These revolutionary movements, again the French and American, to some degree represented the culmination of the socio-political changes that had swept Europe in the preceding century, as exemplified with the English revolution some one hundred years earlier or so, called the “Glorious Revolution” or the Revolution of 1688, which led the establishment of the Bill of Rights and the dissolution of absolute monarchy in the British kingdoms and basically established the system of Parliament and constitutional monarchy that persists to this day in Great Britain.

The intellectual grounding of the Enlightenment however had been well established for a few centuries, more prominently reflected in the works oh philosophical giants such as Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), René Descartes (1596 – 1650), and John Locke (1632 – 1704) – the so-called “Father of Liberalism” – among others.  Their work, combined with the revolutionary scientific advancements from which the Scientific Revolution got its name, set the stage for what arguably represents the very height of Western philosophy.

In order to gain a better understanding of the intellectual themes that dominated the academic landscape in the centuries leading up to, and just prior to, the Enlightenment, let’s look a little more closely at the specific advancements, and intellectual conclusions, that are characteristic of the Scientific Revolution – two basically, each of which contributed significantly to the shift in worldview that was such a hallmark of that period in European, i.e. “Western”, history:

  • Astronomy: the adoption of the so-called “heliocentric” model of the universe which was put forth first by Copernicus in a work that was published upon his death in 1542 (the famous De revolutionibus orbium coelestium) which was then validated and confirmed by Galileo – for which he was famously convicted of heresy and imprisoned – which overturned the standard geocentric model of the universe which had held sway more or less since the time of Aristotle and Ptolemy some two thousand years prior, and
  • Physics: the establishment of the basic laws of Physics- what came to be known as Classical Mechanics (as distinguished from Quantum Mechanics) as outlined by Newton in perhaps the most influential text in the history of Science, the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, at the end of the 17th century (in 1687).

The revolutionary advancements in these two domains, effectively re-wrote the foundations of not just science, what was then referred to as natural philosophy, but of the intellectual landscape as whole, tearing at the foundations of religious orthodoxy in their inversion of the geocentric model of the universe which had held sway for over a thousand years to which the Church looked to as the basis for their authority to a large degree.

The advancements also came together to further reinforce the mode of thought, the way of thinking, that had underpinned the developments themselves – what we refer to throughout as causal determinism and objective realism, the two cornerstone presumptive worldviews or philosophical systems which, along with its sibling the scientific method, provided the impetus, the intellectual fuel as it were, for both the empiricist and the rationalist philosophical movements which were the most dominant philosophical strains during the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, from which Kant emerges as the most influential figures.

All of these intellectual, scientific and even socio-political developments however, both from a philosophical and theological perspective, led precipitously to what is referred to sometimes as “the crisis of the Enlightenment” – where the very advancements that these developments ushered in were under threat due to the source of their foundations as it were, i.e. reason itself.  For as many Enlightenment Era philosophers were beginning to conclude, not surprisingly perhaps, was that if empiricism and rationalism in and of themselves were to be held in the highest regard with respect to establishing truth and knowledge, then not only was the existence of God called into question, but also the very nature and basis for morality and ethics as well, for these fields had since time immemorial been integrally linked to theology, a field whose foundations had effectively been destroyed.  As Rohlf puts it:

The problem is that to some it seemed unclear whether progress would in fact ensue if reason enjoyed full sovereignty over traditional authorities; or whether unaided reasoning would instead lead straight to materialism, fatalism, atheism, skepticism, or even libertinism and authoritarianism. The Enlightenment commitment to the sovereignty of reason was tied to the expectation that it would not lead to any of these consequences but instead would support certain key beliefs that tradition had always sanctioned. Crucially, these included belief in God, the soul, freedom, and the compatibility of science with morality and religion…

Yet the original inspiration for the Enlightenment was the new physics, which was mechanistic. If nature is entirely governed by mechanistic, causal laws, then it may seem that there is no room for freedom, a soul, or anything but matter in motion. This threatened the traditional view that morality requires freedom. We must be free in order to choose what is right over what is wrong, because otherwise we cannot be held responsible. It also threatened the traditional religious belief in a soul that can survive death or be resurrected in an afterlife. So modern science, the pride of the Enlightenment, the source of its optimism about the powers of human reason, threatened to undermine traditional moral and religious beliefs that free rational thought was expected to support. This was the main intellectual crisis of the Enlightenment.[1]

It is within this period of “crisis”, where the foundations of Western civilization had been rocked by advancements in our understanding of the universe which were almost diametrically opposed – quite literally actually – to how we had viewed the world since the very dawn of Western civilization, that provided the foundations for the “Science”, that Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) emerges as not just one of the towering intellectual giants of the Enlightenment, but one of the most influential philosophers in the history of Western civilization.[2]

Kant lived and published toward the end of the Enlightenment, providing him with a unique opportunity and insight into the developments of the century or two that had preceded him and of course the ability to summarize and synthesize said intellectual achievements and advancements – a task which he took on with great vigor.  Kant is also arguably one of the last of the philosophers in the classic Hellenic conception of the term, i.e. philosophia, where the discipline of philosophy represented more than just Philosophy proper and sat at the very forefront of the Academy, i.e. academia, rather than representing the quite narrow field that Philosophy has been relegated to today.

