Norman Kemp Smith.

A commentary to Kant's 'Critique of pure reason,' online

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But we have still to consider the chief reason for the
contradictory character of the contents of the Critique. It is
inseparably bound up with what may perhaps be regarded as
Kant's supreme merit as a philosophical thinker, especially as
shown in the first Critique, namely, his open-minded recogni-
tion of the complexity of his problems, and of the many
difficulties which lie in the way of any solution which he
is himself able to propound. Kant's method of working
seems to have consisted in alternating between the various
possible solutions, developing each in turn, in the hope that
some midway position, which would share in the merits
of all, might finally disclose itself. When, as frequently
happened, such a midway solution could not be found, he
developed his thought along the parallel lines of the alterna-
tive views.

" You know that I do not approach reasonable objections with
the intention merely of refuting them, but that in thinking them
over I always weave them into my judgments, and afford them the
opportunity of overturning all my most cherished beliefs. I entertain
the hope that by thus viewing my judgments impartially from the
standpoint of others some third view that will improve upon my
previous insight may be obtainable. . . . Long experience has
taught me that insight into a subject which I am seeking to master
is not to be forced, or even hastened, by sheer effort, but demands
a fairly prolonged period during which I return again and again to
the same concepts, viewing them in all their aspects and in their
widest possible connections, while in the intervals the sceptical spirit
awakens, and makes trial whether my conclusions can withstand a
searching criticism." 1 " In mental labour of so delicate a character

1 From letter to Marcus Herz, June 7, 1777 : W. x. pp.^i 16-17.


nothing is more harmful than preoccupation with extraneous matters.
The mind, though not constantly on the stretch, must still, alike in
its idle and in its favourable moments, lie uninterruptedly open to
any chance suggestion which may present itself. Relaxations and
diversions must maintain its powers in freedom and mobility, so
that it may be enabled to view the object afresh from every side,
and so to enlarge its point of view from a microscopic to a universal
outlook that it adopts in turn every conceivable standpoint, verifying
the observations of each by means of all the others." 1 "I am not
of the opinion of the well-meaning writer who has recommended us
never to allow doubts in regard to a matter upon which we have
once made up our minds. In pure philosophy that is not feasible.
Indeed the understanding has in itself a natural objection to any
such procedure. We must consider propositions in all their various
applications ; even when they may not seem to require a special
proof, we must make trial of their opposites, and in this way fight
for delay, until the truth becomes in all respects evident." 2

That these are no mere pious expressions of good intention,
but represent Kant's actual method of working, is amply
proved by the contents of the Critique. We find Kant con-
stantly alternating between opposed standpoints, to no one
of which he quite definitely commits himself, and constantly
restating his principles in the effort to remove the objections
to which, as he recognises, they continue to lie open. The
Critique, as already stated, is not the exposition of a single
unified system, but is the record of Kant's manifold attempts
to formulate and to solve his many-sided problems. Even
those portions of the Critique which embody his latest views
show that Kant is still unwilling to sacrifice insight to
consistency. When he is guilty of special pleading for he
cannot be altogether absolved even from that charge it is
in the interests of his logical architectonic, for which, as I
have said, he cherishes a quite unreasoning affection, and not
of his central principles. So far from concealing difficulties,
.or unduly dwelling upon the favouring considerations, Kant
himself emphasises the outstanding objections to which his
conclusions remain subject. If his teaching is on certain
points very definite, it is in other hardly less important
respects largely tentative.

The value of Kant's Critique as an introduction to modern
philosophy is greatly enhanced by this method of procedure.
The student who has steeped himself in the atmosphere of the
Critique, however dissatisfied he may perhaps be with many of
its doctrines, has become familiar with the main requirements

1 From letter to Marcus Herz, February 21, 1772 : W. x. p. 127.
2 Rcflexionen ii. 5.


which a really adequate metaphysics must fulfil, or at least
will have acquired a due sense of the complexity of the
problems with which it deals.

