The Prolegomena and the Critiques of Pure Reason

In Volker Gerhardt, Rolf-Peter Horstmann & Ralph Schumacher (eds.), Kant Und Die Berliner Aufklärung: Akten des IX Internationalen Kant-Kongresses. New York: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 185-208 (2001)
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Abstract

This chapter considers Kant's relation to Hume as Kant himself understood it when he wrote the Critique of Pure Reason and the Prolegomena. It first seeks to refine the question of Kant's relation to Hume's skepticism, and it then considers the evidence for Kant's attitude toward Hume in three works: the A Critique, Prolegomena, and B Critique. It argues that in the A Critique Kant viewed skepticism positively, as a necessary reaction to dogmatism and a spur toward critique. In his initial statement of the critical philosophy Kant treated Hume as an ally in curbing dogmatism, but one who stopped short of what was really needed: a full critique of reason, to establish the boundaries of metaphysical cognition. Kant found fault with Hume's analyses of cognition and experience, and specifically his failure to see the crucial importance of synthetic a priori cognition in metaphysics. In particular, he held that Hume's empiricist account of cognition could neither explain the synthetic a priori cognition actually found in mathematics and natural science, nor provide a principled account of the limits on what can be known--and what can be thought--through the pure concepts of the understanding. According to Kant, Hume therefore failed in his attempt to determine the limits of metaphysics, whereas he was able to succeed because his transcendental philosophy provided a thorough account of cognition, its structure and limits. In the Prolegomena and the B Critique Kant distinguished his position more sharply from Hume's. He also adopted a more negative attitude toward "skeptical idealism" than before; but he attributed such skepticism to Descartes, not Hume. Prior to the B Critique Kant did not see Hume as attacking natural science or ordinary cognition. In none of the three works was Kant's main aim to "answer the skeptic." His primary aim was to firmly establish the boundary of metaphysics, by discovering the elements of human cognition and fixing its proper domain. His purported discoveries about the limits of metaphysical cognition meant that the traditional objects of metaphysical knowledge, God, the soul, and the world as it is in itself, are unknowable, hence that traditional metaphysics itself is impossible. Besides settling the possibility or impossibility of metaphysics, his findings would also prevent the illegitimate extension of principles of sensibility to God and the noumenal self, an extension that would threaten the metaphysics of morals by incorrectly denying the thinkability of noumenal freedom, and that might otherwise lead to "materialism, fatalism, atheism, and freethinking unbelief" (B xxxiv).

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Gary Hatfield
University of Pennsylvania

Citations of this work

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