Reasons to Be Excited about Immanuel Kant, Or, Why Should I read Kant?

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

–Immanuel Kant

There is one thinker that is, in my opinion, far and away, the greatest thinker of all-time —and I mean it isn’t even close: Immanuel Kant.  He improved Newton’s physics by coming up with the modern idea of inertia (and Newton’s physics, still using Aegilus Romanus’ vis inertiae, was a bit of a mess); the idea that there are other galaxies (“island universes”); a metaphysical foundation for Newton’s physics; in a way, resolved the outstanding epistemological debate between the empiricists (Bacon, Hume, Locke, and so on) and the rationalists (Descartes, Berkeley, Leibniz, and so on), giving a framework illustrating that there was another, more attractive option; created the synthetic-analytic distinction that permitted mathematics and morality a completely new classification over and beyond the mere a prior and a posteriori, namely the synthetic a priori; created (as far as I know) the only rationalistic absolute system of morality; provided the modern foundation for cognitive science; and developing some loose rules of thumb for the predication of attributes in logic (resolving the Anselm’s Argument debate in definitive fashion…see below), among many other things.  The Critique of Pure Reason is Kant’s most important work, and I think it is the single most important piece of scholarship ever composed; so I recommend starting there.  The general consensus is that first Critique is difficult to understand, but a decent piece of secondary literature and Pluhar’s translation should be enough to understand the major points of the work.  (Pluhar’s translation sacrifices some accuracy, but this should be of little matter to general readership.)

In general, I think that Kant has been so influential that everything following Kant is, in some way, a reaction to Kant or is consonant with Kant’s thought.  Modern abstract art is a great example, as it largely makes use of anschauung (phenomena) without vorstellung (representation) through the lack of categories necessary to understand the visual image.  (This also has an enormous role to play in cognitive science.)  The reactions against Kant are probably more pronounced than those of the adherence, though neo-Kantian schools of thought (e.g., the Marburg School) are not hard to find.  For example, all of this “after theory” and “antiphilosophy” and anti-system sentiments are responses to Kant’s presentation of the world as a super-ordered, ultra-systematic entity, and this is borne out as soon as one digs into the schema and terminology of any of these such works, whether it is intentional by the author or not.  Marx is another example, as Hegel was greatly trying to extend and build off of Kant’s worldview.  (One point on this, that I absolutely have to bring up, is that Kant seems to have been absolutely misunderstood until sometime in the 20th century (Nietzsche notwithstanding), as is evinced by the interpretation of Kant by, say, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and William James (esp., The Varieties of Religious Experience), to name a few…Schopenhauer might be the most ridiculous and overt offender).  Kierkegaard, also reacting to the Kant, sought to demonstrate that any complete system of reason would necessarily require going beyond it (e.g., teleological suspension of the ethical, that is, the holding in abeyance of universal law) —and one’s mind should immediately rush to Cantor and Gӧdel at this suggestion.

With respect to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, I think Kant was probably trying to develop a system that was based on his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783), his first Critique (1781), and such that it accords with the Bible.  One this last point, keep in mind Romans 2:15, which mentions that the law is written on the hearts of humans, so this is to suggest that man has universal access to morality, and Kant paraphrases, but does not cite, this.  One of the points of Kant’s line of reasoning is to deny some amount of reason to admit room for faith, albeit one of a deistic flavor.  (There are some who criticize Kant for not being Christian enough, so don’t be so quick to move him from deism to theism.)  Here, one thing in all of this that really interesting is, in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, that we can never have a science of metaphysics: “Natural science will never reveal to us the internal constitution of things, which though not appearance, yet can serve as the ultimate ground of explaining appearance” (Prolegomena 79).  The idea (in the Transcendental Dialectic in the Critique of Pure Reason) is that, wherever science goes, knowledge of the physical world will conform to the concepts, and the world will prove to be deterministic.  The converse of that (i.e., where cannot go) is that science can’t tell us about things beyond where science can go, meaning that the dialectic leads to unresolvable antinomies.  This limitation does not extend to the realm of the synthetic a priori, because, exempli gratia, unlike general imperatives (in the form of “if X, then do Y”), a Categorical Imperative lacks analyticity (Groundwork 84-85), meaning that we need not do as Aristotle and stand back to assess the outcome.  This also is why Kant’s moral philosophy is deontological, meaning that it is not outcome oriented —one is to follow a universal maxim.  The only thing that is good in-itself is a good will: “It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will” (Groundwork 61).  One begins to see how all of this works together consistently, when one examines the rest of Kant’s corpus.  For example, “good” and “existence” have very special rules predication, as asserted in The One Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God (1762), which is one of Kant’s pre-critical works.  (Note: This particular work also presents one of the best refutations to Anselm’s Ontological Argument.)