Recognition of the composite nature of the text will safe-
guard us in two ways. In the first place, citation of single
passages is quite inconclusive. Not only must all the relevant
passages be collated ; they must be interpreted in the light of
an historical understanding of the various stages in Kant's
development. We must also be prepared to find that on
certain main questions Kant hesitates between opposed posi-
tions, and that he nowhere definitively commits himself to
any quite final expression of view.

Secondly, we cannot proceed on the assumption that
Kant's maturest teaching comes where, had the Critique been
a unitary work, composed upon a definite and previously
thought out plan, we should naturally expect to find it,
namely, in its concluding portions. The teaching of much
of the Dialectic, especially in its account of the nature of the
phenomenal world and of its relation to the knowing mind,
is only semi-Critical. This is also true of Kant's Introduction
io the Critique. Introductions are usually written last ; and
probably Kant's Introduction was written after the comple-
tion of the Aesthetic, of the Dialectic, and of the Analytic in its
earlier forms. But it bears all the signs of having been
composed prior to the working out of several of his most
characteristic doctrines in the central parts of the Analytic.

Thus both Kant's introductory statements of the aims
and purposes of the Critique, and his application of his
results in the solution of metaphysical problems, fail to repre-
sent in any adequate fashion the new and revolutionary
principles to which he very gradually but successfully worked
his way. The key to the Critique is given in the central portions
of the Analytic, especially in the Deduction of the Categories.
The other parts of the Critique reveal the Critical doctrines
only as gradually emerging from the entangling influence of
pre-Critical assumptions. Their teaching has to be radically
remodelled before they can be made to harmonise with what,
in view both of their intrinsic character and of the corre-
sponding alterations in the second edition, must be regarded
as Kant's maturest utterances.

This was a task which Kant never himself attempted.
For no sooner had he attained to comparative clearness in
regard to his new Critical principles and briefly expounded
them in the Analytic of the first edition, than he hastened
to apply them in the spheres of morality, aesthetics, and
teleology. When the Critique appeared in 1781 he was fifty-


seven years of age ; and he seems to have feared that if he
allowed these purely theoretical problems, which had already
occupied his main attention for "at least twelve years," to
detain him longer, he would be debarred from developing
and placing on permanent record the new metaphysics of
ethics which, as the references in the first Critique show,
had already begun to shape itself in his mind. To have
expended further energy upon the perfecting of his theoretical
philosophy would have endangered its own best fruits. Even
the opportunity in 1787 of a second edition of the Critique
he used very sparingly, altering or adding only where occa-
sional current criticism his puzzled contemporaries having
still for the most part maintained a discreet silence had
clearly shown that his modes of exposition were incom-
plete or misleading.



Kant's manner of formulating his fundamental problem
How are synthetic a priori judgments possible ? may well
seem to the modern reader to imply an unduly scholastic
and extremely rationalistic method of approach. Kant's
reasons for adopting it have, unfortunately, been largely
obscured, owing to the mistaken interpretation which has
usually been given to certain of his personal utterances.
They have been supposed to prove that the immediate occa-
sion of the above formula was Hume's discussion of the
problem of causality in the Enquiry into the Human Under-
standing. Kant, it is argued, could not have been acquainted
with Hume's earlier and more elaborate Treatise on Human
Nature, of which there was then no translation ; and his
references to Hume must therefore concern only the later

Vaihinger has done valuable service in disputing this read-
ing of Kant's autobiographical statements. Kant does not
himself make direct mention of the Enquiry, and the passages in
the Critique and in the Prolegomena * in which Hume's teach-
ing is under consideration seem rather to point to the wider
argument of the Treatise. This is a matter of no small
importance ; for if Vaihinger's view can be established, it will

1 These passages are by no means unambiguous, and are commented upon
below, p. 6 1 ff.


enable us to appreciate, in a manner otherwise impossible,
how Kant should have come to regard the problem of a priori
synthesis as being the most pressing question in the entire
field of speculative philosophy.

