Norman Kemp Smith.

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

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would be very singular that all nature, all the planets, should
obey eternal laws, and that there should be a little animal,
five feet high, who, in contempt of these laws, could act as
he pleased, solely according to his caprice," 1 he is forgetting
that this same animal of five feet can contain the stellar
universe in thought within himself, and has therefore a dignity
which is not expressible in any such terms as his size may
seem, for vulgar estimation, to-imply. Man, though dependent
upon the body and confined to one planet, has the sun and
stars as the playthings of his mind. Though finite in his
mortal conditions, he is divinely infinite in his powers.

Leibniz thus boldly challenges the sceptical view of the
function of reason. Instead of limiting thought to the trans-
lating of sense-data into conceptual forms, he claims for it a
creative power which enables it out of its own resources to dis-
cover for itself, not only the actual constitution of the material
world, but also the immensely wider realm of possible entities.
The real, he maintains, is only one of the many kingdoms
which thought discovers for itself in the universe of truth. It
is the most comprehensive and the most perfect, but still only
one out of innumerable others which unfold themselves to the
mind in pure thought. Truth is not the abstracting of the
universal aspects in things, not a copy of reality, dependent
upon it for meaning and significance. Truth is wider than
reality, is logically prior to it, and instead of being dependent
upon the actual, legislates for it. Leibniz thus starts from
the possible, as discovered by pure thought, to determine in
an a priori manner the nature of the real.

This Leibnizian view of thought may seem, at first sight,
to be merely the re-emergence of the romantic, rationalistic
ideal of Descartes and Malebranche. So to regard it would,
however, be a serious injustice. It was held with full con-
sciousness of its grounds and implications, and reality was
metaphysically reinterpreted so as to afford it a genuine
basis. There was nothing merely mystical and nothing
undefined in its main tenets. Leibniz differs from Male-
branche in being himself a profound mathematician, the co-
discoverer with Newton of the differential calculus. He also
differs from Descartes in possessing an absorbing interest in
the purely logical aspects of the problem of method ; and
was therefore equipped in a supreme degree for determining

1 Quoted by Beattie (op. cit., sixth edition, p. 295), who, however incapable
of appreciating the force of Hume's arguments, was at least awake to certain of
their ultimate consequences.


in genuinely scientific fashion the philosophical significance
and value of the mathematical disciplines.

Hume and Leibniz are thus the two protagonists that
dwarf all others. They realised as neither Malebranche,
Locke, nor Berkeley, neither Reid, Lambert, Crusius, nor
Mendelssohn ever did, the really crucial issues which must
ultimately decide between the competing possibilities. Each
maintained, in the manner prescribed by his general philo-
sophy, one of what then appeared to be the only two possible
views of the function of thought. The alternatives were these :
(<z) Thought is merely a practical instrument for the con-
venient interpretation of our human experience ; it has no
objective or metaphysical validity of any kind ; (b) Thought
legislates universally ; it reveals the wider universe of the
eternally possible ; and prior to all experience can deter-
mine the fundamental conditions to which that experience
must conform. Or to interpret this opposition in logical
terms : (a) The fundamental principles of experience are
synthetic judgments in which no relation is discoverable
between subject and predicate, and which for that reason
can be justified neither a priori nor by experience ; (b) all
principles are analytic, and can therefore be justified by pure

The problem of Kant's Critique^ broadly stated, consists
in the examination and critical estimate of these two opposed
views. There is no problem, scientific, moral, or religious, which
is not vitally affected by the decision which of these alternatives
we are to adopt, or what reconciliation of their conflicting
claims we hope to achieve. Since Kant's day, largely owing
to the establishment of the evolution theory, this problem
has become only the more pressing. The naturalistic, instru-
mental view of thought seems to be immensely reinforced
by biological authority. Thought would seem to be reduced
to the level of sense - affection, and to be an instrument
developed through natural processes for the practical purposes
of adaptation. Yet the counter-view has been no less power-
fully strengthened by the victorious march of the mathe-
matical sciences. They have advanced beyond the limits of
Euclidean space, defining possibilities such as no experience
reveals Jo us. The Leibnizian view has also been reinforced
by the successes of physical science in determining what
would seem to be the actual, objective character of the
independently real. Kant was a rationalist by education,
temperament, and conviction. Consequently his problem
was to reconcile Leibniz's view of the function of thought
with Hume's proof of the synthetic character of the causal


