IMMANUEL KANT—Outline/Handout 

I. Philosophical Background: "The Eternal Battle of Nature v. Nurture—Resolved"?!
A. Continental Rationalism (17th c.): Descartes . . .

1. emphasis on innate/a priori ideas (—from God. Of course.)

2. the cogito (. . . ergo sum)
—pretty symptomatic of Euro/Western philosophy, BTW?!; why not "I feel, therefore I am," etc.?
B. British Empiricism (18th c.): Locke & Hume

1. tabula rasa (the mind as a "blank slate")

2. perceptions => (associations of) ideas
C. Kant's main agenda: to synthesize A. & B. (a priori reason/cognition + perceptual experience)

• "According to Hume (and Kant), we never experience substances and we never experience necessary connections; we experience only succession. How then do we get the 'idea' of stable, enduring entities, objects related causally to other objects? Having looked in vain for objects, Hume concluded that we 'feign' them. Kant concluded that they must be attributed to a priori concepts, namely, to relational structures, or patterns—not innate ideas such as Descartes thought God had implanted in us—in terms of which our minds organize our experiences. Specifically, what we bring to experience are the notions of permanence and regular sequence" (Jones 45).

• "[O]ne of the two main objects of Kant's philosophy was to justify, in the face of Humian skepticism, the claims of science to have real knowledge of matters of fact. The other main object was to justify traditional religious and moral insights against the scientific view of the world as a purposeless mechanism. . . . According to Kant's interpretation [of the nature of knowledge], knowledge is possible just because it consists in recognizing an order projected into a sensuous manifold [that is, the 'real'/perceptual world] by certain synthetical mental acts" (Jones 65). (And so—as a serendipitous aside—Wallace Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West" is a [however playful] thoroughly Kantian poem title!)

II. Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787)—epistemology ("what we can know and how we know it")
A. a priori ("pure") "intuitions"*: time / space
*: Kant's term Aunschauung is usually (& oddly) translated as "intuition," even though it means much more obviously immediate sensory perception.
B. a priori ("pure") concepts: the twelve logical "categories": e.g., unity, plurality, totality, negation, causality, existence, necessity . . .
—some (more) Kantian vocabulary: "pure" ≈ a priori; empirical ≈ a posteriori
• Kant's main (positive) argument: Both A. & B. are built into the structure of the psyche prior to any specific experiences with the world and are thus projections of the human mind that create order and meaning.
One way to think of Kant's a priori perceptual and conceptual givens is to imagine yourself stuck inside a video game with no way out. Moreover, you were born there, inside: the rules and the very graphical user interface are ALL you know. (Yeah. That's the ticket. Your God is a GUI.)

C. phenomenon (pl.: phenomena)—"object(s)" of external reality as experienced/perceived: these make up the "spatio-temporal manifold," aka the "manifold of appearance," aka the "manifold of sensation"

D. noumenon (pl.: noumena)—the real thing-in-itself (that "causes" the phenomenon), forever beyond the purview of perception & knowledge

• That we can't know such "things," at least directly, is Kant's main critique of Cartesian rationalism, which assumed "pure reason" to be much more straightforward & efficacious (including a rational apprehension of such metaphysical truths as "God").

•• A summary of the CofPureR from Kant himself: "That space and time are only forms of sensible intuition, and so only conditions of the existence of things as appearances; that, moreover, we have no concepts of understanding, and consequently no elements for the knowledge of things, save in so far as intuition can be given corresponding to these concepts; and that we can therefore have no knowledge of any object as thing in itself, but only in so far as it is an object of sensible intuition, that is, an appearance—all this is proved in the analytical part of the Critique" (qtd. in Jones 66).

                                        Therefore am I still
                    A lover of the meadows and the woods,
                    And mountains; and of all that we behold
                    From this green earth; of all the mighty world
                    Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
                    And what perceive
. . . .
                                        —William Wordsworth, "Tintern Abbey" (lines 102-107)

        The philosophy of German Idealism and literary Romanticism are semi-kissing cousins in the history of art and ideas, although the sheer rationalism of the German Idealists was pretty much anathema to the Romantics' mythopoeic creative urges. But there is no doubt of the Kantian influence here in Wordsworth's lines; Kant's main revolution in thought, indeed, was his perception that the phenomenal universe could be "known" and "ordered" only because that "knowledge" was largely a projection of the ("categories" of the) human psyche. At last, we do "half create" our universe. Indeed, according to Kant, "the mind is not passive but active, and" thus "Locke's metaphor of the blank tablet is profoundly mischievous" (Jones 19).

