DURANT 1926: Criticism and Estimate

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VI, Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, Section 7 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.

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Criticism and Estimate

And now how does this complex structure of logic, metaphysics, psychology, ethics, and politics stand today, after the philosophic storms of a century have beaten down upon it? It is pleasant to answer that much of the great edifice remains; and that the “critical philosophy” represents an event of permanent importance in the history of thought. But many details and outworks of the structure have been shaken.

First, then, is space a mere “form of sensibility,” having no objective reality independent of the perceiving mind? Yes and no. Yes: for space is an empty concept when not filled with perceived objects; “space” merely means that certain objects are, for the perceiving mind, at such and such a position, or distance, with reference to other perceived objects; and no external perception is possible except of objects in space; space then is assuredly a “necessary form of the external sense.” And no: for without doubt, such spatial facts as the annual elliptical circuit of sun by earth, though statable only by a mind, are independent of any perception whatever; the deep and dark blue ocean rolled on before Byron told it to, and after he had ceased to be. Not is space a “construct” of the mind through the coordination of spaceless sensations; we perceive space directly through our simultaneous perception of different objects and various points as when we see an insect moving across a still background. Likewise: time as a sense of before and after, or a measurement of motion, is of course subjective, and highly relative; but a tree will age, wither and decay whether or not the lapse of time is measured or perceived. The truth is that Kant was too anxious to prove the subjectivity of space, as a refuge from materialism; he feared the argument that if space is objective and universal, God must exist in space, and be therefore spatial and material. He might have been content with the critical idealism which shows that all reality is known to us primarily as our sensations and ideas. The old fox bit off more than he could chew. [The persistent vitality of Kant’s theory of knowledge appears in its complete acceptance by so matter-of-fact a scientist as the late Charles P. Steinmetz: “All our sense-perceptions are limited by, and attached to, the conceptions of time and space. Kant, the greatest and most critical of all philosophers, denies that time and space are the product of experience, but shows them to be categories—conceptions in which our minds clothe the sense perceptions. Modern physics has come to the same conclusion in the relativity theory, that absolute space and absolute time have no existence, hut time and space exist only as far as things or events fill them; that is, they are forms of perception.”—Address at the Unitarian Church, Schenectady, 1923.]

Kant’s definitions of space and time need to be tweaked up based on the discoveries in physics.

Space defines the extent of an object. What appears as “empty space” between objects contains much finer substance called field. If there is no object there is “empty space”. But when there is no field either, there is simply no space. Then there is only emptiness.

This is the “space” that we perceive. It is the “impression” of the external stimulus coming through the sense channels. That external stimulus is part of the universe, which exists whether we perceive it or not. From this “impression” we derive the idea of space.

We then apply this idea of space to sensations themselves. We say that these sensations enter the mind and break down into perceptual elements. Perception is constructed in real time as these perceptual elements get assimilated in a mental matrix.

The mental matrix continually assimilates as sensations enter in real time. The quality of assimilation determines the quality of perception. The better is the assimilation the closer is the perception to the unknown stimulus, and the higher is the objectivity of the reality perceived. The degree of assimilation is determined by the consistency, harmony and continuity of the overall matrix.

Time defines the duration of an object. An ephemeral substance appears momentarily, whereas, matter persists for a long time at a location. This may be tied to motion and density of the substance. The lesser is the density the faster is the motion. This is also part of the “impression” of the external stimulus coming through the sense channels. This too becomes an important factor in the assimilation of the mental matrix.

He might well have contented himself, too, with the relativity of scientific truth, without straining towards that mirage, the absolute. Recent studies like those of Pearson in England, Mach in Germany, and Henri Poincare in France, agree rather with Hume than with Kant: all science, even the most rigorous mathematics, is relative in its truth. Science itself is not worried about the matter; a high degree of probability contents it. Perhaps, after all, “necessary” knowledge is not necessary?

The absolute may be the unknown stimulus that we try to approximate through perception. The perception may never be absolute, but it may come quite close.

