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Immanuel Kant, born in Konigsberg, on April 22, 1724, attempted to rebuild philosophy from the ground up. Kant transcended both philosophies of his time, Rationalism and Empiricism. We believe his work did in fact change philosophy permanently.

Kant was born near the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, which is now known as Kalingrad. This was an important regional port, alive with English, Dutch, Polish, and Russian traders. It was the capital of East Prussia, which had become a “Kingdom” in 1701 when Frederick I crowned himself in Konisberg.

Kant was the fourth born of many children, of whom five lived to adulthood. His parents were pietist Lutherans of modest means, his father a master harness maker. After a few years of grammar school, a family friend, the Lutheran pietist preacher Franz Albert Schultz, who had studied with the foremost philosopher in Germany, Christian Wolff, recognized Kant’s talent. Shultz recommended to Kant’s mother that the boy, then eight, should attend the Lutheran Collegium Fridericianum. It was primarily a Latin school, strict and pedantic, where Kant studied the classics, largely by rote; the enforced outward piety experienced in his school was as impetuous to his lifelong endeavor to separate the social practices of religion from its intellectual and moral substance.

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Kant wrote eight major books between 1781 and 1797, as well as numerous essays and articles making him the most famous and influential deontologist of all time (Thomson 4).
Kant’s most famous and most influential book was his first, “The Critique of Reason,” which was published in 1781. This book was published after a period of intense reflection for over ten years. This first book was an expression of a long struggle to escape from the presupposition of the age (Thomson 4).
The brilliance of Kant’s philosophy in his first book is how it identifies and transcends the two dominant traditions in philosophy of his time, Rationalism and Empiricism, represented primarily by Leibniz and Hume. It is important to note that Rationalism and Empiricism were generalizations applied to major philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, but misleading: philosophers of the time did not regard themselves in these terms, but it has become an easy way to understand the philosophies (Thomson 5).
Kant believed modern philosophy was in a deadlock due to these two areas of thought. He believed that Rationalism and Empiricism shared certain fundamental assumptions, which needed to be rejected to break the deadlock in thought (Thomson 6).
Kant’s main aim in his first book was to critique reason. This critique meant curbing reason’s ambition to gain metaphysical knowledge of the world, which transcends any possible experience. The Rationalists claimed that such knowledge was possible through reasoning. For instance, Leibniz and Spinoza give detailed theories about the nature of the universe based on a view of principles supposedly derived from reason (Morris 126). Kant argued that such metaphysical knowledge of the world was impossible (Want 14). Kant vehemently rejected Rationalism with his views.
Kant had a brilliant strategy in the early parts of his first Critique, giving a positive theory of knowledge and experience, which allowed him to later criticize the Rationalistic metaphysics; he so much disagreed with. This positive theory constituted a penetrating argument against Empiricism as well. In other words, Kant criticizes Rationalism by giving a non-Empiricist theory of experience. With this view, Kant’s critique can be divided into two parts. In the first, Kant elaborates his non-Empiricist theory of experience, or the aesthetic and analytic. In the second part, the Dialetic, Kant shows how that theory undermines Rationalist metaphysics (Thomson 6).

In the first part of the Critique, Kant introduces the key notion of synthetic a priori truths (Hatfield xxxv). Kant thought that there were necessary truths about the world. These were claims which were necessarily true, but which gave us information about how things are. For example, consider the question, “the world is spatial,” or relating to space. This does not seem to be merely an empirical truth, because objects must exist in space and the world has to be spatial. In which case, it is an a priori claim. On the other hand, it is a claim that gives us information about the world. It is not true simply by virtue of the meanings of the terms involved. In which case it is not analytic. Kant would claim that this is a synthetic a priori truth (Hatfield xxxv).

How are synthetic a priori truths possible? Kant’s answer was a non-Empiricist theory of knowledge, which as stated before, was the foundation of his criticism of Rationalism. Kant’s answer consists of two parts; both are necessary but neither was sufficient.

