Norman Kemp Smith.

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

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been no more fruitful source of illusion throughout the whole
history of philosophy than the belief in an absolute necessity
that is purely logical. 2 In the ontological argument we have
the most striking instance of such rationalistic exaggeration
of the powers of thought.

Comment. Had this criticism of the Idea of unconditioned
necessity been introduced at an earlier stage in Kant's argu-
ment, much confusion would have been avoided. It involves
the thorough revisal of his criticism of the third and fourth
antinomies, as well as of the whole account hitherto given of
the function of Reason and of its metaphysical dialectic. The

1 A 593 = B 621. 2 Cf. A 4-5 = B 8-9 ; A 735-8 = 6 763-6.


inciple, that if the conditioned be given, the whole series of
iditions up to the unconditioned is likewise given, must no
iger be accepted as a basis for argument. Indeed the very
is in which Reason has so far been defined, as the faculty
of the unconditioned, become subject to question. In that
definition the term unconditioned has tacitly been taken as
equivalent to the unconditionally necessary, and on elimina-
tion of the element of necessity, it will reduce merely to the
concept of totality, which is a pure form of the understanding.
Those parts of the Dialectic, which embody the view that
Reason is simply the understanding transcendently employed,
will thus be confirmed ; the alternative view of Reason as a
separate faculty will have to be eliminated. But these are
questions which Kant himself proceeds to raise and discuss. 1
Meantime he applies the above results in criticism of the
ontological argument.

Statement. In an identical judgment it is contradictory to
reject the predicate while retaining the subject. But there is
no contradiction if we reject subject and predicate alike, for
nothing is then left that can be contradicted. If we assume
that there is a triangle, we are bound to recognise that it has
three angles, but there is no contradiction in rejecting the
triangle together with its three angles. The same holds true
of an absolutely necessary Being. * God is omnipotent ' is an
identical and therefore necessary judgment. But if we say,
'There is no God,' neither the omnipotence nor any other
attribute remains ; and there is therefore not the least con-
tradiction in saying that God does not exist. The only way
of evading this conclusion is to argue that there are subjects
which cannot be removed out of existence. That, however,
would only be another way of asserting that there exist
absolutely necessary subjects, and that is the very assertion
which is now in question, and which the ontological argument
undertakes to prove. Our sole test of what cannot . be
removed 'is the contradiction which would thereby result; and
the only possible instance which can be cited is the concept of
the Ens realissimum. It remains, therefore, to establish the
above criticism for this specific case.

At the start Kant points out that absence of internal con-
tradiction, even if granted, proves only that the Ens realis-
simum is a logically possible concept (as distinguished from
the nihil negativum 2 ) ; it does not suffice to establish the
possibility of the object of the concept. But for the sake of
argument Kant allows this initial assumption to pass. The
argument to be disproved is that as reality comprehends

1 Cf. above, pp. 427-8, and references there given. ' 2 Cf. above, p. 424.

2 M


existence, existence is contained in the concept of Ens
realissimum, and cannot therefore be denied of it without
removing its internal possibility. The really fundamental
assumption of this argument is that existence is capable of
being included in the concept of a possible being. If that
were so, the assertion of its existence would be an analytic
proposition, and the proof could not be challenged. (The
assumption is partly concealed by alternation of the terms
reality and existence : in their actual employment they are
completely synonymous.) As the above assumption thus
decides the entire issue, Kant sets himself to establish, in
direct opposition to it, the thesis, that every proposition
which predicates existence is synthetic, and that in conse-
quence its denial can never involve a logical contradiction.
Existence can never form part of the content of a conception,
and therefore must not be regarded as a possible predicate.
What logically corresponds to it in a judgment is a purely
formal factor, namely, the copula. The proposition, 'God
is omnipotent/ contains two concepts, each of which has
its object God and omnipotence. The word 'is' adds
no new predicate, but only serves to posit the predicate in
its relation to the subject. Similarly, when we take the subject
together with all its predicates (including that of omnipotence),
and say, 'God is', or 'there is a God,' we attach no new pre-
dicate to the concept of God, but only posit the subject in
itself with all its predicates as being an object that stands in
relation to our concept. In order that the proposition be
true, the content of the object and of the concept must be one
and the same. If the object contained more than the con-
cept, the concept would not express the object, and the
proposition would assert a relation that does not hold. Or
to state the same point in another way, the real must not
contain more content than the possible. Otherwise it would
not be the possible, but something different from the possible,
which would then be taken as existing. A hundred real
thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred
possible thalers. Though my financial position is very
differently affected by a hundred real thalers than by the
thought of them only, a conceived hundred thalers are not
in the least increased through acquiring existence outside my

