The continuing relevance of Immanuel Kant

by Emrys Westacott


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is widely touted as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Western civilization. Yet few people other than academic philosophers read his works, and I imagine that only a minority of them have read in its entirety the Critique of Pure Reason, generally considered his magnum opus. Kantian scholarship flourishes, with specialized journals and Kant societies in several countries, but it is largely written by and for specialists interested in exploring subtleties and complexities in Kant's texts, unnoticed influences on his thought, and so on. Some of Kant's writing is notoriously difficult to penetrate, which is why we need scholars to interpret his texts for us, and also why, in two hundred years, he has never made it onto the New York Times best seller list. And some of the ideas that he considered central to his metaphysics–for instance, his views about space, time, substance, and causality–are widely held to have been superseded by modern physics.

So what is so great about Kant? How is his philosophy still relevant today? What makes his texts worth studying and his ideas worth pondering? These are questions that could occasion a big book. What follows is my brief two penn'th on Kant's contribution to modern ways of thinking. I am not suggesting that Kant was the first or the only thinker to put forward the ideas mentioned here, or that they exhaust what is valuable in his philosophy. My purpose is just to identify some of the central strains in his thought that remain remarkably pertinent to contemporary debates.

1. Kant recognized that in the wake of the scientific revolution, what we call “knowledge” needed to be reconceived. He held that we should restrict the concept of knowledge to scientific knowledge–that is, to claims that are, or could be, justified by scientific means.

2. He identified the hallmark of scientific knowledge as what can be verified by empirical observation (plus some philosophical claims about the framework within which such observations occur). Where this isn't possible, we don't have knowledge; we have, instead, either pseudo-science (e.g. astrology), or unrestrained speculation (e.g. religion).

3. He understood that both everyday life and scientific knowledge rests on, and is made orderly, by some very basic assumptions that aren't self-evident but can't be entirely justified by empirical observations. For instance, we assume that the physical world will conform to mathematical principles. Kant argues in the Critique of Pure Reason that our belief that every event has a cause is such an assumption; perhaps, also, our belief that effects follow necessarily from their causes; but many today reject his classification of such claims as “synthetic a priori.” Regardless of whether one agrees with Kant's account of what these assumptions are, his justification of them is thoroughly modern since it is essentially pragmatic. They make science possible. More generally, they make the world knowable. Kant in fact argues that in their absence our experience from one moment to the next would not be the coherent and intelligible stream that it is.

4. Kant claims that nothing in our experience is just “given” to us in a pure form unadulterated by the way we think. Our cognitive apparatus is always both receptive and active. Variations on this theme have become commonplace in modern philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and linguistics. What we call “facts” or “data” are theory-laden or concept-laden. Hegel, Nietzsche, Sellars, and Kuhn are among those who have developed this insight. Some, like Hilary Putnam, take it further, arguing that so-called facts are value-laden since how we apply concepts like causality reflects our interests. As William James famously remarked, “the trail of the human serpent is over everything.”

5. Kant never lost sight of the fact that while modern science is one of humanity's most impressive achievements, we are not just knowers: we are also agents who make choices and hold ourselves responsible for our actions. In addition, we have a peculiar capacity to be affected by beauty, and a strange inextinguishable sense of wonder about the world we find ourselves in. Feelings of awe, an appreciation of beauty, and an ability to make moral choices on the basis of rational deliberation do not constitute knowledge, but this doesn't mean they lack value. On the contrary. But a danger carried by the scientific understanding of the world is that its power and elegance may lead us to undervalue those things that don't count as science.

6. According to Kant, the very nature of science means that it is limited to certain kinds of understanding and explanation, and these will never satisfy us completely. For as he says in the first sentence of the Critique, human reason has this peculiarity: it is driven by its very nature to pose questions that it is incapable of answering. Now hardheaded types may dismiss out of hand as not worth asking any questions that don't admit of scientific answers. This, one imagines, is Mr. Spock's position, and possibly such an attitude will one day take over completely. But I suspect Kant is right on this matter for two reasons.

CPROne reason is that in our search for explanations we find it hard to be content with brute contingency. If we ask, “Why did this happen?” we will not be satisfied with the answer, “It just did.” If we ask, “Why are things this way?” we expect more than, “That's just the way things are.” Yet however deep science penetrates into the origin of things or the nature of things, it never seems to eliminate that element of contingency, and it is hard to see how it ever can. Leibniz's question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” will always be waiting.

A second reason, which I suspect is related to the first, is that some questions we pose probably can't be answered, yet we ask them anyway because they express an abiding sense of wonder, mystery, concern, gratitude or despair over the conditions of our existence. Why am I this particular subject of experience? Why am I alive now and not at some other time? What should I do with my life? Why do I love this person, and why is our love so important? Such thoughts may take the form of questions, but they are really expressions of amazement and perplexity. The feelings expressed fuel religion, poetry, music, and the other arts. They also often accompany experiences we think of as especially valuable or profound: for instance, being present at a birth or a death, feeling great love, witnessing heroism, or encountering overwhelming natural beauty.