Kant’s first answer was the necessary conditions of any possible experience. Kant argued that space, time, and the categories are necessary conditions for any possible experience. All experience must conform to those conditions (Want 39). Kant tried to establish these necessary conditions with arguments, which are called transcendental arguments; the most important of which is the Transcendental Deduction (Beck 35). These arguments try to establish the structural features of experience, those in which any experience must have. In Kant’s terminology, these are the a priori forms of any possible experience (Beck 35).

Establishing that all experience has a necessary structure by itself will not explain how synthetic a priori truths about the world are possible. Additionally, we need Kant’s second part, Transcendental Idealism. In essence, Transcendental Idealism states the world must have the same structure as experience (Want 54). Kant claims that the world has a certain a priori form, or necessary structure, just because experience must have it (Beck 38). In this manner, the structure of the world depends on that of experience, rather than the other way around.

Now, that should sound odd. Normally, we would suppose that our experience should conform to the world. However, with regard to a priori or structure, Kant affirmed the contrary. Experience dictates to the world (Want 63). How is that possible, you might ask? Kant compared this revolutionary idea to that of Copernicus, who gave up the assumption that the earth is still and the sun revolves around it. Kant’s own Copernican revolution involves giving up the assumption that the world is as it is absolutely in itself (Want 64). In Kant’s language, it involves giving up the assumption that the world of objects in space and time are noumena, or things as they are in themselves. Instead we should affirm that objects in space and time are phenomena (Beck 127).

In order to further understand, we must look at Kant’s view of an experience. According to Kant, experience requires both a sensory input and a conceptual element. In his words, it requires both intuitions and concepts, or sensibility and understanding (Thomson 58). These two aspects of experience are radically different from each other, and one is not reducible to the other. These central Kantian claims supersede the Rationalist and Empiricist traditions. The two traditions treat the difference between sensation and concepts as one degree, rather than one of a kind (Morris 49). For example, Empiricist, Locke and Hume regarded concepts as faint copies of sensory impressions (Moore 128). Rationalists, Leibniz and Spinoza, thought of perception as lower grade and a confused form of thought (Morris 69). Rationalists assume that in principle, knowledge must be derived from sense experience. Both assume in their own way that there is only one source of knowledge (Morris 68-69).

By distinguishing intuitions and concepts, Kant transcended both traditions. He argued that sensible intuition and the concepts of the understanding are both necessary for experience and knowledge (Morris 81). For Kant, the difference between them is one of a kind. Kant says, “the senses can think nothing and the understanding cannot receive intuitions (Thomson 10).” According to Kant, intuitions are the sensory element within experience, which is passively received and which makes our experience of particulars. Concepts are the classificatory or general elements within experience (Thomson 11). Since the one does not make sense without the other, we should not think of them as elements of experience, which can exist independently (Thomson 11). This is why Kant called them aspects of experience, or in other words, neither the sensory nor the understanding alone, suffice for experience. According to Kant’s theory, intuitions without concepts are blind; concepts without intuitions are empty (Want 54). In essence, this is how Kant’s theory transcends both Empiricism and Rationalism. Against Empiricism, he claimed that intuitions without concepts are blind. This meant that sense data or sense impressions without concepts are nondescript. They could not constitute an experience. Against Rationalism, he claims that concepts without intuition are empty. Apart from their role in experience, concepts have no real sense (Thomson 14).

In conclusion, it was characteristic of the great modern philosophers to attempt, each in his own way, to rebuild philosophy from the ground up. Kant embraced this goal more fully than any other classical modern philosopher did. His work did in fact change philosophy permanently, though not always as he had intended.

Kant wanted to show that philosophers and natural scientists were not able, and would never be able to give final answers to questions about the nature of the physical world and of the human mind or soul, and about the existence and attributes of a Supreme Being.

While he did not accomplish precisely that, his work changed philosophy’s conception of what can be known, and how it can be known. Kant also wanted to set forth new and permanent doctrines in metaphysics and morals. Though his exact teachings have not gained general acceptance, they continue to inspire new positions in philosophical discussion today.

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