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Immanuel Kant

German Philosopher


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Narrated by Barrett Whitener

Download mp3 file: Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics

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How Is Metaphysics Possible As a Science?

Metaphysics as a natural tendency of reason is real, but by itself it is dialectical and deceitful. If we set ourselves to take principles from it, and in using them to follow the natural (but nonetheless false) illusion, we can never produce science, but only a pointless dialectical art in which one school may outdo another but none can ever get, and be entitled to, lasting approval.

For metaphysics as a science to be entitled to claim not mere fallacious plausibility but insight and conviction, a critique of reason itself must exhibit the whole stock of a priori concepts, the classification of them according to their different sources (sensibility, understanding, and reason), a complete list of these concepts, and the analysis of each of them together with all the consequences of that analysis; but above all the critique must show the possibility of synthetic "a priori" knowledge (doing this through a deduction of these concepts), the principles governing the use of the a priori concepts, and finally the boundaries of that use; and all of this is to be presented in a complete system! Thus criticism, and that alone, contains in itself the whole well-tested and verified plan for achieving metaphysics as a science - the plan and indeed all the means for carrying it out. By any other ways or means the task is impossible. So the question here is not so much how the task is possible as how to get it under way, inducing good minds to quit their mistaken and fruitless cultivation in favour of one that won't deceive, and how such an alliance for the common end may best be directed.

This much is certain, that someone who has sampled criticism will for ever after be disgusted with all the dogmatic twaddle that he used to endure - he had to endure it because his reason was in need of something and could find nothing better than the twaddle for its nourishment.

Criticism relates to ordinary academic metaphysics exactly as chemistry does to alchemy, or as astronomy does to the astrology of the fortune-teller. I guarantee that when you have thought through and grasped the principles of criticism, even if only in these preliminaries, you will never return to that old and sophistical pseudo-science of dogmatic academic metaphysics; rather, you will look forward with a certain delight to a metaphysics that is now surely in your power, that requires no more preparatory discoveries, and, above all, that can provide reason with permanent satisfaction. For here is an excellence that metaphysics can confidently count on and that no other possible science can: it can be completed and put into a permanent state where there are no more changes to be made, and no additions through new discoveries. That is because in metaphysics reason has the sources of its knowledge in itself, not in objects and the intuition of them (reason has nothing to learn from intuition); and when it has presented the fundamental laws of its own capacities completely, and so definitely as to prevent any misunderstanding, there is nothing left for pure reason to know a priori - indeed, there is not even any basis left for it to ask any further questions. There is something especially attractive about the sure prospect of knowledge that is so definite and so completed - even apart from all its advantages (of which more later).

All false art, all empty 'wisdom', lasts its time out but eventually destroys itself, and its cultural high-point comes at the moment of ·the onrush of· its decay. That this time has come for metaphysics is shown by the condition into which it has fallen in all the learned nations, in contrast with all the zeal with which other sciences of every kind are pursued. The old organization of university studies still preserves its shadow; and now and then a solitary academy of science, by offering prizes, tempts someone or other to have a shot at it; but it is no longer counted among the solid sciences. You can judge for yourself how a gifted man would take it if he were called 'a fine metaphysician'! It might be meant as a compliment, but hardly anyone would want to be so labelled.

Yet, though the time of the collapse of all dogmatic metaphysics has undoubtedly arrived, we are still far from being able to say that the time has come for its rebirth through a solid and complete critique of reason. When someone's inclinations shift from running one way to running in the opposite direction, he passes through an intermediate stage of indifference ·in which he is not inclined in any direction. And this fact about human desires and tendencies has its analogue in shifts of intellectual direction among the sciences·. This moment ·of 'indifference', with an old science on the wane and no new one to take its place·, is the most dangerous for an author, but in my opinion it's the most favourable for the science. For when the total breaking of former ties has extinguished the partisan spirit, minds are in the best state to take in, gradually, proposals for a new scheme of alliances.