Kant's introduced the concept of the “thing in itself” to refer to reality as it is independent of our experience of it and unstructured by our cognitive constitution. The concept was harshly criticized in his own time and has been lambasted by generations of critics since. A standard objection to the notion is that Kant has no business positing it given his insistence that we can only know what lies within the limits of possible experience. But a more sympathetic reading is to see the concept of the “thing in itself” as a sort of placeholder in Kant's system; it both marks the limits of what we can know and expresses a sense of mystery that cannot be dissolved, the sense of mystery that underlies our unanswerable questions. Through both of these functions it serves to keep us humble.

7. Kant reflected more deeply than anyone before him on the growing conflict between the emerging scientific picture of the world (including its account of human nature) and the conventional, non-scientific notions that inform the way we think about the world and ourselves in everyday life. Some of these conflicts were resolved fairly easily. Copernicus challenged the common view that the sun moved while the earth was stationary. Accepting this new idea did mean displacing the earth from the center of the universe­–a significant shift–but after some initial resistance the new model came to be generally accepted. The old way of thinking was seen to be understandable, given how things appear, but false.

Some conflicts, however, were more troubling. Most people in Kant's Europe were Christians. Christianity posits a God who created the world and dispenses cosmic justice. Yet this hypothesis has no place within science since it cannot be tested by scientific means. Kant, who had no truck with organized religion but seems to have had some sort of religious belief, settled this problem by restricting the scope of the contestants. Science tells us how things are in the spatio-temporal world we inhabit and experience, and what it tells us counts as knowledge. Religion speculates about what lies beyond this world. Such speculations produce articles of faith that may help people live better lives, and in this way they may be valuable. But they don't constitute knowledge. In Kant's famous formulation, he “found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” This solution to the conflict between science and religion is pretty much the one that has become generally accepted in the West, particularly among intellectuals. Religion is granted its own turf just so long as it doesn't encroach onto science's turf by claiming to offer knowledge. Inevitably, though, as science's stock has risen continuously since Kant's time, religion's stock has fallen, at least in the most modernized societies and among the intelligentsia. In these quarters God continues to die, urged on by Richard Dawkins and co..

But the conflict that really exercised Kant was between determinism, which was very much part of the new scientific picture, and our belief that we have free will. This troubled him more because he was much more concerned with morality than with religion. For him, religion is virtually a handmaiden to morality: faith can help people be good. But it is our capacity for acting morally–doing something simply because we think it is the right thing to do, regardless of our own interests–is what ultimately gives our lives dignity and value. We only have this capacity, however, if we have free will. And determinism, which sees every event, including our choices and actions, as the predictable effect of prior causes or states of affairs, implies that free will is an illusion, just as the apparent motion of the sun turned out to be an illusion.

What to do? Kant does not try to find a place for free will within the scientific picture.[1] He also rejects the approach favoured by Hume which involves redefining free will in a way that makes it compatible with determinism. Compatibilism in one form or another continues to be popular and is defended by eminent thinkers like Daniel Dennett, but Kant rejects it as a “wretched subterfuge.” His way of dealing with the problem, as I see it, is to say that it can't be resolved. The opposition between the scientific picture and our self-conception as beings capable of radical autonomy simply won't go away.

Two centuries later the problem of free will remains one of those issues where the conflict between science and conventional everyday thinking is especially sharp. Much worthwhile work has been done on the problem, yet Kant's account of the dilemma seems to describe the present situation pretty well. On the one hand, we can't find a place for free will within the scientific description of a human being. On the other hand, we can't jettison the notion that we are ultimately responsible for some of our decisions. We assume this about ourselves and others every day in all our ordinary activities. Even the most hard-boiled determinists tend to assume, when they engage in debate, that they and their opponents have some degree of choice regarding what they believe, and that this choice can be influenced by reasons that don't operate in the same manner as physical causes. Kant pretty much tells us that we just have to live with this tension since we can neither prove we have free will nor live as if we don't.

Naturally, there are parts of Kant's philosophy that no longer seem especially relevant, and Kant, like everyone else, had his foibles, failings, and blind spots. But there is a tremendously impressive depth to his reflections on the problems that confront humanity with the onset of modernity. And there is also an extraordinary breadth to his thinking, for as a systematic philosopher he illuminates the connections between metaphysics, science, morality, art, religion, and everyday experience. Ultimately, what he offers goes well beyond the construction of arguments or the analysis of concepts: what he offers, to his own time and to ours, is a penetrating account of the human condition in the age of science.

[1] Now that indeterminacy as part of quantum theory is included in the scientific picture some philosophers have sought to defend the idea of free will as something that quantum indeterminacy makes possible. But this position does not enjoy wide support.