He came from a fairly modest background and although not wealthy by any means, nonetheless were well educated, Kant himself having – not unlike most educations from that time period – a solid foundation in the Classics, in the native Latin of course, which was the language that may of his works were published in in fact, again not uncommon for that time period.  He spent almost all his life in the city of Königsberg, a metropolitan city on the coast of Baltic Sea in North-Eastern Europe that had been the capital of Prussia (the precursor to the modern German state) before it moved to Berlin in 1701.  Despite its distance from the then German (Prussian really) cultural and intellectual center of Berlin, Königsberg nonetheless remained during Kant’s life a relatively flourishing metropolitan city, and most certainly – as reflected quite profoundly with Kant himself – was an intellectual center not just for Prussia, but for all of Europe as well during the Enlightenment.[3]

Kant attended the University in his hometown of Königsberg, known as the Albertina, and outside of a few years after University where he was away from Königsberg, taught at the University of Königsberg for his entire academic career – first as an unpaid lecturer starting in 1754 at the age of 30, and then from 1770 on as the Chair in Logic and Metaphysics until he retired from the University in 1796 at the age of 72.  He died in 1804, just shy of his 80th birthday.

Kant’s publishing career started primarily in his 30s at around the time that he began teaching at the University of Königsberg (1754).  It was not until some 27 years later that he published Critique of Pure Reason being published (1781) at the age of 57, after having supposedly spent some 10 years on it (he published a major revision in 1787).  Critique of Judgment, the third and last of his “Critique” works, which were his most influential, did not come until 1790 when he was 66.  Kant’s primary contributions to Philosophy, although he made contributions to the field of Anthropology as well),were in the area of epistemology and metaphysics, both of which represent the primary focus of his first major work, the Critique of Pure Reason which he published first in 1781 without too much fanfare and not altogether terribly well received, and then a second revision in 1787. [5]

The impetus of the thrust of Kant’s work was not only his deep concern related to the current state of philosophy and theology, knowledge really in a broader sense, but also more specifically as a response to the writings of the Scot David Hume (1711 – 1776), whose philosophy reflected a somewhat radical form of sentimentalist empiricism, arguing that there was no rational basis for morality or ethics, and attacking the discipline of metaphysics as an intellectual endeavor in and of itself with respect to its ability to establish any degree of certainty regarding knowledge or truth, i.e. epistemology.[6]

As a step back to outline the prevailing philosophical trends that shaped Kant’s philosophical enterprise, the two predominant philosophical trends during the Enlightenment – each of which contributed to in their own way, and provided the intellectual foundations for, the Scientific Revolution, and each representing a philosophical extreme relative to the other – were the rationalists which held that reason in and of itself was not only real and true, but that it was also the ultimate benchmark for knowledge and truth as abstract principles in and of themselves[7], and the empiricists who held that it was only through experience – sensory experience more specifically (which included its logical extension through the use of various technical apparatus) – that knowledge could be established and ultimately that truth could be discerned. [8]

The rationalists, reflected perhaps most prominently in the works of the René Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (both of which perhaps not surprisingly were mathematicians) are typically characterized by their epistemological position which  equates knowledge and truth with reason, that it is by reason alone that knowledge and truth are ultimately defined and bound.  As such, the rationalist philosophical tradition is also characterized by the belief that reality itself has a fundamental, inherently rational structure.  This universal rational structure then, which exists outside of man, or the mind, is not only inherently real, it is in fact the only thing that can truly be said to be real – a reality which is reflected in, and to a large extent equated with, the rational faculty of man.  Like for example the axioms of mathematics of the underlying eternal truths of geometry for example whose existence, in contrast with the empiricists, could be established without physical evidence and/or empirical proof.

The empiricist epistemological position in contrast, reflected perhaps most prominently in the a strain of thought dominated primarily by English, and Scottish, philosophers Francis Bacon, John Locke and David Hume, is that in order for something to be known, it must be established as an empirically valid, as established by some form of the scientific method for example.  That is to say, the truth of said thing is established and verified either by the senses directly, and/or their extension via scientific measurement apparatus, effectively aligning the field of knowledge itself with the objective realist and causal determinist positions that underpinned the new Science as it were.  John Locke for example, famously held that the mind at birth was like a “blank slate”, i.e. a tabula rasa, born without any innate knowledge inherent to it, and it was only through experience – as driven primarily through sensory perception of the external world along with the various associations and presumptions that came along with said experience – that knowledge of the world in any way shape or form could be established.