Kant presents his argument in still another form. If we
think in a thing every kind of reality except one, the missing
reality is not supplied by my saying that this defective thing
exists. On the contrary, it exists with the same defect with
which I have thought it. When, therefore, I think a Being


as the highest reality, without any defect, the question still
remains whether it exists or not. For though, in my concept,
nothing may be lacking of the possible real content of a thing
in general, something is still lacking in its relation to my
whole state of thinking, namely, knowledge of its existence ;
and such knowledge can never be obtained save in an a
posteriori manner. That is owing to the limitations imposed
by the conditions of our sense-experience. We never con-
found the existence of a sensible object with its mere con-
cept. The concept represents something that may or may
not exist : to determine existence we must refer to actual
experience. As Kant has already stated, the actual is
always for us the accidental, and its assertion is therefore
synthetic. A possible idea and the idea of a possible thing
are quite distinct. 1 A thing is known to be possible only
when presented in some concrete experience, or when, though
not actually experienced, it has been proved to be bound up,
according to empirical laws, with given perceptions. It is
not, therefore, surprising that if we try, as is done in the
ontological argument, to think existence through the pure
category, we cannot mention a single mark distinguishing it
from a merely logical possibility. The concept of a Supreme
Being is, in many respects, a valuable Idea, but just because
it is an Idea of pure Reason, i.e. a mere Idea, we can no
more extend our knowledge of real existence by means of
it, than a merchant can better his position by adding a few
noughts to his cash account.

There are many points of connection between this section
and the first edition Introduction ; and in view of these points
of contact Adickes has suggested 2 that the considerations
which arose in the examination of the ontological argument
may have been what brought Kant to realise that the various
problems of the Critique can all be traced to the central
problem of a priori synthesis.



Statement. Kant, as already noted, views the ontological
proof as ' a mere innovation of scholastic wisdom ' which
restates, in a quite unnatural form, a line of thought much
more adequately expressed in the cosmological proof. To

1 Cf. above, p. 392 ff. 2 K. p. 475 . 3 A 603 = 6 631.


discover the natural dialectic of Reason we must therefore
look to this latter form of argument. It is composed of two
distinct stages. In the first stage it makes no use of specific
experience : if anything is given us as existing, e.g. the self,
there must exist an absolutely necessary Being as its cause.
Then, in the second stage, it is argued that as such a Being
must be altogether outside experience, Reason must leave ex-
perience entirely aside, and discover from among pure con-
cepts what properties an absolutely necessary Being ought to
possess, i.e. which among all possible things contains in itself
the conditions of absolute necessity. The requisite enlighten-
ment is believed by Reason to be derivable only from the
concept of an Ens realissimum, and Reason therefore at once
concludes that this concept must represent the absolutely
necessary Being.