When I say I hope that these preliminaries may excite investigation in the field of criticism, and provide something new and promising to nourish the universal spirit of philosophy that seems ·except for moral philosophy· to be under-nourished, I can already imagine that everyone who is tired and cross from walking the thorny paths of my critique will ask me: What is your basis for hoping that? I answer: The basis of the irresistible law of necessity.

Will the human mind ever give up metaphysical researches altogether? There is no more chance of that than there is of our choosing to give up breathing altogether so as to avoid inhaling impure air! So there will always be metaphysics in the world; what's more every person - especially every thinking person - will have metaphysical views, and in the absence of a public standard he will tailor them to suit himself. What has been called 'metaphysics' up to now can't satisfy any demanding mind, but it's quite impossible to give up metaphysics completely; so a critique of pure reason itself must now be attempted; or if one exists it must be investigated and comprehensively tested. There is no other way to meet this pressing need, which is something more than mere thirst for knowledge.

Ever since I have come to know criticism, when I finish reading a book with metaphysical content - one that has entertained and enriched me by its precision of thought, variety, orderliness, and easy style - I can't help asking: Has this author really advanced metaphysics a single step? I hope they will forgive me - those learned men whose writings have been useful to me in other respects and have always helped me to develop my mental powers - for saying that I have never been able to find that the science of metaphysics has been advanced in the least by their works or by my own lesser ones (even when my egotism speaks in their favour!).

The reason for this is very obvious: it is that metaphysics didn't then exist as a science; and ·those other writers and I couldn't make small steps towards bringing it into existence, because· it can't be assembled bit by bit, but must have its seed fully preformed in the critique. However, in order to prevent any misunderstanding we should bear in mind something I have already said: the understanding gains a great deal from the analytic treatment of our concepts, but the science (of metaphysics) is not in the least advanced by it, because these analyses of concepts are merely materials out of which the science is to be assembled in the first place. Let the concepts of substance and of accident be ever so well analysed and fixed; that is an excellent preparation for some future use. But if I cannot prove that in everything that exists the substance endures and only the properties change, our science is not the least advanced by all this analysis. Metaphysics has so far not been able to prove a priori either the above proposition, or the principle of sufficient reason, still less any compound principle such as belongs to psychology or cosmology, or indeed any synthetic proposition whatsoever. So all this analysis has achieved nothing, created and advanced nothing; and despite all this bustle and clatter the science is right back where it was in Aristotle's time; though the preparations for it would have been better advanced ·now· than they were ·back then·, if only the guiding thread to synthetic knowledge had been found. If anyone thinks himself wronged in this, he can easily refute my charge by producing a single synthetic proposition belonging to metaphysics that he offers to prove a priori in the dogmatic manner. Until he has done this I shan't grant that he has really advanced the science; even if the proposition ·that he claims to be able to prove· is sufficiently confirmed by common experience. No demand can be more moderate or fairer than this, and if it is not fulfilled (as it quite certainly won't be), no verdict is more just than this: Up to now, metaphysics has never existed as a science.

In case my challenge is accepted, I must rule out just two things.

(1) One is: playing around with probability and conjecture, which are as little suited to metaphysics as they are to geometry. Nothing can be more absurd than to think of grounding our judgments on probability and conjecture in metaphysics, which is a philosophy based on pure reason . Everything that is to be known a priori is for that very reason announced as absolutely certain, and must therefore be proved as such. We might as well think of basing geometry or arithmetic on conjectures! The calculus of probability, which is part of arithmetic, contains no merely probable judgments. Rather, it consists of completely certain judgments about the degree of possibility of certain upshots in given homogeneous conditions. What happens across the totality of all possible cases must be in accordance with such rules ·or judgments·, though these are not determinate enough to say what will happen in any particular case. Only in empirical natural science can conjectures be tolerated (they come in there through induction and analogy), and even there at least the possibility of what one is assuming must be quite certain.