The great achievement of Kant is to have shown, once for all, that the external world is known to us only as sensation; and that the mind is no mere helpless tabula rasa, the inactive victim of sensation, but a positive agent, selecting and reconstructing experience as experience arrives. We can make subtractions from this accomplishment without injuring its essential greatness. We may smile, with Schopenhauer, at the exact baker’s dozen of categories, so prettily boxed into triplets, and then stretched and contracted and interpreted deviously and ruthlessly to fit and surround all things. [Op. cit., vol. ii, p. 23.] And we may even question whether these categories, or interpretive forms of thought, are innate, existing before sensation and experience; perhaps so in the individual, as Spencer conceded, though acquired by the race; and then, again, probably acquired even by the individual: the categories may be grooves of thought, habits of perception and conception, gradually produced by sensations and perceptions automatically arranging themselves, first in disorderly ways, then, by a kind of natural selection of forms of arrangement, in orderly and adaptive and illuminating ways. It is memory that classifies and interprets sensations into perceptions, and perceptions into ideas; but memory is an accretion. That unity of the mind which Kant thinks native (the “transcendental unity of apperception”) is acquired and not by all; and can be lost as well as won in amnesia, or alternating personality, or insanity. Concepts are an achievement, not a gift.

Kant’s contributions are: we may only approximate the external universe through perception. We may never know it absolutely. The mind interprets the incoming sensation actively to figure out the reality as closely as possible.

The innateness of Kant’s categories may be questioned. They could be acquired over time by sensations and perception arranging themselves, as in the matrix model. The perceptions appear by virtue of being assimilated in the mental matrix. Memory is a very different concept and plays no part here. The unity of mind comes about with the complete assimilation of the matrix. This may not occur in every case.

The nineteenth century dealt rather hardly with Kant’s ethics, his theory of an innate, a priori, absolute moral sense. The philosophy of evolution suggested irresistibly that the sense of duty is a social deposit in the individual, the content of conscience is acquired, though the vague disposition to social behavior is innate. The moral self, the social man, is no “special creation” coming mysteriously from the hand of God, but the late product of a leisurely evolution. Morals are not absolute; they are a code of conduct more or less haphazardly developed for group survival, and varying with the nature and circumstances of the group: a people hemmed in by enemies, for example, will consider as immoral that zestful and restless individualism which a nation youthful and secure in its wealth and isolation will condone as a necessary ingredient in the exploitation of natural resources and the formation of national character. No action is good in itself, as Kant supposes. [Practical Reason, p. 31.]

Kant’s theory of an innate and absolute moral sense may also be questioned. Per the theory of evolution, the sense of duty is a social deposit in the individual; and the content of conscience is acquired; though disposition to social behavior is innate.

His pietistic youth, and his hard life of endless duty and infrequent pleasure, gave him a moralistic bent; he came at last to advocate duty for duty’s sake, and so fell unwittingly into the arms of Prussian absolutism. [Cf. Prof. Dewey: German Philosophy and Politics.] There is something of a severe Scotch Calvinism in this opposition of duty to happiness; Kant continues Luther and the Stoic Reformation, as Voltaire continues Montaigne and the Epicurean Renaissance. He represented a stern reaction against the egoism and hedonism in which Helvetius and Holbach had formulated the life of their reckless era, very much as Luther had reacted against the luxury and laxity of Mediterranean Italy. But after a century of reaction against the absolutism of Kant’s ethics, we find ourselves again in a welter of urban sensualism and immorality, of ruthless individualism untempered with democratic conscience or aristocratic honor; and perhaps the day will soon come when a disintegrating civilization will welcome again the Kantian call to duty.

There is no absolute sense of duty and morality as Kant supposes. Both the sense of morality and the call to duty respond to life situations.

