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Kant's (seamless) refutation of idealism.


AMIDST THE COMPLEXITIES of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (CPR), it is perhaps the Refutation of Idealism (1) that has attracted the most sustained and still-unsettled critical commentary. (2) A number of scholars locate a gap in the principal argument developed by Kant, even as others attempt to fill the gap. The alleged problem is identified by Jonathan Vogel with commendable economy:
 A step necessary to the completion of the Refutation appears to be
 missing altogether. If the self can be directly known to persist
 through change, the Refutation fails, yet Kant seems not to address
 such a possibility. (3)

The matter becomes even more confused when we recall Kant's insistence that all cognition is "combined in one single self-consciousness." (4)

Of course, if the self (soul) were directly known to persist through change, the self would be directly known to be a substance. This is explicitly ruled out by the First Paralogism. (5) Kant requires of any and every knowledge claim that it have empirical content. Thus, if there is to be knowledge of an enduring self-consciousness, it must be by way of representations. This is established by Kant's transcendental idealism, which he defines as "the doctrine that appearances are to be regarded as being, one and all, representations only, not things in themselves." (6)

On this point, Vogel is right, but for an utterly fundamental reason different from the one he advances: such direct knowledge, independent of representations, whether inner or outer, would ground a form of solipsism.

As is well known, the Refutation is developed only in the second edition of the CPR. In his Preface to that edition, Kant states that the Refutation is the only really new addition to the work itself. It addresses what he declares to be the continuing scandal in philosophy, namely, its inability to establish the existence of an external world. (7) What he promises in the second edition, "is the new refutation of psychological idealism . . . and a strict, [also as I believe, the only possible] proof of the objective reality of outer intuition." (8) There is no question, then, about the absolute centrality of this addition to the larger project of the CPR.

Contrary to a view enjoying some popularity, the Refutation is certainly no mere extension of the Transcendental Deduction. (9) Indeed, if that had been Kant's intention, he surely would have located the argument somewhere in Chapter II of the Analytic of Concepts. Moreover, in light of the sustained attention given to the challenge of idealism in the Fourth Paralogism and elsewhere, there is added reason to accept Kant's claim that the treatment in the second edition is necessary, unique, and original.

It has also been suggested that the Refutation is directed at Hume's argument against a putative continuing self. (10) This, too, seems unconvincing. The philosophers actually named by Kant are Berkeley and Descartes, and there is no evidence in the CPR of reluctance on the part of Kant to name Hume where Hume is actually the subject of criticism. Moreover, Hume's sustained discussion of the continuity of self appears in his Treatise, which was not translated into German in time to be available to Kant. The German edition of his Enquiry was owned by Kant, but that work contains no such analysis of the continuity of personal identity.

There is, to be sure, ample room for interpretation on any close reading of the CPR, but on a matter of this importance it is prudent to assume that Kant has added a new section for the reasons he himself provides. In light of his declaring his analysis to be the only possible proof of the objective reality of outer intuition, the reader should be further inclined to take him at his word and assume that any apparent gap is more likely to be in the reading than in the writing.


The most useful starting point is the Preface to the second edition. Kant goes so far as to edit in advance the treatment he will provide in the body of the work itself. Here again he refers to that
 scandal to philosophy and to human reason in general that the
 existence of things outside us (from which we derive the whole
 material of knowledge, even for our inner sense) must be accepted
 merely on faith. (11)

Not only is our knowledge of the external world dependent on the functions of outer intuition, but so too is our inner sense. There is here an anticipation of the discussion of space in the Transcendental Aesthetic where he argues that, "For in order that certain sensations may relate to something outside me the representation of space must already exist as a foundation." (12)

Now the specific thesis that is to be proved by way of a transcendental argument is expressed as follows: "The mere, but empirically determined, consciousness of my own existence proves the existence of objects in space outside me." (13)

The proof is developed as follows:

1. "I am conscious of my own existence as determined in time." (14) Surely the Second Analogy is sufficient to do the work here. All alterations take place in conformity with the law of the connection of cause and effect. It is a fact of consciousness that events occur in time and succeed each other in time. Thus, the empirical grounding of being conscious of one's existence is just those temporal sequences. Kant has much more available to him in support of this opening sentence, but the Second Analogy is sufficient.