We can’t close without mentioning Kant’s Copernican Revolution, which was so nicely laid out in Dennis Sweet’s potent and beautifully written introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of the Prolegomena.  We touched on it, to some extent, already.  Formerly, the idea (as far back as Theatetus by Plato) had been that experiences of objects in the world make impressions upon the mind, kind of like pressing a key against a piece of warm wax.  Kant, in suggesting the pure concepts that are imposed open the phenomenal world, claimed that experience conforms to the mind, not mind to the experience.  (This is what I was omitting when I mentioned cognitive science and the empiricist/rationalist debate.)  The reason I have waited to discuss this is it has to do with the foregoing, developed discussions of science and epistemology.  Hume was the thinker who Kant claimed woke him from his dogmatic slumber.  The reason was that Hume proposed that, sure, there are constant conjunctions between events A and B; but there is no way to determine the necessity of B following from A.  That is, there is apparently no necessary causal connection between the two events.  The way Kant proposed to defeat Hume’s argument was to say that “causality” is one of those aforementioned pure concepts to which the world of experience conforms.  Therefore, perceived causality is a necessary connection between events.  Kant gets into some qualification of this point, in Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science.

I hope that the preceding has created some interest in the work of Immanuel Kant.  In my opinion, no thinker comes close to his remarkable corpus, and it is quite possible that he shall never be surpassed.


Cahoone, Lawrence. “Kant’s Copernican Revoluton” (Lecture 8 of The Modern Intellectual

Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida series). The Teaching Company.Chantilly. 2010.


—————. “Kant and the Religion of Reason” (Lecture 9 of The Modern Intellectual

Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida series). The Teaching Company.Chantilly. 2010.


Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett

Publishing Company, 1996. Print.

—————. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. H.J. Paton. Ed. H.J. Paton.

New York City: Harper and Row, 1953. 55-130. Print.

—————. Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (Cambridge Texts in the History

of Philosophy). Trans. Michael Friedman. Ed. Michael Friedman. New York City:

Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

—————. The One Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God (Der

Einzig Mogliche Bewisgrund). Trans. Gordon Treash. Omaha: University of Nebraska,

1994. Print.

—————. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Trans. Paul Caurus. Ed. Dennis Sweet.

New York: Barnes and Noble, 2007. Print.



Filed under Kantian Philosophy, Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Pure Philosophy

9 responses to “Reasons to Be Excited about Immanuel Kant, Or, Why Should I read Kant?

  1. Nathan

    David, given your love of Kant (and our mutual regard for Robert DiSalle’s book Understanding Space-Time), I have some further book recommendations for you: Constituting Objectivity: Transcendental Perspectives on Modern Physics (edited by Michael Bitbol et al., 2009) and Discourse on a New Method: Reinvigorating the Marriage of History and Philosophy of Science (edited by Mary Domski and Michael Dickson, 2010). There are great articles in both collections about the place of Kant in today’s practice of history and philosophy of science. Here’s an excerpt from Robert DiSalle’s chapter in the latter book, “Synthesis, the Synthetic A Priori, and the Origins of Modern Space-Time Theory,” that indicates both Kant’s importance in the history and philosophy of science as well as his shortcomings:

    “What Kant did not anticipate, in short, was that the fundamental principles of synthesis are not fully determined by the nature of our cognition…. The form that these concepts take, at a particular moment in the history of physics, reflects the particular physical processes that are then exploited (e.g., rigid displacement, light-signaling) in imposing these general principles of order. There may be a kind of transcendental argument for the interpretation, as Einstein’s case for special relativity suggests. But it does not rest on general features of the understanding. Instead, it identifies a particular interpretation as the condition — in the circumstances — of our ability to impose any such order at all. There is an element of profound truth in Kant’s comparison of the physicist to ‘a judge compelling a witness to answer the questions that he sets.’ What makes it seem shortsighted is our recognition, since Kant, that nature can compel us to pose the questions in radically new terms. What the present account opposes to Kant’s, then, is the idea of a transcendental argument that is, seemingly paradoxically but inescapably, bound up with contingent facts. It is therefore bound to undergo revision as the state of empirical knowledge evolves. From Kant’s point of view, transcendental arguments, and thus the a priori principles that they identify, concerned only the nature of our cognitive faculty. Obviously he never understood the manner in which our representation of space and time, and therefore our cognition of the things in space and time and their possible formal connections, depend on our implicit use of physical phenomena such as light and motion. Once we understand this, we can understand that transcendental arguments about space and time do not concern the nature of the cognitive faculty itself; they concern, instead, the relation between [the ecological evolutionary development of] our cognitive faculty and the contingent phenomena that it exploits [and that shaped it] in forming a representation of the world [within a cultural and technical context]. It would seem to follow that the subject of metaphysics is not, after all, only the nature of the cognitive faculty, but the relation between the cognitive faculty and the contingent world that is the object [and facilitator and medium] of its cognition [which is why today’s cognitive scientists speak of ‘extended cognition’ and ’embodied cognition’]. Once that is understood, the idea that the synthetic a priori must be ‘relativized’ to a particular state of empirical knowledge, a particular stage in the history of science, does not seem so paradoxical after all. This is not, in other words, the replacement of the synthetic a priori by purely analytic principles determined by convention. It is just the recognition that the principles of synthesis, the means that we may exploit for the synthetic grasp of the phenomena of nature, are contingent on the nature of the world [including the ecological evolutionary development of its humans] and the always-imperfect, evolving state of our knowledge of it…. The question of a priori knowledge arises just in those fields where interpretive principles have to be introduced as a precondition for further inquiry, and those principles must be established by a kind of transcendental argument. Space-time theories do have a special place among such fields, both because of the transcendental arguments on which they depend, and because of the transcendental role that spatio-temporal principles have played… This historical fact does not imply, however, that space-time theories necessarily [must] play that role. It should be evident, from the foregoing, that they can represent only a particular interpretation, or kind of interpretation, of the fundamental concepts; to take space-time in the broadest sense as a universal and necessary framework, therefore, would be to repeat Kant’s mistake. Indeed, history suggests that the boundary between interpretive principles and empirical principles must shift as circumstances change.”