principle. He strives to determine how much of Leibniz's
belief in the legislative power of pure reason can be retained
after full justice has been done to Hume's damaging criticisms.
The fundamental principles upon which all experience and
all knowledge ultimately rest are synthetic in nature : how is
it possible that they should also be a priori ? Such is the
problem that was Kant's troublous inheritance from his
philosophical progenitors, Hume and Leibniz. 1


In indicating some of the main features of Kant's general
teaching, I shall limit myself to those points which seem
most helpful in preliminary orientation, or which are necessary
for guarding against the misunderstandings likely to result
from the very radical changes in terminology and in outlook
that have occurred in the hundred and thirty years since the
publication of the Critique. Statements which thus attempt to
present in outline, and in modern terms, the more general
features of Kant's philosophical teaching will doubtless seem
to many of my readers dogmatic in form and highly question-
able in content. They must stand or fall by the results
obtained through detailed examination of Kant's ipsissima
verba. Such justification as I can give for them will be found
in the body of the Commentary.


The fundamental presupposition upon which Kant's
argument rests a presupposition never itself investigated
but always assumed is that universality and necessity
cannot be reached by any process that is empirical in char-
acter. By way of this initial assumption Kant arrives at the
conclusion that the a priori, the distinguishing characteristics
of which are universality and necessity, is not given in sense
but is imposed by the mind ; or in other less ambiguous terms,
is not part of the matter of experience but constitutes its form.
The matter of experience is here taken as equivalent to
sensation ; while sensation, in turn, is regarded as being the

The explanation of Kant's failure either to investigate or
to prove this assumption has already been indicated. Leibniz

1 For a more detailed statement of Kant's relation to his philosophical pre-
decessors, cf. below, Appendix B, p. 583 if.


proceeds upon the assumption of its truth no less confidently
than Hume, and as Kant's main task consisted in reconciling
what he regarded as being the elements of truth in their
opposed philosophies, he very naturally felt secure in rearing
his system upon the one fundamental presupposition on
which they were able to agree. It lay outside the field of
controversy, and possessed for Kant, as it had possessed for
Hume and for Leibniz, that authoritative and axiomatic
character which an unchallenged preconception tends always
to acquire.

The general thesis, that the universal and necessary
elements in experience constitute its form, Kant specifies in
the following determinate manner. The form is fixed for all
experience, that is. to say, it is one and the same in each and
every experience, however simple or however complex. It
is to be detected in consciousness of duration no less than in
consciousness of objects or in consciousness of self. For, as
Kant argues, consciousness of duration involves the capacity
to distinguish between subjective and objective succession,
and likewise involves recognition 1 with its necessary com-
ponent self -consciousness. Or to state the same point of
view in another way, human experience is a temporal process
and yet is always a consciousness of meaning. As temporal,
its states are ordered successively, that is, externally to one
another ; but the consciousness which they constitute is at
each and every moment the awareness of some single unitary
meaning by reference to which the contents of the successive
experiences are organised. The problem of knowledge may
therefore be described as being the analysis of the conscious-
ness of duration, of objectivity, and of self-consciousness, or
alternatively as the analysis of our awareness of meaning.
Kant arrives at the conclusion that the conditions of all
four are one and the same. 2

Kant thus teaches that experience in all its embodiments
and in each of its momentary states can be analysed into
an endlessly variable material and a fixed set of relational
elements. And as no one of the relational factors can be
absent without at once nullifying all the others, they together
constitute what must be regarded as the determining form and

1 The term "recognition" is employed by Kant in its widest sense, as
covering, for instance, recognition of the past as past, or of an object as being a
certain kind of object.

