Kant’s Version of Knowledge

For those who don’t know, there is a school of philosophy called, unfortunately enough given the passage of time, Modern Philosophy. It had several features, but the main one was that it denied that knowledge was really possible. It was rarely that explicit, and oddly enough started in the 1600s with René Descartes’ proof that knowledge is possible. It ended with Immanuel Kant’s work in the 1700s trying to come up with a workable substitute for knowledge. It’s a common school of philosophy, these days, and no one has ever been able to figure out how its adherents are acting in good faith—especially since its adherents deny that good faith is really possible—but everyone acts like they are anyway since they seem to claim to, and academia is a very polite place (in front of students, anyway). There’s a joke about Modern Philosophy which runs:

Modern Philosophy was born with Descartes, died with Kant, and has been roaming the halls of academia ever since like a zombie: eating brains but never getting any smarter for it.

The most pernicious effect of Modern Philosophy—and I say this despite Modern Philosophy’s causative relationship to the existence of Post-Modernism—is the version of knowledge which Kant came up with in order to try to solve the problems of Modern Philosophy. (In technical terms, Kantian epistemology.) What Kant proposed was, roughly, the following:

We can’t have any direct knowledge of things apart from ourselves, so the best that we can do is to ape the scientific method: create theories of the world and then test them, refining them over time as we get more evidence.

Kant went on to say that we must believe in God, free will, and the immortality of the soul, because the alternative hypotheses predict an irrational world, which is not what we live in.

Most everyone else who takes Modern Philosophy seriously was quite happy to believe that we live in an irrational world, and so they will happily reject all three. (Interestingly, Kant was reputed to be a creature of extreme habit that never varied; I don’t know if that was of any significance to his intuitions.) But this has become the dominant idea of what knowledge is. It is not a direct communion of the mind with things outside of the mind, which everyone up until this point had meant by knowledge whether they affirmed or denied it.

The tricky thing to recognizing this is that Kant was very intelligent, and of a philosophical disposition. Most people are not very intelligent, and more importantly most people are not of a philosophical disposition. The result, taking these two things into account, is analogous to what has happened in physics after Newtonian mechanics was shown to be false.

Someone unfamiliar with how physics is conducted might think that once Newton’s laws of motion were shown to be wrong, they would have been discarded, but they were not. The reason they were not is that they are not very far from correct in low-mass and low-velocity situations, but they are much easier to compute. Since most everything that happens on the earth is in a low-mass, low-velocity situation compared to where the errors in Newtonian mechanics become noticeable, people just go on using Newtonian mechanics whenever they know that the error would be small. Basically, they know that the laws are wrong, but since there is always measurement error and other sources of imprecision in practice, the laws can be used anywhere we know that the error would be so small as to be insignificant compared to our measurement tolerances.

People do the same thing with the theories of reality which they substitute for knowledge. Instead of, like Kant, coming up with one consistent theory which is the best theory they can possibly come up with, they will use several theories—which they know to be quite wrong in some cases—and just make sure to restrict their application of these theories to the parts of life where these theories produce correct results. (Also, emotional reaction is commonly used as the test of whether the theory is right—does the theory say something that makes people feel worse than the alternative.) Neck-down Darwinism is probably the best example. (If you’re not familiar with it: below the neck evolution explains everything about the human body, but above the neck all men are created equal.)

The result is that people are completely unfazed when you point out the contradictions in their beliefs. They already knew that their beliefs contradicted. They just have some sort of rule (possibly a rule-of-thumb) for which belief they apply in the cases of contradiction. Most of them take this as part of the nature of knowledge: since a universally correct theory is impossible (so far) to construct, the best that you can do is several contradictory universal theories which are only applied where they have been experimentally verified to produce “correct” results. Many people with Kantian epistemology consider it a sign of mental weakness to be unaware that your own beliefs contradict; only the small-minded or extremely inexperienced think that one theory covers everything.

The truly sinister thing about this epistemology is that it deprives the victim of the obvious means of escape. For most wrong theories of the universe, running into an unresolvable (actual, rather than apparent) contradiction is evidence that the theory is wrong, and a sign that alternatives must be sought. Someone suffering from Kantian epistemology won’t even pause at contradictions, so God alone knows how they will know to look for something better.

11 thoughts on “Kant’s Version of Knowledge

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  2. You wrote, “Someone suffering from Kantian epistemology won’t even pause at contradictions, so God alone knows how they will know to look for something better.”
    I agree completely with you that if someone won’t even pause at contradictions in his thinking, then he has gone wrong.
    What do you think is the fundamental insight of Kantian epistemology?

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    1. Kantian epistemology is fundamentally a way of dealing with the impossibility of knowledge (“you can’t know the thing in itself”), so as such I would say that it’s really a psychological insight, rather than a philosophical insight. It’s giving people a pressure relief valve to what is a fundamentally untenable position, so that they don’t have to face the fact that it is a fundamentally untenable position. The pressure relief valve is the idea that one can use only part of a universal theory (though that was not Kant’s original intent).

