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date: 18 November 2017


The Oxford Companion to Philosophy

Prof. Graham Bird


covers any philosophical view which derives from, or echoes, the central tenets of Kant's critical philosophy. After the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 that philosophy had an impact that was both immediate and enduring, and few Western philosophers have been able to escape its influence. There is evidently a direct line of descent among German philosophers from Kant through Fichte and Hegel, past Schelling, Schopenhauer, and neo-Kantians such as Hermann Cohen and Natorp, to Husserl and Heidegger. These philosophers mostly incorporated part of Kant's teaching into their own philosophies, though they rarely endorsed everything that Kant said and were often, like Hegel and Heidegger, deeply critical of Kant's own position. Nor, of course, did they all agree in their interpretations of Kant.

Kant's influence in the Anglo-Saxon world has been more variable. In the earliest days De Quincey, in Blackwood's Magazine, took the view that Kant's personal life was more interesting than his philosophy—a view that would now be regarded as odd to the point of perversity. Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy quotes James Mill's patronizing judgement ‘I see clearly enough what poor Kant would be at’, and explicitly dissented from the view that Kant was the greatest of modern philosophers. The American Pragmatists acknowledged the influence that Kant had on them by linking their own term ‘Pragmatism’ with what Kant had said in the Transcendental Dialectic of ‘pragmatic belief’ (Critique of Pure Reason, B 852). Charles Peirce adopted a strongly Kantian account of categories, but William James rejected what he understood of Kant's ‘transcendentalism’, and urged that the right way to deal with Kant was to go round him rather than through him. And yet, despite this catalogue of hostility and incomprehension, Kant has constructively influenced many recent analytic philosophers from Wittgenstein to Strawson and Putnam. Nowadays few philosophers in this tradition resist a token reference to Kant, even though their views could not be regarded as Kantian. Davidson's ‘anomalous monism’, for example, was constructed in part with a conscious reference to Kant's treatment of the conflict between free will and causality.

Two central features of Kant's critical philosophy serve to define Kantianism. First is the fundamental reference to what Kant calls ‘transcendental apperception’, and especially to that aspect of it which covers personal identity and self-consciousness. Second is the reference to a transcendental method which Kant conceived as a revolutionary way of resolving the endless conflicts in the philosophical tradition from the Greeks to David Hume.

Both aspects are complex, and ramify prolifically through Kant's own writing and that of his Kantian successors. Transcendental apperception, for example, covers for Kant not only the central datum of self-consciousness, but also the a priori network of categories through which an objective experience is made possible. In its purely personal aspect it defines various conceptions of transcendental idealism, from the extreme subjectivity of Fichte's notion of the ‘ego’ to Strawson's account of the concept of a ‘person’ as primitive. It has additionally a vital link through Kant's conception of transcendental freedom to the notions of personal agency, responsibility, and the moral law. Most of the German philosophers influenced by Kant, from Fichte to Husserl and Heidegger, recognized some notion of the self as the hinge about which the critical philosophy revolved. Many of them, like Fichte himself and Schopenhauer, regarded that notion as one with a primary moral significance. In more recent times, through a simple contrast between Utilitarianism and Kantianism in moral philosophy, this aspect of Kant's view has been associated with a non-consequentialist conception of the intrinsic moral character of acts.

The second feature, Kant's transcendentalism, is also complex and variously interpreted. It covers the ground from a tacit appeal to supernatural, or supersensible, entities which Kant called ‘noumena’ or ‘things-in-themselves’, to a purported new form of logic, a transcendental logic, with a claimed revolutionary application to traditional philosophical issues. The former context might be further divided into a positive acceptance of such things in themselves, especially in relation to the transcendental self, and a negative rejection of any genuine knowledge of such supersensible entities. It was the negative aspect which led Schopenhauer to approve of Kant's rejection of transcendent metaphysics, and the positive aspect which led James to reject a Kantian transcendent self in favour of a modified Humean and empiricist account.

But Kant's transcendental method, and its alleged logic, are less mysterious in Kant than in some of his successors. Husserl's ‘transcendental-phenomenological reduction’, for example, sought to effect a transition from unreflective common sense to the recognition of a pure consciousness or transcendental ego which was not accessible to empirical observation. But it remains unclear how his phenomenological descriptions could yield a priori knowledge of such items. Peirce took seriously Kant's appeal to an architectonic structure for the critical system in his own account of categories and ‘triadicity’, but it has more often seemed dubious to attach so much significance to Kant's architectonic. Moreover, although Kant's references to a transcendental logic as part of his distinctive method may seem to indicate a non-standard version of formal logic, there seems no good reason to think of it in that way.

