The power of Kant’s approach to metaphysics stood out to me in a recent reading of his Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics. As I have mentioned, I am studying at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut and I am currently enrolled in course on Modern and Contemporary Philosophy.
In the context of Cartesian realism and Lockean Empiricism, but especially in light of Hume’s deep skepticism, Kant prepared a response to the current questions and woes of Modern Philosophy. Both Cartesian and Lockean philosophy had stepped out on limbs assuming all sorts of things about the reality of beings.
Descartes had claimed God was the clearest and first thing we know, and that all science and truth must begin from undeniable innate ideas. Locke denied these undeniable innate ideas and rejected Cartesian realism for a form of modern empiricism. For Locke we learned everything we know from the senses, but we never know real essences or natures. Substance for Locke was reduced to a mental construct.
In the midst of this argument, Hume injected a radical skepticism about the possibilities of knowledge, rejecting the concept of cause and effect.
Kant in effect attempted to pause this argument and turn his reflections on the possibility of metaphysics, whether such a science could be justifiably demonstrated as within the realm of human power.
Rather than walk through his argument systematically, here is a summary of one aspect of his work which I found if not ultimately satisfying, at least rich and correct in its own light:
For Kant, we cannot know things in themselves (the noumena), only our experience or appearances (the phenomena). But in order for something to be an appearance, it must be an appearance of something. To deny this, that is, if we deny things in themselves, is to return to the naivete of treating appearances as the things in themselves–for without the noumena, the phenomena must usurp their place as the objects.
Kant begins by arguing that the objects of our knowledge, of science, of the senses, etc. are appearances. We cannot get around appearances to glimpse or confirm the objects in themselves. We are enclosed in the boundary of experience. Previous metaphysics operated without recognizing this fact.
But in a surprising twist, recognizing that what we know is experience or appearance ends up saving the noumena and metaphysics–not as a science but as a moral practice and as the rational yearning of the human being.
For Kant, while access to the noumena is denied, in admitting we are denied access, we simultaneously preserve the reality of the noumena.
Phenomena function as a boundary to reason. But a boundary only makes sense or can be recognized as such when there is something on the other side of the boundary. The fact that we recognize a boundary reveals that we can trust the noumena exist.1 “For in all limits there is something positive.”2
If one does not insist on a radical skepticism, Kant’s argument in defense of the noumena is quite powerful. To deny it means denying that appearances are appearances.
We have traveled a long way from the divided line of Plato in which appearances/images and forms were separate and yet part of a single line…geometrically related. Yet Kant has with Herculean strength salvaged the possibilities of modern philosophy in his own Copernican Shift.
Whether modern philosophy is enough, whether metaphysics as an art is finally sufficient or true is a different question, but it seems Kant does re-situate us within the possibility of ordinary experience and a world where faith is possible.
¹Emmanuel Kant, Prolegomena, In Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources, 2009, 707.
²Emmanuel Kant, Prolegomena, In Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources, 2009, 708.