Norman Kemp Smith.

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

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it cannot be a substitute for the inspiration which they alone
can yield.

Thus the categorical -imperative, in endowing the human
soul with an intrinsic value, singles it out from all other natural
existences, and strengthens it to face, with equanimity, the cold
immensities of the cosmic system. For though the heavens
arouse in us a painful feeling of our insignificance as animal
existences, they intensify our consciousness of a sublime
destiny, as bearers of a rival, and indeed a superior, dignity.

In one fundamental respect Kant broke with the teaching
of Rousseau, namely, in questioning his doctrine of the
natural goodness and indefinite perfectibility of human nature. 1
Nothing, Kant maintains, is good without qualification except
the good will ; and even that, perhaps, is never completely
attained in any single instance. The exercise of duty demands
a perpetual vigilance, under the ever-present consciousness of
continuing demerit.

" I am .willing to admit out of love of humanity that most of our
actions are indeed correct, but if we examine them more closely we
everywhere come upon the dear self which is always prominent. . . ." 2
"Nothing but moral fanaticism and exaggerated self-conceit is infused
into the mind by exhortation to actions as noble, sublime and
magnanimous. Thereby men are led into the delusion that it is
not duty, that is, respect for the law, whose yoke . . . they must
bear, whether they like it or not, that constitutes the determining
principle of their actions, and which always humbles them while

1 On the Radical Evil in Human Nature, W. vi. p. 20 ; Abbott's trans,
p. 326. "This opinion [that the world is constantly advancing from worse to
better] is certainly not founded on experience if what is meant is moral good or
evil (not civilisation), for the history of all times speaks too powerfully against it.
Probably it is merely a good-natured hypothesis . . . designed to encourage us in
the unwearied cultivation of the germ of good that perhaps lies in us. ..."

2 Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, W. iv. p. 407 ; Abbott's trans.
p. 24.


they obey it. They then fancy that those actions, are expected from
them, not from duty, but as pure merit. ... In this way they
engender a vain high-flying fantastic way of thinking, flattering
themselves with a spontaneous goodness of heart that needs neither
spur nor bridle, nor any command. . . ." "

In asserting the goodness and self-sufficiency of our
natural impulses Rousseau is the spokesman of a philosophy
which has dominated social and political theory since his day,
and which is still prevalent. This philosophy, in Kant's view,
is disastrous in its consequences. As a reading of human
nature and of our moral vocation, it is hardly less false
than the Epicurean teaching, which finds in the pursuit of
pleasure the motive of all our actions. A naturalistic ethics,
in either form, is incapacitated, by the very nature of its
controlling assumptions, from appreciating the distinguishing
features of the moral consciousness. Neither the successes
nor the failures of man's spiritual endeavour can be rightly
understood from any such standpoint. The human race, in
its endurance and tenacity, in its dauntless courage and in its
soaring -spirit, reveals the presence of a prevenient influence,
non-natural in character ; and only if human nature be taken
as including this higher, directive power, can it assume to
itself the eulogy which Rousseau so mistakenly passes upon
the natural and undisciplined tendencies of the human heart.
For as history demonstrates, while men are weak, humanity is

"There is one thing in our soul which, when we take a right
view of it, we cannot cease to regard with the highest astonishment,
and in regard to which admiration is right and indeed elevating, and
that is our original moral capacity in general. . . . Even the incom-
prehensibility of this capacity, 2 a capacity which proclaims a Divine
origin, must rouse man's spirit to enthusiasm and strengthen it for
any sacrifices which respect for his duty may impose on him." 3

We are not here concerned with the detail of Kant's
ethical teaching, or with the manner in which he establishes
the freedom of the will, and justifies belief in the existence
of God and the immortality of the soul. In many respects
his argument lies open to criticism. There is an unhappy

1 Critique of Practical Reason, W. v. pp. 84-5 ; Abbott's trans, pp. 178-9.

2 Cf. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals , W. iv. p. 463 ; Abbott's trans.
p. 84: "While we do not comprehend the practical unconditional necessity of
the moral imperative, we yet comprehend its incomprehensibility, and this is all
that can be fairly demanded of a philosophy which strives to carry its principles
up to the very limit of human reason."

