Updated: Jan 30, 2021

Watson, J. (1892). The Critical Philosophy and Idealism. The Philosophical Review, 1(1), 9. doi:10.2307/2175527

HUMAN thought develops by antagonism. The great masters of speculation are of kin with the great prophets: impelled by a fiery energy and enthusiasm, they build up an edifice of thought, which is imposing by its large and bold outlines, and which for a time is admired as a flawless product. A new contribution has been made to the intellectual treasures of the race, and men are neither able nor disposed to criticize it. But when the new ideas have become common property, and when a new expansion of thought has taken place in other directions, in science, literature, religion, it begins to be felt that a fresh synthesis is required to do perfect justice to the increased complexity of human life. The accepted philosophy is not false, but it is inadequate: it has entered upon a path that points to a further goal. The critical movement begins and cannot stop until a higher phase of speculation has been reached.

The philosophy of Kant has not been exempt from the inevitable law of philosophical evolution. Accepted at first by submissive disciples, it had afterwards to submit to a severe process of criticism which culminated in the Absolute Idealism of Hegel. The synthesis of Kant, as based upon an untenable opposition of the phenomenal and the real, was weighed and found wanting. The debt of humanity to Kant is incalculable, but a slavish submission to his system, and especially to the letter of his system, can only result in arresting the free activity of the human spirit. We must therefore be grateful to anyone who helps us, not merely to see Kant, but to see beyond him. This is the task which Professor Caird, in his exhaustive work on the Critical Philosophy, has set himself to perform, and he has done it in a way that leaves nothing to be desired. No work of the same value has appeared in the region of pure philosophy since the publication of the late Professor Green's Prolegomena to Ethics. Mr. Caird's review of the philosophy of Kant has brought him face to face with all the problems of the higher philosophy, and it is safe to say that there is no topic which has not received at his hands the peculiar illumination that comes from breadth of culture and from speculative depth and subtlety. The author has displayed extraordinary patience and industry in tracing every idea of Kant from its first imperfect presentation to its final form, and he has gone on to show the further development which it must receive if we are to have a consistent and adequate theory. In these two volumes the reader will find a complete statement of the whole of Kant's philosophy, and a masterly criticism of it from the point of view of Absolute Idealism. Thus, even those who cannot accept the author's results have now the data from which to form an adequate estimate of the value of the Critical Philosophy and of that Idealism which historically issued from it. The introductory chapter on the Idea of Criticism may be especially commended to those who still imagine that Idealism consists in the reduction of knowledge to passing states of the individual subject. They will there find this crude hypothesis exhibited as the great foe of a true Idealism. It is not my intention to give a formal review of Mr. Caird's book, but rather to bring out in my own way the contrast between the Critical Philosophy and Idealism, with special reference to the Kantian doctrine of the limitation of knowledge to objects in space and time. For a full treatment of this and other problems the reader is referred to Mr. Caird's work.

It is a fundamental mistake, as Mr. Caird shows, to regard the work of Kant as consisting simply in the limitation of knowledge to phenomena. The distinction of the phenomenal from the real is valued by him mainly as a means of preserving the reality of God, freedom, and immortality ; and it is, moreover, a distinction that, as his thought develops, alters its complexion and almost results in an euthanasia. The peculiarity and the merit of Kant is that he seeks to do justice on the one hand to the scientific, and on the other hand to the moral and religious consciousness. The former aspect of his philosophy is thrown into relief when he urges that there is nothing in the actions of man, in so far as they are regarded as events, which entitles us to claim for them exemption from the universal law of causation; the latter aspect is emphasized when it is maintained that, in his real or ultimate nature, man is a free being over whom the law of causation has no sway. Here we have the opposition of the phenomenal and the real exhibited in its most striking form. How did Kant reconcile to himself what seems to be a flat contradiction?