Rationalism as a philosophical theme can be traced as far back to the very origins of Western philosophy, with Pythagoras and Plato considered, at least in retrospect, to fall squarely in the rationalist camp.  Empiricism on the other hand, from an historical perspective viewed within the context of the longstanding tradition of Western philosophy, while clearly a byproduct of Newtonian Science as it were, nonetheless had well established roots in the Hellenic philosophical tradition as well, primarily in its materialistic variant, traces of which can be found as far back as the Pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus (460 – 370 BCE) but perhaps most pronounced, and influential, in the system of philosophy that is attributed to Epicurus – i.e. Epicureanism,  which was not only popular in the Hellenic world, but also established a significant following during the Roman period as well, more or less on par from an influence and popularity perspective as the (Platonic) Skeptics and the Stoics, arguably the three most widespread and popular philosophical schools in pre-Christian Mediterranean antiquity. [9]

From an historical perspective then within the history of Western philosophy, the Enlightenment Era rationalists can, and should, be seen within the context of a long line of idealists that betrayed varying degrees of skepticism (and ultimately rationalism) that dated back to the very root of the Hellenic philosophical tradition itself, Pythagoras to Socrates and Plato most notably.  This idealistic bent in turn was juxtaposed by, and was very much influenced by and evolved alongside of, the materialist philosophical tradition which evolved into what became known as empiricism during the Enlightenment.  In Hellenic philosophy, this materialistic epistemology was most notable with the Epicureans, but traces could also be found in the Peripatetic tradition left by Aristotle as well as the Stoics, each of which held similar views as Locks for example with respect to knowledge and its relationship to mind.

Kant’s philosophical work represented to a large degree – outside of the effort to try and establish the rational foundations for morality and ethics, and theology more broadly – an attempt to synthesize, and ultimately supersede, these two extreme philosophical positions which had taken such strong roots in the Enlightenment and to a large degree had been taken to their most extreme forms and as such threatened the very fabric of society.

In this context, Kant’s role and contributions to modern Western philosophy can be viewed as similar to Aristotle, who although rejected Plato’s idealism from an epistemological perspective nonetheless incorporated his doctrines as part of his overall intellectual framework as universals which although did not have existence in and of themselves nonetheless provided the basis, metaphysically, of the materialistic world which was characterized primarily by matter and causality – his doctrine of substantial form more or less.  Aristotle’s position can be viewed as a hybrid, or perhaps better put, synthetic approach to that offered by the skeptics who represented the Socratic idealist position and the materialists who were represented first by Democritus and then later by the Epicurean school, the latter of which although came after Aristotle were nonetheless influenced by him to no small degree and represented a more materialist bent than the Peripatetic school which Aristotle founded.

This ancient philosophical argument, which manifested itself in the Enlightenment as the conflict between the rationalists and empiricists, falls along similar philosophical grounds – the rationalists in the most extreme holding that a priori knowledge not only exists but in fact is the very source of all knowledge itself, and the empiricists holding that all knowledge is derived from sensory experience, i.e. a posteriori knowledge.  The terminology that Kant uses to distinguish between the empiricist and rationalist epistemological positions in fact – i.e. a priori, literally “from the prior”, versus a posteriori or “from the latter” – is actually derived from the Hellenic philosophical tradition, derived from perhaps the most influential mathematical treatises in the history of Western philosophy, Euclid’s Elements.  In this broader sense, a priori knowledge is aligned with basic mathematical or geometric postulates that are considered postulated, or true by their very nature, like for example a basic mathematical formula such as 2 + 1 = 3, and a posteriori knowledge in turn, very much like it does quite explicitly in the empiricist philosophical tradition in fact, represents a truth that depends a set of predefined facts or truths – e.g. empirical evidence, data or predefined postulates – from which its verity can be established or deduced.  Ultimately though, a posteriori knowledge is effectively defined by how it differs from, sits in contrast to, it’s theoretical sibling a priori knowledge more so than anything else.[10]

The problem Kant had with each of these respective epistemological positions was that in his estimation he could not establish the existence of anything a priori from an epistemological perspective through reason (induction) alone, or through any sort of objective realist approach where said knowledge existed independent of that tool from which perception and understanding itself took place.  Hence, he felt the need to reject both schools of thought and come up with a new philosophical foundation which reconciled the empiricist and rationalist positions, while at the same time providing a complete, cohesive and consistent rational foundation for knowledge (and metaphysics) within which the existence of morality and ethics could be safely established.

At least this is how Kant framed the distinction between the two schools, which in turn provided the intellectual foundation for not only his epistemological framework, but for his metaphysics and philosophy as a whole, resolving the philosophical quagmire as it were by inverting the perspective from which knowledge and truth, in all its forms, could be established with any degree of certainty.

Hitherto it has been assumed that all 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 whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge. This would agree better with what is desired, namely, that it should be possible to have knowledge of objects a priori, determining something in regard to them prior to their being given. [11]

And herein is the so-called Copernican revolution of philosophy which Kant is attributed, or to which he attributes himself, that instead of having knowledge conform to objects, objective reality must conform to our knowledge.

As Kant himself explains next in the same passage, this inversion of thought is akin to Copernicus’s theoretical inversion regarding our solar system from the prior century, adapting the theoretical framework to better match the problem, rather than continuing to further modify and/or change a theoretical framework that is effectively wrong and therefore leads to all sorts of irrational or preposterous conclusions.