8 On the Radical Evil in Human Nature, W. vi. pp. 49-50 ; Abbott's
trans, pp. 357-8.


contrast between the largeness of his fundamental thesis and
the formal, doctrinaire manner in which it is developed.
Indeed, in the Critique of Practical Reason the* individualist,
deistic, rationalistic modes of thinking of his time are much
more in evidence than in any other of his chief writings ; and
incidentally he also displays a curious insensibility again
characteristic of his period to all that is specific in the
religious attitude. But when due allowances have been made,
we can still maintain that in resting his constructive views
upon the supreme value of the moral personality Kant has
influenced subsequent philosophy in hardly less degree than
by his teaching in the Critique of Pure Reason?-

The two Critiques^ in method of exposition and argument,
in general outcome, and indeed in the total impression they
leave upon the mind, are extraordinarily different. In the
Critique of Pure Reason Kant is meticulously scrupulous in
testing the validity of each link in his argument. Constantly
he retraces his steps ; and in many of his chief problems he
halts between competing solutions. Kant's sceptical spirit
is awake, and it refuses to cease from its questionings. In
the Critique of Practical Reason^ on the other hand, there is
an austere simplicity of argument, which advances, without
looking to right or left, from a few simple principles direct to
their ultimate consequences. The impressiveness of the first
Critique consists in its appreciation of the complexity of the
problems, and in the care with which their various, conflicting
aspects are separately dealt with. The second Critique derives
its force from the fundamental conviction upon which it is

Such, then, stated in the most general terms, is the manner
in which Kant conceives the Critique of Pure Reason as con-
tributing to the establishment of a humanistic philosophy.
It clears the ground for the practical Reason, and secures
it in the autonomous control of its own domain. While
preserving to the intellect and to science certain definitely
prescribed rights, Kant places in the forefront of his system
the moral values ; and he does so under the conviction that
in living up to the opportunities, in whatever rank of life, of
our common heritage, we obtain a truer and deeper insight
into ultimate issues than can be acquired through the abstruse
subtleties of metaphysical speculation.

I may again draw attention to the consequences which
follow from Kant's habitual method of isolating his problems.
Truth is a value of universal jurisdiction, and from its criteria

1 Cf. Pringle-Pattison : The Idea of God in the Light of Recent Philosophy,
p. 25 ff.


the judgments of moral and other values can claim no
exemption. Existences and values do not constitute in-
dependent orders. They interpenetrate, and neither can be
adequately dealt with apart from the considerations appro-
priate to the other. In failing to co-ordinate his problems,
Kant has over-emphasised the negative aspects of his logical
enquiries and has formulated his ethical doctrines in a
needlessly dogmatic form.

These defects are, however, in some degree remedied in
the last of his chief works, the Critique of Judgment. In
certain respects it -is the most interesting of all Kant's writings.
The qualities of both the earlier Critiques here appear in
happy combination, while in addition his concrete interests
are more in evidence, to the great enrichment of his abstract
argument. Many of the doctrines of the Critique of Pure
Reason, especially those that bear on the problems of teleology,
are restated in a less negative manner, and in their connection
with the kindred problems of natural beauty and the fine arts.
For though the final decision in all metaphysical questions is
still reserved to moral considerations, Kant now takes a more
catholic view of the field of philosophy. He allows, though
with characteristic reservations, that the empirical evidence
obtainable through examination of the broader features of
our total experience is of genuinely philosophical value, and
that it can safely be employed to amplify and confirm the
independent convictions of the moral consciousness. The
embargo which in the Critique of Pure Reason, in matters
metaphysical, is placed upon all tentative and probable
reasoning is thus tacitly removed ; and the term knowledge
again acquires the wider meaning very properly ascribed to
it in ordinary speech.



