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Ah, Immanuel Kant. There's a name to strike fear into the bravest of hearts. We picture a nice, unmarried old man sitting in a stately drawing room, listening to Bach fugues, thinking about lofty Enlightenment ideals, and writing such easy-to-understand gems as: "The thoroughgoing identity of the apperception of a manifold which is given in intuition contains a synthesis of representations" (source).
Yep. It just got real.
Fortunately, we here at Shmoop are not afraid. Kant may be a philosopher's philosopher—broad, deep, systematic, long-winded, a tad incomprehensible—but it takes more than a wig and a quill pen and some big German words to scare us off. And guess what? We're here to tell you that buried deep beneath those crazy Kantortions of words are definite, coherent ideas—ideas that are revolutionary and even kind of exciting. You read it here first, folks.
So, let's start with a little Kantian problem. There seem to be certain features of the world that we can identify in advance of experience, before we've done any experiments whatsoever. We know, for example, that if some event takes place—say a stone starts rolling down a hill—there must be some cause or other. We don't have to know what that cause is, but we know there has to be one.
Likewise, if you put 3 apples in a bag and then 5 oranges, we are 100% certain you will end up with 8 pieces of fruit. You don't have to perform an experiment to double-check your results; you don't even have to count the items. In the same way, we can be assured that the space around us is going to be describable in terms of geometry: if that floor is perfectly level and the wall is perfectly perpendicular to it, the resulting angle will have to be exactly 90 degrees.
Don't you think that's weird? You don't?
Well, Kant did, and that's why he's Kant and you're not. Kant was all about figuring out how there can be these various features of our experience, features that are necessarily the case, that we can know and describe prior to that experience. The central question, then, to put it in Kant's lovely language, is how are synthetic a priori judgments possible? How do we know there is a cause that makes that stone fall down? How do we know there will be 8 pieces of fruit in that bag?
Kant's answer requires that we do nothing less than totally reconceive our relationship to the world. Rather than supposing that our minds must conform to reality, he insists that reality most conform to our minds. It is consciousness, in other words, that organizes or constitutes the world at the most fundamental level.
In Kant's view, then, the reason we can know with certainty such basic features of the world as space, time, and causality is because these features reflect the structures of consciousness itself. And so our proper philosophical concern is not with describing some supposed objective reality, but with discovering the architecture of our own minds. This reversal is what Kant called the "Copernican Revolution" in philosophy.
(Copernicus was the dude who figured out that the earth revolves around the sun, and not vice-versa, so Kant was sort of saying that consciousness is like the sun, and the world outside consciousness is sort of like the solar system following that sun.)
There is an important consequence to Kant's new approach. Sure, we can describe the fundamental categories in which reality presents itself to us, the basic categories of experience. But since those categories only determine how reality appears to the mind, beyond those appearances, we can know nothing.
Yes, fellow Shmoopers: Kant thinks that we can never know reality as it truly is. The so-called "thing-in-itself" is forever hidden from the human intellect. That chair you see in front of you? You're just seeing that chair as it appears in your mind. Think you can ever see that chair as it really, truly is? Guess again.
That's the grim conclusion of Kant's big, massive, humungous Critique of Pure Reason. But do you think Kant is done? No way, baby—he's just getting started. The Critique of Pure Reason is just the first of three—count 'em—critiques Special K decided to grace the world with.
In his Critique of Practical Reason (we know—imaginative title), Kant decided to show how we're in a similar situation when it comes to ethics. Kant says that ethical truths—claims like lying is wrong—are like synthetic a priori judgments because we seem to be able to know them independent of any experience. Kant thinks we just know that lying is wrong; no experience could possibly disprove it.
How is this possible? It takes several hundred pages for Kant to get to his solution, but it turns out—so Kant says—that morality also reflects the structure of our minds. In this case, it is the principles that guide our actions that determine their moral worth. Translation: we know that lying is wrong because our actions must follow from a principle that logically holds for all people.
Hold up: Kant still isn't done. He went on to produce yet another doorstop of a book—The Critique of the Power of Judgment—on the nature of aesthetic judgments. Curious about the nature of beauty and taste? Kant's your man. You probably won't be surprised to learn that he thinks beauty and taste also reflect the structure of our minds.
Kant's philosophical system is huge and sprawling and intricate. And while that system has driven many scholars mad with its complexity, it has also changed the Western world forever. So keep on reading, intrepid Shmoopers, because let's face it: you're never going to be able to escape good old Immanuel K.