We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis.  Failing of satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved round the spectator, he tried whether he might not have better success if he made the spectator to revolve and the stars to remain at rest.  A similar experiment can be tried in metaphysics, as regards the intuition of objects.  If intuition must conform to the constitution of the objects, I do not see how we could know anything of the latter a priori; but if the object (as object of the senses) must conform to the constitution of our faculty of intuition, I have no difficulty in conceiving such a possibility.  Since I cannot rest in these intuitions if they are to become known, but must relate them as representations to something as their object, and determine this latter through them, either I must assume that the concepts, by means of which I obtain this determination, conform to the object, or else I assume that the objects, or what is the same thing, that the experience in which alone, as given objects, they can be known, conform to the concepts.  In the former case, I am again in the same perplexity as to how I can know anything a priori in regard to the objects.  In the latter case the outlook is more hopeful.[12]

His strategy philosophically then, how he arrived at this Copernican revolution as it were, was to search for how it might be possible from a metaphysical perspective to establish the verity of any a priori knowledge, and then only after this has been established, construct an epistemological and again metaphysical framework around these assumptions rather than the other way around.  In so doing, he concluded that it was impossible to conceive of any a priori conceptual building blocks if one assumes that the material world is ontologically primary, or even if we presumed that the rational world was essential and primordial.  If however, one places cognition itself as the primary ontological and metaphysical building block, it then becomes feasible to entertain the idea of a priori concepts that provide coherence to this mentally dependent, human cognitive, reality.  Once he switches this perspective, he is able to establish both a rational as well as objective reality, but only through the presumption that their reality, their inherent knowledge, is a function of the human mind.

From this vantage point then, Kant’s philosophical pursuits then – his metaphysical enquiry – can be viewed as a search for what in fact, if anything, could be considered to represent a priori knowledge, if anything, stripping away all possible preconceived notions on what could be said to truly exist and how truth itself, knowledge, could be defined as a function of the human condition rather than in relation to it.  As a result, Kant concludes that there is no way to establish any a priori knowledge, anything that could be said to be true in and of itself, outside of our ability to conceive said truth.  In other words, in Kant’s epistemology, which he effectively equates with metaphysics[13], knowledge is defined neither by reason itself in the abstract (as held by the rationalists), nor by objective reality in and of itself (as held by the empiricists), but in fact is ultimately bound and determined by our mind and its cognitive capacities from which the truth of those two seemingly opposed realms of knowledge are both rooted.

In this theoretical model – this inversion as it were of knowledge of objective reality being dependent upon, conforming to, concepts, rather than knowledge being dependent upon the objective, or rational, reality – Kant asserts that we can now possible establish certain a priori principles and tenets to facilitate the creation of a new epistemological framework as it were where a priori concepts are tied not to reality in and of itself, but to the cognitive and conceptual framework that is reflected in the human mind, which in Kant’s philosophy represents the ultimate determinative factor by which knowledge is, or can be, defined.

Looking at Kant’s philosophical work, and influence, as a whole from an historical context, outside of his contributions to epistemology and metaphysics (as he defines it) as reflected in the first of his Three Critiques, his work as whole is perhaps best looked at as it relates to the contents and material that he covers in each of the Three Critiques, as they were published over the course of his academic and publishing career which in turn reflect the arc of his philosophical thinking and philosophical evolution one could say.

It is in response to this radical form of Enlightenment empiricism, in particular again as reflected in the works of Hume, that motivated Kant to embark on what is by far his most influential work, the so-called First Critique, the Critique of Pure Reason.  As the title suggests, Kant explores the extent to which what he refers to as a priori propositions, eternal truths like for example mathematical axioms, are possible, providing the rational grounds as it were for metaphysical enquiry and in turn a new intellectual framework for the discipline of Philosophy itself.  In this context then, Kant undertakes his philosophical enterprise, attempting to not only save morality (and ethics more broadly) from the clutches of causal determinism and objective realism, but also in a more general sense Religion, God and the Soul, from Science itself which threatened its very existence.

The First Critique, by far the most influential of all of Kant’s works, was the Critique of Pure Reason, which again focused on, using Aristotle’s terminology, the theoretical sciences or first philosophy.[14]  This work was followed by the Critique of Practical Reason, published in 1788, which delved into matters of practical philosophy, i.e. Kant’s philosophy of ethics and morality or using Kant’s own terminology, his Metaphysics of Morals.

To do this, Kant had to develop a comprehensive and cohesive model of the entire cognitive experience, as described in the ensuing quotation for example, where Kant describes experience as a type of knowledge which involves a specific faculty of the human mind which he calls understanding.