  2. Hello Nathan,

    That’s a fascinating excerpt. Thanks. I am familiar with Domski and Dickson’s volume, which I snagged before the start of this past semester; but I have only read a few of the articles so far. I am definitely enjoying it. Beyond enjoying Kant, I obtained the volume, because its strong ties to Indiana University’s HPS Department (Friedman, Newman, Bertoloni Meli, Janiak, Domski, and I am sure I am forgetting someone), as well as DiSalle’s article. I find that DiSalle has a particularly fresh perspective to bring to old subject matter, not to mention new ones. You know, I wasn’t even aware of Analysis and Interpretation in the Exact Sciences, which is a little ironic, because I read an article on why articles in edited volumes have poor returns, as far as citations go. Part of the problem must be university library search engines. Anyway, your choice of excerpt was great, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are a number of such issues that I wonder how Kant would have responded. Have you ever come across a good discussion of Kant and statistical inference? I have not found such a discussion, and I imagine that’s because there doesn’t seem to be a Kantian response the nature of statistical inference.

    Thanks for the recommendation. It’s right up my alley.


  3. Nathan

    David, I got a nice laugh out of your question “I wonder how Kant would have responded?” What if we could resuscitate Kant today and show him everything that has happened since the day he died on February 12, 1804? It’s almost a cruel proposal to uproot a 79-year-old man from his cultural surround and confront him with over 200 years of change instantaneously (but not a bad premise for a science fiction novel — maybe you should write it?). It’s a question related to “the problem of unconceived alternatives” that P. Kyle Stanford framed so well in Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives. New ways of thinking and experimenting have emerged that didn’t occur to Kant, and we would do well to suppose that alternative ways of thinking and experimenting could emerge that haven’t occurred to anyone today. Kant built upon the resources available to him to address what he conceived to be the pressing problems of his time. Without those resources (and problems), there would have been no Kant (as we know him). We have new resources to confront what we conceive to be our pressing problems. Without those resources, there would be no us (as we know ourselves). Without Robert DiSalle’s Understanding Space-Time we would probably not be having this conversation, since I encountered your blog via your review of that book.

    Here I think of Michel Foucault’s essay “Qu’est-ce que les Lumières?” responding to Kant’s “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?” As Foucault put it: “The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them. This philosophical attitude has to be translated into the labor of diverse inquiries.”

    Regarding statistical inference, maybe you would be interested in the chapter on probability in Roberto Torretti’s Creative Understanding, if you haven’t read it already. Torretti has a much better grasp of the issues than I do. I too noticed the volume Analysis and Interpretation in the Exact Sciences; maybe you will find something useful there.

    • Hi Nathan,

      I wasn’t so much saying bring Kant to our times as I was merely wondering what he would have said about statistical inference, which isn’t quite a stretch, because there were developments in his own time in the mode of reasoning. Not only were there thinkers like Laplace (?) working on this, a contemporary of Kant, but I think there were a few thinkers like Al-Kindi doing some preliminary work on the idea of frequencies. I almost suspect Kant would say that flaws in inference derive from the hands-off, non-invasive, stand-back approach entailed; and that is a result statistical systems being a gray area, where science can’t quite fully go, only partially (i.e., tracking every single particle in a thermal system, is not practical.).