Take any action you please, and you will find, according to Kant, that its place in the chain of events is as unalterably determined as the fall of a stone, or the motion of a projectile through space. Let the action be, say, the relieving of distress. Setting aside the physical movements which precede the consciousness that a certain person stands in need of relief, and the physical movements by which the action is carried into effect, there remains for consideration simply a series of mental events, which will be found to be connected together in a fixed order of dependence. Following upon the perception of the object, there arises in the consciousness of the agent a desire to relieve distress. This desire would not arise at all, did not the agent possess a peculiar form of susceptibility; namely, that of pity at the sight of human suffering. Now, this susceptibility is a part of his sensuous nature, which he can neither make nor unmake. Not everyone is so affected or affected in the same degree. Clearly, therefore, the desire to relieve distress is an event, occurring at a certain moment, and following upon the idea of another's pain as certainly as any other event that can be named. If the desire is so strong that the agent determines to relieve the other's distress, we have a further sequence of a certain volition upon a certain desire; and this, like all other sequences, is subject to the law of causality. The most rigid determinist has evidently no reason so far to complain of any want of "vigor and rigor" in Kant's doctrine. Of that doctrine it is a striking feature that it puts the mental series of events the perception, desire, and volition on precisely the same footing as the physical movements by which it is preceded and followed. Events in the external world are in unbroken continuity with the internal stream of ideas. If Kant still persists in maintaining the freedom of man, it is not without a clear apprehension of the apparent strength of the determinist's case. How, then, does he seek to escape from the realm of pure mechanism? It is here that the distinction of phenomenal and real is made to play an important part. "If our actions," says Kant, "are nothing more than events in time, freedom cannot be saved. On the contrary, we must hold man to be a mere puppet or automaton. No doubt this automaton will be conscious of himself, but if he imagines that he is therefore master of his own actions, he will be under a pure delusion." The actions of man, in other words, must be capable of being viewed, not only as events, which, in a certain aspect, they undoubtedly are, but as events which issue from a being who is not an event or series of events. To estimate the precise meaning and value of this distinction we must ask how it came to be held.

A full account of the steps by which Kant reached the conclusion that all objects in space and all events in time are phenomena, will be found in Mr. Caird's book. Here it will be enough to indicate the general course of his development. Kant rather overstated the case when he spoke of being "aroused by Hume from his dogmatic slumber." In point of fact his slumber was by no means profound even before he had read a line of Hume, nor would he have been aroused to any purpose had his own prior development not proceeded upon very different lines from that of the English empiricists. To Leibnitz in particular he owed at least as much as to Hume. It was Leibnitz who prepared the way for the doctrine of the transcendental ideality of space and time by maintaining, in opposition to Descartes, that space and time are but confused ideas of the true elements of reality, and that when this confusion is cleared away by the analytic activity of thought, all modes of existence are found to be inextended, indivisible, and unchangeable individuals. It follows from this conception of reality that there are no real relations between the primitive monads, or, in other words, that real existence is made up of an infinite number of separate individuals, each of which contains within itself potentially all the phases which it displays. Now, this conception of reality had a strong influence upon Kant, an influence which makes itself felt through the whole of his subsequent speculations. To him, as to Leibnitz, the real is the individual, the " self-complete. Where he differs mainly from Leibnitz is in denying that such reality can be an object of knowledge, and this he is led to do because he sees that the whole of the objects with which experience deals are determined spatially and temporally, and that when we abstract from space and time, we are in a region of mere ideas to which no definite object of knowledge corresponds. Kant was therefore unable to admit that we can by thought obtain an actual knowledge of individual realities.

When we have emptied objects of their spatial and temporal relations, we have not attained to a knowledge of the real, but on the contrary we have entered into a world of abstractions. On the other hand, it is impossible to find among objects in space and time a true individual. Every object in space is infinitely divisible, and, beyond the remotest object that we may picture to the imagination, we can imagine others still more remote. Similarly, it is impossible to break up time into indivisible units, or to go back in imagination to a moment of time beyond which time was not. The true individual thus eludes us on both sides: it can neither be thought nor presented. It would therefore seem that we are forever shut out from a vision of reality as it actually is. Thought demands completeness; perceptive experience cannot give it. Kant refuses to surrender his belief that the real is the individual or self-complete, and he is therefore compelled to throw the burden of inadequacy upon our perceptive experience. But, unless we maintain the universe to be a mere chaos, and our indestructible belief in reality a dream, we must attribute the imperfection of our ordinary knowledge to a peculiarity in our own faculty of perception. This is what Kant does. Space and time, he maintains, are forms, not of reality as it is in itself, but of reality as it is for us. Accept this explanation, and our difficulties begin to disappear. For, as forms of human perception, space and time are for us unalterable. Since they belong to the very constitution of our minds, we can apprehend no object of sense without giving it the form under which such apprehension is alone possible for us. Leibnitz was therefore mistaken in supposing that space and time are merely confused conceptions of the mutual relations of things; were that true, we should be capable of grasping individual realities by analyzing our first conceptions of things until we had made them perfectly clear. The truth is that space and time are not conceptions at all, but perceptions, and hence no precision of analysis can get rid of them. We are unable even to conceive the possibility of a knowledge that does not conform to the conditions of space and time; for, as has been said, no definite object can be apprehended except under those conditions.

