Immanuel Kant’s groundbreaking publication of The Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 shattered the crystalline intellectual chandeliers of the Enlightenment and brought the age of philosophical optimism to a crashing conclusion. Pangloss’ certainty that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” was replaced by the post-Kantian conviction that, although this is not logically impossible, any assertion about it exceeds the human being’s limits of knowledge. Kant’s critical revolution in philosophy consisted in his recognition of the epistemological contingency of subject and object. In establishing such an ontological reciprocality between experience and its subject, Kant also removed from the scope of human apprehension the possibility to cognise reality as such, without relation to a subject. Kant called the latter the noumenon, or “der Ding an sich.” This designation appears in contrast to the phenomenon, which is to say, the object as it manifests to subjective cognition. In relegating human knowledge to the world of appearance, Kant cast out the human being from the noumenal realm and placed at the gates a Cherub and a transcendental cudgel.
Naturally, Kant’s epistemological exile of the human being represented a spiritual crisis to the New-Classical sentiment of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s observation that “The world is deep; deeper than the day can comprehend” suggests the new opportunities that the twilight presented for philosophers to approach the mysteries of the world on its own terms. Goethe’s discovery that (contrary to received dogma of conventional science) colours appear as the nuisances in the interplay of Light and Darkness provides an extraordinary symbol for the richness in the philosophical discourse of the German Idealists in the post-Enlightenment period.
In fact, Kant’s Copernican Revolution of Philosophy, much like that of his astronomer-counterpart, ought not to be imagined as an ex nihilo eruption from his intellectual context, but rather as a logical development from the views of his contemporaries. In this way, philosophers may be seen as the bellwethers of their time. Crying in the wilderness, they give voice to a tacit Zeitgeist that informs all facets of a contemporary culture. The philosopher makes explicit a way of thinking, or a world-conception that is really the aegis of a given age, but which might otherwise lack such verbal advancement. Indeed, Kant’s achievement was to bring the tension between two aspects of his time to their full catastrophe: the blind faith in Reason that characterised the Enlightenment, and the epistemological scepticism that this very Reason engendered. Kant expressly credited his reading of David Hume’s work—in which the Scotsman questioned the fundamental notion of causality—as the spark that “awoke [Kant] from [his] dogmatic slumber” and kindled his transcendental revolution. Perhaps even more essential a presence in Kant’s philosophy than Human, however, was Descartes. The latter’s notorious dualism that was the result of his heroic aspiration to attain a standpoint of epistemic certainty can be seen as a seed of sorts, of which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was the flower. As a result of a reflexive evaluation of his own subjective,experiencee, Descartes had identified two categories of objects: res cogitans and res extensa—“things mental” and “things extended,” which is to say, mind and matter.
Given the influence of this “Cartesian Dualism” on all subsequent philosophy, a critical evaluation of the Frenchman’s distinction is warranted, lest, by the Trojan Horse of tradition, an eventual error be assumed as a fundamental postulate by future thinkers. And indeed, no sooner does one consider the pair of Cartesian substances than one recognises them to be incommensurate. In the same way that Roman letters and the second act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet are neither identical nor exclusive, so mind and matter represent different modes of experience and not different ontological categories. Both res and extensa, for example, are concepts which depend on cognition for their recognition. In other words, res cogitans may appear as res extensa under certain conditions, like when one fantasises about setting a bottle of beer on a three-legged table and then proceeds to do it. In this way, one first conceived the perception of an Hefeweizen and one subsequently perceived the conception of it. A more useful dichotomy, therefore, than the tradition Cartesian one would be res extensa in contrast to res intensa—extensive and intensive things. Then the cogito itself is the dimensionless hinge of the door that swings between the two.