2 Consciousness of time, consciousness of objects in space, consciousness of
self, are the three modes of experience which Kant seeks to analyse. They are
found to be inseparable from one another and in their union to constitute a form
of conscious experience that is equivalent to an act of judgment i. e. to be a form
of awareness that involves relational categories and universal concepts.


structure of every mental process that is cognitive in character.
Awareness, that is to say, is identical with the act of judg-
ment, and therefore involves everything that a judgment, in
its distinction from any mere association of ideas, demands
for its possibility.

Kant's position, when thus stated, differs from that of
Leibniz only in its clearer grasp of the issues and difficulties
involved, and consequently in the more subtle, pertinacious,
and thoroughgoing character of the argument by which it is
established. Its revolutionary character first appears when
Kant further argues, in extension of the teaching of Hume, -
that the formal, relational elements are of a synthetic nature.
The significance and scope of this conclusion can hardly be
exaggerated. No other Kantian tenet is of more fundamental
importance. 1 With it the main consequences of Kant's Critical
teaching are indissolubly bound up. As the principles which
lie at the basis of our knowledge are synthetic, they have no
intrinsic necessity, and cannot possess the absolute authority
ascribed to them by the rationalists. They are prescribed to
human reason, but cannot be shown to be inherently rational
in any usual sense of that highly ambiguous term. They
can be established only as brute conditions, verifiable in fact
though not demonstrable in pure theory (if there be any such
thing), of our actual experience. They are conditions of
sense-experience, and that means of our knowledge of appear-
ances, never legitimately applicable in the deciphering of
ultimate reality. They are valid within the realm of experi-
ence, useless for the construction of a metaphysical theory of
things in themselves. This conclusion is reinforced when we
recognise that human experience, even in its fundamental
features (e.g. the temporal and the spatial), might conceivably
be altogether different from what it actually is, and that its
presuppositions are always, therefore, of the same contingent
character. Even the universality and necessity which Kant
claims to have established for his a priori principles are
of this nature. Their necessity is always for us extrinsic ;
they can be postulated only if, and so long as, we are assum-
ing the occurrence of human sense-experience.

Thus Kant is a rationalist of a new and unique type. He
believes in, and emphasises the importance of, the a priori.
With it alone, he contends, is the Critique competent to deal.
But it is an a priori which cannot be shown to be more than
relative. It does, indeed, enable us to conceive the known as

1 As we have noted (above, pp. xxvi-xxvii), it was Hume's insistence upon
the synthetic, non-self-evident character of the causal axiom that awakened Kant
from his dogmatic slumber. Cf. below, pp. 6 1 ff., 593 ff.


relative, and to entertain in thought the possibility of an
Absolute ; but this it can do without itself possessing inde-
pendent validity. For though the proof of the a priori is
not empirical in the sense of being inductive, neither is it
logical in the sense of being deduced from necessities of
thought. Its " transcendental " proof can be executed only
so long as experience is granted as actual ; and so long as the
fundamental characteristics of this experience are kept in

Lastly, the a priori factors are purely relational. They
have no inherent content from which clues bearing on the
supersensible can be obtained. Their sole function is to
serve in the interpretation of contents otherwise supplied.

The a priori, then, is merely relational, without inherent
content ; it is synthetic, and therefore incapable of independent
or metaphysical proof; it is relative to an experience which is
only capable of yielding appearances. The a priori is as
merely factual as the experience which it conditions.