2. "All determination of time presupposes something permanent in perception." The work to be done here is provided chiefly by the First Analogy. "In all change of appearances substance is permanent ..." (15) All appearances are in time, for all appearances have duration. Time itself is not given in the appearance; rather, it is one of the forms of sensibility. It is a necessary condition for the representation of succession or coexistence (Second Analogy). For there to be the appearance of change, however, there must be some unchanging substrate that is the subject of alterations. Thus, it must be a permanent substance whose various properties are subject to alteration. Putting (1) and (2) together, consciousness of my own existence as determined in time entails something permanent. (16)

3. "This permanent cannot, however, be something in me, since it is only through this permanent that my existence in time can itself be determined." The explanation Kant provides in the text is actually modified in his Preface to the second edition. It is in the Preface that he would have the reader insert these lines to qualify what is offered at B276:
 But this permanent cannot be an intuition in me. For all
 grounds of determination of my existence which are to be met
 with in me are representations; and as representations
 themselves require a permanent distinct from them, in relation to
 which their change and so my existence in the time wherein a
 change, may be determined. (17)

The German text reads,
 Dieses Beharrliche aber kann nicht eine Anschauung in mir sein.
 Denn alle Bestimmungsgrunde meines Daseins, die in mir
 angetroffen werden konnen, sind Vorstellungen, und bedurfen, als
 solche, selbst ein von ihnen unterschiedenes Beharrliches, worauf
 in Beziehung der Wechsel derselben, mithin mein Dasein in der
 Zeit, darin sie wechseln, bestimmt werden konne. (18)

Bestimmungsgrunde is usually, if awkwardly, translated as a ground of determination. Speaking more plainly, one might say that the required permanence is not given by way of an intuition, and that whatever it is within me that is foundational for my self-consciousness must be in the form of representations. The verb angetroffen translates readily as, "to come across, to meet with." Thus, whatever it is that I might come across within myself that might be foundational for my self-consciousness, it must be in the form of representations. After all, if self-consciousness is to be something more definite than an abstract postulate, it must be some sort of empirically represented entity. Of course, for something, including existence, to be represented at all, the same permanence is required in that which undergoes modification. There must be something permanent against which there may be the time ordered changes (that is, representations) of my existence. As noted, the work here is done by the First Analogy.

4. "Thus perception of this permanent is possible only through a thing outside me and not through the mere representation of the thing outside me ..." What I come across by way of inner sense are representations. These depend on but do not provide the requisite permanence.

5. "... and consequently the determination of my existence in time is possible only through the existence of actual things which I perceive outside me."

6. The conclusion that follows is that consciousness of my existence is at the same time, "an immediate consciousness of the existence of other things outside me."


In the note he adds to this proof, Kant boasts that in a game played by idealism, he has turned it against itself. (19) The proof is more fully comprehended by way of this strategy. The idealism that Kant has in mind applies, if not equally, then generously to Descartes, Berkeley, Locke, and Hume. In their respective ways, each embraces what Thomas Reid would dub the "ideal theory." (20) The only domain to which the mind has direct access is what is featured in its own consciousness. Accordingly, judgments regarding any domain external to consciousness must be by way of inference. Consider Descartes's 3rd Meditation, where the sources of experience seemed obviously to be external to Descartes:
 I know by experience that these ideas do not depend on my will, and
 hence that they do not depend simply on me. Frequently I notice
 them even when I do not want to: now, for example, I feel the heat
 whether I want to or not, and this is why I think that this
 sensation or idea of heat comes to me from something other than
 myself, namely the heat of the fire by which I am sitting. (21)

But then skepticism intrudes itself:
 although these [apparently adventitious] ideas do not depend on my
 will, it does not follow that they must come from things located
 outside me ... There may be some other faculty not yet fully known
 to me, which produces these ideas without any assistance from
 external things; this is, after all, just how I have always thought
 ideas are produced in me when I am dreaming." (22)

Hume sets the same problem:
 By what argument can it be proved, that the perceptions of the mind
 must be caused by external objects ... and could not arise either
 from the energy of the mind itself ... or from some other cause
 still more unknown to us? It is acknowledged, that, in fact, many
 of these perceptions arise not from anything external, as in
 dreams, madness, and other diseases.... It is a question of fact,
 whether the perceptions of the senses be produced by external
 objects ... But here experience is, and must be entirely silent.
 The mind has never anything present to it but the perceptions, and
 cannot possibly reach any experience of their connection with
 objects. The supposition of such a connection is, therefore,
 without any foundation in reasoning. (23)

In another of his "Copernican" perspectival shifts, Kant turns this around, arguing that outer experience is immediate and that it is the only means by which his existence in time can be determined. (24) But a subtle distinction is called for here. There is a version of the "Cogito" that Kant is found endorsing, but not in the manner intended by Descartes. At B132 he says that,
 It must be possible for the "I think" to accompany all my
 representations, otherwise, something would be represented in me
 which could not be thought at all, and that is equivalent to saying
 that the representation would be impossible, or at least would be
 nothing to me. (25)

