Philosophy Phridays – Kant’s Transcendental Idealism

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Kant’s Transcendental Idealism.

Immanuel Kant is a weird figure for me. He is huge in the field of philosophy. It’s hard to overstate how important he is. He has shaped every discussion that has come after him. I first encountered him in “Introduction to Modern Philosophy” where we studied the Critique of Pure Reason. It wasn’t supposed to be a deep read, it was an intro class after all, but I kept us bogged down on the Critique for weeks. It just didn’t make any sense to me. I’d read a passage and it seemed big, important, and deep. Then, I’d realize that I couldn’t explain it, so I’d reread and reread and reread. That didn’t do any good. So, I’d ask a ton of questions, to other students and my professor and other professors. None of it helped as half the answers I received contradicted each other. Finally, I decided that a huge chunk of the Critique is literal nonsense. It was the only way I could move on. And it was the way I learned that even a “great thinker” can just be wrong.

Kant’s transcendental idealism is a perfect example of my issues. Here is how Kant says it:

I understand by the transcendental idealism of all appearances [Erscheinungen] the doctrine that they are all together to be regarded as mere representations and not as things in themselves [nicht als Dinge an sich selbst ansehen], and accordingly that space and time are only sensible forms of our intuition, but not determinations given for themselves or conditions of objects as things in themselves [als Dinge an sich selbst]. (A369; the Critique is quoted from the Guyer & Wood translation (1998))

In the two-hundred and forty years since this was written, no one has been able to say with any certainty what it means. The most straightforward reading makes Kant a phenomenalist. Basically, only experiences are real. The big problem is that after Kant’s early critics attributed that position to him, he aggressively denied it.

So, we’re stuck looking for another interpretation. One that denies the objective reality of space and time, contains external objects, but the only things that can be experienced are appearances, and these appearances aren’t things in themselves. This has led to a lot of debate about whether appearances are identical with representations or if they are two different type of objects. Or are they one object viewed from different points of view? But if you take them as one object, you’re back at phenomenalism. And if you take them as two objects, we somehow have knowledge of something that it is impossible to have evidence for. That opens a whole can of worms about a priori vs. a posteriori knowledge and analytic knowledge vs. synthetic knowledge that has never made much sense to me.

I know that Kant was trying to split the difference between the rationalists and the empiricists, but the attempt strikes me as a failure. How that failure came to dominate the philosophical discussion for two-hundred years I will never know. If you don’t think I’m being fair to Kant, you’re probably right, but I encourage you to read the whole article. And if you have any insights on how to square this particular circle, please share them with me.

Stang, Nicholas F., “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/kant-transcendental-idealism/>.

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