Even in the field of morality Kant held fast to this con-
viction. Morality, no less than knowledge, presupposes
a priori principles. These, however, are never self-evident,
and cannot be established by any mere appeal to intuition.
They have authority only to the extent to which they can
be shown to be the indispensable presuppositions of a moral
consciousness that is undeniably actual. 1

That the a priori is of this character must be clearly
understood. Otherwise the reader will be pursued by a feeling
of the unreality, of the merely historical or antiquarian signifi-
cance, of the entire discussion. He may, if he pleases, sub-
stitute the term formal or relational for a priori. And if he
bears in mind that by the relational Kant is here intending
those elements in knowledge which render possible the re-
lations constitutive of meaning, he will recognise that the
Critical discussion is by no means antiquated, but still remains
one of the most important issues in the entire field of philo-
sophical enquiry.


The above conclusions have an important bearing upon
logical doctrine. Just as modern geometry originates in a
sceptical treatment of the axiom of parallels, so modern,
idealist logic rests upon Kant's demonstration of the revolu-
tionary consequences of Hume's sceptical teaching. If

1 Cf. below, pp. Ivi ff., 571 ff.


principles are never self-evident, and yet are not arrived at by
induction from experience, by what alternative method can
they be established? In answer to this question, Kant
outlines the position which is now usually entitled the Coherence
theory of truth. 1 That theory, though frequently ascribed to
Hegel, has its real sources in the Critique of Pure Reason. It
expresses that modification in the Leibnizian rationalism
which is demanded by Hume's discovery of the synthetic
character of the causal axiom. Neither the deductive
methods of the Cartesian systems nor the inductive methods
of the English philosophies can any longer be regarded as
correctly describing the actual processes of scientific proof.

General principles are either presuppositions or postulates.
If a priori, they are presupposed in all conscious awareness ;
as above indicated, they have a de facto validity within the
experience which they thus make possible. If more special
in nature, they are the postulates to which we find ourselves
committed in the process of solving specific problems ; and they
are therefore discovered by the method of trial and failure. 2
They are valid in proportion as they enable us to harmonise
appearances, and to adjudicate to each a kind of reality con-
sistent with that assigned to every other.

Proof of fact is similar in general character. The term
fact is eulogistic, not merely descriptive ; it marks the
possession of cognitive significance in regard to some body
of knowledge, actual or possible. It can be applied to
particular appearances only in so far as we can determine
their conditions, and can show that as thus conditioned
the mode of their existence is relevant to the enquiry
that is being pursued. The convergence of parallel lines is
fact from the standpoint of psychological investigation ; from
the point of view of their physical existence it is merely
appearance. Ultimately, of course, everything is real, includ-
ing what we entitle appearance ; 3 but in the articulation of
human experience such distinctions are indispensable, and the
criteria that define them are prescribed by the context in
which they are being employed.

Thus facts cannot be established apart from principles,
nor principles apart from facts. The proof of a principle is
its adequacy to the interpretation of all those appearances
that can be shown to be in any respect relevant to it, while
the test of an asserted fact, i.e. of our description of a given
appearance, is its conformity to the principles that make
insight possible.

Though the method employed in the Critique is entitled

1 Cf. below, pp. 36-7. 2 Cf. below, p. 543 ff. 3 Cf. below, pp. liii-iv.


by Kant the " transcendental method," it is really identical
in general character with the hypothetical method of the
natural sciences. It proceeds by enquiring what conditions
must be postulated in order that the admittedly given may
be explained and accounted for. 1 Starting from the given, it
also submits its conclusions to confirmation by the given.
Considered as a method, there is nothing metaphysical or
high-flying about it save the name. None the less, Kant is
in some degree justified in adopting the special title. In view
of the unique character of the problem to be dealt with,
the method calls for very careful statement, and has to
be defended against the charge of inapplicability in the
philosophical field.

The fundamental thesis of the Coherence theory finds
explicit formulation in Kant's doctrine of the judgment : the
doctrine, that awareness is identical with the act of judging,
and that judgment is always complex, involving both factual
and interpretative elements. Synthetic, relational factors are
present in all knowledge, even in knowledge that may seem,
on superficial study, to be purely analytic or to consist merely
of sense -impressions. Not contents alone, but contents
interpreted in terms of some specific setting, are the sole
possible objects of human thought. Even when, by forced
abstraction, particulars and universals are held mentally apart,
they are still being apprehended through judgments, and
therefore through mental processes that involve both. They
stand in relations of mutual implication within a de facto
system ; and together they constitute it.

