DURANT 1926: Transcendental Dialectic

This paper presents Chapter VI, Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, Section 3 (part 3) from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


Transcendental Dialectic

Nevertheless, this certainty, this absoluteness, of the highest generalizations of logic and science, is, paradoxically, limited and relative: limited strictly to the field of actual experience, and relative strictly to our human mode of experience. For if our analysis has been correct, the world as we know it is a construction, a finished product, almost one might say a manufactured article, to which the mind contributes as much by its moulding forms as the thing contributes by its stimuli. (So we perceive the top of the table as round, whereas our sensation is of an ellipse.) The object as it appears to us is a phenomenon, an appearance, perhaps very different from the external object before it came within the ken of our senses; what that original object was we can never know; the “thing-in-itself” may be an object of thought or inference (a “noumenon”), but it cannot be experienced, for in being experienced it would be changed by its passage through sense and thought. “It remains completely unknown to us what objects may be by themselves and apart from the receptivity of our senses. We know nothing but our manner of perceiving them; that manner being peculiar to us, and not necessarily shared by every being, though, no doubt, by every human being.” [Critique, p. 37. If Kant had not added the last clause, his argument for the necessity of knowledge would have fallen.] The moon as known to us is merely a bundle of sensations (as Hume saw), unified (as Hume did not see) by our native mental structure through the elaboration of sensations into perceptions, and of these into conceptions or ideas; in result, the moon is for us merely our ideas. [So John Stuart Mill, with all his English tendency to realism, was driven at last to define matter as merely “a permanent possibility of sensations.”]

Kant’s “noumenon” is the STIMULUS at the top of the following scale of inference. Each subsequent step is an inference from the previous step. The inference forms the appearance of the next step. The STIMULUS (“noumenon”) may be looked upon as the raw construction material of the universe, which is inferred as sensation.


Not that Kant ever doubts the existence of “matter” and the external world; but he adds that we know nothing certain about them except that they exist. Our detailed knowledge is about their appearance, their phenomena, about the sensations which we have of them. Idealism does not mean, as the man in the street thinks, that nothing exists outside the perceiving subject; but that a goodly part of every object is created by the forms of perception and understanding: we know the object as transformed into idea; what it is before being so transformed we cannot know. Science, after all, is naive; it supposes that it is dealing with things in themselves, in their full-blooded external and uncorrupted reality; philosophy is a little more sophisticated, and realizes that the whole material of science consists of sensations, perceptions and conceptions, rather than of things. “Kant’s greatest merit,” says Schopenhauer, “is the distinction of the phenomenon from the thing-in-itself.” [The World as Will and Idea; vol. ii, p. 7.]

So, we draw inferences about the external world (STIMULUS) per the scale of inference above, but we can never be totally certain about it. This is the limitation of science. Philosophy is aware that the things that science is dealing consist mostly of sensation, perceptions and conceptions. We may slightly disagree with Schopenhauer when we say that, the STIMULUS (“noumenon”) a lighter phenomenon relative to the datum of emptiness. It condenses into the deeper phenomenon of sensation through some inference.

It follows that any attempt, by either science or religion, to say just what the ultimate reality is, must fall back into mere hypothesis; “the understanding can never go beyond the limits of sensibility.” [Critique, p. 215.] Such transcendental science loses itself in “antinomies,” and such transcendental theology loses itself in “paralogisms.” It is the cruel function of “transcendental dialectic” to examine the validity of these attempts of reason to escape from the enclosing circle of sensation and appearance into the unknowable world of things “in themselves.”

Thus, the ultimate reality can only be approximated by our awareness of the evolved universe in the present. Science and religion can only provide us with hypotheses about the relationships underlying reality. The “transcendental dialectics” examines the arguments of science and religion and determine their relative validity.