The essential difference between the Treatise and the
Enquiry, from the standpoint of their bearing upon Critical
issues, lies in the wider scope and more radical character of the
earlier work. The Enquiry discusses the problem of causality
only in the form in which it emerges in particular causal judg-
ments, i.e. as to our grounds for asserting that this or that effect
is due to this or that cause. In the Treatise, Hume raises the
broader question as to our right to postulate that events must
always be causally determined. In other words, he there
questions the validity of the universal causal principle, that
whatever begins to exist must have a cause of existence ; and
he does so on the explicit ground that it demands as necessary
the connecting of two concepts, that of an event and that of an
antecedent cause, between which no connection of any kind can
be detected by the mind. The principle, that is to say, is not
self-evident ; it is synthetic. The concept of an event and
the concept of a cause are quite separate and distinct ideas.
Events can be conceived without our requiring to think ante-
cedent events upon which they are dependent. Nor is the
principle capable of demonstration. For if it be objected
that in questioning its validity we are committing ourselves
to the impossible assertion that events arise out of nothing,
such argument is only applicable if the principle be previously
granted. If events do not require a cause, it is as little
necessary to seek their source in a generation out of nothing
as in anything positive. Similarly, when it is argued that
as all the parts of time and space are uniform, there must
be a cause determining an event to happen at one moment
and in one place rather than at some other time or place,
the principle is again assumed. There is no greater diffi-
culty in supposing the time and place to be fixed without a
cause than in supposing the existence to be so determined.
The principle, Hume concludes, is non-rational in character.
It is an instrument useful for the organisation of experience ;
and for that reason nature has determined us to its formation
and acceptance. Properly viewed, it expresses a merely
instinctive belief, and is explicable only in the naturalistic
manner of our other propensities, as necessary to the fulfil-
ling of some practical need. " Nature has determined us to
judge as well as to breathe and feel."

From this naturalistic position Hume makes a no less
vigorous attack upon the empirical philosophies which profess


to establish general principles by inductive inference from the
facts of experience. If the principles which lie at the basis
of our experience are non- rational in character, the same
must be true of our empirical judgments. They may cor-
rectly describe the uniformities that have hitherto occurred
in the sequences of our sensations, and may express the
natural expectations to which they spontaneously give rise ;
but they must never be regarded as capable of serving as a
basis for inference. In eliminating a priori principles, and
appealing exclusively to sense -experience, the empiricist
removes all grounds of distinction between inductive inference
and custom-bred expectation. And since from this stand-
point the possibility of universal or abstract concepts so
Hume argues must also be denied, deductive inference must
likewise be eliminated from among the possible instruments
at the disposal of the mind. So-called inference is never the
source of our beliefs ; it is our fundamental natural beliefs,
as determined by the constitution of our nature in its reaction
upon external influences, that generate those expectations
which, however they may masquerade in logical costume,
have as purely natural a source as our sensations and feelings.
Such, briefly and dogmatically stated, is the sum and sub-
stance of Hume's teaching. 1

Now it was these considerations that, as it would seem,
awakened Kant to the problem of a priori synthesis. He was,
and to the very last remained, in entire agreement with
Hume's contention that the principle of causality is neither
self-evident nor capable of logical demonstration, and he at
once realised that what is true of this principle must also
hold of all the other principles fundamental to science and
philosophy. Kant further agreed that inductive inference
from the data of experience is only possible upon the prior
acceptance of rational principles independently established ;
and that we may not, therefore, look to experience for proof
of their validity. Thus with the rejection of self-evidence
as a feature of the a priori, and with the consequent admis-
sion of its synthetic character, Kant is compelled to
acquiesce in the inevitableness of the dilemma which Hume
propounds. Either Hume's sceptical conclusions must be
accepted, or we must be able to point to some criterion
which is not subject to the defects of the rationalist and
empirical methods of proof, and which is adequate to deter-
mine the validity or invalidity of general principles. Is
there any such alternative? Such is Kant's problem as

1 For justification of this interpretation of Hume I must refer the reader to my
articles on "The Naturalism of Hume" in Mind, vol. xiv. N.S. pp. 149-73, 335-47.


expressed in the formula : How are synthetic a priori judg-
ments possible ?