(2) The second thing I rule out is decision by means of the divining rod of so-called sound common sense, which doesn't dip ·in the same place· for everyone and is guided by ·the· personal qualities ·of the person holding it·. When we are dealing with concepts and principles not considered as valid with regard to experience but considered as valid even beyond the conditions of experience, appealing to common sense is even more absurd ·than relying on probability·, if that's possible. For what is common sense? It is ordinary understanding insofar as it judges correctly. But what is ordinary understanding? It is the capacity for knowledge and for using rules in application to particular cases, as distinguished from speculative understanding, which is the capacity for knowledge of rules in the abstract. So common sense can hardly understand the rule that every event is determined by its cause, and can never take it in as a general proposition. It therefore demands an example from experience; and when it ·is given one, and· hears that this rule means nothing but what it (·common sense·) always thought when a window-pane was broken or an article of furniture went missing, then it understands the principle and agrees to it. Ordinary understanding is thus of use only to the extent that it can see its rules confirmed by experience (though actually the rules are in it a priori); consequently the job of having insight into these rules a priori and independently of experience is assigned to speculative understanding, and lies quite outside the field of vision of common sense. But metaphysics has to do only with speculative understanding; and someone who appeals to common sense for support in metaphysics shows that he doesn't have much of it! For in this context common sense has no judgment at all; and ·when it is invoked, there is a kind of bad faith in that, because· it is looked down on with contempt except when people are in difficulties and don't know where else to turn for advice or help.

These false friends of common sense (who occasionally prize it highly, but usually despise it) customarily offer this excuse ·for sometimes appealing to it: There must in the end be some propositions that are immediately certain, and for which there is no need to give any proof, or even any account at all; because if there were not, there would be no end to the grounds for our judgments. And these immediately certain propositions are the ones we know to be true through our common sense.

But these people can never prove their right to say this by pointing to anything indubitable that they can immediately ascribe to common sense - with two exceptions ·that are irrelevant to our present concerns·. One is the principle of contradiction, which ·we can set aside because it· is inadequate for showing the truth of synthetic judgments. The other is comprised of mathematical propositions, such as that twice two make four, and that between two points there is only one straight line, etc. But these judgments are vastly different from those of metaphysics. For in mathematics when I conceptually represent something to myself as possible I can also make it, construct it, in my thought: to one two I add the other two, one by one, and so myself make the number four; or from one point to another I draw in thought all kinds of lines, and can draw only one in which every part is like every other part ·which means that the line is straight·. But ·no such construction has a place in metaphysics, as I shall explain through the example of the concept of causation·: with all my power of thinking I cannot extract from the concept of one thing the concept of something else whose existence is necessarily connected with the first thing; rather, ·if I want a basis for connecting something with something else· I must call in experience. Now, my understanding provides me a priori (yet always only in reference to possible experience) with the concept of such a connection ·between different things·, namely causation. But I cannot exhibit this concept a priori in intuition, thus showing its possibility a priori, as I can the concepts of mathematics. In metaphysics the concept of causation (together with the principles of its application) has to be valid a priori, and for that there must be a justification and deduction of its possibility - for otherwise we can't know what its range of validity is, for example, whether it can be used only in experience or also outside it. Such a justification and deduction are nothing remotely like the intuitive construction through which we can show possibility in mathematics.

In metaphysics as a speculative science of pure reason, therefore, we can never appeal to common sense. We can make such an appeal when we are forced to abandon pure reason and to renounce all purely speculative knowledge (which must always be knowledge ·strictly so-called·), which involves renouncing metaphysics itself and its teaching on certain matters, this 'forcing' coming about because we find that all we can achieve is reasonable belief - which suffices for our needs and may indeed be more wholesome for us than knowledge ·strictly so-called·. When we make that switch, the shape of the situation is completely altered. Metaphysics must be science, over-all and in each part; otherwise it is nothing. That is because metaphysics, as speculation of pure reason, has nothing to hold it steady except universal insights. Beyond its domain, however, probability and common sense can be used legitimately and to good effect, but following principles of their own, the importance of which always depends on their reference to practical life.

That is what I consider myself entitled to require for the possibility of metaphysics as a science.

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