THE term critique or criticism, as employed by Kant, is of
English origin. It appears in seventeenth and eighteenth
century English, chiefly in adjectival form, as a literary and
artistic term for instance, in the works of Pope, who was
Kant's favourite English poet. Kant was the first to employ
it in German, extending it from the field of aesthetics to that
of general philosophy. A reference in Kant's Logic 1 to
Home's Elements of Criticism 2 would seem to indicate that
it was Home's use of the term which suggested to him its wider
employment. " Critique of pure reason," in its primary
meaning, signifies the passing of critical judgments upon
pure reason. In this sense Kant speaks of his time as " the
age of criticism (Zeitalter der Kritik}." Frequently, however,
he takes the term more specifically as meaning a critical
investigation leading to positive as well as to negative results.
Occasionally, especially in the Dialectic, it also signifies a
discipline applied to pure reason, limiting it within due
bounds. The first appearance of the word in Kant's writings
is in 1765 in the Nachricht* of his lectures for the winter
term 1765-1766. Kant seldom employs the corresponding
adjective, critical (kritisdi). His usual substitute for it is the
term transcendental.

Pure (rein) has here a very definite meaning. It is the
absolutely a priori. Negatively it signifies that which is

1 Einleitung) i.

2 Henry Home, Lord Kames, published his Elements of Criticism in 1762.

3 W. ii. p. 311. In referring to his course in logic, Kant states that he will
consider the training of the power of sound judgment in ordinary life, and adds
that " in the Kritik der Vernunft the close kinship of subject-matter gives occasion
for casting some glances upon the Kritik des Geschmacks^ i.e. upon Aesthetics."
This passage serves to confirm the conjecture that the term Kritik was borrowed
from the title of Home's work.



independent of experience. Positively it signifies that which
originates from reason itself, and which is characterised by
universality and necessity. 1 By "pure reason" Kant there-
fore means reason in so far as it supplies out of itself, inde-
pendently of experience, a priori elements that as such are
characterised by universality and necessity.

Reason ( Vernunft} is used in the Critique in three different
meanings. In the above title it is employed in its widest
sense, as the source of all a priori elements. It includes what is
a priori in sensibility as well as in understanding ( Ver stand).
In its narrowest sense it is distinct even from understanding,
and signifies that faculty which renders the mind dissatisfied
with its ordinary and scientific knowledge, and which leads it
to demand a completeness and unconditionedness which can
never be found in the empirical sphere. Understanding con-
ditions science ; reason generates metaphysic. Understanding
has categories ; reason has its Ideas. Thirdly, Kant fre-
quently employs understanding and reason as synonymous
terms, dividing the mind only into the two faculties, sensibility
and spontaneity. Thus in A 1-2, understanding and reason
are used promiscuously, and in place of reine Vernunft we
find reiner Verstand. As already stated, the term reason,
as employed in Kant's title, ought properly to be taken in
its widest sense. Sensibility falls within reason in virtue of
the a priori forms which it contains. Kant does not himself,
however, always interpret the title in this strict sense. The
triple use of the term is an excellent example of the loose-
ness and carelessness with which he employs even the most
important and fundamental of his technical terms. Only
the context can reveal the particular meaning to be assigned
in each case.

The phrase " of pure reason " (der reinen Vernunft] has,
as Vaihinger points out, 2 a threefold ambiguity, (i) Some-
times it is a genitive objective. The critical enquiry is
directed upon pure reason as its object. This corresponds to
the view of the Critique as merely a treatise on method.
(2) Sometimes it is a genitive subjective. The critical enquiry
is undertaken by and executed through pure reason. This
expresses the view of the Critique as itself a system of pure
rational knowledge. (3) At other times it has a reflexive
meaning. Pure reason is subject and object at once. It is
both subject-matter and method or instrument. Through
the Critique it attains to self-knowledge. The Critique is the
critical examination of pure reason by itself. The first view

1 For Kant's other uses of the term/w^, cf. below, p. 55.
Commentar zu Kants Kritik der reinen Vernunft, i. pp. 117-20.


would seem to be the original and primary meaning of the
title. The second view very early took its place alongside it,
and appears in many passages. The third view must be
taken as representing Kant's final interpretation of the title ;
it is on the whole the most adequate to the actual content
and scope of the Critique. For the Critique is not merely a
treatise on method ; it is also a system of pure rational
knowledge. It professes to establish, in an exhaustive and
final manner, the a priori principles which determine the
possibility, conditions, and limits of pure rational knowledge. 1

1 For a definition, less exclusively titular, and more adequate to the actual
scope of the Critique, cf. below, p. 56. Reason, when distinguished from under-
standing, I shall hereafter print with a capital letter, to mark the very special
sense in which it is being employed.