Having discerned the true colours of Cartesian Dualism, one can now proceed to examine Kant’s transcendental revolution with a new eye. Indeed one will instantly recognise a Cartesian likeness in the Kantian dichotomy of the phenomenon and the noumenon, though the divergence from Descartes’ model is no less-telling than its similarity. Precisely Kant’s conviction that “thought without [sensory] content are empty” distances his position from its Cartesian ancestor while also identifying it with its Empirialistic one. Indeed one recognises that Kant synthesised the Cartesian and the Humean influences: in his formulation of Transcendental Idealism, Kant inverted the Cartesian hypostasis of res extensa. Thus, in contrast to the Cartesian conceit in which subjective cognition meets with limits to knowledge in the form of impenetrable objects within Empirical space, Kant conceived of inaccessible essences outside of Empirical space. Given his Empirialistic conviction that “without sensibility no object would be given to us,” Kant establishes these noumena as unknowable in principle in the determination to place them outside of sensibility.
Kant’s extraordinary philosophical acuity had furthermore penetrated the substance of what appears as physical space itself and revealed its ultimate substance to be the product of human ideation. Thus, by situating the “Dingen-an-sich” outside of physical space, Kant was concomitantly denying knowledge of it. Synthetic a priori judgements are possible for a subject because they are not judgments about reality at all, but rather because they are self-reflexive statements about the organisation the subject’s own mind. Kant called his philosophy “Transcendental Idealism” to indicate that human knowledge is limited to reality as it appears in relation to a subject, and to affirm that any attempt to plumb reality in itself merely returns resonances of one’s own original queries in the echo chamber of human ideation.
The supreme intellectual rigour that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason demonstrated is entirely incontrovertible, and the history of philosophy testifies to its singular significance in Western thought. Indeed it appears likely that Kant’s thinly-veiled epistemic solipsism was precisely the chaos that incited the German Idealist thinkers to compose many of the most sublime philosophical formulations in Western civilisation. Benefiting from the advantage of the present, however, together with the critical excursion into Cartesianism above, the reader will be primed to recognise the fundamental mistakes at the very base of Kant’s philosophical edifice. Fortunately, one need not concern oneself with the dangers of ordinary demolition since almost the entire structure is imaginary.
In principle, Kant’s inheritance of Descartes’ Dualism dictates that the former’s philosophy will suffer from a similar error as its ancestor—namely an incommensurate dichotomy. As indicated above, however, the family resemblance is not immediately apparent because Kant clothed his formulation with other influences. Whereas Cartesian Dualism is characterised as the bifurcation of mind and matter, Kant’s explicit version of this cleft appears as the division of phenomenon and noumenon—appearance and reality. Nevertheless, Kant also unconsciously assumed a quarantined Cartesian subject in aristocratic isolation from reality. Knowledge, in such a model, can only be conceived of as something that must enter into the epistemically-confined subject from without. Despite its internal logical consistency, this model presents, however, an entirely fantastical account of how one acquires knowledge. When one replaces the Cartesian categories of res cogitans and res extensa with the appropriately commensurate categories of res intensa and res extensa, then the faculty of attention itself is thrust into centre-stage, as the former oscillates between objects of intensive and objects of extensive experience. Next, one may direct one’s attention away from the objects themselves and consider what constitutes such objects in the first place—what is it to perceive something? How does one even know a re is a re? In this way, the new object of attention becomes the activity of cognition itself instead of a post factum recognition of res intensa and extensa. Phenomenological scrutiny will reveal that per-ception does not consist in grasping ready-made objects through the key-holes of the senses as the etymology of this word might suggest. Instead, perception appears as an activity of cognition, which brings about a confluence of the how and the what of a phenomenon, which marriage one then pronounces to be “a footstool,” but which general procedure precedes, in principle, the production of any object whatsoever. Thus when one receives the corresponding sense-impressions, the latter serve as summons for a particular concept. The former then embark the latter like passengers on a boat of meaning, afloat on the great ocean called “Being.” As Kant indicated “thoughts without content are empty”: thus conception without anything to fill it remains an empty vessel, a miscarriage. To imagine such an empty concept, however, is entirely conjectural. Recall above that one presented the concept as that which provides the what of a given object. Now it will be necessary to supply a counterpart to provide the how. The latter is, as indicated above, directly given in experience and prompts the occasion of the concept. This how we may call the percept. It is crucial to notice that their is no dualism between the what and the how. Nor, by implication, is there any dualism between the concept and the percept. Rather these counterparts merely provide two aspects of one reality, whose separation represents only a provisional, temporary, and artificial condition in the activity of cognition. It is furthermore crucial to notice that res intensa no less than res extensa—thoughts no less than things—contain both aspects. Now one can immediately recognise the error in Kant’s assertion that “thoughts without [sensory] content are empty,” since the thought of an unicorn (what) also appears in some manner (how). In this instance, the concept unicorn presents the general aspect and the qualities of its appearance as that thought provide its particularity. Thus, simply because this unicorn does not present the particular percept by which cognition might invoke the concept which could then identify the said immediately-given percept as “solid body” or “res extensa” does not make that thought “empty.” Rather the supposition that thoughts and contents are actually separate is merely a consequence of adopting the Cartesian conceit as an unconscious metaphysic, and the demand that percepts must be sensory is an indication of a similar assumption from the Empirical tradition—a chauvinism of the senses, as it were.
