on 19 August 2012
First published in 1781 by the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the `Critique of Pure Reason' explains Kant's philosophical belief that knowledge is acquired through two varying factors: `a posteriori' - in which something is known to be logically true only by the evidence of the `sense' experience, and `a priori' - in which something is logically true through the understanding, independent of experience (pure reason). These conditions of knowledge must also take into account the concept of Space (outer intuition) and Time (inner intuition), which governs our perception and understanding. Kant analyses these unions of synthesis into twelve categories or conscious laws which include: Quantity (Unity/Plurality), Quality (Reality/Negation/Limitation), Relation (Cause and Effect) and Modality (Possibility and Responsibility; Existence and Non-Existence). By this Kant shows that the world around us is experienced by a priori (Rationalism and Reason) and a posteriori (Empiricism and Experience) subjective to consciousness (a unity of intuitions), linked by thought under certain laws.
This `consciousness' assents to specific modes of conduct, as in the `moral' law of behaviour (good, honest and positive actions), `amoral' and `immoral' (bad and negative actions). These moral laws are also driven by religious aspirations in some who assume the existence of a `Superior Being' or God, and are subjective to God's will. In metaphysics, morality and religion are not within the boundary of knowledge and lie in the region of faith, and so Kant brings into question the theory that there may not be a God, after all, and ultimately the concept that the soul cannot exist for how can a substance that is `not matter' (the soul) be contained `in matter' (the body)?
This is all very fascinating and Kant's work went on to inspire such thinkers as Johann Fichte (1762-1814), Friedrich Schelling 91775-1854), George Hegel (1770-1831) and David Hume (1711-1776). This interesting book will provide the reader with much food for thought!
on 1 November 2014
The importance of the Critique of Pure Reason is well-established and requires no reviews. It is not a book one is likely to stumble across and think, "this looks interesting", if for no other reason (pure or otherwise) than that a quick dip into the book shows it to be dense and difficult. The key question is: which translation makes this dense and difficult book most clear now I have decided to tackle the most important philosophical thinker since Aristotle? The Cambridge edition (1998) is one of the most up to date and is, perhaps, set to become the standard. But Norman Kemp Smith's translation (1929) is still the standard used for reference, even though this Cambridge version is probably better. There is also the free version of Meiklejohn; venerable and old fashioned and not recommended. Pluhar is widely used in the USA and has its fans. And finally there is the Penguin 2007 translation, by Weigelt based on the Max Muller version, which has an attractive layout and style; to me this seems a more naturally flowing style. Compared to Kemp Smith the Penguin is clearer as the active voice is used more than the passive and key terms are set in bold.
The difference between translations in their use of words is not the only difference. The Critique was published in two editions and it is usual to combine the two and here's the difficulty: each translation orders the paragraphs from the two editions (A and B) in a slightly ways, as it seems to me. So to compare Guyer and Smith Kemp's translations is not so easy as they each choose the sequence of combining the two editions that seems to them most comprehensible. Weigelt uses italics to differentiate the first editions (A) from the second (B). As I wrote in the previous paragraph, the standard is still Kemp Smith, meaning that reference works will refer to his paragraph numbering. Over time the newer Cambridge translation will become the reference point; in the meantime expect to see Kemp Smith's paragraph numbering as usual reference in commentaries. So, although choosing this edition has many attractions, following the text in some commentaries may be problematic. This Cambridge edition has academic weight - it's part of a whole project covering Kant's work - and is the one I reckon is that reflects most up to date academic thinking. Added to that are the recommendations of Guyer's translation by most academics. All that said, Weigelt has had the benefit of reading the Guyer version and no doubt considering what it makes clearer compared to Kemp Smith. Incidentally, he considers Guyer has made some mistakes in translation, and although he is not an academic of the standing of Guyer, there is no doubting his understanding of his subject as demonstrated by his lengthy and insightful introduction.
Students will probably be advised to buy the version their lecturer is using, but for those with the freedom to choose (see what Kant has to say on this topic) then a more modern translation is probably best, and for that Guyer is the most academically respectable; but if you can afford it buy the Penguin as well; it does seem to me to be more readable. At the same time as buying the book you will need a guide. It is quite impossible to understand the book without one, not least because the arguments Kant puts forward address philosophical debates current when he wrote and which will not be apparent.I consider Sebastian Gardner's book to be quite brilliant. Also read the Prolegomena before reading the Critique.
Andrew Stephenson's diagram is very useful in summarising the overall architecture of Kant's book. http://nebula.wsimg.com/72e5f4d1fd8e675801ad578eba2fe8e4?AccessKeyId=A9004B8B795F6CE7B9FA&disposition=0&alloworigin=1
Finally, and not to miss the opportunity for praising Kant, reading this book will give you an insight into quite a remarkable mind as it works its way through some fundamental questions about our experience of reality, or do I mean the appearance of reality? All that said, I do think Kant would have benefited from an editor who could have helped clarify and standardise some of the terms used and reduce some of the repetition. If you are not confused by Kant you are either a genius or you have not been paying sufficient attention. It's a maddening book that requires effort.
The philosopher, Franklin Merrell-Wolff, says that the Critique of Pure Reason is 15 years of thought written down in 5 months. The story goes that Kant was afraid of dying before he could reveal this original insight and so he rushed his masterpiece. So this is why it is very hard, because it is rushed, rather than because it is badly written. Suffice it to say that the top genius' of Germany, from Einstein to Schrodinger, all took this book seriously and many believe that Immanuel Kant was the cleverest man who ever lived.
Sadly, many people can also confuse terribly bad writing with deep philosophy. In fact, Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that because of Kant's hardness, conmen shouldered their way into the philosophy departments and babbled nonsense and people didn't notice because, to the average mind, genius and nonsense are intertwined.
