Why Kant is the turning point

[This excerpt is from Chapter 2 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]

Why Kant is the turning point

Kant was the decisive break with the Enlightenment and the first major step toward postmodernism. Contrary to the Enlightenment account of reason, Kant held that the mind is not a response mechanism but a constitutive mechanism. He held that the mind—and not reality—sets the terms for knowledge. And he held that reality conforms to reason, not vice versa. In the history of philosophy, Kant marks a fundamental shift from objectivity as the standard to subjectivity as the standard.

Wait a minute, a defender of Kant may reply. Kant was hardly opposed to reason. After all, he favored rational consistency and he believed in universal principles. So what is anti-reason about that? The answer is that more fundamental to reason than consistency and universality is a connection to reality. Any thinker who concludes that in principle reason cannot know reality is not fundamentally an advocate of reason. That Kant was in favor of consistency and universality is of derivative and ultimately inconsequential significance. Consistency with no connection to reality is a game based on subjective rules. If the rules of the game have nothing to do with reality, then why should everyone play by the same rules? These were precisely the implications the postmodernists were to draw eventually.

Kant was thus different from previous skeptics and religious apologists. Many earlier skeptics had denied that we can know anything, and many earlier religious apologists had subordinated reason to faith. But earlier skeptics had never been as sweeping in their conclusions. Earlier skeptics would identify particular cognitive operations and raise problems for them. Maybe a given experience is a perceptual illusion—thus undermining our confidence in our perceptual faculties; or maybe it is a dream—thus undermining our confidence in be distinguishing truth from fantasy; or maybe induction is only probabilistic—thus undermining our confidence in our generalizations; and so on. But the conclusion of those skeptical arguments would be merely that we cannot be sure that we are right about the way reality is. We might be, but we cannot guarantee it, the skeptics would conclude. Kant’s point was deeper, arguing that in principle any conclusion reached by any of our faculties must necessarily not be about reality. Any form of cognition, because it must operate a certain way, cannot put us in contact with reality. On principle, because our minds’ faculties are structured in a certain way, we cannot say what reality is. We can only say how our minds have structured the subjective reality we perceive. This thesis had been implicit in the works of some earlier thinkers, including Aristotle’s, but Kant made it explicit and drew the conclusion systematically.

Kant is a landmark in a second respect. Earlier skeptics had, despite their negative conclusions, continued to conceive of truth as correspondence to reality. Kant went a step further and redefined truth on subjective grounds. Given his premises, this makes perfect sense. Truth is an epistemological concept. But if our minds are in principle disconnected from reality, then to speak of truth as an external relationship between mind and reality is nonsense. Truth must be solely an internal relationship of consistency.

With Kant, then, external reality thus drops almost totally out of the picture, and we are trapped inescapably in subjectivity—and that is why Kant is a landmark. Once reason is in principle severed from reality, one then enters a different philosophical universe altogether.

kant-silhouette-75x134This interpretive point about Kant is crucial and controversial. An analogy may help drive the point home. Suppose a thinker argued the following: “I am an advocate of freedom for women. Options and the power to choose among them are crucial to our human dignity. And I am wholeheartedly an advocate of women’s human dignity. But we must understand that a scope of a woman’s choice is confined to the kitchen. Beyond the kitchen’s door she must not attempt to exercise choice. Within the kitchen, however, she has a whole feast of choices—whether to cook or clean, whether to cook rice or potatoes, whether to decorate in blue or yellow. She is sovereign and autonomous. And the mark of a good woman is a well-organized and tidy kitchen.” No one would mistake such a thinker for an advocate of woman’s freedom. Anyone would point out that there is a whole world beyond the kitchen and that freedom is essentially about exercising choice about defining and creating one’s place in the world as a whole. The key point about Kant, to draw the analogy crudely, is that he prohibits knowledge of anything outside our skulls. He gives reason lots to do within the skull, and he does advocate a well-organized and tidy mind, but this hardly makes him a champion of reason. The point for any advocate of reason is that there is a whole world outside our skulls, and reason is essentially about knowing it.

Kant’s contemporary Moses Mendelssohn was thus prescient in identifying Kant as “the all-destroyer.”[21] Kant did not take all of the steps down to postmodernism, but he did take the decisive one. Of the five major features of Enlightenment reason—objectivity, competence, autonomy, universality, and being an individual faculty—Kant rejects objectivity. Once reason is so severed from reality, the rest is details—details that are worked out over the next two centuries. By the time we get to the postmodernist account, reason is seen not only as subjective, but also as incompetent, highly contingent, relative, and collective. Between Kant and the postmodernists comes the successive abandonment of the rest of reason’s features.


[21] Quoted in Beck 1969, 337.


[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.]

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