The peculiar doctrine of Kant in regard to the nature of space and time is thus interwoven with his whole system of thought. In one form or other he is always occupied with the opposition of objects of sensible experience, which can never be ultimate realities because they can never be complete individuals, and the inextinguishable impulse to believe in and to seek for such realities. But before dealing formally with the contrast of phenomenal and noumenal, he seeks to provide a firm basis for the mathematical and physical sciences. Though the forms of our perception do not admit of a knowledge of the real in its ultimate nature, yet certain fundamental principles of scientific knowledge can be rigidly demonstrated. The first of these principles is, that every object of sensible experience that we ever have known, or ever can know, is an extensive quantum. This conclusion follows from the necessary and normal operation of our minds under conditions of space and time. For we cannot apprehend any sensible object without picturing it as spread out in space, or as a succession in time. Even the pure magnitudes of mathematics such as a line, or a day must be so presented. Eliminate space and time, and we are dealing not with sensible realities, but with abstractions. Now, space and time are not complete individuals. If indeed space were, as the late Professor Clifford rashly imagined it might be, a vast sphere, or if it were divided up into a number of individual spaces, we might picture it as complete ; but as there is no limit to its divisibility or extensibility, we can present it to ourselves only by successively generating its parts and combining them into a relative whole. It is the same with time, which has no beginning and no end. The perception of a particular space or time thus exists for us only in the process by which it is generated and united with other spaces or times. The synthetic activity exercised by the mind in this case takes the form of a successive synthesis of homogeneous units, for every part of space or time is precisely alike. This form of synthesis lies at the basis of all our sensible presentations, for obviously no sensible object can escape from the conditions of our perceptive experience. The consciousness of this mode of synthetic activity is the consciousness of extensive quantity, and this consciousness is presupposed in all our mathematical determinations of phenomena.

There is a second principle of experience which we can lay down. Not only are all phenomena extensive quanta, but they are also intensive quanta. Kant finds this new characteristic also bound up with the conditions of sensible perception. The conception of reality, as we have seen, is of that which is complete in itself, or absolutely individual, but of no such reality can we have any sensible experience. The objects of our sensible experience have not an absolute, but only a relative reality. Complete reality would be infinite, whereas the reality we know, as sensible, possesses only a limited amount of reality. We can represent any sensible object as real only by conceiving it as limited by an opposite reality. Thus, there lies at the foundation of every perception a synthetic process by which we picture reality as ascending from zero without reaching infinity and combine the elements of reality so generated in a definite degree. As the real must be represented as in time, it is impossible to present any reality as infinitely small or infinitely large. The apprehension of an object as sensibly real thus involves a synthetic activity of the mind, and the consciousness of this synthetic activity is intensive quantity or degree.