• Finally: "Those New Yorker cartoonists can be such philistines!"


III. Critique of Practical Reason (1788)—that is, ethics/morality, as "reason" in praxis
A. The categorical imperative—based on "universal law"

1. The main version of Kant's moral categorical imperative runs as follows: "I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law" [i.e., so I could wish that everyone acted this way] (qtd. in Jones 75)—which, as many have pointed out, is just a more rationalist version of Christ's "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"?

2. A second version of the categorical imperative is perhaps more interesting: "So act as to treat humanity whether in thine own person or that of any other, in every case as an end [in itself] withal, never as [a] means only" (qtd. in Jones 78-79). [Nice: other humans are at least their own ends, worthy of moral respect; cows are just a means to a supper!]
B. The "regulative" a priori concepts of God / free will / immortality

• For one as skeptical of metaphysical truths and things-in-themselves as Kant was, these are only "as if"/heuristic truths that reason cannot disprove (a dangerous criterion?!). In fact, the contemporary reader (like me!) suspects that Kant makes these leaps of faith to save his good bourgeois Christian values system. His defenses of morality and duty (and free will) certainly seem to involve a lot of circular reasoning, as Bertrand Russell describes it: "[Kant's] argument is that the moral law demands justice, i.e., happiness proportional to virtue. Only Providence can insure [sic] this, and has evidently not insured it in this life. Therefore there is a God and a future life; and there must be freedom, since otherwise there would be no such thing as virtue"[?!—what kind of RATIONAList logic is that?!] (710). At last, reading just a modicum of and about Kant leads one to believe that he should have been at least an agnostic regarding deity, given his own main arguments in CofPureR.

• But note (again) that Kant's general skepticism actually allows him to perceive, to cut out, a place for faith: "I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith" (Kant's emphases; qtd. in Jones 66). Of course, this cognitive compartmentalization remains a common strategy among many intelligent people two centuries later.

• Still, it must be stressed how much Kant's "God" (in his best/most consistent moments) is ultimately a rationalist concept that he tries to keep independent of specific historical theological institutions & doctrines (≈ deism, BTW). And, as a product of the Enlightenment, he obviously cared more about a reason-driven morality than theology: "Kant in effect made a religion of morality"—and a "God" of rationalism?: when "we think of reason . . . as a supreme value in itself, we are thinking in religious terms" (Jones 95; italics his; and touché!). In sum, as Derrida might say, Kant seems to have replaced "God" with "Reason" as his transcendental signified, as the One Concept giving meaning & order to the world & discourse. Indeed, even if there were no deity, reason's "laws of duty" should remain valid, intact?: "Suppose then that . . . a man is persuaded" that "There is no God: he would nevertheless be contemptible in his own eyes if on that account he were to imagine the laws of duty as empty, invalid and inobligatory" (qtd. in Jones 93). However, many later philosophers could imagine such a void, relatively free of self-contempt!—most notably, among 19th-c. philosophers, Nietzsche.

IV. Critique of Judgment (1790)—that is, aesthetics
—My more detailed notes for the PDF excerpts are on a separate outline/handout
But a few key features/introductory notes:

A. projecting mind + phenomenal object (again): Given Kant's general epistemology outlined above, judgment, too, inevitably involves both an experiential object [e.g., a text] and our projecting psyche—both "a direct, sensuous component and a conceptual, structural component" (Jones 33). However, as becomes clear in our Kant excerpts per se, the mind (specifically the "imagination") is much more crucial: indeed, the "beautiful" and the "sublime" reside, conceptually, in the psyche, not inherently in any external work of art.

B. organicism (art ≈ living organism): According to Kant, "in both organisms and art objects a means-end relationship among parts, and between parts and their whole, exists" (Jones 96). As the editors of our excerpts from CofJ remind us at several points, this has been influential in literary criticism, especially with 20th-century formalists like the New Critics (Adams & Searle 418, 438fn).

