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Kant’s Campaign against the Synthesis of Empiricism and Rationalism

This is a guest post by Timmy de Goeij. Timmy is part of a research project “Thinking classified – Structuring the world of ideas around 1800”, based at Utrecht University. We are grateful to Timmy for sharing his current research on our blog.

Kant is generally considered to be the first philosopher who synthesized early modern rationalism and empiricism, and who, with this synthesis, set the terms of reference for much of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy. Contrary to this view, I am currently writing a paper wherein I argue, first, that Kant never thought of himself as providing a synthesis of rationalism and empiricism but as providing a middle road between dogmatism and scepticism, and, second, that this middle road is provided precisely by rejecting the syntheses of rationalism and empiricism that he saw present in the dogmatic and skeptical traditions. Although the second of these theses is certainly more exciting, I will first need to shortly elaborate on the first thesis, and postpone a discussion of the second one to a later post.

A couple of simple searches through the works of Kant will reveal immediately that he never explicitly characterized his philosophy in terms of a synthesis of rationalism and empiricism. As has been argued on this blog, it was Reinhold who first propounded this reading of Kant’s critical philosophy – a reading which was then probably adopted by Wilhelm Gottlieb Tenneman in his History of Philosophy, but which actually took a far longer period of time to become the standard narrative in the historiography of philosophy. In “Kant on Empiricism and Rationalism”, Alberto Vanzo emphasized the fact that there are many passages spread throughout Kant’s works wherein he more or less explicitly sides with the rationalist tradition in his theoretical philosophy, ethics and aesthetics. However, important in this regard is Kant’s distinction between an immodest or dogmatic empiricism and a more moderate or scientific form of empiricism.

Immodest empiricism adopts “a principle of pure empiricism, not only in the explanation of appearances in the world, but also in the dissolution of the transcendental ideas of the world-whole itself” (A466/B494), whereas modest empiricism only adopts a principle of empiricism in the explanation of the phenomena in the sensible world and limits our speculative knowledge (Wissen) to this domain of sensible objects (A470-471/B498-499). Kant’s doctrine of the categories alone already implies a rejection of the immodest form of empiricism. However, Kant does not reject the modest form of empiricism (ibid.). My hypothesis is that he reconciled empiricism and rationalism neither by synthesizing them, nor by finding a middle road between them, but by relocating and limiting their principles and methods to different domains of objects and knowledge. The claim of modest empiricism that our knowledge must follow the guidance of experience is valid for the phenomena in the sensible world, which is the proper domain of theoretical scientific knowledge. But empiricism must withhold from making any dogmatic claims about non-sensible objects and the transcendental conditions of the possibility of experience, because this is the pure domain of philosophy proper. In this way Kant conceptually prepares the separation between the empirical sciences and rational philosophy proper, guaranteeing the autonomy of both. Accordingly, Kant’s real battle was never with empiricism as such, nor with rationalism, but with the dogmatic forms of both empiricism and rationalism.

Throughout his works Kant also argues that scepticism itself was merely a reaction to dogmatism, and he situates his own philosophy as the middle road between dogmatism and scepticism (see, for example, Kant’s unfinished Progress of Metaphysics and the introductions to the third and eight parts of Metaphysik Vigilantius). In my view, then, Kant does not reject empiricism as such, nor is he concerned with synthesizing empiricism and rationalism; his critical philosophy tries to walk the middle road between dogmatism and scepticism. Moreover, my further hypothesis is that according to Kant’s own diagnosis, the failures of the dogmatic and skeptical traditions derive from mixing up empirical cognitions with rational cognitions, so that it “is of the utmost importance to isolate cognitions that differ from one another in their species and origin, and carefully to avoid mixing them together with others with which they are usually connected in their use” (A842/B870), and that this critical project is precisely meant to counter the syntheses of rational elements with empirical elements that were prevalent in both traditions. But that would be a topic for a later post.

Currently, I am still in the process of writing the paper, so I would appreciate any comments or suggestions either on the blog or via email.

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