Passing now to the other side of the problem, Kant proceeds to show that reality as it actually is cannot possibly be known by a being like man, who in all the processes of his knowledge is compelled to represent objects as quanta. This conclusion will be seen to follow almost directly from what has already been said. If we must present objects to ourselves as extensive or intensive quanta, we can never come directly into the presence of individual reality, since no quantum can possibly be a true individual. Thus, Kant proceeds to urge the claims of thought in such a way as to bring out the limits of our perceptive experience. He maintains, in the first place, that we cannot possibly have experience of the world of sensible objects either as absolutely limited, or as absolutely unlimited, in time or space. From the very nature of the synthetic process in which objects are presented as quanta, there can be no limit to their extensibility or their divisibility. A first moment of time, or a last point of space, is an impossible experience; and equally impossible is an indivisible part of space or of matter. The very conditions of our sensible experience preclude us from a knowledge of reality as we are compelled to think it. Yet reason makes us aware that, without such knowledge, we have not attained to the apprehension of reality as it truly is, and hence we cannot avoid the conclusion that our knowledge is not of reality as it is in itself, but only of reality as it presents itself to us under the necessary limitations of our faculties. Like Socrates we know what reality must be, but we also know that we do not know it. Yet this very consciousness of the limitation of our sensible experience sets before our minds the idea of reality as it is in itself. We cannot, it is true, by any exercise of our intellectual faculties, pass beyond inflammatory mania which shut us in, but we may nonetheless be able to have a reasoned faith in the existence of supersensible realities corresponding to our ideas. The world of sense is a dizzy Bacchic dance, in which no single point remains for a moment at rest. Nothing is permanent but change. Such a world cannot give satisfaction to the inextinguishable desire for an apprehension, or at least an assured faith, in the Infinite. Is there not, Kant asks, a point of view from which the finite and partial world of experience may be seen to be but the outward manifestation of the real or infinite? It is true that we can have experience only of the finite. Even our own desires and volitions we are compelled to present under the form of time, and therefore as a finite series; but, on the other hand, we are warned by the consciousness of the infinite not to assume that in their inner nature they are merely temporal events. It is much that, if we cannot know things sub specie ceternitatis, we are aware that what we do know is presented only sub specie temporis. Thus, the consciousness of the limitations of human intelligence suggests the idea of an intelligence that is unlimited' a perceptive intelligence which does not proceed, by a successive process of synthesis, from part to part, but contemplates reality in its fulness and perfection. We are therefore compelled to think of a reality that is not borne along on a changing stream of time, but is beyond time, self-complete and self-determining. This conception prepares the way for a true view of man as an active or moral being. Our own actions we have to represent as events occurring in an inviolable order of succession, but there is nothing self-contradictory in the idea that in their real nature they are not events. In fact, the idea of the real as the individually complete, forces us to think of a sort of causality which is not an eternal regress towards a first cause that is not first, a beginning that is no beginning. Of such a causality we cannot, it is true, have direct experience; but though it is an impossible experience, it is not an impossible reality. This much, therefore, we may say, that a really causal being cannot be a mere series of events, but if it exists at all, it must be self-complete, self-dependent, free. That we are ourselves beings of this nature we cannot prove from experience, for experience is only of the relative and finite; but we are at least entitled to say that we may be free causes. There is in this hypothesis nothing incompatible with the fact that our actions appear to us under the form of events in time. For we have no other form under which we can present our actions as facts but that of time, and time we have seen to be inadequate to the presentation of the real. Thus, a place is left open for freedom, and therefore for morality.

But freedom is not established by a mere "perhaps," and therefore Kant advances to his positive proof of it from the nature of the moral consciousness. The essence of morality lies in the idea of duty, an idea that by its very nature is possible only to a being that can take a point of view beyond the stream of events. The consciousness of what ought to be differs toto coelo from the consciousness of a sensible fact. In it I conceive of myself as under a law which prescribes an ideal that refuses to be limited by what I am or have been. Many desires spring up in me independently of my will, but duty continues to affirm its claims absolutely, be those desires weak or strong. What I ought to be is thus opposed to what I am. "Thus, man conceives of himself as under a law that is independent of the world of sense. True, he cannot know himself as he is, but in the very possession of the idea of duty he learns that he must in his inner nature be capable of freedom, and that this freedom may be realized in the act of willing the moral law.