For experience is itself a species of knowledge which involves understanding; and understanding has rules which I must pre- suppose as being in me prior to objects being given to me, and therefore as being a priori.  They find expression in a priori concepts to which all objects of experience necessarily conform, and with which they must agree.  As regards objects which are thought solely through reason, and indeed as necessary, but which can never — at least not in the manner in which reason thinks them — be given in experience, the attempts at thinking them (for they must admit of being thought) will furnish an excellent touchstone of what we are adopting as our new method of thought, namely, that we can know a priori of things only what we ourselves put into them.[15]

Understanding then, along with sensibility and reason, as specific faculties of the mind that facilitate cognition, come to form the basis of Kant’s epistemological framework, a framework which now can support the existence of a priori knowledge.  And this epistemological pivot as it were – from the real world having an existence in and of itself (viewed either as fundamentally empirical or fundamentally rational) to the concept of reality being ultimately determined and bound by the human mind, is what came to be known as the Copernican revolution in philosophy.  This ontological inversion which placed the cognitive process at the center of the epistemological universe, not only established the basis for his metaphysics, but also established the grounds for a philosophical framework that allowed for the truth of the empiricists (objective reality) and the truth of the rationalists (universal truths or non-objective knowledge), to peacefully coexist within the same intellectual paradigm.

This idea of human autonomy as it came to be known, underpins not only Kant’s metaphysics, but also his practical philosophy – i.e. ethics – as well, the subject of his Second Critique, the Critique of Practical Reason.  From a metaphysical perspective, this notion of human autonomy rests upon the basic assumption of the ontological precedence of the world of “appearances”, really the world of the mind, over what might be termed “objective reality”, ultimately relying upon perception, understanding, reason and ultimately judgment, as outlined in his Third Critique, as basic human faculties from which any and all knowledge must be rooted in, providing the basic intellectual – and to a large extent psychological or conceptual – building blocks of his philosophical system upon which he subsumes and supersedes both the empiricist and rationalist perspectives.

From this perspective, Kant places the intelligible world – the world of mental constructs and abstractions upon which theology historically had rested since the days of Plato – the Good or Best as a logical abstraction of the form of forms – not above objective reality necessarily, but on the same ontological level as the reality of the natural, or material, world, Aristotle’s substantial form.  Both as it were, again at least from an epistemological perspective, subservient and ontologically inferior to the cognitive experience itself, a uniquely “human”, autonomous, process which knowledge in all its forms is subjugated to.

While at first glance this might appear to be a step backward philosophically, pushing ideology and theology further into the ontological backwaters per se, but this was a necessary result of the Copernican inversion that he was forced to make to bridge the empiricist and rationalist philosophical divide as it were.  In other words, in order for Kant to establish the truth of theology, i.e. God, as well as morality and more generally ethics, principles that were under rigorous attack in philosophical and intellectual circles during the time period that he was writing, on the same ontological and rational footing as natural philosophy, or Science, the cognitive faculty, i.e. reason, had to be established at the very top of the epistemological food chain as it were, transformed into the very source of knowledge itself.

In other words, in Kant’s philosophy and metaphysics, the structure of our experience is determined by our intellectual faculties, which in turn fundamentally defines and bounds knowledge – in both its empirical or rational form – as opposed to the objective, or rational, world existing independent of any act of cognition or experience in and of itself.  This perspective allowed for the epistemological reality of the natural world as well as the rational world to coexist, but their existence – their reality and verity – existed only in relation to the human mind which he defined as a collection of cognitive faculties that included perception (sensibility) understanding and in the last word, a more refined and specific attribute of reason that he called judgment.  This “revolution” of perspective, this philosophical inversion as it were that subjugated both objective and rational reality – objective realism and idealism – under the umbrella of a single philosophical system which rested on perception of and by the human mind as the primary ontological principle as it were.  As such, empirical reality as well as rational reality, as viewed by the empiricists and the rationalists respectively, could in a sense both be true.

This metaphysical inversion as it were paved the way for the intellectual establishment of a set of a priori concepts which framed said reality, a reality whose existence was a function of the human mind and our cognitive faculties.  To this end Kant establishes, very much like Aristotle before him[16], that all knowledge, be it objective or rational, is structured in accordance to certain pre-ordained categories which are inextricably linked with the human cognitive process from which all knowledge is again derived.  In Kant’s metaphysics however, a category is inherently related to, and intrinsically tied to, human cognition, representing a quality or attribute of an entity or idea whose very existence depends upon consciousness  and the act of perception (sensibility) along with understanding – independent of experience or objective (or rational) reality in an abstract sense.

Categories to Kant then, as again they were for Aristotle more than two thousand years prior, represent the metaphysical bridge as it were between the materialists and the idealists – or in Enlightenment Era terms the empiricists and the rationalists – providing the epistemological foundations upon which the truth of each respective philosophical school could be established, rolling them up to the ontologically primordial notion of human cognition upon which knowledge fundamentally depended upon in Kant’s metaphysics.  As such Kant referred to these categories in fact as ontological predicates, placing them square in the middle of an epistemology that rested on human cognition which in turn employs categories to classify and compartmentalize said knowledge.  Kant’s categories then, again just as they were with Aristotle, were prerequisites to the synthesis of our experience of not only the objective realm, but also the rational realm as well, providing another intellectual building block as it were to bridge the gap between the empiricist and rationalist epistemological divide.