It is a very remarkable historical fact that notwithstanding
the clearness and cogency of Hume's argument, and the
appearance of such competent thinkers as Thomas Reid in
Scotland, Lambert and Crusius in Germany, no less than
thirty years should have elapsed before Hume found a single
reader capable of appreciating the teaching of the Treatise at
its true value. 1 Even Kant himself was not able from his
reading of the Enquiry in 1756-1762 to realise the import-
ance and bearing of the main problem. 2 Though in the
Enquiry the wider issue regarding the general principle of
causality is not raised, the bearing of Hume's discussion,
when interpreted in the light of Kant's own teaching, is
sufficiently clear ; and accordingly we cannot be absolutely
certain that it was not a re-reading of the Enquiry or
a recalling of its argument 3 that suggested to Kant the
central problem of his Critical philosophy. The probability,
however, is rather that this awakening took place only in-
directly through his becoming acquainted with the wider
argument of the Treatise as revealed in James Beattie's ex-
tremely crude and unsympathetic criticism of Hume's philo-
sophy. 4 Beattie had great natural ability, and considerable
literary power. His prose writings have a lucidity, a crisp-
ness, and a felicity of illustration which go far to explain
their widespread popularity in the latter half of the eighteenth
century. Their literary quality is, however, more than
counterbalanced by the absence of any genuine appreciation

1 To this fact Kant himself draws attention : " But the perpetual hard fate of
metaphysics would not allow Hume to be understood. We cannot without a
certain sense of pain consider how utterly his opponents, Reid, Oswald, Beattie,
and even Priestley, missed the point of the problem. For while they were ever
assuming as conceded what he doubted, and demonstrating with eagerness and
often with arrogance what he never thought of disputing, they so overlooked his
inclination towards a better state of things, that everything remained undisturbed
in its old condition." Prolegomena, p. 6 ; Mahaffy and Bernard's trans, p. 5.

2 Sulzer's translation of Hume's Essays (including the Enquiries'] appeared in

I754 - 56.

3 The word which Kant uses is Erinnerung(cL below, p. xxix, n. 4). There are
two main reasons for believing that Kant had not himself read the Treatise. He
was imperfectly acquainted with the English language, and there was no existing
German translation. (Jakob's translation did not appear till 1790-91. On Kant's
knowledge of English, cf. Erdmann : Archiv fur Geschichte der Philosophic,
Bd. i. (1888) pp. 62 ff., 216 ff. ; and K. Groos : Kant-Sttidien, Bd. v. (1900)
p. 177 ff. : and below, p. 156.) And, secondly, Kant's statements reveal his
entire ignorance of Hume's view of mathematical science as given in the Treatise.

4 Cf. Vaihinger, Commentary, \. p. 344 ff. Beattie does, indeed, refer to
Hume's view of mathematical science as given in the Treatise, but in so indirect
and casual a manner that Kant could not possibly gather from the reference any
notion of what that treatment was. Cf. Beattie's Essay on the Nature and Im-
mutability of Truth (sixth edition), pp. 138, 142, 269.


of the deeper, speculative implications and consequences
of the problems discussed. And this being so, he is
naturally at his worst in criticising Hume. In insisting,
as he does, upon the absurd practical results 1 that would
follow from the adoption of Hume's sceptical conclusions,
he is merely exploiting popular prejudice in the philosophical
arena. That, however, may be forgiven him, if, as would
seem to be the case, the quotations which he gives verbatim
from Hume's Treatise really first revealed to Kant the scope
and innermost meaning of Hume's analysis of the causal

The evidence in support of this contention is entirely
circumstantial. The German translation of Beattie's Essay on
the Nature and Immutability of Truth was published at Easter
1772, i.e. in the year in which Kant, in the process of his own
independent development, came, as is shown by his famous
letter to Herz, 2 to realise the mysterious, problematic character
of a priori knowledge of the independently real. He was then,
however, still entirely unconscious of the deeper problem which
at once emerges upon recognition that a priori principles, quite
apart from all question of their objective validity, are synthetic
in form. We know that Kant was acquainted with Beattie's
work ; for he twice refers to Beattie's criticism of Hume. 3
What more probable than that he read the translation in the
year of its publication, or at least at some time not very long
subsequent to the date of the letter to Herz ? The passages
which Beattie quotes from the Treatise are exactly those that
were necessary to reveal the full scope of Hume's revolutionary
teaching in respect to the general principle of causality.
There seems, indeed, little doubt that this must have been
the channel through which Hume's influence chiefly acted.
Thus at last, by a circuitous path, through the quotations of an
adversary, Hume awakened philosophy from its dogmatic
slumber, 4 and won for his argument that appreciation which
despite its cogency it had for thirty years so vainly demanded.

