Some reflections on Immanuel Kant’s revolutionary philosophy

Some reflections on Immanuel Kant’s revolutionary philosophy

For Kant, the highest end that the ideas of pure reason can achieve lies in practical reason, that is in the idea of respect for the dignity of man. What guides human cognition and action?

In his epistemological work, Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher of modern times, takes a path that is still very relevant today. He explores the question of how human cognition generates our experiences. Aren’t we today, like Kant’s contemporaries back then, inclined to allow external authorities – above all science – to explain the world in its lawful connections and processes?

In this way, however, the truth always remains outside of us, says Kant, and proposes a different path.

A revolution in the human way of thinking

He calls for a reversal of human consciousness or a revolution in our way of thinking, similar to what Copernicus once called for…

… Who, after failing to explain the movement of the heavens when he assumed that the whole host of stars revolved around the viewer, tried to see if it would not work better if he let the viewer revolve and left the stars alone.[1]

Kant had a similar experience when he discovered that humans have cognitive faculties in which the possibility of human cognition is inherent “a priori”, i.e. in principle even before any experience, in terms of form. It only becomes a living cognition of experience through the linking work of our consciousness with the contents of our perception or sensory perception.

The world of phenomena therefore revolves around man’s inherent cognitive faculty and its laws, which stands at the centre like a sun. The pure forms of perception of space and time and the categories of quantity, quality, relation and modality therefore do not lie in the things and their phenomena outside of us, but are already inherent in us.

When we think about the universal laws and their creator, we should therefore also consider the person who can think or recognise these laws. Man himself is a creator in his microcosm and the upper cognitive faculties of his soul harbor pure forms of universal laws of his phenomenal world. Kant explains the process by which these cognitions arise in man, and we will follow his explanations below.

The three upper human faculties of cognition

Kant says that man owes his special ability to think and recognise to his three upper faculties of the soul. He possesses

  • the faculty of cognition through the intellect,
  • the faculty of judgement (also called the faculty of discernment) and
  • the faculty of reason.

These faculties are rooted in the human mind. In this article, we will focus on the faculties of cognition and reason.

My research has shown that behind all the world we deal with there must be a great orchestra conductor who directs everything and who wants our good.
Albert Einstein

If we take Einstein’s image as a starting point, we imagine a divine creator in a macrocosm conducting the score of his creation, while on the lower, earthly level, man conducts the orchestra in his microcosm. As the leader of the first violin section, the concertmaster is a kind of mediator between the conductor and the orchestra, it is in conjunction with the orchestra that his sound-producing instrument can work.

The function that the human mind plays in the cognitive process corresponds symbolically to the function of the concertmaster in the orchestra. For Kant, the mind is a sentient, i.e. sensual, aspect of the higher being that we call our true self. It is capable of focusing the manifold forms of objects – which a priori lie in its soul – into a unity. “Affected” (i.e. stimulated) by its imagination, it can now visualise an object within itself.

Just as the concertmaster affects the orchestra with the sound of his violin, the mind now stimulates the human cognitive faculty to evoke the inwardly perceived object within itself.

In whatever way and by whatever means cognition may relate to objects, the way in which it relates to them directly, and to which all thinking aims as a means, is contemplation. However, this only takes place insofar as the object is given to us; but this in turn is only possible, at least for us humans, if it affects the mind in a certain way. The ability (receptivity) to obtain ideas through the way in which we are affected by objects is called sensuality. Through sensuality we are given the objects that give us views, but through the mind they are thought and it forms concepts.[2]

The faculty of cognition through the mind

The special faculty of actual cognition is the human mind. Like all three cognitive faculties of the mind, it contains within itself the forms of its objects of cognition. It therefore contains “a priori”, the ability to think in terms of concepts (categories). It also has a further root in human sensuality: when it links its ability to think in terms of concepts with the sensory impressions given in contemplation, cognition arises, which makes experience possible in the first place.

The mind has the ability to think in concepts, which Kant calls categories.

Categories are forms of our thinking in which the manifold, given in perception, is unified through the activity of our consciousness. Knowledge therefore consists of a synthesis of intellect and sensually perceived objects.

Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.[3]

In this way, we first and foremost develop a realisation of experience. We want to illustrate this process with examples.

Categories enable experiential knowledge

Kant names four forms in which we think about reality and arrive at knowledge: Quantity, Quality, Relation and Modality. The link between the categories is the pure forms of perception of space and time. Space is described as an external sense because I cannot imagine anything without spatial extension. Time acts as an inner sense in human consciousness. In the following example, it is the link between the categories and perception.

I usually leave the house at 9 o’clock in the morning and I see the same picture in front of me as always: the houses opposite and the trees in front of them are there as usual. But the café on the corner has new, white chairs. Today I have to wait at the bus stop for 20 minutes until the bus finally arrives – overcrowded as always.

When I think about how these experiences come about, I realise that everything happens in my consciousness. My perceptions are conveyed to me through my senses and everything I receive through them is given to me in the visual forms of space and time.

Maybe tomorrow some trees will be felled and benches will be put up in front of the café, but ultimately everything will still be arranged in a spatial juxtaposition, and if the bus took longer to get to its destination this morning, it won’t change the fact that a certain amount of time passed between boarding and arriving.

However, this only describes a small part of my daily experience. To what extent is my mind involved in making them happen?

I can only recognise the image of houses and streets today as the same image as yesterday because the concept of a persistent substance, i.e. a quality, underlies my perception. Without it, I would not be able to recognise yesterday’s houses and streets today, because the concept of substance (material or matter) is based on the idea of a real persistence in time.