The marvel in Kant’s philosophy is his vigorous revival, in the second Critique, of those religious ideas of God, freedom, and immortality, which the first Critique had apparently destroyed. “In Kant’s works,” says Nietzsche’s critical friend, Paul Ree, “you feel as though you were at a country fair. You can buy from him anything you want freedom of the will and captivity of the will, idealism, and a refutation of idealism, atheism and the good Lord. Like a juggler out of an empty hat, Kant draws out of the concept of duty a God, immortality, and freedom, to the great surprise of his readers.” [In Untermann, Science and Revolution, Chicago, 1905; p. 81.] Schopenhauer too takes a fling at the derivation of immortality from the need of reward: “Kant’s virtue, which at first bore itself so bravely towards happiness, loses its independence later, and holds out its hand for a tip.” [In Paulsen, p. 317.] The great pessimist believes that Kant was really a sceptic who, having abandoned belief himself, hesitated to destroy the faith of the people, for fear of the consequences to public morals. “Kant discloses the groundlessness of speculative theology, and leaves popular theology untouched, nay even establishes it in a nobler form as a faith based upon moral feeling.” This was afterwards distorted by the philosophasters into rational apprehension and consciousness of God, etc. . . . ; while Kant, as he demolished old and revered errors, and knew the danger of doing so, rather wished through the moral theology merely to substitute a few weak temporary supports, so that the ruin might not fall upon him, but that he might have time to escape.” [The World as Will and Idea, vol. ii, p. 129.] So too Heine, in what is no doubt an intentional caricature, represents Kant, after having destroyed religion, going out for a walk with his servant Lampe, and suddenly perceiving that the old man’s eyes are filled with tears. “Then Immanuel Kant has compassion, and shows that he is not only a great philosopher, but also a good man; and half kindly, half ironically, he speaks: ‘Old Lampe must have a God or else he cannot be happy, says the practical reason; for my part, the practical reason may, then, guarantee the existence of God.’” [Quoted by Paulsen, p. 8.] If these interpretations were true we should have to call the second Critique a Transcendental Anesthetic.

Kant first destroys religion from the viewpoint of reason and then builds it back up from the viewpoint of faith. Thus, he appears self-contradictory.

But these adventurous reconstructions of the inner Kant need not be taken too seriously. The fervor of the essay on ”Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason” indicates a sincerity too intense to be questioned, and the attempt to change the base of religion from theology to morals, from creeds to conduct, could have come only from a profoundly religious mind. “It is indeed true,” he wrote to Moses Mendelssohn in 1766, “that I think many things with the clearest conviction, . . . which I never have the courage to say; but I will never say anything which I do not think.” [In Paulsen, p. 53.] Naturally, a long and obscure treatise like the great Critique lends itself to rival interpretations; one of the first reviews of the book, written by Reinhold a few years after it appeared, said as much as we can say today: “The Critique of Pure Reason has been proclaimed by the dogmatists as the attempt of a sceptic who undermines the certainty of all knowledge;—by the sceptics as a piece of arrogant presumption that undertakes to erect a new form of dogmatism upon the ruins of previous systems;—by the supernaturalists as a subtly plotted artifice to displace the historical foundations of religion, and to establish naturalism without polemic;—by the naturalists as a new prop for the dying philosophy of faith;—by the materialists as an idealistic contradiction of the reality of matter;—by the spiritualists as an unjustifiable limitation of all reality to the corporeal world, concealed under the name of the domain of experience.” [In Paulsen, p. 114,] In truth the glory of the book lay in its appreciation of all these points of view; and to an intelligence as keen as Kant’s own, it might well appear that he had really reconciled them all, and fused them into such a unity of complex truth as philosophy had not seen in all its history before.

The following comment on the great Critique of Kant is really funny and cuts to the chase:

“The Critique of Pure Reason has been proclaimed by the dogmatists as the attempt of a sceptic who undermines the certainty of all knowledge;—by the sceptics as a piece of arrogant presumption that undertakes to erect a new form of dogmatism upon the ruins of previous systems;—by the supernaturalists as a subtly plotted artifice to displace the historical foundations of religion, and to establish naturalism without polemic;—by the naturalists as a new prop for the dying philosophy of faith;—by the materialists as an idealistic contradiction of the reality of matter;—by the spiritualists as an unjustifiable limitation of all reality to the corporeal world, concealed under the name of the domain of experience.”

