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Kant on Common Sense and Scepticism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Paul Guyer
University of Pennsylvania


Is the refutation of scepticism a central objective for Kant? Some commentators have denied that the refutation of either theoretical or moral scepticism was central to Kant's concerns. Thus, in his recent book Kant and the Fate of Autonomy, Karl Ameriks rejects 'taking Kant to be basically a respondent to the skeptic'. According to Ameriks, who here has Kant's theoretical philosophy in mind,

What Kant goes on to propose is that, instead of focusing on trying to establish with certainty – against skepticism – that the objects of common sense exist, let alone that they have philosophical dominance, or, in contrast, on explaining that it is only the theoretical discoveries of science that determine what is objective, one can rather work primarily to determine a positive and balanced philosophical relation between the distinct frameworks of our manifest and scientific images.

Copyright © Kantian Review 2003

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1 Ameriks, Karl, Kant and the Fate of Autonomy: Problems in the Appropriation of the Critical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar . The argument of this book goes back to Ameriks's earlier work, such as Kant's transcendental deduction as a regressive argument’, Kant—Studien, 69 (1978), 273–87Google Scholar.

2 , AmeriksKant and the Fate of Autonomy, p. 43.Google Scholar

3 See Sellars, Wilfrid, ‘Philosophy and the scientific image of man’, originally in Colodny, Robert (ed.), Frontiers of Science and Philosophy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962)Google Scholar, reprinted in , SellarsScience, Perception and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), pp. 140Google Scholar.

4 , AmeriksKant and the Fate of Autonomy, P. 59Google Scholar

5 Rawls, John, Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, ed. Herman, Barbara (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), P. 149Google Scholar

6 Hill, Thomas E. Jr, ‘The rationality of moral conduct’, originally published in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 66 (1985), 323CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reprinted in , HillDignity and Practical Reason in Kant's Moral Theory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), pp. 97122Google Scholar, at 98–9.

7 , KantGroundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 4: 405Google Scholar . Volume and page references to all of Kant's works, except for the Critique of Pure Reason, will be taken from Kant's gesammelte Schriften, edited by the Prussian, Royal (later German) Academy of Sciences (Berlin: Georg Reimer, later Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1900)Google Scholar . Translations from Kant's writings in moral philosophy will be from Kant, Immanuel, Practical Philosophy, translated by Gregor, Mary J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)Google Scholar . Passages from the Critique of Pure Reason will be located, as is customary, by the pagination of the first (A) and second (B) editions. Translations from Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Guyer, Paul and Wood, Allen W. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar . Translations from Kant's lectures on logic are from Kant, Immanuel, Lectures on Logic, ed. and trans. Young, J. Michael (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar . Translations from Kant's lectures on metaphysics are from Kant, Immanuel, Lectures on Metaphysics, ed. and trans. Ameriks, Karl E. and Naragon, Steve (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Critique of Pure Reason, B xxxi.

9 Metaphysik L2, 28: 538; trans. Ameriks and Naragon, P. 305.

10 Metaphysik Vigilantius (K3), 29: 958; trans. Ameriks and Naragon, P. 429.

11 See Critique of Pure Reason, B 127–8, and Prolegomena, ‘Preamble’, 4: 262. Kant did not always distinguish Humean scepticism about first principles from Pyrrhonian or dialectical scepticism; in the early (c.1770) Blomberg logic lectures, he characterizes Hume as ‘a scepticus who had an overwhelming, indeed, a somewhat extravagant inclination to doubt’, displayed in his practice of considering, ‘first, all of one side of a thing’, searching ‘for all possible grounds for it’, and then ‘tak[ing] up the other side, presenting] it for examination, as it were, completely without partisanship’, and ‘in conclusion [appearing] in his true form as a real skeptic' (Blomberg Logic, 24: 217; Young, p. 172). This is a characterization of the classical procedure of Pyrrhonian scepticism.

12 Here the substance of my account is not that different from that of Ameriks and Hill; the difference is in my insistence that Kant clearly intends his position as a response to what he conceives of as a major form of scepticism.