It is sufficiently obvious even from the hurried and imperfect statement just given of certain points in the philosophy of Kant, that a rough test of the adequacy of the Critical Philosophy may be made by asking how far we can accept the doctrine, that human knowledge can never be of reality as it truly is because it is limited by the inadequate forms of space and time. If that doctrine is found to be untenable, we shall then have to ask whether freedom and morality, as Kant maintains, stand and fall with it. In the remainder of this article we shall confine ourselves to these two points. Kant, as we have seen, accepted the view of Leibnitz that the real must be individual and self-complete. Now, there is a sense in which this must be admitted to be true. It is a contradiction in terms to speak of more than one universe: beyond the totality of existence there can be no existence. That reality is one, is a conviction which has tacitly or expressly been the guiding idea of every thinker since Thales, and, as we may even say, of the whole race of man since the dawn of consciousness. But there have been as many definitions of the Unity which is presupposed in all forms of existence as there have been philosophies. Now, the Kantian conception of the ultimately real is at bottom that of a reality which is complete in itself, not by the inclusion, but by the exclusion, of all differences or relations. This is the assumption which leads him to affirm that knowledge is never of the real, but only of the real as distorted by the subjective forms of space and time. It is because no object that is completely isolated from all connection with other objects can be found in the sensible world, that he brands the whole of our knowledge as phenomenal, and falls back upon a faith in a reality that cannot be compressed within the frames of our perception or thought. Here is the point where Idealism joins issue with Kant. Admitting that the real is the individual or self-complete, it affirms that the true individual must be sought, not by the exclusion of all differences or relations, but by their inclusion. The reality of any object is determined by the degree in which it participates in the totality of relations by which the organic unity of the world as a whole is constituted. It follows from this conception of reality, that the process of knowledge is a progressive specification of the one reality of which all forms of existence are phases. And in proportion as this one reality is progressively determined, the consciousness of what it is becomes deeper and richer. We may put the same idea in other words by saying that the world is brought under ever higher categories, if only we are careful to observe that these categories are not fixed and unchangeable conceptions, but logically distinguishable points in the living process by which thought develops from lower to higher stages. Strictly speaking, thought has not a number of conceptions, but different conceptions are but convenient distinctions which we make in the one process of conception by which we become conscious of what reality truly is. And, just as we cannot tell what the acorn is until we have seen it develop into the oak, so it is impossible correctly to characterize Reality until thought has done its perfect work and reached the ultimate phase of conception. Absolute Idealism maintains that thought when completely developed reaches the conception of the real as a self-conscious organic Unity, and that all other conceptions are the less developed forms of this ultimate thought. In other terms, Idealism affirms that a knowledge of Reality, as it truly is, is possible for man, and in a sense is attained by every man. For the idea of the Unity of all things is the impulse of knowledge and constitutes an intellectual atmosphere, which is ever present, though usually it is not brought before consciousness in an explicit reflection. Let us see the bearing of this general view of knowledge upon the doctrine of Kant.

It is assumed by Kant that, if we could but find a sensible object that possessed an isolated independence, we should then have a knowledge of something absolutely real: it is just because no such object can be presented in space or time that our knowledge is declared to be only of the phenomenal. Now, it may be safely affirmed that a reality such as is here desiderated is unknowable not only by us, but by any possible intelligence. If existence were made up of an infinite number of atomic individuals, there would not be one universe, but an infinite number: each monad, as Leibnitz said, would constitute a little universe by itself. But no such monad, except by a gratuitous assumption, can be conceived to have any knowledge of the other monads: it must be as absolutely alone as if nothing but itself existed. It is thus obvious that the ideal of perfect knowledge which Kant borrowed from Leibnitz is a false ideal. The knowledge of man cannot, therefore, be stigmatized as phenomenal, on the ground that we cannot know an isolated individual or monad. Yet a real difficulty is brought into relief by Kant, when he points out that no knowledge of the world as a complete whole can be obtained so long as we seek to reach completeness by the conception of quantity. No smallest or largest quantum can be known, because it is of the very nature of a quantum to be infinitely divisible and infinitely addible. This peculiarity, according to Kant, arises from the nature of space and time, neither of which, being continuous, admits of being summed up and completed; and, as no object can be known except under the forms of space and time, Kant naturally concludes that the real lies beyond our knowledge. Now, it may be shown that the true inference from the impossibility of attaining completeness by determining objects as spatial and temporal is, not that knowledge is limited to such objects, but, on the contrary, that it is not so limited. Why is the effort to find a true individual by summing up space or time necessarily abortive, if not that the mind refuses to be satisfied with that' which is no real unity? It is the tacit conception of the world as complete that makes us aware of the inadequacy of all our efforts to determine it as a mere externality of parts or a flux of moments. Had we no higher conception of existence, we should never be conscious of the inadequacy of our conception of it as an extensive quantum. Thus, in the consciousness of objects as in space and time we are already beyond that consciousness; and we have only to make this higher consciousness explicit to be aware that we are beyond it. As a matter of fact, no one is satisfied simply to know the relative position or magnitude of an object, or the mere place of an event in the flux of time: we begin with such knowledge, but we go on to inquire into its less obvious nature its causal relations, its development, its meaning for human life. The impossibility, therefore, of resting in the mere knowledge of coexistences and successions arises from the consciousness that we can only know reality in its completeness by abandoning the monotonous repetition of space on space, time on time, quantum on quantum, and seeking for a more fundamental mode of comprehending it. Yet, it must not be forgotten that even the determination of objects as spatial and temporal quanta is a step in the ascent towards a full view of reality. The mathematical determination of objects as magnitudes prepares the way for the knowledge of them as connected by the bonds of causality. Hence all the physical sciences rest upon the mathematical; or, in other words, the conception of the world as a system of causal relations is simply the conception of it as quantitative, when the latter has become aware of what is presupposed in it. Hence, we must deny the Kantian doctrine, that the quantitative determination of things is inapplicable to things as they truly are. The true view is that things are related quantitatively, not merely for our intelligence, but for all intelligence; though, at the same time, they have much deeper relations. The various stages of knowledge are not connected in the way of mutual exclusion: the physical sciences do not overthrow but build upon the foundation of the mathematical: the mental sciences build upon both.