C. disinterestedness ("purposiveness-without-purpose"): As I discuss further below, a work of art's "purpose" is pure projection on our part, though Kant claims it to be an a priori ("regulative") aspect of our psyches. However, this purposiveness is best conceived—in an aesthetic judgment—as "without purpose"; judgments about art should be disinterested, free from individual preferences and biases, etc. (Eagleton, as we know, claims just the opposite, as a central tenet of his book.) This notion, too, has been influential on formalism/New Criticism, which downplays a work's "message" (didacticism is bad) or its immediate emotional effect (which Kant considers irrelevant to good & intelligent[!] aesthetic judgment). (Once again, Kant's overriding rationalism rules the day even in his discussion of art & aesthetics.)

•• Also, as with the metaphysics of "God" & "creation," Kant pled an "agnosticism" of sorts regarding the artist=>work of art relationship. The latter part of CofJ deals more generally with nature and teleology (i.e., future "ends"), but what he says there about creationism in nature can be applied equally to the creative artist: "questions about whether or not the world 'really' has an intelligent author" are moot; however, "given minds constituted like ours, we must inevitably think of the world as if it had such an author—that is, as if it had meaning and purpose" (Jones 98). Viewing this "as if" as a dangerous & false imposition on the text leads to the 20th-c. call for the removal of the artist/author from lit-crit considerations, by the New Critics and then by the structuralists—that is, by formalist/text-based critics in general. But as if proving Kant's point, most others in English academia can't imagine not considering a text's author, and his/her intent and "meaning and purpose"! (There's thus also the strong suggestion in Kant that some type of religious "creationism" is hardwired into the brain?!)

•• To summarize Kant's influence on 20th-c. New Criticism: 1) the analogy of human art with biological life (organicism) leads to NC's privileging of the poem as an organic whole (which also influenced Romantics like Coleridge and Poe, who served as further conduits of this notion to the New Critics); 2) skepticism about the author's purpose/intent leads to the intentional fallacy (it's bad); 3) denying the validity of immediate, idiosyncratic, touchy-feely emotional reactions leads to the New Critics' notion of the affective fallacy (bad again); 4) denying that a work's "meaning" can be translated into (rational) concepts (Kant 438B) leads to the notion of the heresy[!] of paraphrase (yes: bad).

•• But finally, many of Kant's own specific aesthetic judgments are certainly biases of his time & personality—for instance, his preference for the casual "purposiveness-without-purpose" of English gardens, versus the more intentionally artificial French garden style: "In esthetics, as in the field of morality[!], Kant tried to generalize a local (geographically and temporally) preference into a universal application" (Jones 96). (I would claim an even more general Eurocentric preference, too.) Our excerpts from CofJ, though short on specific applications of Kant's "judgment," certainly reveal some odd opinions no doubt based upon his time, place, & cultural milieu.

• "Like everybody else at that time, he [Kant] wrote a treatise on the sublime and the beautiful. Night is sublime, day is beautiful; the sea is sublime, the land is beautiful; man is sublime, woman is beautiful; and so on" (Russell 706).

        Bertrand Russell is often scathingly hilarious, even in this understated slam. However, he is referring to an earlier treatise by Kant, not the Critique of Judgment; moreover, Russell pretty much slammed most of German philosophy in his History, as a Brit writing in 1945 (think WWII), so all this must be taken with a shaker-full of salt. And yet? . . . The earlier book is titled Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764), and includes the following odd generalizations: "Among the peoples of our part of the world the Italians and the French are, in my opinion, those who most distinguish themselves in the feeling of the beautiful, but the Germans, the English, and the Spaniards those who are most distinguished from all others in the feeling of the sublime. Holland can be regarded as the land where this finer taste is fairly unnoticeable" (50). And—I've now included a PDF version of this text on Blackboard, because of such gems as the following: "The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the ridiculous" (58); and "Among all the savages there is no people which demonstrates such a sublime character of mind as that of North America" (59)?!


V. Kant's Relevance to Later Critical Theory

A. Note Kant's absorption in, obsession with, the Self, an interiorization/subjectivism/psychologism of philosophy that has deeply influenced the next two centuries of philosophy, psychology, and—critical theory (especially via Freud and Lacan). Likewise, it's a small step from Kant's privileging of perception and phenomena to the 20th-c. philosophy of Phenomenology, itself influential upon critical theory (most notably, reader-response theory).