This is a great tribute to Kant.

As to his influence, the entire philosophic thought of the nineteenth century revolved about his speculations. After Kant, all Germany began to talk metaphysics: Schiller and Goethe studied him; Beethoven quoted with admiration his famous words about the two wonders of life “the starry heavens above, the moral law within”; and Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Schopenhauer produced in rapid succession great systems of thought reared upon the idealism of the old Konigsberg sage. It was in these balmy days of German metaphysics that Jean Paul Richter wrote: “God has given to the French the land, to the English the sea, to the Germans the empire of the air.” Kant’s criticism of reason, and his exaltation of feeling, prepared for the voluntarism of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the intuitionism of Bergson, and the pragmatism of William James; his identification of the laws of thought with the laws of reality gave to Hegel a whole system of philosophy; and his unknowable “thing-in-itself” influenced Spencer more than Spencer knew. Much of the obscurity of Carlyle is traceable to his attempt to allegorize the already obscure thought of Goethe and Kant that diverse religions and philosophies are but the changing garments of one eternal truth. Caird and Green and Wallace and Watson and Bradley and many others in England owe their inspiration to the first Critique; and even the wildly innovating Nietzsche takes his epistemology from the “great Chinaman of Konigsberg” whose static ethics he so excitedly condemns. After a century of struggle between the idealism of Kant, variously reformed, and the materialism of the Enlightenment, variously redressed, the victory seems to lie with Kant. Even the great materialist Helvetius wrote, paradoxically: “Men, if I may dare say it, are the creators of matter.” [In Chamberlain, vol. i, p. 86.] Philosophy will never again be so naive as in her earlier and simpler days; she must always be different hereafter, and profounder, because Kant lived.

I need to study and understand the following systems of thought: materialism, idealism, voluntarism, intuitionism, and pragmatism. I need to study the following philosophers: Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Spencer, Bergson, and William James.

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FINAL COMMENTS

Kant’s definitions of space and time need to be tweaked up based on the discoveries in physics.

Space defines the extent of an object. What appears as “empty space” between objects contains much finer substance called field. If there is no object there is “empty space”. But when there is no field either, there is simply no space. Then there is only emptiness.

This is the “space” that we perceive. It is the “impression” of the external stimulus coming through the sense channels. That external stimulus is part of the universe, which exists whether we perceive it or not. From this “impression” we derive the idea of space.

We then apply this idea of space to sensations themselves. We say that these sensations enter the mind and break down into perceptual elements. Perception is constructed in real time as these perceptual elements get assimilated in a mental matrix.

The mental matrix continually assimilates as sensations enter in real time. The quality of assimilation determines the quality of perception. The better is the assimilation the closer is the perception to the unknown stimulus, and the higher is the objectivity of the reality perceived. The degree of assimilation is determined by the consistency, harmony and continuity of the overall matrix.

Time defines the duration of an object. An ephemeral substance appears momentarily, whereas, matter persists for a long time at a location. This may be tied to motion and density of the substance. The lesser is the density the faster is the motion.

Time is also part of the “impression” of the external stimulus coming through the sense channels. This too becomes an important factor in the assimilation of the mental matrix.

The absolute may be the unknown stimulus that we try to approximate through perception. The whole scale of inference may be expressed as follows:

STIMULUS
SENSATION
PERCEPTION
CONCEPTION 
IDEAS
KNOWLEDGE
SCIENCE (CONSISTENCY)
WISDOM (HARMONY)
EVOLUTION (CONTINUITY)

In this scale evolution is trying to approximate the stimulus. The stimulus may be called the “visualization” of the universe.

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