We’re All Kantians

The closer we get to Kierkegaard’s time, the closer we get to epistemologies that more closely reflect Kierkegaard’s understanding of religious¬† and ethical knowledge. Kant, for example, provides a sort of middle way — or perhaps a better way to say this is that he provides a method that transcends the boundaries set out by the rational and empirical models of knowledge from Descartes to Hume. If we’ll remember, Descartes tended towards a heavy rationalism — doubting what he could not know with certainty until he could ascertain knowledge a priori that couldn’t be doubted. From this point, he attempted to build a system (internally) that couldn’t be doubted, and that gave him clear, reliable knowledge of the exterior world.

Hume (and his philosophical forebears) essentially thought this was rubbish. Knowledge is only accessible via sense experience. There are many reasons he thought this, but suffice it to say that the only knowledge he thought was even valid was knowledge that we gain “sensibly.” Through experience with the external world, we gain impressions (the immediate experience of the object with which we are interacting), and our minds create “ideas” from those impressions. Those ideas are our mind’s re-creation of those impressions, allowing us to observe them, post-experience. One of the main problems that Hume faced here is that he couldn’t prove causation via purely empirical evidence. But since he refused to acknowledge the existence of a priori knowledge, and we can’t prove that an effect was caused by something prior to a specific event occurring via sense experience, we’re stuck saying we can’t prove causation. The best we can do is say that, based on observation, we can reasonably expect that event B will follow event A because, historically, that’s what has happened before.

Kant sought a middle way here, and was, I think relatively successful. In fact, I think he was so successful that most of us still operate under Kantian or neo-Kantian epistemological assumptions. His solution? We do bring prior (a priori) forms to our experience of the world, but those forms are void of content. What are these a priori forms? Primarily space and time, but also things like causation. When we experience the world, we never experience it outside of these forms. Therefore, while those forms are not empirically extant, we bring along those forms with us. Copleston, in his History of Philosophy, Vol. VI, likens it to a man wearing rose-tinted glasses that he cannot remove. This man can still experience the world, but he can experience it in no other way than as rose-tinted. Space, time, and causation, according to Kant, are our rose-tinted glasses. Why is this useful knowledge? Because, if we know that we experience it as such, we can make other claims about reality that we couldn’t have made before, and it can perhaps explain our experience of phenomena (things that exist and/or occur) that do not otherwise make sense under empirical or rational models of epistemology.

Now, this is a serious distillation of Kant’s system, and his arguments that get us here are dense. But it seems as if we can at least recognize that this form of understanding how and why we know things informs how we understand epistemology today. Later, I’ll talk about his discussion of the limits of human reason, and how his epistemological system determines what we can know in the ethico-religious sphere.

All Descartes Can Give Us is Despair

In his history of philosophy, Frederick Copleston seeks to defend Descartes’s legacy against those who would argue that his methodical doubt is just an abstract attempt to arrive at certain knowledge. He writes:

The Cogito, ergo sum is therefore the indubitable truth on which Descartes proposes to found his philosophy… It is the first and most certain existential judgmenet. Descartes does not propose to build his philosophy on an abstract logical principle. In spite of anything which some critics may have said, his concern is not simply with essences or with possibilities: he is concerned with the existing reality, and his primary principle is an existential proposition.

A History of Philosophy IV, 93

Copleston’s (and by extension, Descartes’s) problem, however, is twofold. First, Descartes objectified existence, so that even if he built his philosophy and his understanding of the nature of reality and God and knowledge on an “existential principle,” he abstracted himself away from the reality of that existential principle. This very fact, the foundation of his thought (methodical, relentless doubt) led him away from subjectivity, which, for Kierkegaard is truth. For Descartes, his own existential reality may have served as the foundation for the rest of his philosophical enterprise, but (like God himself) existence was no more than a pragmatic detail, an afterthought to objectified, rationalized knowledge. (In fact, Descartes himself meant to write a moral philosophy, but never felt he was able to do so. Not surprising, given his obsession with method and abstracted knowledge.)

Second, I find it unlikely that anyone can proceed upon Descartes’s project without feeling some level of despair about the amount of certainty that one can obtain about the nature of reality, knowledge, and how we ought to act. Further, embarking upon such a project necessarily forces humans (if they are honest about where the project has led them) to infinitely regress into skepticism and either hedonism or despair. Lack of certainty about anything but our very existence (which is the only “accomplishment” the modern epistemological project provides) is the only outcome. Thus, Kierkegaard says we are met with the paradox of God (the infinite) in time and faith, the vehicle of a good human existence.