Immanuel Kant

Start Free Trial

Does Kant's transcendental philosophy study the structure of our thought rather than the world?

Quick answer:

Kants transcendental idealism is a theory that strongly rejects the concept of reality. It only studies the fundamental structure of our thought rather than that of the world. This is because Kant does not mention anything about empirical reality in his philosophy. He believes that what we experience through our senses are nothing but mere perceptions and are not real. All the things that happen in this world are based on human perception and hence they cannot be taken as real events. The concept of ‘transcendental’ is used by Kant to emphasize that it goes beyond empirical reality which makes it difficult for us to understand.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Prior to the emergence of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) as one of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment, two major schools of thought in the field of epistemology, or the study of knowledge, prevailed: rationalism and empiricism.

The rationalist school argues that all knowledge and truth is innate in...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

human beings. Knowledge, then, is the result of deductive reasoning. The empiricist school of thought prefers the proposition that all knowledge is derived from experience. Knowledge, then, is the result of inductive reasoning. Empiricists argue that observation, reflection, and sensory perceptions, not innate ideas, lead to the acquisition of knowledge. Kant attempts to merge these the prevailing ideologies.

Kant introduces a system known as “transcendental idealism,” which begins by drawing a distinction between the observable world and the metaphysical world, the latter of which is impossible to observe. He aims to find meaning in a material world through an empirical approach. At the same time, in his view, free will and rationality provide life with purpose.

In his famous work, The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes:

“All the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in three following questions: 1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?”

Through his further writings, Kant molds these questions into a single ideology. He recognizes that people can determine their own ideas but that such endeavors reveal little about the world outside those ideas. Thus, we must have free will to determine rationally the things we observe.

The theory of transcendental idealism considers the relationship between the processes of the mind and reality of the objects observed in the mind. Kant proposes three tenets of his theory: he distinguishes objects as they appear in the mind from objects as they are in reality; he allows for the possibility that things are not as they appear; and human beings can only be cognizant of things they can experience. Kant theoretically bridges the gap between rationalism and empiricism.

Kant concludes that we must make sense of our experiences. Objects we perceive to be accurate in the world outside our thoughts might not be so in reality. To Kant, making sense of our actions and experiences must include a universal moral duty applicable to all. He believes we have the freedom to act, but argues that life is only meaningful if we adhere to a uniform code of duty.

To conceptualize his theory, Kant develops the “Categorical Imperative.” In his view, people must treat others consistently, acknowledge everyone’s worth, and, since we are all members of the same world, pursue goals that are consistent with the goals of others.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Kant's critical philosophy is primarily concerned with epistemology. This is the branch of philosophy that deals with theories of knowledge. It investigates such questions as the meaning of knowledge, how one can arrive, if at all, upon certain knowledge, as well as the difference between knowledge and opinion. To that extent, Kant's philosophy is concerned with the fundamental structure of our thought, of what goes on in the mind of the perceiving subject when he or she confronts the world of objects and other subjects.

Kant's main emphasis is on the conditions that must exist before it is possible for us to perceive the world around us. This is what is meant when we say that Kant's critical philosophy is transcendental. At no point does Kant deny the existence of the world; on the contrary, he accepts it as absolutely real and as amenable to scientific investigation.

But he argues that such activities are only possible because the mind is structured in such a way that it imposes time and space on the world of objects. Time and space are not "out there" in the world. They are ideal, meaning that they are part of the fundamental structure of the mind. And it is only because our mind is so structured that it is possible to make sense of this world.

So Kant is perfectly happy to leave natural science to investigate the objective world. His emphasis, however, is on the conditions that give rise to such investigations in the first place.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In his three Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), Immanuel Kant argues that human autonomy is the foundation of all understanding. 

Kant strove to resolve the oppositions of the approaches of empiricism and rationalism by the pure processes of reason. For, Kant contended that empiricism, which holds that knowledge arrives from experience, and rationalism, which holds that innate ideas precede experience and is attained independently of sensual experience, are unified by the rational mind's role in both. That is, the human mind is "the final end of nature."

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues,

... all our intuition is nothing but the representation of appearance; that the things that we intuit [with the rational mind] are not in themselves what we intuit them to be, nor are their relations so constituted in themselves as they appear to us; and that if we remove our own subject or even only the subjective constitution of the senses in general, then all constitution, all relations of objects in space and time, indeed space and time themselves would disappear, and as appearances they cannot exist in themselves, but only in us.

Certainly, one essential result of this philosophy is that a person never has direct experience with the world as it is always evaluated through the rational process. Without a truly direct experience of the world, then, it is possible that what man perceives through his senses and rational mind may, indeed, not exist outside of "the subjective constitution of the senses." For this reason, then, the world per se does not play an intrinsic role in Kant's philosophy. This contention of Kant's that humans experience only appearances of something, rather than the actual thing, and that time and space are merely subjective forms of human intuition and may not really exist is his most controversial thought. It is known as Transcendental Idealism. Nevertheless, Kant does argue that one must distinguish the objective unity of given representations from the subjective. For example, all people would perceive the size and shape of man's childhood home, but he may have subjective feelings of such things as security or nostalgia that could enter into his perception.

Approved by eNotes Editorial