B. Note Kant's relative skepticism regarding epistemology (what one can know): indeed, the schism between phenomena and noumena is likely an influential precursor to current theory's schism between language/discourse and ultimate reality—or in structuralist terms, between the signifier & signified (the word + concept) and the referent (the real object-out-there). Even Nietzsche's radical epistemological skepticism "stems from the Kantian distinction between things-in-themselves and appearances" (Jones 240). One might even say that, in some ways, Kant's relatively staid philosophy still cracked open the door of epistemological skepticism that Nietzsche and the poststructuralists would break through like the Kool-Aid Man on meth.

•• As for both A. & B.: Kant's epistemological skepticism regarding the (transcendental) self—another noumenon beyond our knowledge!—"demolishes the pretensions of the old rationalistic a priori psychology and lays the basis for a new empirical psychology." It also "follows that we never have, and never can have, direct awareness (intuition) of the self. Of the self viewed as the transcendental condition underlying experience we have no experience at all. The self lies wholly beyond experience." Self-consciousness is an awareness of only our phenomenal, or "empirical" self, of which "we do have experience, but, like our experience of every other object, this experience is not direct. It is mediated by space, time, and the categories. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a dispute arose among philosophers over whether or not to accept this conclusion of Kant's. Although some philosophers willingly adjusted to it, most sought to escape from it. For[/and yet] the culture of the past two centuries has been increasingly dominated by a profound feeling of alienation, a sense of being forever at a distance from that with which one longs, deeply and passionately, to be identified. This was one of the consequences to which Kantianism seemed to lead" (Jones 53). (As for our upcoming readings, this "alienation" is immediately evident in both Marx and Nietzsche, though in quite different ways.)

C. As already noted above, Kant's organicism regarding art (the work as an "organic whole")—and also the anti-didactic notion of "purposiveness-without-purpose" and "disinterest"—was influential on 20th-c. formalism, including Anglo-American New Criticism. . . . In fact, as Eagleton tells it, "It is no accident that the" Romantic era "sees the rise of modern 'aesthetics', or the philosophy of art. It is mainly from this era, in the work of Kant, Hegel, Schiller, Coleridge and others, that we inherit our contemporary ideas of the 'symbol' and 'aesthetic experience', of 'aesthetic harmony' [that is, organic unity] and the unique nature of the artefact" (18).

D. Most importantly, perhaps, is that Kant set the foundations of continental philosophy for subsequent philosophers/theorists to react against. (The same can be said for Hegel, as we shall see.) Thus some knowledge of Kant & Hegel clarifies some of the ostensibly strange moves made by Marx, Nietzsche, et al. And yet (and once again:) "The ways in which Kant framed his questions [about knowledge, etc.] have become, for better or worse, a part of the fabric of modern culture. . . . Why did post-Kantian philosophers accept Kant's distinctions [between phenomena and noumena, for instance] rather than simply revert to earlier theories?" Well, "Kant's influence was too powerful. Everyone had to take account of his views; in fact, for a long time to come everyone thought not only in his terms but also largely in his vocabulary. Even those philosophers who reached conclusions very remote from Kant's were nevertheless Kantian" in starting out from a "basically Kantian orientation" (Jones 99, 101).

E. Also and more generally, Kant keeps popping up in the most unexpected places—even in the writing of such anti-Eurocentric postcolonial scholars like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, as we'll see later in the semester.

F. [Later Add:] At last, it strikes me, after a few weeks of re-immersing myself in Kant, how much his "creating/categorizing mind" is the forerunner of much later crit-theory that concerns our near-"innate" biases, from Nietzsche's writings on how language creates our "reality," thru Althusser's Marxist notion of "interpellation," to poco and race theorists' critiques of "whiteness" and white privilege, etc., etc. To point us towards appreciating how much of this ideological b.s. might issue from a site of individual (& collective) subjectivity was a crucial philosophical act. (And I should admit my own subjective bias here: this has all been another way of saying that Kant, in an important way, allowed Nietzsche to happen?!)



Adams, Hazard, and Leroy Searle. "Immanuel Kant." Critical Theory Since Plato. Edited by Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle, 3rd ed., Thomson Wadsworth, 2005, pp. 416-419.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed., U of Minnesota P, 1996.

Jones, W. T. Kant and the Nineteenth Century. 2nd rev. ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

Kant, Immanuel. "[F]rom Critique of Judgment." 1790. Critical Theory Since Plato. Edited by Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle, 3rd ed., Thomson Wadsworth, 2005, pp. 419-440.

Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. Simon and Schuster, 1945.

 —TCG, July 2016; August 2018

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