Thus, the "I think" is a necessary condition, if an object is to be thought at all. It is not a Cartesian device designed to defeat total skepticism. Consciousness accompanies all thought, of course, and "immediately includes in itself the existence of the subject; but it does not so include any knowledge of that subject, and therefore also no empirical knowledge, that is, no experience of it." (26)

That a particular condition or state of affairs is necessary for some other condition or state of affairs can be established by way of the transcendental argument. This, however, is quite different from an epistemic state of affairs in which something is actually an item of knowledge. The latter always requires empirical content, and for this there must be the intuitive framework. For there to be knowledge of that subject possessing consciousness, it must be by way of an inner intuition. All such inner intuitions are ordered--are determined--in time. As the proof makes clear, however, time is not given in the manifold of experience, and must therefore be derived from what is permanent. Hence, "outer" objects are quite indispensable; and it therefore follows that inner experience is itself possible only mediately, and only through outer experience. (27)

Referring to this perspectival shift as "Copernican" is warranted by the example Kant offers in Note 2 in this section. Setting aside the (transcendentally) necessary conditions for a given process, there is the question of what is actually possible as a perception. Time, of course, is not perceived. If we are to perceive determinations in time, this must be by way of alterations in the outer relations among things. These alterations, however, are relative to what is permanent in space. The example Kant offers is that of the motion of the sun relative to objects on earth.

The mistake made by Descartes and other rationalists, in the matter of 'T' and the proof of its existence, was in thinking that existence can be an object of knowledge based on mere concepts. For any object to be known, it must be accessible at the level of perception and subsumed under the universal rules of experience. (28) Moreover, to the extent that something is an object of knowledge, it cannot be established as a necessity. This is the burden of Kant's claim that,
 it is not, therefore the existence of things (substances) that we
 can know to be necessary, but only of the existence of their state;
 and this necessity of the existence of their state we can know only
 from other states, which are given in perception, in accordance
 with empirical laws of causality. It therefore follows that the
 criterion of necessity lies solely in the law of possible
 experience, the law that everything which happens is determined a
 priori through its cause in the field of appearance. (29)

This sets a fairly tight limit on what can be known. (30) The necessity imposed on sequential events as perceived makes possible the integration of the manifold into one coherent experience. This is a form of hypothetical necessity, "which subordinates alteration in the world to a law, that is, to a rule of necessary existence, without which there would be nothing that could be entitled nature." (31)

According to Kant, "nature" is "the connection of appearances as regards their existence according to necessary rules, that is, according to laws. There are certain laws which first make a nature possible, and these laws are a priori." (32)

Considering the existence of "I" in this connection, it is clear that it cannot be known to be necessary; in fact, to the extent that it stands as a substance, it cannot be perceived as the effect of some antecedent cause.

Returning to the Preface to the second edition, it is clear just what resources would be required in order to obviate the need for something permanent and external. What would be required is a species of intellectual intuition. The central question however has to do with what can be known. In being conscious of one's existence, there is within one a concurrent consciousness of standing in relation to things external to oneself. This stands as an experience and not a mere product of fancy or invention. Kant says it refers to sense and not imagination. This outer sense presupposes spatial intuition as the form of sensibility, and some actual material entity as the source of empirical content. Again, the reference is to something actually outside the percipient, and not to a figment of the imagination.

In his very interesting essay on the subject, Jonathan Vogel, as I have noted, claims to have found a gap, even a fatal one, in Kant's analysis. Indeed, if the self could be directly known to persist through change, the Refutation fails. Contrary to Vogel's reading, however, I believe Kant not only addresses such a possibility, but establishes that it must be ruled out on both transcendental and epistemic grounds.

Kant does take up the question as early as the Preface to the second edition. He frames the possibilities this way:
 If, with the intellectual consciousness of my existence, in the
 representation "I am" ... I could at the same time connect a
 determination of my existence through intellectual intuition, the
 consciousness of a relation to something outside me would not be
 required. (33)

Granting such an intellectual consciousness, actual knowledge still requires that inner intuition that renders sensibility possible. It is only in this way that there can be inner experience. However, this very set of time-varying events,
 and therefore the inner experience itself, depends upon something
 permanent which is not in me, and consequently can only be in
 something outside me, to which I must regard myself as standing in
 relation. The reality of outer sense is thus necessarily bound up
 with inner sense, if experience in general is to be possible at all
 ... (34)

The self certainly cannot have direct knowledge of its persistence through change, for it cannot have direct knowledge of any substance. It cannot even know itself as having a necessary existence, or even as the merely possible subject of experience.