Now in that final conclusion the truth of the ontological
argument is assumed. If the concept of a Being of the
highest reality is so completely adequate to the concept of
necessary existence that they can be regarded as identical,
the latter must be capable of being derived from the former,
and that is all that is maintained in the ontological proof.
To make this point clearer, Kant states it in scholastic form.
If the proposition be true, that every absolutely necessary
Being is at the same time the most real Being (and this is
the nervus probandi of the cosmological proof in so far as it
is also theological), it must, like all affirmative propositions,
be capable of conversion, at least per accidens. This gives us
the proposition that some Entia realissima are at the same
time absolutely necessary Beings. One Ens realissimum, how-
ever, does not differ from another, and what applies to one
applies to all. In this case, therefore, we must employ
simple conversion, and say that every Ens realissimum is a
necessary Being. Thus the cosmological proof is not only
as illusory as the ontological, but also less honest. While
pretending to lead us by a new road to a sound conclusion,
it brings us back, after a short circuit, into the old path. If
the ontological argument is correct, the cosmological is super-
fluous ; and if the ontological is false, the cosmological
cannot possibly be true.

But the first stage of the cosmological argument, that by
which it is distinguished from the ontological, is itself falla-
cious. A whole nest of dialectical assumptions lies hidden
in its apparently simple and legitimate inference from the
contingent to the necessary. To advance from the contingent
to the necessary, from the relative to the absolute, from
the given to the transcendent, is just as illegitimate as the


opposite process of passing from Idea to existence. The
necessity of thought, which is in both cases the sole ground
of the inference, is found on examination to be of merely
subjective character. No less than three false assumptions
are involved in this inference. In the first place, the principle
that everything must have a cause, which can be proved to
be valid only within the world of sense, is here applied to the
sensible world as a whole ; and is therefore employed in the
wider form which coincides with the fundamental principle
of the higher faculty of Reason. We assume, that if the con-
ditioned be given, the totality of its conditions up to the uncon-
ditioned is given likewise. No such principle can be granted.
As it is synthetic, it could be established only as a condition
of the possibility of experience. But no such proof is offered :
the principle is based upon a purely intellectual concept.
Secondly, the inference to a first cause rests on the kindred
assumption that an infinite series of empirical causes is impos-
sible. That conclusion can never be drawn, even within the
realm of experience. How, then, can we rely upon it in
advancing beyond experience ? Certainly, no one can prove
that the empirical series is infinite, but just as little can we
establish the opposite. In discussing the third and fourth
antinomies Kant has shown that the existence of a first cause
or of an absolutely necessary Being, though possible (or rather,
possibly possible), is never demonstrable. Thirdly as has
been shown in A 592-3 = 6 620-1 in inferring to an uncon-
ditioned cause, it is blindly assumed that the removal of all
conditions does not at the same time remove the very concept
of necessity. Our only notion of necessity is derived from
experience, and therefore depends on those finite conditions
which the argument would deny to us. The concept of un-
conditioned necessity is entirely null and void.

The fourth defect, which Kant enumerates, refers to the
second stage of the cosmological argument, and has already
been considered. He ought also to have mentioned a still
further assumption underlying its first stage, namely, that
a concept which represents a limited being, as, for instance,
that of matter, cannot represent necessary existence. This
also is an assumption which it cannot justify. This objection
Kant has himself stated in A 586 = B 614 and A 588 = B 6i6. 1

Comment. We are apt to overlook the wider sweep
which Kant's criticism takes in this section, owing to his
omission to notify the reader that he is here calling in
question a principle which he has hitherto been taking for

1 Cf. above, p. 527. The concluding paragraphs A 613-14 = 6 641-2 can best
be treated later in another connection. Cf. below, p. 536.


granted, namely, the principle in terms of which he has in the
opening sections of the Dialectic defined the faculty of Reason,
that if the conditioned be given the totality of conditions up
to the unconditioned is given likewise. The first step in his
rejection of this principle occurs as merely incidental to his
criticism of the ontological argument. It is there shown that
the concept of the unconditionally necessary is without mean-
ing. Now, in this present section, he calls in question the
principle itself. It must be rejected not only, as stated in
the third of the above objections, because the concept of
the unconditioned, which tacitly implies the factor of absolute
necessity, is without real significance, but also for two further
reasons those above cited in the first and second objections.
How very differently the problems of the Dialectic appear,
and how very differently the Ideas of Reason have to be
regarded, when this principle, and also the concept of the
unconditioned of which it is the application, are thus called
in question, will be shown in the sequel.


