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Kant, Empiricism, and Historiographical Biases

Alberto Vanzo writes…

Many scholars have criticized histories of early modern philosophy based on the dichotomy of empiricism and rationalism. Among the reasons for their criticism are:

  1. the epistemological bias: histories of philosophy which give pride of place to the rationalism-empiricism distinction overestimate the importance of epistemological issues for early modern philosophers.
  2. the Kantian bias: histories of early modern philosophy that embrace the empiricism-rationalism distinction are often biased in favour of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. They portray Kant as the first author who uncovered the limits of rationalism and empiricism, rejected their mistakes, and incorporated their correct insights within his Critical philosophy.

Since the introduction of the empiricism-rationalism distinction within philosophical historiography is due to Kant, scholars have charged him with both the historiographical and the Kantian biases. For instance, according to Anik Waldow, “Kant is impermissibly reductive in his attempt to present empiricism as a purely epistemological position”. For Hans-Jürgen Engfer, “Kant […] distinguishes both currents of empiricism and rationalism […] and want to reconcile and go beyond them with a third [position].”

I do not think that Kant should be charged with making the empiricism-rationalism distinction a merely epistemological one, or of placing his philosophy beyond and above the two currents of empiricism and rationalism.

To see why Kant does not have the epistemological bias or the Kantian bias, let us consider his two characterizations of empiricism in the Critique of Pure Reason.

I will start with the second characterization. It is contained in a section entitled The History of Pure Reason (A854/B882). Empiricists such as Aristotle claim that pure cognitions of reason “are derived from experience”. Noologists (elsewhere called rationalists) such as Plato claim that, “independent from [experience], [pure cognitions of reason] have their source in reason”.

The cognitions that Kant is referring to are concepts and judgements. As for concepts, empiricists “take all concepts of the understanding from experience” (Ak. 29:763). As for the judgements, empiricists claim that there are no synthetic judgements that can have an a priori justification. Kant’s proof that such judgements exist makes empiricism “completely untenable” (Ak. 20:275).

These characterizations of empiricism are cast in epistemological terms – especially if one takes epistemology to be concerned not only with what justifies beliefs, but also with issues concerning the origin of concepts.

Does Kant reject the epistemological views of empiricism and rationalism? The History of Pure Reason does not make this clear. However, elsewhere Kant places himself in the rationalist camp. For instance, in the second Critique he endorses the “rationalism of power of judgement” with regard to practical concepts (Ak. 5:71). In a metaphysics lecture from the 1790s, Kant qualifies his view that we have some non-empirical concepts (the categories) as a rationalist view.

Let us now look at Kant’s first characterization of empiricism in the Critique of Pure Reason. It is contained in the discussion of the antinomies. There, Kant does not characterize empiricism in epistemological terms, but in ontological terms. Empiricists are those natural philosophers who refuse to postulate entities whose existence, and phenomena whose occurrence, cannot be confirmed by sensory experience (B496-497): for instance, simple beings without extension or parts, a supernatural creator which caused the existence of the world, or contra-causal free actions that are undetermined by previous natural events. Empiricists adopt two attitudes toward those entities and phenomena:

  • Modest empiricists acknowledge their ignorance as to their existence.
  • Dogmatic or dogmatising empiricists deny their existence.

Kant rejects immodest or dogmatic empiricism because it “says more than it knows” (A472/B500). Interestingly, however, he endorses the attitude of modest empiricists in his solution of the antinomies.

What conclusions can we draw from this survey of Kant’s texts?

First, Kant operates with multiple notions of empiricism. The empiricism described in the History of Pure Reason is epistemological. The modest empiricism in the antinomies chapter, instead, is an ontological view concerning the existence of certain items. Immodest empiricism claims ignorance of their existence, modest empiricism claims knowledge of their non-existence. Hence, pace Anik Waldow and others, Kant does not consistently describe empiricism as “a purely epistemological position”.

Second, Kant does not consistently portray his position as an alternative to empiricism and rationalism. He sides with modest empiricists in the antinomies and with rationalists in other texts. He may have sown the seeds for a narrative of early modern philosophy based on the Critical Aufhebung of empiricism and rationalism. However, he can hardly be regarded as the first author to consistently develop such a narrative.

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