13 Metaphysik LI, 28: 206; Ameriks and Naragon, P. 29.

14 Critique of Pure Reason, A 366–80.

15 Ibid., B 275–9.

16 See esp. Reflections 5653–5, 18: 306–16, and 6311–17, 18: 607–29. I discussed these notes in Kant's intentions in the refutation of idealism’, Philosophical Review, 92 (1983), 329–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Kant and the Claims of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), part IV, pp. 279329CrossRefGoogle Scholar . They were also discussed by Forster, Eckart in ‘Kant's refutation of idealism’, in Holland, A. J. (ed.), Philosophy, its History and Historiography (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1985), pp. 295311Google Scholar . See Kant and the Claims of Knowledge, p. 454, note 19, for several earlier discussions in German.

17 Critique of Pure Reason, A ix–xii.

18 Ibid., A vii–viii.

19 Ibid., A 423–4/B 451–2.

20 Ibid., A 298/B 354.

21 Ibid., B xxxiv.

22 Ibid., B 127–8.

23 Prolegomena, 4: 257, 4: 261.

24 Ibid., 4: 262.

25 Critique of Practical Reason, 5: 50–1. With my final elision, I have omitted Kant's parenthetical remark that Hum e exempted mathematics from his attack upon necessity and apriority, a mistake about Hume that demonstrates that Kant was not familiar with all of the arguments of Hume's Treatise, relying instead primarily upon the abbreviated Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which was translated into German, in 1755, long before the Treatise was.

26 Critique of Practical Reason, 5: 52.

27 See again Critique of Pure Reason, B 127–8.

28 Ibid., A 23–4/B 37–8.

29 Ibid., A 30–1/B 46.

30 Ibid., A 24–5/B 39–40, A 31–2/B 47–8.

31 For the definition of empirical intuition, see Ibid., A 19–20/B 33–4, A 320/B 376–7.

32 Ibid., A 24, replaced by B 40–1, and A 31/B 47. The title ‘transcendental exposition' is, as mentioned, introduced only in the 2nd edition, where Kant removes the argument from the synthetic a priori cognition of geometry to space as an a priori form of intuition to a separate section under this rubric (B 40–1). In the case of time, the added section carrying this title repeats material that is also left in its original position (A 31/B 47). But the substance of both arguments is the same in both editions.

33 Ibid., A 725/B 753.

34 Ibid., A 26/B 52.

35 This formulation of the objection to Kant's argument for transcendental idealism goes back at least as far as Paton, H. J., Kant's Metaphysic of Experience (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1936), vol. I, P. 168Google Scholar.

36 Whether Kant had simply neglected to consider this possibility was the subject of a famous debate between Adolf Trendelenburg and Kuno Fischer in the mid—nineteenth century; see Vaihinger, Hans, Commentar zu Kant's Kritik der reinen Vernunft, vol. II (Stuttgart, Berlin, Leipzig: Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1892), pp. 290326Google Scholar, and Smith, Norman Kemp, A Commentary to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd edition (London: Macmillan & Co., 1923), pp. 113–14Google Scholar.

37 Critique of Pure Reason, A 48/B 65.

38 I have pursued it in Kant and the Claims of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), ch. 16, esp. pp. 354–9Google Scholar and 362–9. For endorsement of my claim that the argument from the apriority of geometry to the ideality of space is central to Kant's transcendental idealism, see Cleve, James van, Problems from Kant (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), P. 37Google Scholar For a very different approach to Kant's transcendental idealism, which argues that it is based in Kant's conception of a thing in itself as defined only by its intrinsic properties, not by its relational properties and for that reason not by the forms of its epistemic relations to us, see Langton, Rae, Kantian Humility: Our Ignorance of Things in Themselves (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

39 See Critique of Pure Reason, B 19–20, Prolegomena, 4: 260–1, and Critique of Practical Reason, 5: 52–3.

40 Critique of Pure Reason, §16, B 131; cf A 116.

41 For my detailed treatment of these arguments, see Kant and the Claims of Knowledge, chs 8–11.

42 Critique of Pure Reason, A 185/B 228.

43 Ibid., A 192/B 237, A 202–3/B 247–8.

44 Ibid., A 213/B 260.

45 Ibid., B 275.

46 Ibid., A 125–6. See the interesting note that Kant added to this passage in his own copy of the Critique, at 23: 26–7, translated in Guyer and Wood, p. 241n. See also B 166–8.