Antinomies are the insoluble dilemmas born of a science that tries to overleap experience. So, for example, when knowledge attempts to decide whether the world is finite or infinite in space, thought rebels against either supposition: beyond any limit, we are driven to conceive something further, endlessly; and yet infinity is itself inconceivable. Again: did the world have a beginning in time? We cannot conceive eternity; but then, too, we cannot conceive any point in the past without feeling at once that before that, something was. Or has that chain of causes which science studies, a beginning, a First Cause? Yes, for an endless chain is inconceivable; no, for a first cause uncaused is inconceivable as well. Is there any exit from these blind alleys of thought? There is, says Kant, if we remember that space, time and cause are modes of perception and conception, which must enter into all our experience, since they are the web and structure of experience; these dilemmas arise from supposing that space, time and cause are external things independent of perception. We shall never have any experience which we shall not interpret in terms of space and time and cause; but we shall never have any philosophy if we forget that these are not things, but modes of interpretation and understanding.

This scale appears to extend indefinitely at both ends with relative certainties only. There are no absolute certainties. According to Kant, all inferences are arrived at through the structure of space, time and cause. These are modes of interpretation and not external things independent of perception. In other words, space, time and cause are inherent to any perception. Space is the extent, time is the duration, and cause is the substance of that perception.

So with the paralogisms of “rational” theology which attempts to prove by theoretical reason that the soul is an incorruptible substance, that the will is free and above the law of cause and effect, and that there exists a “necessary being,” God, as the presupposition of all reality. Transcendental dialectic must remind theology that substance and cause and necessity are finite categories, modes of arrangement and classification which the mind applies to sense-experience, and reliably valid only for the phenomena that appear to such experience; we cannot apply these conceptions to the noumenal (or merely inferred and conjectural) world. Religion cannot be proved by theoretical reason.

According to Kant, the theoretical reasoning of “rational” theology is based on arbitrary suppositions that cannot be experienced. Substance, cause and necessity are inherent to conception and not something absolute outside of them. We cannot postulate them for what is beyond sensation. Religion cannot be proved by theoretical reason.

So the first Critique ends. One could well imagine David Hume, uncannier Scot than Kant himself, viewing the results with a sardonic smile. Here was a tremendous book, eight hundred pages long; weighted beyond bearing, almost, with ponderous terminology; proposing to solve all the problems of metaphysics, and incidentally to save the absoluteness of science and the essential truth of religion. What had the book really done? It had destroyed the naive world of science, and limited it, if not in degree, certainly in scope, and to a world confessedly of mere surface and appearance, beyond which it could issue only in farcical “antinomies”; so science was “saved”! The most eloquent and incisive portions of the book had argued that the objects of faith a free and immortal soul, a benevolent creator could never be proved by reason; so religion was “saved”! No wonder the priests of Germany protested madly against this salvation, and revenged themselves by calling their dogs Immanuel Kant. [Wallace, p. 82.].

Kant determined the limitations of both science and religion.

And no wonder that Heine compared the little professor of Konigsberg with the terrible Robespierre; the latter had merely killed a king, and a few thousand Frenchmen which a German might forgive; but Kant, said Heine, had killed God, had undermined the most precious arguments of theology. ‘What a sharp contrast between the outer life of this man, and his destructive, world-convulsing thoughts! Had the citizens of Konigsberg surmised the whole significance of those thoughts, they would have felt a more profound awe in the presence of this man than in that of an executioner, who merely slays human beings. But the good people saw in him nothing but a professor of philosophy; and when at the fixed hour he sauntered by, they nodded a friendly greeting, and set their watches.” [Heine, Prose Miscellanies, Philadelphia, 1876; p. 146.]

Was this caricature, or revelation?

Kant had a formidable intellect.



We have a scale of inference from STIMULUS all the way to evolution. We do not know how far back from STIMULUS does the scale extend up to EMPTINESS. Compared to emptiness, stimulus is a “phenomenon” that is being approximated by the ultimate inference of evolution.

Thus, science is dealing mostly with sensation, perceptions and conceptions. It cannot be absolutely certain. Space, time and cause are inherent to perception and not something absolute out there.

The theoretical reasoning of “rational” theology is based on suppositions that cannot be experienced. Substance, cause and necessity are inherent to conception and not something absolute outside of them.

Thus, science and religion are both limited and cannot be absolute.


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