This is the reason why in modern logic, as in Kant's
Critique, the theory of the judgment receives so much more
attention than the theory of reasoning. For once the above
view of the judgment has been established, all the main points
in the doctrine of reasoning follow of themselves as so many
corollaries. Knowledge starts neither from sense-data nor from
general principles, but from the complex situation in which
the human race finds itself at the dawn of self-consciousness.
That situation is organised in terms of our mental equipment ;
and this already existing, rudimentary system is what has
made practicable further advance ; to create a system ab
initio is altogether impossible. The starting-point does not,
however, by itself alone determine our conclusions. Owing
to the creative activities of the mind, regulative principles
are active in all consciousness ; and under their guidance
the experienced order, largely practical in satisfaction of
the instinctive desires, is transformed into a comprehended

1 Cf. below, pp. 45, 238-43.


order, controlled in view of Ideal ends. Logic is the science
of the processes whereby this transformation is brought about.
An essentially metaphysical discipline, it cannot be isolated
from the general body of philosophical teaching ; it is not
formal, but transcendental ; in defining the factors and
processes that constitute knowledge, its chief preoccupation is
with ultimate issues.

In calling his new logic " transcendental " Kant, it is true,
also intends to signify that it is supplementary to, not a
substitute for, the older logic, which he professes to accept. 1
Moreover his intuitional theory of mathematical science, his
doctrine of the " pure concept," his attributive view of the
judgment all of them survivals from his pre-Critical period 2
frequently set him at cross-purposes with himself. His
preoccupation, too, with the problem of the a priori leads
him to underestimate the part played in knowledge by the
merely empirical. But despite all inconsistencies, and not-
withstanding his perverse preference for outlandish modes of
expression, he succeeds in enforcing with sufficient clearness
the really fundamental tenets of the Coherence view.


I shall now approach Kant's central position from another
direction, namely, as an answer to the problem of the nature
of consciousness. We are justified, I think, in saying that
Kant was the first in modern times to raise the problem of the
nature of awareness, and of the conditions of its possibility.
Though Descartes is constantly speaking of consciousness, he
defines it in merely negative terms, through its opposition to
matter ; and when he propounds the question how material
bodies can be known by the immaterial mind, his mode of
dealing with it shows that his real interest lies not in the
nature of consciousness but in the character of the existences
which it reveals. His answer, formulated in terms of the
doctrine of representative perception, and based on the sup-
posed teaching of physics and physiology, is that material
bodies through their action on the sense-organs and brain
generate images or duplicates of themselves. These images,
existing not in outer space but only in consciousness, are, he
asserts, mental in nature ; and being mental they are, he
would seem to conclude, immediately and necessarily appre-
hended by the mind. Thus Descartes gives us, not an analysis

1 Cf. below, pp. 33-6, 181, 183-6. 2 Cf. below, pp. 33-42, 394-5, 398.


of the knowing process, but only a subjectivist interpretation
of the nature of the objects upon which it is directed.

Quite apart, then, from the question as to whether
Descartes' doctrine of representative perception rests on a
correct interpretation of the teaching of the natural sciences
Kant was ultimately led to reject the doctrine it is obvious
that the main epistemological problem, i.e. the problem how
awareness is possible, and in what it consists, has so far not so
much as even been raised. Descartes and his successors virtu-
ally assume that consciousness is an ultimate, unanalysable form
of awareness, and that all that can reasonably be demanded
of the philosopher is that he explain what objects are actually
presented to it, and under what conditions their presentation
can occur. On Descartes' view they are conditioned by
antecedent physical and physiological processes ; according
to Berkeley they are due to the creative activity of a Divine

Online LibraryNorman Kemp SmithA commentary to Kant's 'Critique of pure reason,' → online text (page 3 of 72)