Kant: The "Copernican Revolution" in Philosophy
West Valley College
philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is sometimes called the
revolution of philosophy” to emphasize its novelty and huge importance.
Kant synthesized (brought together) rationalism and empiricism. After
Kant, the old debate between rationalists and empiricists ended, and
went in a new direction. After Kant, no discussion of reality or knowledge
could take place without awareness of the role of the human mind in
constructing reality and knowledge.
paradigm rationalist philosophers are Plato (ancient); Descartes, Spinoza,
trust senses, since they sometimes deceive; and since the “knowledge”
they provide is inferior (because it changes).
alone can provide knowledge.
is the paradigm of real knowledge.
are innate ideas, e.g., Plato’s Forms, or Descartes’ concepts of self,
substance, and identity.
self is real and discernable through immediate intellectual intuition
(cogito ergo sum).
notions are comfortably grounded in an objective standard external
to self — in God, or Forms.
says rationalists are sort of right about (3) and (4) above; wrong about
(1) and (2). Kant would like (5) to be true.
paradigm empiricist philosophers are Aristotle (ancient); Locke, Berkeley,
are the primary, or only, source of knowledge of world. Psychological
deals only with relations of ideas (tautologies); gives no knowledge
No innate ideas (though Berkeley accepts Cartesian self). General or
complex ideas are derived by abstraction from simple ones
— there’s no immediate intellectual intuition of self. The concept
of “Self” is not supported by sensations either.
— no sensations support the notion of necessary connections between
causes and effects, or the notion that the future will resemble the
— “is” does not imply “ought”. Source of morality is feeling.
thinks empiricism is on the right track re (1), sort of right re (2),
wrong re (3), (4), (5), and (6).
of Kant’s Argument
epistemological debate between rationalism and empiricism is basically
about whether, or to what extent the senses contribute to knowledge.
Both rationalism and empiricism take for granted that it’s possible
for us to acquire knowledge of Reality, or how things really are,
as opposed to how they seem to us.
both rationalism and empiricism overlook the fact that the human mind
is limited; it can experience and imagine only within certain constraints.
These constraints are both synthetic and a
priori. All our possible experience must conform to these SAPs.
The SAPs include location in space and time, causality, experiencing
self, thing-ness, identity, and various mathematical notions. (Twentieth-
Gestalt psychology’s attack on psychological atomism is based on Kant’s
we must distinguish the world we experience, bounded by SAPs, and
the world of things as they really are “in themselves”. Kant calls
these two worlds the phenomenal (apparent) world versus the
noumenal (real) world.
pretty much nails what it means to know something, once the SAPs are
in place; i.e., within the phenomenal world, empiricism rules. The
phenomenal world is a world of things, publicly observable, describable
by science, known to the senses, determined by physical laws. No God,
no freedom, no soul, no values exist in this world.
If God, freedom, souls, and values exist, then they must be noumenal
and unknowable by any ordinary means.
according to Kant:
rationalism and empiricism are wrong when they claim that we can know
things in themselves.
are wrong not to trust senses; in the phenomenal world, senses are
all we have.
are right about “innate ideas”, but not in Plato’s sense of Forms — much more like Descartes’ in argument of
is wrong when he claims the concept of self is unsupported by senses,
and thus bogus. Rather, the experiencing self is a pre-condition for
having any experience at all (Descartes was right).
is wrong when he says the notion that the future will resemble the
past is due only to “custom and habit”. That notion is a SAP; we couldn’t
have ordinary experience without it.
is wrong when he says the source of morality is feeling. Morality, properly
understood, provides the key to linking the noumenal and phenomenal
worlds. Kant argues that if morality is real, then human freedom is
real, and therefore humans are not merely creatures of the phenomenal
world (not merely things subject to laws).
of Kant’s Views
revolutionized philosophy. Kant showed that the mind, through its innate
categories, constructs our experience along certain lines (space, time,
causality, self, etc.). Thus, thinking and experiencing give no access
to things as they really are. We can think as hard as we like, but we
will never escape the innate constraints of our minds.
Kant forced philosophy to look seriously at the world for the
agent (what Kant calls the
world) independently of the real world outside consciousness – the world
in itself (the noumenal world).
had long recognized the importance for moral evaluation of “how things
seem to the agent.” But the ramifications of Kant’s noumenal-phenomenal
distinction extend far beyond ethics. Philosophers like to take credit
for all the big events in 19th century intellectual history
as direct consequences of Kant’s philosophical legitimizing of the
of the subject: Hegel and German idealism, Darwinism, Romanticism,
Marxism, the triumph of utilitarianism, Nietzsche, and the establishment
of psychology as a science, especially Gestalt psychology.
Sample Essay Questions
philosophical rationalism and empiricism ended with Kant. Why?
What would Kant say about
atomism (Locke’s view that all knowledge is built from elementary sense
What does Gestalt psychology owe
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