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues that is the human intellect which is the source of the laws of nature and that these laws are not things in and of themselves and do not have existence outside of the human mind as it were, and that in turn the mind is not in fact a tabula rasa, a clean slate, necessarily, having within it, or inherent to it, certain a priori concepts or postulates, from which our knowledge of the natural world which “appears” to be independent of us.  Although he confines knowledge to natural philosophy (Science) and mathematics more or less, he is emphatic in concluding that mind makes nature and not the other way around and that it’s Impossible to extend knowledge to supernatural, super sensual world, outside of the conditions of our own experience.  Kant’s investigation resulted in his claim that the real world of experience can only be an appearance, what he called a phenomenon, a term which he uses to refer to how an object of knowledge appears to an observer which he juxtaposes with the concept of how things, objects of knowledge, are in and of themselves, what he referred to as noumenon – the latter aspect of reality, property of objects, things or beings, which is completely unknowable by any human, or animal, mind.

In his Critique of Practical Reason he argues that morality does indeed stand on the same pure rational and logical foundations as does theoretical philosophy, once one discerns and extracts reason itself from natural philosophy and establishes the a priori notions which govern it, even if practical philosophy in and of itself has no grounding in objective reality as bound by his theoretical philosophy.  That is, that morality, ethics is the product of pure reason itself, is a byproduct of us being rational beings, and furthermore is predicated on the belief in the immortality of the Soul, God, and the possibility of what he calls the “highest good”, a theoretical concept which is characterized by all rational beings behaving according to perfect morality, which he equates with purely rational behavior, or according to the rules of pure reason.

His Critique of Practical Reason deals with how world ought to be versus how it actually is and within this context he establishes what he himself refers to as his Metaphysics of Morals.  For one of the other hallmarks of Kant’s philosophy on both the theoretical (metaphysics) as well as practical (ethics) fronts is the basic assumption again of human autonomy – that both the reality of the world of “appearances”, his theoretical philosophy, as well as his metaphysics of morality, his practical philosophy, should be formulated based on assumptions which are of and within the realm of human cogitation or being.

To Kant, the only intrinsically good thing is good will, or intention, moral law being the will of rational agents based upon a pure rational foundation.  Kant’s practical philosophy is rooted in, and fundamentally related to, his Copernican revolution of philosophy which posits that all knowledge is a function of human cognition, or the human mind, an organ which consists primarily of the faculties of sensibility (perception) understanding, and then penultimately reason and judgment – the latter of which serves to provide a teleological conception of existence that again, even though it cannot be said to exist in and of itself, nonetheless provides an underlying meaning to our lives which serves the purpose of unifying morality and natural philosophy.  His practical philosophy therefore was guided by the same principals, i.e. based upon the presumptions and metaphysics, as his theoretical philosophy, resting on the notion of human autonomy which presumes an intellectual foundation to morality and ethics without relying on any principles or concepts external to, or independent of, the human being in and of itself.

Kant develops a notion of a categorical imperative based on notion of universality upon which all actions of an individual, of a rational individual, should be based.  In other words, if an individual is governed by reason, each action should be judged according to the standard where if everyone were to act in such a way would it be good for society at large and would the act itself still have its implied meaning – for example telling the truth or promises, if people were to not behave this way, were to lie to each other, the fabric of society would not hold together.  If an action when universalized makes sense so to speak, then it is inherently moral or ethical, Good, and if everyone behaved perfectly rational the world would be transformed into the greatest of all worlds, Kant’s perfect world akin to the utopia of Plato.  To Kant, the highest good is virtue underpinned by happiness, the latter depending upon the former and the former dictated by reason, the same standard which he uses to establish his epistemological foundations.

In Kant’s view, objective rational laws necessitate rational actions and the perfect rational man must behave in a perfectly moral manner, similar in many respects to Stoicism from an ethical perspective.  Therefore, there exists a collective good element of perfect, morally sound, actions, which rely on his principal of universality as the definition of the perfect Good.  The theological conclusions he draws are that even though no a priori knowledge of God or the Soul is possible, as existing in and of themselves, they do serve a very practical value for if these beliefs did not exist there would be no metaphysical foundation for ethics and therefore society at large would break down and there would be anarchy or chaos.  Morality then, in this framework, depends upon the existence of Free Will as well as the immortality of the Soul and the existence of God – these are morally necessary postulates, i.e. rational prerequisites to morality.

In other words, a belief in a perfect world, what again he calls the highest good, is a prerequisite for moral behavior and actions.  Hence his categorical imperative which is dictated by pure reason where morality is dictated and governed by reason, from which ultimately all duties and obligations as a human being and member of society derive.  Categorical imperatives are absolute, unconditional requirements that must be obeyed in all circumstances, i.e. acting according to the maxim of universalization which is based upon pure reason, in contrast to hypothetical imperatives such as acting to quench one’s thirst or to acquire knowledge and understanding for example which are more subjectively defined.  Kant’s ethics therefore is based upon duty which in turn is a byproduct of us being rational beings.

The Critique of Practical Reason was followed by his last major work – the last of the Three Critiques – the Critique of the Power of Judgment which was published in 1790 and was more or less the last of Kant’s major works, and of course the last of the Critiques, after which he retired from academic life a few years later in 1796.