Thus one gap is filled. But might there not be another? Is it the case, as has been suggested, that Kant's success in the refutation is limited and that the overall argument cannot even rule out "brains in vats"? (35) It is conceivable that the brain in a vat could be stimulated in ways that mimic the order of events ordinarily occurring as percipients experience the succession of inner and outer states. On the assumption that the categorical and schematic structure of experience is properly preserved under such conditions, the vatted brain would have a cognized reality of its own, offering no proof of objects external to itself. But then it would lack any means by which to assess the objectivity of its possessions, for it would lack the support of intersubjective agreement. Of course, if the thought experiment grants to the vatted brain all that goes into the process of distinguishing between subjective states and objective knowledge, then the unsurprising outcome is simply, a = a, and there is no gap to fill.

Oxford University

Correspondence to: D. N. Robinson, Philosophy Centre, 10 Merton Street OX1 4JJ.

(1) Imannuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, unabridged edition (New York: St. Martin's press, 1963), B275-9.

(2) A sample of informing analyses are Henry. E. Allison, (1983). Kant's Transcendental Idealism. An Interpretation and Defense, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004); Paul Guyer, "Kant's Intentions in the Refutation of Idealism." The Philosophical Review 92, no. 3 (1983): 329-83; Karl Ameriks, Kant's Transcendental Deduction as a Regressive Argument, in Interpreting Kant's Critiques. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 51-66;

(3) Jonathan Vogel, "The Problem of Self-Knowledge in Kant's "Refutation of Idealism": Two Recent Views." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. LIII, No. 4 (December 1993); 875.

(4) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A117a, B136.

(5) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A349-51.

(6) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A369.

(7) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B273.

(8) Ibid; emphasis in the original. The generic idealism under consideration is what he refers to as "material" idealism. He identifies two forms. One version renders doubtful and indemonstrable the actual existence of material objects in space. He calls this "problematic" idealism of the sort advanced by Descartes. The second version "declares external material objects to be impossible. This is the "dogmatic" idealism of Berkeley.

(9) Henry Allison addresses this interpretation and argues against it, bur on grounds different from those advanced here. Kant's Transcendental Idealism, 294 and following.

(10) A brief and informing discussion of this point is provided by Paul Guyer in his introduction to, Knowledge, Reason and Taste: Kant's Reply to Hume (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2008).

(11) CPR at Bxl where the scandal extends to reason itself; emphasis in the original.

(12) This conclusion is reached by way of a transcendental argument. Space as such is not given in the stimulus and thus must be an intuition--an a priori mode of apprehension--found in the subject.

(13) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B275; emphasis in the original.

(14) Quoted passages in 1-6 follow the order of the proof developed by Kant in his "Refutation"; emphasis in the original.

(15) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A182-9/B224-32.

(16) Mark Sacks has discussed the importance of the first analogy at this point in the proof. See Mark Sacks, "Kant's First Analogy and the Refutation of Idealism," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 106 (2006): 113-30.

(17) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Bxi.

(18) The German edition is provided by Project Gutenberg on the Internet.

(19) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B276.

(20) Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind. on the Principles of Common Sense., ed. Derek Brookes (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University press, 2000), ch. 1.

(21) Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy in Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies, ed. John Cottingham, Bernard Williams, and Karl Ameriks, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University press 1996), bk. 3, ch. 7, par. 38.

(22) Ibid., Meditations, bk. 3, ch. 7, par. 39.

(23) David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter Milkican (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), sec. 12, pt. 1, sec. 119.

(24) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B277.

(25) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B132.

(26) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B277; emphasis in the original.

(27) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B277.

(28) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A227.

(29) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A227-8/B279-81.

(30) No such limit is imposed on what might be conjured in consciousness. Some have argued that Kant misunderstood Descartes's position and that consciousness of a unitary self is no more problematic than consciousness of other entities. See, for example, Terence Wilkerson, "Kant on Self-Consciousness." The Philosophical Quarterly 30, No. 118 (January 1980): 47-60. But the question at issue is whether such objects of consciousness count as objective knowledge.

(31) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A228-9/B280-2.

(32) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A216/B263.

(33) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Bxlii; emphasis in original.

(34) Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Bxlii.

(35) For a detailed critical discussion see, for example, Quassim Cassam, The Possibility of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007).
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Author:Robinson, Daniel N.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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