      On the point of futurity having things that we, today, cannot imagine, I am very attune to this. Have you come across the idea of “virtuality”? I wrote a blog on it a little while ago; it’s an idea that fascinates me. I also mention it, because Foucault’s essay on enlightenment, especially statements of the flavor congruous to the one you selected, draws it to mind.

      By the way, I plan on revisiting DiSalle’s “Understanding Space and Time,” possibly in the new year. Already, I have taken a look at the referred section (Weyl, etc.), and I think you are definitely on to something. If I section the paper out, creating a historical take on the basis of onto-epistemic entities, I think it will make a strong addition.

      All good points.


      • Nathan

        David, thanks for your response. I now see what you meant: you were wondering how Kant would have responded to some scientific issues of his time that he didn’t address in his texts. It’s an interesting question, slightly different from the question of “unconceived alternatives,” since Kant may have conceived answers to such issues but didn’t necessarily leave a written record of his answers. For me the most interesting way to approach that question would be to examine late 18th-century technical culture and its relation to Kant’s writings (much like how Peter Galison’s book Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time examines the connections between late 19th-century technical culture and the emergence of theories of space-time) and then propose a speculative answer based on that analysis.

        Regarding virtuality, I’m reminded of a quote from Arthur Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World: “We need scarcely add that the contemplation in natural science of a wider domain than the actual leads to a far better understanding of the actual.” Michael Weisberg recently cited this quote of Eddington’s in a couple of articles on scientific modeling, including “Who is a Modeler?”, which I recommend. Eddington’s “wider domain than the actual” can include potentials, hypotheticals, counterfactuals: each of which, in different ways, could be called “virtual.” I think that what you mean by “ontologies” is basically “models” — and you seem most interested in models of “world-structure” in Eddington’s and Weyl’s sense. What made Eddington and Weyl philosophers and not just scientists is that they wrote self-consciously about their practice of modeling (not just about their models), and about the interaction “between interpretive principles and empirical principles” (to quote DiSalle’s discussion of Kant) in their practice of modeling.

      • Nathan

        David, regarding your question about Kant and statistical inference, I just found a highly relevant article: “Kant on Chance and Explanation”, in the book Explanation, Prediction, and Confirmation (edited by Dennis Dieks, 2011).

    • Hi Nathan,

      The Galison-like treatment was precisely what I had in mind. I am inclined to think that Kant may have considered statistical inference to be not quite scientific. In the “Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science” Kant draws the line as to what falls outside of the scope of science, and, if I recall correctly, that’s where he gives psychology the boot as not possibly being capable of ascending to the status of “science”; and, of course, the first “Critique” places limits on reason. Between these two sets of prescriptive/descriptive capacities, it seems to me that statistical inference should be disqualified by Kant’s edifice, but I am not sure how. The mathematical and empirical nature puts us in the realm of synthetic a posteriori, so I think I will have to go back through “Metaphysical Foundations,” and read with a mind toward this particular issue. It could just be that Kant would not have had a simple answer for such an issue, which is interesting, because it played such an important and growing role in nineteenth-century life sciences. And thanks for the heads-up on the article. I had just come across it since our last discussion. Unfortunately, I have had some difficulty getting my hands on materials through IU Bloomington’s library system, but I finally got my hands on the article. In looking at the first page, it doesn’t surprise me that Kant’s of “Critique of Judgment” will be used, because I have only read part of it. I look forward to getting into it.

      I think you are seeing the possibility linking my onto-epistemic idea with virtuality. It need not be so, and I have not committed myself to it, but it looms, without a doubt. I mentioned virtuality because it is an idea that has, I think, been building and forming, since…I don’t know when, but Berkeley was at the cusp of it. I think the idea of quantum fluctuations and pair production have pushed science toward embracing some variety of it, so I think it is an idea that is the verge of serious philosophical and historical discussion. I wrote a primer on it ( ) and I wrote a paper that I may be presenting at a conference ( ), but I haven’t heard back yet. As I look at the general onto-epistemic stance, I am thinking, more and more, your original suggestion of Weyl and “world structure” will be helpful. I am currently writing the cognitive version of the paper for the Pitt/CMU graduate conference on the philosophy of cognition and perception. If it is accepted, it would present a good forum to get some feedback as to the strength of the idea, and whether it is well-founded and tenable or not.


  4. A welcome encomium.
    I still think that the little bit you opened with about the moral law and the starry heavens is as fine a one-sentence summary of philosophy itself as one could ask for.

    • Hello Skholiast,

      Thanks for the visit and comment. I think the wonderful thing about all great reflexive thought in human history is that it captures some unchanging, wholly tangible sentiment, item of thought, or experience that strikes us and stays with us. Particularly, Kant’s dictum is ever a reminder to me that the basis of all intellectual pursuits is philosophy, and, as you said, it hits the nail on the head, as far as one-sentence descriptions of philosophy go.


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