In the Third Critique, Kant explores in depth the notion of teleology, or ends in and of themselves, specifically as they relate to matters of aesthetics, or beauty, and again more broadly, purpose, theorizing that all such intellectual acts if we may call them such, were a function of, or driven by, a relatively distinct cognitive faculty that he referred to as judgment, a further delineation or derivative of the faculty of reason which he outlined in his First Critique.  To Kant, as explained in his Third Critique, judgment is the last of the core cognitive faculties which completes, or augments, the faculties that he outlines and explores in detail in his First and Second Critiques, namely the sensible, which he refers to as perception and understanding, or intellect.

The faculty of perception according to Kant was constrained, or bound by, objective reality – i.e. the material world – whereas understanding – or again the intellect – was constrained by the intelligible world, corresponding more or less to Plato’s ideas or forms.  The sum total of perception, understanding and judgment as the three core cognitive faculties come together to establish not only the basic epistemological framework of Kant’s metaphysics which he covers in his First Critique, but also represent the psychological and metaphysical foundations of his practical philosophy which is covered in his Second Critique, as well as his theology, or more specifically his teleology, which he covers in his Third and Final Critique.

Judgment to a large extent provides the final overarching aspect of cognition which extends beyond his practical and theoretical philosophical systems that he explored in his First and Second Critiques.  In his Third Critique, Kant links the world of perception, understanding and appearances which are covered in his First Critique – how the world actually appears as it relates to primarily the faculty of understanding – and the Metaphysics of Morals, i.e. ethics, which he outlines in his Second Critique – how the world ought to be which is governed by reason – with judgment, which sits atop both understanding and reason and provides meaning to our existence.  It is through the power of judgment that we conclude that there is a purpose to life, and in turn deduce the (theoretical at least) existence of God and the immortality of the Soul, from which all moral and religious beliefs ultimately derive.  While the existence of God is not a fact in and of itself, as is true with the meaning of life – again teleology – but these presumptions serve to guide human behavior and provide a metaphysical and philosophical means to a better world.  Belief in an underlying purpose to the world, which presupposes some sort of intelligent design, serves a purpose for humanity be it true or not.  Judgment therefore connects Kant’s theoretical and practical philosophical frameworks despite the metaphysical divide between the two

Kant’s philosophical position has come to be known as transcendental idealism, positing that the human experience of things, objects of reality, are a function of how these things “appear” to us, making the human mind, the navigator and charioteer of the perceptory process, as the definer of the rules of the game so to speak rather than declaring the existence of things in an absolute sense outside of this realm of mind.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a physical reality that does not in fact exist independent of our observation of said reality, (although this point is debated among interpreters of Kant’s philosophy), but that from our perspective the existence of this independent reality has no meaning and no bearing on us as individual members of society and as individual human beings  Because our reality, everything we understand, comprehend, perceive using our mind and intellect and our power to understand, is predicated upon the metaphysical foundations of our mind itself, from which the ideas of time, space, depth etc. stem from – not the other way around hence his analogy of the Copernican revolution of philosophy.

By transcendental idealism I mean the doctrine that appearances are to be regarded as being, one and all, representations only, not things in themselves, and that time and space are therefore only sensible forms of our intuition, not determinations given as existing by themselves, nor conditions of objects viewed as things in themselves.  To this idealism there is opposed a transcendental realism which regards time and space as something given in themselves, independently of our sensibility.  The transcendental realist thus interprets outer appearances (their reality being taken as granted) as things-in-themselves, which exist independently of us and of our sensibility, and which are therefore outside us — the phrase ‘outside us’ being interpreted in conformity with pure concepts of understanding.  It is, in fact, this transcendental realist who afterwards plays the part of empirical idealist.  After wrongly supposing that objects of the senses, if they are to be external, must have an existence by themselves, and independently of the senses, he finds that, judged from this point of view, all our sensuous representations are inadequate to establish their reality.

The transcendental idealist, on the other hand, may be an empirical realist or, as he is called, a dualist; that is, he may admit the existence of matter without going outside his mere self-consciousness, or assuming anything more than the certainty of his representations, that is, the cogito, ergo sum.  For he considers this matter and even its inner possibility to be appearance merely; and appearance, if separated from our sensibility, is nothing.  Matter is with him, therefore, only a species of representations (intuition), which are called external, not as standing in relation to objects in themselves external, but because they relate perceptions to the space in which all things are external to one another, while yet the space itself is in us. [17]

Kant’s work and legacy in aggregate reflects deep analytical exploration into the very boundaries of not only reason itself, but also the establishment of the rational foundations of morality and ethics, as well as the importance of the role of judgment – as conceived of as a composite of aesthetics and teleology, i.e. “ends” or “purpose” – in philosophical enquiry, the topics of his Three Critiques respectively.  It can be argued that Kant held that, despite the evolution of the rationalist and empiricist schools of thought which had been a hallmark of the Age of Reason up to that point, those that although done the world a great service by establishing the rational underpinnings that drove the Scientific Revolution which helped upend the longstanding authority of the Church over intellectual thought which had held sway over academia for centuries, had nonetheless serious logical holes from his perspective, putting the study of theology itself – the existence of God and the Soul – as well as the ethics and its close cousin morality, in serious jeopardy from a philosophical perspective.