A genius will be outside the range of normal people and so what the genius has to say will seem like nonsense anyway and if we take into account Kant's fear of death leading him to not care about the pleasing nature of prose and style, even though his book is a work of genius, then it is even more tragic that people think that because of Kant's bad style, all bad writers are genius'!
To me, top mathematicians scribble lines on the board. I can't judge if they are just clowning about or if they are writing proper maths. My mind can't begin to make sense of those symbols and squiggles. However, a maths genius can tell the difference. Schopenhauer wrote that it was the same with the philosophy of Kant. The entire neo kantian movement consisted of those like me. Goethe said of Kant's genius that it was like a boat making a clearing in the water but the water closes after the boat passes. Genius leaves no trace.
As an aside, In Brian Magee's autobiography where Magee says that he and Karl Popper admitted to each other that they couldn't understand what Kant was trying to say, I wonder, so what chance have we?
The Critique of Pure Reason is not a book that can be perused at ease: it is either studied or set aside - and the man who cannot spare much time and effort would do well to opt for the latter. Kant's tome - the pre-eminent work of Western philosophy - is an extremely demanding read, whose paragraphs exact a degree of concentration that would suffice to grasp entire chapters of most texts. Therefore, it should be clear from the outset that Kant's masterpiece requires not only a high degree of intelligence, but a tremendous will to persevere: only those who possess both can hope to learn from it.
The structure of the volume is rather lopsided. After the introduction, the Critique has two sections - a very long (over 500 pages) 'Transcendental Doctrine of Elements', and a much shorter, 'Transcendental Doctrine of Method'. The first of these sections is further subdivided between a very short 'Transcendental Aesthetic', and a rather long 'Transcendental Logic'. The 'Transcendental Logic' is further divided (after the introduction) into a 'Transcendental Analytic' and a 'Transcendental Dialectic'. Since the core of the Critique is contained in the Transcendental Aesthetic, Transcendental Analytic and Transcendental Dialectic, it is these that may be said to constitute the main parts of the book.
'Critique' it should be noted, refers not to criticism, but to critical analysis, and this is the main aim of the tome: investigating and establishing the sphere of pure reason - that is to say, of reason devoid of empirical content. In other words, how much can we hope to know beyond what is provided to us by experience?
Kant's answer to this question is essentially, "Beyond mathematics, not much at all". In order to establish the validity of this reply, he begins by destroying conventional notions of space and time in the Transcendental Aesthetic, by demonstrating that these are pure forms of sensible intuition of the subject - and not independent of him. Given that the world exists in space and time, and these two rest in the subject, this proof invariably leads to Arthur Schopenhauer's famous statement 'The World is my Representation.'
In the Transcendental Analytic - which is the most challenging, obscure and mentally taxing part of the book, Kant sets about establishing a system of pure concepts of the understanding ('the categories') which are not only prior to experience, but necessary to make sense of it. Schopenhauer rejects them all with the exception of causality, and the reader may wish to accept this short cut as well and plough on.
The culmination of the Critique is the Transcendental Dialectic - the dismantling of theology by philosophy. Here, armed with the ideas and arguments developed earlier in the book, Kant sets about refuting Biblical dogmas of the soul, the world, and of God. First, the Jewish philosopher Mendelsson's proof of the permanence of the soul is scrutinised and refuted. Then, by formulating and resolving the antinomies of pure reason, the great German genius demonstrates the inherent contradictions in theological notions of the world - and in the process, confirms his earlier analysis in the Transcendental Aesthetic.
Finally, Kant prepares the ultimate sacrifice for the greater glory of human reason: God Almighty. He does not merely argue against this theological dogma: rather, he commences by showing that there can only be three proofs of the existence of this omniscient, omnipotent being (the ontological, cosmological and physico-theological proofs). He refutes the first, and then, by revealing that upon scrutiny the other two shrivel into restatements of the first, refutes them as well. In other words, the existence of this being is not only unproven, it can never be proven - no more than the existence of ghosts, goblins, golems, etc... God is dead - and his slayer is an austere, ascetic Prussian professor of philosophy - perhaps the greatest hero in the history of humanity.
The philosopher does not stop there. Like a Haitian Bokor (voodoo-priest), he then resurrects the deity as a zombie to be used for the purposes of human reason. Whilst the theologians turned man into a slave of God, Kant turns God into a slave of man - by restoring him as a regulative principle of human reason.
Like any sensible criminal, our hero also sets about covering his tracks (and providing an alibi) by attempting to defend the existence of God as necessary for morality. In Schopenhauer's memorable words: 'when Kant demolished old and revered errors, and knew the danger of the business, he had only wanted to substitute here and there through moral theology a few weak props, so that the ruin would not fall on top of him, and he would have time to get away.'
Though undoubtedly one of the greatest books ever written, the Critique is also one of the most difficult to read. To what extent this is due to the complexity of the subject, the translation from German to English, and to Kant himself, is difficult to ascertain - though the combination of his superhuman intellect with his inhuman writing style strikes one as something of a cosmic joke. Furthermore, the book contains numerous Latin terms, such as 'sophisma figurae dictionis' whose translation should be provided in footnotes not endnotes. These obstacles make the highest knowledge as inaccessible as the highest peaks.
For those who attain these heights, there is an experience like none other. Just as Copernicus overthrew the geocentric system with the heliocentric, so likewise, does Kant dethrone the theocentric system with the homocentric. With the Critique, the last clouds of the dark ages are dispelled by the mighty rays of the Enlightenment as the power of the mind triumphs over superstition and sophistry, and in its light, the fear of God perishes to make way for the freedom of man. It took a genius to write this tome, and one feels like a genius after reading it.