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  4. Johannes

    While I am a “pre-Kantian” Aristotelian most of what you write is an almost grotesque and highly misleading account of Kant’s epistemological project. Making it sound far more subjective (in the vulgar, not in the technical Kantian sense) than it was intended to be. Which is a pity because Kant being a difficult and sometimes tedious author many people will confine their knowledge of his ideas to such misleading short versions.

    Far from being the starting point, that we cannot know “things in themselves” is a *result* of Kantian epistemology. The starting point is being startled by Hume’s skepticism on the one hand and the firm belief that we have some knowledge that is a) beyond skepticism and b) not merely analytical (therefore not exhausted by Hume’s “relations of ideas”). For Kant this is maths, especially geometry and Newtonian Physics.
    So we are far from free to make up any model to try to approach the “things in themselves” better. Rather we are systematically restricted to the “forms of intuition” in our knowledge but this restriction also suffices to give those formal bits of knowledge a priori character. These forms are subjective in the narrow and technical Kantian sense but they are not subject to the will or the history of science. They are not even specifically human, rather Kant thinks that ANY creature capable of knowledge AND sensuality? (Sinnlichkeit) has to cognize in this fashion. (God is not restricted in such fashion but aliens would be)

    And while it is a difficult question of interpretation it is probably misleading that there would be anything to know about things “in themselves”. There is one strain in Kant where it seems that “things in themselves” is a purely abstract, negative notion to contrast with “things as appearances” the latter being the only way we can have knowledge of things. According to this interpetation things really are as they appear to us, but as such they have to conform to the forms of space, time etc. It is most certainly not the case that Kant thinks that future science would be able to “get closer” to things in themselves. It might tell us more about them, but “only” as things as appearances.

    Anyway, I will not fall into the same trap, giving a too short and too simplified version of this stuff. So I can only repeat that anyone interested should read for themselves.

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    1. I don’t really care what Kant thought in his long and useless writhings at a doomed project. His effect on the world was much simpler, and that’s what I’m talking about. (and he did basically summarize his own thought as I described, IIRC in the second introduction to the critique of pure reason).

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    2. The problem is that Kant failed. I never claimed to be giving a summary of his writing, but of the main thrust of his position. And that I stand by. Yes, he tried to put a lot of limits on the use of the scientific method, but no one cares and for the good reason that Kant couldn’t prove them true and had no authority to impose them.

      So in one sense, yes, I gave a cartoonish summary of Kant; in another sense I presented the magic trick without the misdirection. The latter was my intention, and I don’t think I failed at that. Certainly Kant didn’t believe that knowledge in the older, pre-modern sense was possible, and certainly he proposed something to be used in place of knowledge. You can dress that up as much as you like, but with eight pounds of makeup on it it’s still that. He was a brilliant man whose writings were a disaster for mankind, so with all respect for his brilliance, I’m more concerned with the disaster. (Obviously he wasn’t wrong about literally everything; not even Hume, so far as I know, achieved that.)

      But I very much agree that anyone interested in Kant’s thought should read Kant. That is very sound advice.

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  5. Johannes

    Sorry, but you are acting almost exactly like those who dismiss all scholasticism or theistic arguments on the basis of some sophomoric summary or quotations taking from context.

    Your “Kant” reads like a quasi-Popperian skeptic whose point is that we can never be sure that we know something but will continually revise and improve it. Kant might have had this position in some respects but it is as far from the main points of his project as it could be. As I said the point is precisely to show how “synthetic a priori” knowledge (necessary and NOT up to revision at any later time) is possible and what the *limits* of this knowledge are. Roughly the result is that such certain a priori knowledge includes applied maths and physics and some other very general structures like causal relations etc. but that reason cannot be trusted in the “big metaphysical questions” of God, Freedom, Immortality.

    You are free not to care but then you should refrain from discussing Kant at all, instead of giving wrong impressions that amount to slander (and also make the reader doubt how such a sophomoric thinker could ever have been regarded as the most important philosopher of modernity). As someone who sees dedication to Truth as a holy obligation this seems a questionable thing to do. Sophomoric dismissal of themes/authors/arguments one has not really a clue about will also distract readers who know about that stuff (e.g. Kant) from your valuable contributions because they will be wary to trust you in any field where they would have to do a lot of work to independently check what you claim.

    You are in “good company” btw. A few weeks ago I read a the Amazon preview of a book by some Stephen Hicks, an American philosophy professor (who seems to have Randian sympathies but I only realized this later) who gave in that preview chapter both a hilariouly sophomoric summary of what he took ancient and medieval thought to be and claimed that Kant’s main aim was the defense of religion against reason (which according to Hicks amounted to a betrayal of the enlightenment) because of the famous quotation that he had wanted to limit reason to make room for faith, thoroughly decontextualized…

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