In perhaps one of the most famous and lasting quotations attributed to Kant he says, “I had to deny knowledge to make room for faith”, providing perhaps the most succinct rationale behind his entire philosophical enterprise which represents his life’s work and has left such a lasting impact on the West.  He can be looked at as a Platonist to some extent given the skepticism that underlies his theoretical philosophy but yet at the same time he does not explicitly deny the existence of the material world, he simply (or perhaps not so simply) predicates its existence upon the cognitive capabilities of man, which when fully explored and mapped out also provide the framework within which a belief in God and the Soul, and ethics and morality, all hang together in a coherent system of metaphysics.

Reason then, a function of mind, according to Kant, can give us the foundation of morality and theology as well as Science, allowing for the recognition of the existence of God and the Soul, without them having to rest on empirical and/or scientifically based proofs.  This approach, which is the hallmark of Kant’s philosophy in toto, is unique in that it allows for Science and Religion to co-exist.  Not on the same empirical foundations necessarily which were such an important aspect of the evolution of natural philosophical development during the Scientific Revolution, but co-existing within the same rational framework, subsumed within the totality of Kant’s metaphysics, perhaps one of the most elegant and extraordinary philosophical developments not just in the Enlightenment, but in the history of Western philosophy.


[1] Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/kant/, pg. 13.

[2] It’s from Kant’s corpus in fact that the term “Enlightenment” was coined (Aufklärung in German), him having written a piece toward the end of his academic career entitled Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment in 1784.

[3] While today the city of Königsberg lies on the very Western edge of Russia, the city in Kant’s time was categorically German, and as such Kant is German through and through, his work representing the very height of German philosophy and is illustrative of a very long history of German intellectual, intellectual, academic and scientific achievements which continues to this day.

[4] Painting at Kant Museum, Kaliningrad.  Immanuel Kant, lecturing to Russian officers—by I. Soyockina / V. Gracov.  Public domain, From English Wikipedia: en Image:KantLecturing.jpg {{PD-Old}} Category:Immanuel Kant.

[5] Adapted from Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/kant/.

[6] Sentimentalism, or moral sense theory, is a theory that morality is related to, or is generated from, sentimentality, or emotional responses to experience.

[7] While some scholars place Kant in the rationalist camp, his philosophy – which came to be known as transcendental idealism – fundamentally rejected not only the epistemological position of the empiricists, but also in fact the epistemological position of the rationalists.

[8] The English word “empirical” derives from the Greek empeiria, which comes to us through the Latin as experientia, from which in fact our words experience and experiment are ultimately derived from.

[9] Epicureanism, despite the fact that they did not have the benefit of Enlightenment Era Science, nonetheless held that the world consisted primarily of matter, i.e. atoms, a position which, epistemologically speaking at least, is very similar to, and again at some level arguably provides the foundation for, not only the Enlightenment Era empiricists, but also the science of Newton, i.e. Classical Mechanics, as well.  Epicureanism as a system of philosophy known not only for its materialistic conception of the universe, but also of course it’s (somewhat related) counterpart belief in pleasure as being the primary driving force of a good, or happy, life.

[10] See Wikipedia contributors, ‘A priori and a posteriori’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 November 2017, 18:37 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_priori_and_a_posteriori&oldid=808241275&gt; [accessed 8 November 2017].

[11] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Preface to the Second Edition, Bxvi, xvii).  From http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/cpr/prefs.html, pgs. 23-24.

[12] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Preface to the Second Edition, Bxvi, xvii).  From http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/cpr/prefs.html, pgs. 23-24.

[13] In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant defines metaphysics as “the cognitions after which reason might strive independently of all experience showing clearly Kant’s association of the field of metaphysics itself with a priori knowledge.  See Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/kant/&gt;.

[14] This work was first published in 1781, following some 10 years of work where Kant effectively lived in solitude in order to ensure its completion.  Once published, based upon feedback from the academic and more broadly European philosophical and scientific community, he published a much shorter treatise that summarized and clarified the material of the First Critique in 1783 in a work entitled (in true Kantian form with respect to brevity) Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Come Forward as a Science, and then a significant revision of the First Critique in 1787.

[15] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Preface to the Second Edition, Bxvi, xvii).  From http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/cpr/prefs.html, pgs. 23-24.

[16] Aristotle’s categories enumerated all the possible kinds of things that can be the subject or the predicate of a proposition, providing a semantic and logical underpinning to the notion.  He placed every object of human apprehension under one of ten categories; substance or essence, (ousia), quantity or how much (poson), qualification or quality (poion), relative or relation (pros ti), where or place (pou), when or time (pote), being-in-a-position, posture, attitude (keisthai), having a state, condition (echein), doing or action (poiein), and being affected or affection (paschein).  For more detail on Aristotle’s category theory, see the Chapters in this work on Aristotle, his metaphysics in particular.

[17] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.  From http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/cpr/prefs.html – pgs. 345-346.



Categories: Essays, Metaphysics, Philosophy

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