One may now proceed to the heart of Kantianism and inquire whether phenomenon and noumenon present appropriate counterparts upon which to formulate a systematic philosophy. The answer is that they most certainly are not. Rather, even as Descartes conceived of “extended things” in physical space and thereby alienated the subject from reality, so Kant has similarly posited “things-in-themselves” outside of metaphysical space and sent the subject into an analogous pseudo-solipsistic exile. In Kant’s noumenon, one will recognise an hypostasis of the concept, or the what of things. But, as we discovered above, to artificially abstract the what from the how of reality and then suppose this to be the condition of reality itself is pure fantasy. In the same way that it is meaningless to conceive of water outside of wetness, so to conceive of unknowability outside of knowledge represents a conceptual abstraction whose general acceptance testifies to the basic perplexity of the modern spirit. The inestimable Owen Barfield famously decried the worship of “idols in Newtonian space” that characterises the consciousness of modern materialism. One is tempted, in addition, and as a penultimate remark in this consideration, to lament the idolatry characteristic of post-Kantian philosophy: the intellectual prostration before graven images in transcendental space. Finally, if Kant’s “Copernican Revolution in Philosophy” presents a riddle, the answer lies in the work of Rudolf Steiner, “Seal of the Idealists,” who appears after the owl of Minerva has returned to roost and the dove of Sophia ruffles its feathers in the roseate dawn.
Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. Oxford, England: Barfield Press,
Beiser, Frederick. German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, Harvard University Press, 2008.
Bortoft, Henri. Wholeness in Nature. Lindisfarne Books, 1996
von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Theory of Colours (Zum Fahrbenlehre), trans. Charles Lock
Eastlake, 1810; repr; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982
Heraclitus. Fragments. repr. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason. 1781. Trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood
Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Translated by Thomas
Common. Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2008.
Schelling, F. W. J. On the History of Modern Philosophy by Transl. Andrew Bowie (Cambridge
University Press, 1994.
Steiner, Rudolf, John Barnes, and Johann W. Goethe. Nature’s Open Secret: Rudolf Steiner’s
Introductions to Goethe’s Scientific Works. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 2000.
—Goethe’s World View (Goethes Weltanschauung.) Written 1897; GA 6 / Bn 6 / CW 6. Available
—The Philosophy of Freedom: A Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (Die Philosophie der Freiheit), Rudolf
Steiner Press, London, 1989, translated from the German by Rita Stebbin.
—A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception (Grundlinien Einer Erkenntnistheorie
der Goetheschen weltanschauung mit besonderer Ruecksicht auf Schiller), Anthroposophic Press, New York and Rudolf Steiner Publishing Co., London, 1940, 118 pp. plus notes, translated from the second German edition of 1924 by Olin D. Wannamaker
—Truth and Science (Warheit und Wissenschaft), Anthroposophic Press, New York, 1921, translated
from the first German edition of 1892 by R. F. A. Hoernle.
Voltaire. Candide. 1759. New York, NY: Boni & Liveright, Inc., 1989.