The observation that there are new, white chairs in front of the café today, i.e. that a change has taken place in time, is only recognisable to me under the assumption of a concept of relation or causality. It presupposes a relation, or a causal connection – between the observed change and a cause that brought it about: yesterday I learnt that the owner of the café had changed.

Finally, I measure the fact that I had to wait 20 minutes for the bus today using the concept of quantity, which is based on counting, i.e. a temporal sequence. Here, however, I have the idea that I had to wait much longer and this is based on the concept of modality, i.e. the way in which I felt the time.

Through these examples, it can become clear to us how we can recognise the reality given to us with our mind. Without the concepts of order in space and time and the corresponding concepts of understanding, I would have no knowledge from experience, but only a rhapsody of sensory perceptions.

The order and regularity of the phenomena that we call nature, therefore, were brought into it by ourselves, and would not be found in it if we had not, or the nature of our mind, originally placed them in it.[4]

If man had previously believed that it is the objects that generate perception in the mind, Kant now says that, conversely, their cognition is already rooted in the mind.


The faculties of reason

However, knowledge that is only produced by man himself does not satisfy our reason in the long term: it also seeks experiences in a supersensible world. Our power of cognition has the urge to rise far above experiences of phenomena (Greek: phainomena) to sublime ideas, which Kant calls “things in themselves” (Greek: noumena).

For Kant, the path that leads us beyond the world of phenomena can only lie in the faculty of reason itself, i.e. in its ideas and principles. For Kant, ideas are living forces in reason. According to him, there are three ideas that want to be fathomed by reason: those of the world, the soul and God.

The special characteristic of reason is that it seeks the wholeness or the unconditioned nature of these ideas beyond mere conditional experiences. According to Kant, no one should doubt that the soul is immortal, that the world is a whole and eternal and that there is a Creator God! However, reason here infers something of which it has no experience – neither in views nor through concepts. Nevertheless, it makes use of it and allows itself to be carried away into judgments that go far beyond its experience.

It falls back on concepts of understanding and makes use of them in conflicts about the three ideas mentioned above. This leads to irresolvable contradictions (antinomies), which now confront each other in the form of theses and antitheses. The problem, however, is that conclusions are drawn from concepts of understanding of the mind to spheres of being when it comes to the questions:

  1. is the world finite or infinite in space and time?
  2. is the soul as a substance a divisible or an indivisible entity?
  3. do natural phenomena only follow the law of causality or is there a causality of freedom?
  4. does a necessary being or no necessary being belong to the world or to its cause? [5]

Kant turns away from the speculative use of reason in disappointment:

So, I had to abolish knowledge in order to get room for faith ….[6]

At the end of his remarks, he summarises where the investigation of the knowledge of reason has led him. Reason led him to speculative ideas, which in turn led him back to experience. It now remains for him to examine whether pure reason in practical use leads to the ideas that achieve the highest ends of pure reason.

Practical reason and the universal moral law

Every human being can distinguish right from wrong and good from evil, unconsciously presupposing the existence of a moral law within himself. Kant has found the formula for what man, or everybody, understands by moral behaviour. It is the requirement of the categorical imperative, which is unique in the history of ethics:

Act in such a way that the maxim of your will may at all times be valid at the same time as the principle of a general legislation.[7]

It is therefore a matter of man acting according to maxims or principles that are suitable for a general law.

Let us visualise this again using an example:

The other day, a friend told me that an elderly man was hit by a car outside her house. The driver had probably not seen the man and drove on without stopping. As she was busy with her bike at the time, she only saw the man lying flat on the ground with his eyes closed shortly after the incident. She felt she had to attend to him immediately, especially as she had some knowledge of first aid measures. In the meantime, a passer-by had called the police.

It was natural for my friend to help immediately, as she believed that no doubt everyone would have done so. When the police arrived, a policeman criticised her attitude and said that she should have waited for them.

What is significant about this example is that Kant wants to consult reason as the final insight and not emotion, because reason demands that we consider what we want everyone to do in this case. But does this not put moral (rational) action in opposition to acting out of feeling? Is it the opinion of all people that actions based on reason are morally more valuable than those based on feelings?

This juxtaposition of reason and emotion is not in Kant’s sense. Even moral deliberation before an action is not without feelings. If, for example, the categorical imperative forbids me to lie when making a decision, this immediately gives me the feeling that I should refrain from lying, even though it might have saved me great annoyance. It is about respecting myself as a human being.

It is therefore clear that feeling, but only the feeling of respect brought about by reason, plays a major role in moral behaviour. Respect for the person, including one’s own, requires a feeling of respect for the person of one’s neighbour. In love, too, respect for the loved one is an important feeling.

What about the human will? The moral will is often at odds with our self-love. What makes me hold on to the moral law anyway? It is the unconditionally commanding voice of my own reason. I only hear the law that I have given myself authoritatively. The will that listens to the voice of reason is the good will.

As a sensual being, I remain subject to the law of nature. However, in my conscious willing and acting, in which the voice of reason commands, I am also my own author and I belong to a world of rational beings in which reason commands.

Thus, for Kant, the highest end that the ideas of pure reason can achieve lies in practical reason, that is in the idea of respect for the dignity of man.

Kant’s marvellous words at the end of The Critique of Practical Reason reveal the true meaning of his doctrine, to which he feels connected with his whole mind:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.[8]

[1] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason), Hamburg 1989, p. 21
[2] Ibid., p. 93
[3] Ibid., p. 130
[4] Ibid., p. 229
[5] Ibid., p. 260
[6] Ibid., p. 30
[7] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (Critique of Practical Reason), Hamburg 1966, p. 35
[8] Ibid., p. 253

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Date: January 14, 2024
Author: Sibylle Bath (Germany)
Photo: violins-Bild von Pexels auf Pixabay HD

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