Statement. We do not properly fulfil the task prescribed
by Critical teaching in merely disproving the cosmological
argument. We must also explain its hold upon the mind.
If it is, as Kant insists, more natural to the mind than the
ontological, and yet, as we have just seen, is more fallacious ;
if it has not been invented by philosophers, but is the in-
stinctive reasoning of the natural man, it must rest, like all
dialectical illusion, upon a misunderstanding of the legitimate
demands of pure Reason. Reason demands the unconditioned,
and yet cannot think it. >

" Unconditioned necessity, which we so indispensably require as
the last bearer of all things, is for human Reason the veritable abyss.
. . . We can neither help thinking, nor can we bear the thought, that
a Being even if it be the one which we represent to ourselves as
supreme amongst all Beings should, as it were, say to itself: 'I am
from eternity to eternity, and outside me there is nothing save what
is through my will ; but whence am I? ' All support here fails us ;
and supreme perfection, no less than the least perfection, is unsub-
stantial and baseless for the merely speculative Reason. . . ," 2

We are obliged to think something as necessary for all
1 A 614 = 6642. a A 613 = 6641.


existence, and yet at the same time are unable to think any-
thing as in itself necessary God as little as anything else.

The explanation l of this strange fact must be that which
follows as a corollary from the limitation of our knowledge to
sense-experience, namely, that our concepts of necessity and
contingency do not concern things in themselves, and cannot
therefore be applied to them in accordance with either of the
two possible alternatives. Each alternative must express a
subjective principle of Reason ; and the two together (that
something exists by necessity, and that everything is only
contingent) must form complementary rules for the guidance
of the understanding. These rules will then be purely heur-
istic and regulative, relating only to the formal interests of
Reason, and may well stand side by side. For the one tells
us that we ought to philosophise as if there were a necessary
first ground for everything that exists, i.e. that we ought to
be always dissatisfied with relativity and contingency, and to
seek always for what is unconditionally necessary. The other
warns us against regarding any single determination in things
(such, for instance, as impenetrability or gravity) as absolutely
necessary, and so bids us keep the way always open for further
derivation. In other words, Reason guides the understanding
by a twofold command. The understanding must derive
phenomena and their existence from other phenomena, just
as if there were no necessary Being at all ; while at the same
time it must always strive towards the completeness of that
derivation, just as if such a necessary Being were presupposed.
It is owing to a transcendental illusion or subreption that we
view the latter principle as constitutive, and so think its unity
as hypostatised in the form of an Ens realissimum. The
falsity of this substitution becomes evident as soon as we con-
sider that unconditioned necessity, as a thing in itself, cannot
even be conceived, and that the "Idea" of it cannot, therefore,
be ascribed to Reason save as a merely formal principle,
regulative of the understanding in its interpretation of given

Comment. The reader may observe that, when Kant is
developing this sceptical view of the Ideal of Reason, the
explanation of dialectical illusion in terms of transcendental
idealism falls into the background. The illusion is no longer
traced to a confusion between appearances and things in them-
selves, but to the false interpretation of regulative principles
as being constitutive. When it is the cosmological problem
with which we are dealing, the two illusions do, indeed,
coincide. If we view the objects of sense-experience as things
1 A 6i6=B 644. 2 A 619-20 =B 647-8.


in themselves, we are bound to regard the Ideal completion
of the natural sciences as an adequate representation of ulti-
mate reality. But in Rational Theology, which is professedly
directed towards the definition of a Being distinct from nature
and conditioning all finite existence, it is not failure to dis-
tinguish between appearance and things in themselves, but
the mistaking of a merely formal Ideal for a representation
of reality, that is alone responsible for the conclusions drawn.