DE nobis ipsis silemus : De re autem, quae agitur, petimus :
ut homines earn non opinionem, sed opus esse cogitent ; ac
pro certo habeant, non sectae nos alicuius, aut placiti, sed
utilitatis et amplitudinis humanae fundamenta moliri. Deinde
ut suis commodis aequi ... in commune consulant . . . et ipsi
in partem veniant. Praeterea ut bene sperent, neque instaura-
tionem nostram ut quiddam infinitum et ultra mortale fingant,
et animo concipiant ; quum revera sit infiniti erroris finis et
terminus legitimus.

This motto, which was added in the second edition, is
taken from the preface to Bacon's Instauratio Magna> of
which the Novum Organum is the second part. As the
first part of the Instauratio is represented only by the later,
separately published, De Augmentis Scientiarum, this preface
originally appeared, and is still usually given, as introductory
to the Novum Organum.

The complete passage (in which I have indicated Kant's
omissions) is rendered as follows in the translation of Ellis
and Spedding : l

" Of myself I say nothing ; but in behalf of the business which is
in hand I entreat men to believe that it is not an opinion to be held,
but a work to be done ; and to be well assured that I am labouring
to lay the foundation, not of any sect or doctrine, but of human utility
and power. Next, I ask them to deal fairly by their own interests
[and laying aside all emulations and prejudices in favour of this or
that opinion], to join in consultation for the common good; and
[being now freed and guarded by the securities and helps which I
offer from the errors and impediments of the way] to come forward
themselves and take part [in that which remains to be done].
Moreover, to be of good hope, nor to imagine that this Instauration
of mine is a thing infinite and beyond the power of man, when it is
in fact the true end and termination of infinite error."

1 Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon (edited by J. M. Robertson, 1905),
p. 247.


The opening sentence of Bacon's preface might also have
served as a fitting motto to the Critique :

" It seems to me that men do not rightly understand either their
store or their strength, but overrate the one and underrate the other."

Or again the following :

" I have not sought nor do I seek either to enforce or to ensnare
men's judgments, but I lead them to things themselves and the
concordances of things, that they may see for themselves what they
have, what they can dispute, what they can add and contribute to
the common stock. . . . And by these means I suppose that I have
established for ever a true and lawful marriage between the empirical
and the rational faculty, the unkind and ill-starred divorce and
separation of which has thrown into confusion all the affairs of the
human family."




trusted, as Minister (1771-1788) to Frederick the Great, with
the oversight and direction of the Prussian system of educa-
tion. He held Kant in the highest esteem. 1 In February
1778 we find him writing to thank Kant for the pleasure he
had found in perusing notes of his lectures on physical
geography, and requesting the favour of a complete copy. 2
A week later he invited Kant to accept a professorship of
philosophy in Halle, 3 which was then much the most im-
portant university centre in Germany. Upon Kant's refusal
he repeated the offer, with added inducements, including the
title of Hofrat. 4 Again, in August of the same year, he writes
that he is attending, upon Mendelssohn's recommendation
(and doubtless also in the hope of receiving from this indirect
source further light upon Kant's own teaching in a favourite
field), the lectures on anthropology of Kant's disciple and
friend, Marcus Herz. The letter concludes with a passage
which may perhaps have suggested to Kant the appropriate-
ness of dedicating his Critique to so wise and discerning a
patron of true philosophy.

" Should your inventive power extend so far, suggest to me the
means of holding back the students in the universities from the
bread and butter studies, and of making them understand that their
modicum of law, even their theology and medicine, will be immensely

1 For Zedlitz's severe strictures (Dec. 1775) upon the teaching in Konigsberg
University, and his incidental appreciative reference to Kant, cf. Schubert's
edition of Kant's Werke, xi. pt. ii. pp. 59-61.