These considerations may help us to see the inadequacy of the Kantian conception of man as a free being. It seemed to Kant that freedom can be saved only if we suppose that man is in his real nature independent of time. For, whatever is in time, as subject to the law of causation, must occur in a fixed and unchanging way. The natural desires seemed to Kant to be such events, and hence he was forced to say that, so far as we look at man simply as an emotional being, there is nothing to show that he is different in nature from the animals, or even from inorganic things. To preserve human freedom, Kant therefore denied that in his rational nature man can be viewed as in time, and, as knowledge is only of that which is in time (or space), he further denied that we have a knowledge of ourselves as free beings. We do not know ourselves as free, though the fact of our possessing an idea of the moral law necessitates the belief in our freedom.

The fundamental mistake of Kant here is his assumption that to be above time, it is necessary to be out of time, or, what comes to the same thing, that man can only be free if he is independent of all-natural inclination. The truth, however, is, that man is in time and yet above it; that his desires, though they must in one point of view be regarded as events, are yet more than events. That desire precedes volition, as volition precedes the physical movements by which an action is carried into effect, is true and has its own value, but it is not the whole truth. To suppose that it is, is to fall into a mistake similar to that of Descartes when he defined matter as pure extension. For, when we look carefully at the nature of desire, we find that it derives its character from the self-conscious activity of the subject. The impulse to satisfy the craving of hunger is not desire, in the sense in which desire is a motive to action. The impulse becomes desire only by reference to the consciousness of my personal good as conceived to demand gratification of the natural impulse. Eliminate the idea of the self as it is presented by an act of thought, and the natural impulse may still remain, and may even be followed by the instinctive movement of seizing and eating the food within reach, but there will be no act properly so called. Desire involves the interpretive power by which the relation of food to my physical well-being, and indirectly to my moral well-being, is presented to my consciousness. Thus, in having a desire I have already gone beyond the mere consciousness of a certain event. Desire is, however, not yet volition, but only the idea of a possible volition. This possibility is translated into actuality in the act by which I determine myself in conformity with the ideal of myself which I have formed. This act of self-determination is my motive, and hence to have a motive and to be free is the same thing. That Kant should have found it necessary to seek for the preservation of freedom by denying to man all knowledge of his own nature as it really is, is only another instance of the highest knowledge of the real which we can attain is that of a series of events in time. As we have seen, the abstract opposition of the phenomenal and the real disappears when we see that the phenomenal is simply the real as it first appears to us in the earlier phases of our thought. Thus, every conception of the world, short of that which includes and yet transcends all the rest, may be called a knowledge of the phenomenal; but, in this sense, the phenomenal must ultimately vanish in the real.

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