In A 617-18 = B 645-6 Kant makes statements which con-
flict with the teaching of A 586 = 6 614 and A 588 = 6 616.
In the latter passages he has argued that the concept of
a limited being may not without specific proof be taken as
contradictory of absolute necessity. He now categorically
declares that the philosophers of antiquity are in error in
regarding matter as primitive and necessary ; and the reason
which he gives is that the regulative principle of Reason
forbids us to view extension and impenetrability, "which
together constitute the concept of matter," as ultimate
principles of experience. But obviously Kant is here going
further than his regulative principle will justify. It demands
only that we should always look for still higher principles of
unity, and so keep open the way for possible further deriva-
tion ; it does not enable us to assert that such will actually
be found to exist. Notwithstanding the Ideal demands of
the regulative principle, matter may be primordial and neces-
sary, and its properties of extension and impenetrability may
not be derivable from anything more ultimate.

In this connection we may raise the more general question,
how far the Ideal demand for necessity and unity in know-
ledge and existence can be concretely pictured. Kant gives
a varying answer. Sometimes when he is emphasising the
limitation of our theoretical knowledge to sense-experience
he reduces the speculative Idea of Divine Existence to a
purely abstract maxim for the regulation of natural science.
When the Ideal occupies the mind on its own account, and
so attracts our attention away from our sense-knowledge, it
is an unreality, and perverts the understanding ; it yields
genuine light and leading only as a quite general maxim
within the sphere of natural science. From this point of view
necessary Being, even as an Ideal, can by no means be identi-
fied with a personal God. It signifies only the highest possible
system and unity of the endlessly varied natural phenomena
in space and time, and can be approximately realised in the
most various ways. Its significance is entirely cosmological.
It is an Ideal of positive science, and signifies only sys-
tematic unity in the object known. In being transformed


from a scientific ideal into a subject of theological enquiry, it has
inevitably given rise to dialectical illusion. At other times,
when he is concerned to defend the concept of Divine Exist-
ence as at least possible, and so to prepare the way for its
postulation as implied in the moral law, or when he is seeking,
as in the Critique of Judgment, to render comprehensible the
complete adaptation of phenomenal nature in its material
aspect to the needs of our understanding Kant insists that
we are ultimately compelled, by the nature of our faculties,
to conceive the Ideal of Reason as a personal God, as an In-
telligence working according to purposes. Only by such a
personal God, he maintains, can the demands of Reason be
genuinely satisfied.

These two interpretations of the Ideal of Reason are in
conflict with one another ; and so far as the Critique of
Pure Reason is concerned, a very insufficient attempt is made
to justify the frequent assertion that the Idea of God is the
Ideal of Reason, and not merely one possible, and highly
problematic, interpretation of it. If the Idea of God is a
necessary Idea, it cannot be adequately expressed through
any merely regulative maxim. It demands not only system
in knowledge but also perfection in the nature of the known.
It is not a merely logical Ideal such as might be satisfied by
any rational system, but an Ideal which concerns matter as
well as form, man as well as nature, our moral needs as well
as our intellectual demands. If Kant is to maintain that
the only genuine function of theoretical Reason is to guide
the understanding in its scientific application, he is debarred
from asserting that a concrete interpretation of its regulative
principles is unavoidable. And he is also precluded by his
own limitation of all knowledge to sense-experience from
seeking to define by any positive predicate the transcendent
nature of the thing in itself.

Such justification as Kant can offer in support of his
assertion that the Idea of God, of Intelligent Perfection, is an
indispensable Idea of human Reason, is chiefly based upon the
teleological aspect of nature which is dealt with in the physico-
theological proof. Mechanical science implies only the cosmo-
logical Idea : teleological unity presupposes the theological
Ideal. Further enquiry, then, into the necessity of the Idea
of God as a regulative principle, and its dangers as a source

Online LibraryNorman Kemp SmithA commentary to Kant's 'Critique of pure reason,' → online text (page 63 of 72)