In fact Kant's transcendental method appeals essentially to two features: first to his novel classification of ‘synthetic a priori’ judgement, and second to the conception of a ‘condition of a possible experience’. The two features coincide naturally with the thought that any proposition which expresses a condition of any possible experience will be bound to have a special status which may be described in terms of the synthetic a priori classification. On one side the conception of a condition of a possible experience places a restriction on what can count as knowledge and licenses it only when it can be brought to bear upon some possible experience. Although such a view is not the same as the Logical Positivists' appeal to verifiability, nevertheless it shares with them and with Hume a tough-minded criterion with which to evaluate speculative philosophy. On the other side the conception offers the prospect of a new and constructive approach to experience, in which the conditions of that experience are identified as a priori and treated as the background framework which makes it possible. It is this aspect which connects so naturally with recent philosophical accounts of language-games (Wittgenstein), or conceptual schemes (Strawson), categorial frameworks (Körner), or conceptual relativity (Putnam). It is associated also with Collingwood's account of ‘absolute presuppositions’ and above all with Strawson's project of ‘descriptive metaphysics’.

Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is often thought to echo Kantian themes in its account of the inexpressible limits to our experience, and especially in its references to a ‘metaphysical’ self which marks a limit to the world and is not therefore simply a part of it (5.641). But it is in Wittgenstein's later works, such as Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty, that a more direct reference to Kantianism is to be found. For Wittgenstein's ideas of a form of life and of a language-game expressing such a form and governed by rules which make that experience possible echo Kant's notion of a condition of possible experience governed by his synthetic a priori principles. Wittgenstein did not classify his rules as synthetic a priori, but he recognized their special status by calling them ‘grammatical’ rules. Although the notion of a language-game captures the Kantian idea of a systematic experience governed by rules, Wittgenstein's conception, like Körner's account of a categorial framework, is not designed to cover the whole of our experience, but only some differentiable aspect of it. Strawson's account of a conceptual scheme, too, dispensed with the synthetic a priori classification, and so produced a Kantianism with more of an empiricist flavour than Kant would have accepted.

Of all these recent Kantian accounts, however, Strawson's has been the most committed and influential. It brings together the two aspects noted above of a fundamental and irreducible appeal to the notion of the self, and a transcendental method of justifying such fundamental notions. For in Strawson the appeal to conditions of possible experience has been seen as a distinctively Kantian response to traditional scepticism through the notion of a transcendental argument. In a similar way Putnam's ‘internal realism’ is also a conscious attempt to follow Kant's appeal to a justified objectivity in experience which does not rest on an absolutist ‘God's-eye view’ of an independent reality.

A doubt, for example, about the feasibility of providing an empiricist analysis of the self in terms of a closed sequence of sense-impressions might encourage an alternative non-empiricist and Kantian account. If the self, something to which such sequences of impressions belong, is a necessary, a priori, condition of any possible experience, then this may answer, or at least evade, such a traditional scepticism. Strawson's Kantian account of the self as a primitive notion, not to be itself analysed in terms of mental or physical features, echoes such a response. And in his account of a necessary reidentification of objects as a further condition for possible experience the same technique is explicitly used to rebut a traditional scepticism about identity. The central idea is that if reidentification is a necessary condition for any possible experience, then the sceptic's doubt will be either incoherent or else will embody a revisionary recommendation which is at best optional. The doubt will be incoherent on one side, since without a belief in identity there is no possible experience, and hence no way of making sense of the sceptic's query. It will be an optional revision, on the other side, if the sceptic uses his argument to recommend a change from the standard forms in which such reidentification is realized in our conceptual scheme.

Strawson's appeal to ‘primitive’ features of our experience such as the concept of a person or of reidentification provides a modest Kantianism, but there are less modest ways of understanding Kant's own account. With regard to the self, for example, many Kantians have taken the view that for Kant such a reference is unavoidably to noumena or things-in-themselves. Such a view is encouraged by Kant's account of the resolution of the conflict between cause and freedom in the Third Antinomy, where it is easy to read him as accepting a ‘two-worlds’ picture of phenomenal causality and noumenal freedom. His remarks on the distinction between empirical and intelligible characters in human agents have sometimes associated Kantianism with an indeterminist doctrine, in which human freedom and responsibility are safeguarded by being exempted from natural causation. Although Kant himself rejects the strategy of exempting humans from causal influence, it remains unclear whether his own resolution of the traditional debate in this context is indeterminist or compatibilist.

Prof. Graham Bird

See also neo-Kantianism.


H. E. Allison, Kant's Theory of Freedom (Cambridge, 1990).Find this resource:

Graham Bird, ‘Kant's Transcendental Arguments’, in E. Schaper and W. Vossenkuhl (eds.), Reading Kant (Oxford, 1989).Find this resource:

D. Davidson, ‘Mental Events’, in L. Foster and J. W. Swanson (eds.), Experience and Theory (London, 1970).Find this resource:

Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face, ed. and intro. James Conant (Cambridge, Mass., 1992).Find this resource:

P. F. Strawson, Individuals (London, 1959).Find this resource:

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