47 Critique of Pure Reason, A 307–8/B 364. For a recent work emphasizing the importance of this principle to Kant's diagnosis of the natural illusions of metaphysics, see Grier, Michelle, Kant's Doctrine of Transcendental Illusion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 Critique of Pure Reason, A 426–7/B 454–5.

49 Ibid., A 434–5/B 462–3.

50 Ibid., A 444–5/B 472–3.

51 Ibid., A 452–3/B 480–1.

52 Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, §5; in the Clarendon Edition of the Works of David Hume, ed. Beauchamp, Tom L. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), pp. 3445.Google Scholar

53 Groundwork, 4: 405.

54 Ibid., 4: 389–90.

55 Ibid., 4: 405.

56 Critique of Pure Reason, A 444–5/B 472–3.

57 Groundwork, 4: 455–6.

58 Ibid., 4: 462.

59 Ibid., 4: 407: ‘It is absolutely impossible by means of experience to make out with complete certainty a single case in which the maxim of an action otherwise in conformity with duty rested simply on moral grounds and on the representaiton of one's duty.’

60 Ibid., 4: 389.

61 That the fundamental principle of philosophy must first be derived from analysis and then confirmed by examples of its application is what Kant has in mind in saying that the method of the argument in the Groundwork is first analytic and then synthetic in the Preface (Ibid., 4: 392), although this use of the distinction is different from what he has in mind later in the work when he states that the derivation of the principle in the first two sections is analytic and then the proof in the third that it is actually binding upon us is synthetic (for example, 4: 444–5). That the fundamental principle of morality can be derived from the analysis of both common practices of moral judgement and philosophical concepts is why there are two analytical sections of the Groundwork, one a ‘transition from common rational to philosophical moral cognition' and the other a ‘transition from popular moral philosophy to metaphysics of morals’ (4: 392).

62 Groundwork, 4: 393–7.

63 Ibid., 4: 398.

64 Ibid., 4: 399.

65 Ibid., 4: 400.

66 Ibid., 4: 398.

67 Ibid., 4: 402.

68 Ibid., 4: 402.

69 Ibid., 4: 403.

70 Ibid., 4: 413–21.

71 Critique of Practical Reason, 5: 19.

72 Groundwork, 4: 427–9.

73 Ibid., 4: 431–3.

74 Ibid., 4: 421.

75 Ibid., 4: 409.

76 Critique of Practical Reason, 5: 134.

77 Ibid., 5: 42–57.

78 In the Groundwork, Kant argues that we have a transcendentally free will and are therefore governed by the moral law as the law of reason, not just by laws of nature; in the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant argues that we are immediately conscious of our obligation under the moral law and can infer the transcendental freedom of our will only from our awareness of that obligation. See Henrich, Dieter, ‘Kants Deduktion des Sittengesetzes’, in Schwan, Alexander (ed.), Denken im Schatten des Nihilismus (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliches Buchgesellschaft, 1975), pp. 55112Google Scholar, trans, in Guyer, Paul (ed.), Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: Critical Essays (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), pp. 303–41Google Scholar, and Ameriks, Karl, ‘Kant's deduction of freedom and morality’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 19 (1981), 5379CrossRefGoogle Scholar, revised as ch. 6 of his Kant's Theory of Mind, new edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), pp. 189233CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

79 Groundwork, 4: 457.

80 Critique of Practical Reason, 5: 30.

81 Groundwork, 4: 455.

82 Ibid., 4: 451.

83 Ibid., 4: 455–6.

84 Ibid., 4: 462.

85 Critique of Practical Reason, 5: 113.

86 Ibid., 5: 125.

87 For some discussion of the latter, see ‘From a practical point of view: Kant's conception of a postulate of pure practical reason’, in my Kant on Freedom, Law, and Happiness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), ch. 10, pp. 333–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

88 See Critique of the Power of judgment, Introduction §§4 and 5; for some discussion, see my articles Reason and reflective judgment: Kant on the significance of systematicity’, Nous, 24 (1990), 1744CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Kant's conception of empirical law’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supplementary vol. 64 (1990), 221–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

89 Groundwork, 4: 407.

90 I would like to thank Faviola Rivera Castro and Plinio Junquiero Smith for their helpful comments on the version of this paper presented at the conference on scepticism organized by the Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas, UNAM, 27–9 August 2001.

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