1 These Hume had himself pointed out both in the Treatise and in the
Enquiry, and because of them he rejects scepticism as a feasible philosophy of life.
Kant's statement above quoted that Hume's critics (among whom Beattie is cited)
"were ever assuming what Hume doubted, and demonstrating with eagerness and
often with arrogance what he never thought of disputing," undoubtedly refer in a
quite especial degree to Beattie.

2 Werke, x. p. 123 ff. It is dated February 21, 1772. Cf. below, pp. 219-20.

3 In Prolegomena, p. 6 (above quoted, p. xxviii, n. i), and p. 8 (trans, p. 6) : "I
should think Hume might fairly have laid as much claim to sound sense as Beattie,
and besides to a critical understanding (such as the latter did not possess)."

4 Cf. Prolegomena, p. 8: "I honestly confess that my recollection of David
Hume's teaching (die Erinnerung des David Hume} was the very thing which
many years ago [Kant is writing in 1783] first interrupted my dogmatic slumber,


Let us now turn our attention to the rationalist philosophy
in which Kant was educated. Hume's contention that experi-
ence cannot by itself justify any inductive inference forms
the natural bridge over which we can best pass to the
contrasting standpoint of Leibniz. Hume and Leibniz find
common ground in denouncing empiricism. Both agree in
regarding it as the mongrel offspring of conflicting principles.
If rationalism cannot hold its own, the alternative is not the
finding of firm foothold in concrete experience, but only such
consolation as a sceptical philosophy may afford. 1 The over-
throw of rationalism means the destruction of metaphysics in
every form. Even mathematics and the natural sciences will
have to be viewed as fulfilling a practical end, not as satisfy-
ing a theoretical need. But though Leibniz's criticism of
empiricism is, in its main contention, identical with that of
Hume, it is profoundly different both in its orientation and in
the conclusions to which it leads. While Hume maintains
that induction must be regarded as a non-rational process
of merely instinctive anticipation, Leibniz argues to the
self-legislative character of pure thought. Sense-experience
reveals reality only in proportion as it embodies principles
derived from the inherent character of thought itself. Ex-
perience conforms to a priori principles, and so can afford
an adequate basis for scientific induction.

There is a passage in Hume's Enquiry^ which may be
employed to illustrate the boldly speculative character of
Leibniz's interpretation of the nature and function of human
thought. " Nothing . . . [seems] more unbounded than the
thought of man, which not only escapes all human power and
authority, but is not even restrained within the limits of
nature and reality. . . . While the body is confined to one
planet, along which it creeps with pain and difficulty, the
thought can in an instant transport us into the most distant
regions of the universe. . . . What never was seen, or heard
of, may yet be conceived ; nor is anything beyond the power
of thought, except what implies an absolute contradiction."
This passage in which Hume means to depict a false belief,
already sufficiently condemned by the absurdity of its claims,
expresses for Leibniz the wonderful but literal truth. Thought
is the revealer of an eternal unchanging reality, and its validity

and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy quite a new
direction." Kant's employment of the term Erinnerung may perhaps be
interpreted in view of the indirect source of his knowledge of Hume's main
position. He would bring to his reading of Beattie's quotations the memory of
Hume's other sceptical doctrines as expounded in the Enquiry.

1 Kant, it should be noted, classifies philosophies as either dogmatic ( = rations
istic) or sceptical. Empiricism he regards as a form of scepticism.


is in no way dependent upon its verification through sense.
When Voltaire in his Ignorant Philosopher remarks that " it

Online LibraryNorman Kemp SmithA commentary to Kant's 'Critique of pure reason,' → online text (page 2 of 72)