[This excerpt is from Chapter 2 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]
Kant’s problematic from empiricism and rationalism
In addition to his religious concerns, Kant was also grappling with the problems that the empiricists and the rationalists had run into in attempting to develop satisfactory accounts of reason.
For all of their differences, the empiricists and rationalists had agreed with the broadly Enlightenment conception of reason—that human reason is a faculty of the individual, that it is competent to know reality objectively, that it is capable of functioning autonomously and in accordance with universal principles. Reason so conceived underlay their confidence in science, human dignity, and the perfectibility of human institutions.
Of those five features of reason—objectivity, competence, autonomy, universality, and being an individual faculty—Kant concluded that the sad experience of recent philosophy demonstrated that the most fundamental of them, objectivity, must be abandoned. The failures of empiricism and rationalism had shown that objectivity is impossible.
For reason to be objective, it must have contact with reality. The most obvious candidate for such direct contact is sense-perception. On realist accounts, the senses give us our most direct contact with reality, and they thereby provide the material that reason then organizes and integrates into concepts, those concepts in turn becoming integrated into propositions and theories.
If, however, the senses give us only internal representations of objects, then an obstacle is erected between reality and reason. If reason is presented with an internal sensory representation of reality, then it is not aware directly of reality; reality then becomes something to be inferred or hoped for beyond a veil of sense-perception.
Two arguments had traditionally generated the conclusion that we are aware only of internal sensory representations. The first was based on the fact that sense-perception is a causal process. Since it is a causal process, the argument ran, it seems that one’s reason comes to be aware of an internal state at the end of the causal process and not of the external object that initiated the process. The senses, unfortunately, get in the way of our consciousness of reality. The second argument was based on the fact that the features of sense-perception vary from individual to individual and across time for any given individual. One individual sees an object as red while another sees it as gray. An orange tastes sweet—but not after tasting a spoonful of sugar. What then is the real color of the object or the real taste of the orange? It seems that neither can be said to be the real feature. Instead, each sense-perception must be merely a subjective effect, and one’s reason must be aware only of the subjective effect and not the external object.
What both of these arguments have in common is a recognition of the uncontroversial fact that our sense organs have an identity, that they work in specific ways, and that the form in which we experience reality is a function of our sense organs’ identities. And they have in common the crucial and controversial premise that our sense organs’ having an identity means that they become obstacles to direct consciousness of reality. This latter premise was critical for Kant’s analysis.
The empiricists had drawn from this analysis of sense-perception the conclusion that while we must rely on our sense perceptions, we must always be tentative with regard to our confidence in them. From sense-perception we can draw no certain conclusions. The rationalists had drawn the conclusions that sense-experience is useless as a source of significant truths and that for the source of such truths we must look elsewhere.
This brings us to abstract concepts. The empiricists, stressing the experiential source of all of our beliefs, had held that concepts too must be contingent. As based on sense-perception, concepts are two stages removed from reality and so less certain. And as groupings based on our choices, concepts are human artifices, so they and the propositions generated from them can have no necessity or universality ascribed to them.
The rationalists, agreeing that necessary and universal concepts could not be derived from sense-experience—but insisting that we do have necessary and universal knowledge—had concluded that our concepts must have a source somewhere other than in sense-experience. The problematic implication of this was that if concepts did not have their source in sense-experience, then it was hard to see how they could have any application to the sensory realm.
What these two analyses of concepts had in common is the following hard choice. If we think of concepts as telling us something universal and necessary, then we have to think of them as having nothing to do with the world of sense experience; and if we think of concepts as having something to do with the world of sense experience, then we have to abandon the idea of knowing any real universal and necessary truths. In other words, experience and necessity have nothing to do with each other. This premise too was critical for Kant’s analysis.
The rationalists and the empiricists had jointly struck a blow to the Enlightenment confidence in reason. Reason works with concepts. But now we were to accept either that reason’s concepts have little to do with the world of sense experience—in which case, science’s conception of itself as generating universal and necessary truths about the world of sense-experience was in big trouble—or we were to accept that reason’s concepts are merely provisional and contingent groupings of sense-experiences—in which case science’s conception of itself as generating universal and necessary truths about the world of sense-experience was in big trouble.
Thus, by the time of Kant, the Enlightenment philosophers’ account of reason was faltering on two counts. Given their analysis of sense-perception, reason seemed cut off from direct access to reality. And given their analysis of concepts, reason seemed either irrelevant to reality or limited to merely contingent truths.
Kant’s significance in the history of philosophy is that he absorbed the lessons of the rationalists and empiricists and, agreeing with the central assumptions of both sides, transformed radically the terms of the relationship between reason and reality.
[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at Amazon.com. See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]