2 Cf. W. x. p. 207. 3 Op. cit. pp. 212-13.
4 Cf. op. cit. pp. 208-9.



more easily acquired and safely applied, if they are in possession of
more philosophical knowledge. They can be judges, advocates,
preachers and physicians only for a few hours each day ; but in
these and all the remainder of the day they are men, and have need
of other sciences. In short, you must instruct me how this is to be
brought home to students. Printed injunctions, laws, regulations :
these are even worse than bread and butter study itself." 1

A Minister of Education who thus ranks philosophy above
professional studies, and both as more important than all
academic machinery, holds his office by divine right.

1 op. cit. p. 219.


DETAILED discussion of the Prefaces is not advisable. The
problems which they raise can best be treated in the order in
which they come up in the Critique itself. I shall dwell only
on the minor incidental difficulties of the text, and on those
features in Kant's exposition which are peculiar to the Prefaces,
or which seem helpful in the way of preliminary orientation.
I shall first briefly restate the argument of the Preface to
the first edition, and then add the necessary comment.

Human reason is ineradicably metaphysical. It is haunted
by questions which, though springing from its very nature,
none the less transcend its powers. Such a principle, for
instance, as that of causality, in carrying us to more and more
remote conditions, forces us to realise that by such regress
our questions can never be answered. However far we recede
in time, and however far we proceed in space, we are still no
nearer to a final answer to our initial problems, and are there-
fore compelled to take refuge in postulates of a different kind,
such, for instance, as that there must be a first unconditioned
cause from which the empirical series of causes and effects
starts, or that space is capable of existing as a completed whole.
But these assumptions plunge reason in darkness and involve
it in contradictions. They are the sources of all the troubles
of the warring schools. Error lies somewhere concealed in
them the more thoroughly concealed that they surpass the
limits of possible experience. Until such error has been
detected and laid bare, metaphysical speculation must remain
the idlest of all tasks.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century metaphysics
had fallen, as Kant here states, into disrepute. The
wonderful success with which the mathematical and natural
sciences were being developed served only to emphasise by
contrast the ineffectiveness of the metaphysical disciplines.
Indifference to philosophy was the inevitable outcome, and
was due, not to levity, but to the matured judgment of the
age, which refused to be any longer put off with such pretended



knowledge. But since the philosophical sciences aim at
that knowledge which, if attainable, we should be least willing
to dispense with, the failure of philosophy is really a summons
to reason to take up anew the most difficult of all its tasks.
It must once] and for all determine either the possibility or
the impossibility of metaphysics. It must establish

"... a tribunal which will assure to reason its lawful claims, and which
will also be able to dismiss all groundless pretensions, not by despotic
decrees, but in accordance with its own eternal and unalterable
laws. This tribunal is no other than the Critique of Pure Reason" 1
" Our age is, in especial degree, the age of criticism (Kritik\ and to
such criticism everything must submit. Religion, through its sanctity,
and law-giving, through its majesty, may seek to exempt themselves
from it. But they then awaken just suspicion, and cannot claim the
sincere respect which reason accords only to that which has been
able to sustain the test of free and open examination." 2

As has already been emphasised in the preceding historical
sketch, Kant had learnt to trust the use of reason, and was a
rationalist by education, temperament, and conviction. He
here classifies philosophies as dogmatic and sceptical ; and
under the latter rubric he includes all empirical systems.
' Empiricism ' and ' scepticism ' he interprets as practically '
synonymous terms. The defect of the dogmatists is that
they have not critically examined their methods of procedure, '
and in the absence of an adequate distinction between appear-
ance and reality have interpreted the latter in terms of the
former. The defect of the empiricists and sceptics is that
they have misrepresented the nature of the faculty of reason,
ignoring its claims and misreading its functions, and accord-
ingly have gone even further astray than their dogmatic
opponents. All knowledge worthy of the name is a priori
knowledge. It possesses universality and necessity, and as
such must rest on pure reason. Wherever there is science,
there is an element of pure reason. Whether or not pure
reason can also extend to the unconditioned is the question

Online LibraryNorman Kemp SmithA commentary to Kant's 'Critique of pure reason,' → online text (page 6 of 72)