Monday, 19 March 2012 07:36

Immanuel Kant: Men of Ideas

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Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a German philosopher. Perhaps, no German philosopher has had more influence on Western philosophical thinking than Kant.

Though he denied calling himself an idealist he is actually the father of German idealistic philosophy. Reading him is reading idealism at work. His philosophy is purely a mental construct and has nothing to do with the empirical world we live in. Though he tried to differentiate between nature (phenomena) and spirit (what he called Noumenon) he was really a mentalistic philosopher who used his mind to construct reality as he imagines that it is.

He and Hegel used their minds to come up with what they felt is the world. I bet that if they lived in the contemporary world they would be considered neurotic, if not psychotic, for nothing they said remotely resembles the real world folk live in. They totally ignored the real world, the empirical world, and went off on a journey that they called abstract thinking that has no resemblance to the concrete world folk live in.

This tendency to escape into the world of the abstract and call the resulting abstractions philosophy is probably a kind of madness. What is the use of the product of Kant and Hegel’s philosophy? I cannot see any.

While reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit/Mind I kept asking: what use is this jumble of words in the empirical world? I honestly could not come up with any use for these men’s voluminous writing.

Reading these two men is like one is in a psychiatric hospital and talking to psychotics and trying to make sense of their confabulated talking. Could it be that these so-called philosophers were suffering from a kind of psychosis hence talked in their own brand of language, a language that has no resemblance to the language spoken by those trying to deal with the exigencies of the here and now world?

What I do know is that both Kant and Hegel serve no real use for those grappling with real problems in our world.

So what exactly did Kant manage to say that influenced the trend of Western philosophical thinking? He divided the world into two parts: the phenomenal world and the non-phenomenal world.

He acknowledges that the phenomenal world seems to operate according to its laws, what we might call the laws of physics. Nature has its laws and all we have to do is study them and understand how they operate and design technologies to take advantage of them, for our good. This is good enough observation (although it took hundreds of pages to make this simple obvious point).

Thereafter, Kant speculated on the actual working of nature and even conjectured on the make up of the stars, galaxies and indeed, the entire universe. Suffice it to say that he was speculating and speculation isn’t empirical and experimental science. His conclusions, say, about the nebular are dated and should not detain us. If we want to study about the universe we study contemporary cosmology and its physics and mathematics.

Kant posited another realm, a realm that we might call spiritual, he called Noumenon.  This realm is unknowable and operates according to laws we do not understand.  But that realm is as he sees it, real. It has its own categories, its apriori and posteriori.

For example, nature is outside us but we still understand how it works. Why is it that we can understand that which is outside us, nature? What is in us that makes us able to understand how phenomena work?

The empiricist would say that nature evolved consciousness in the human animal and disposed him to ask why and how questions, that nature tries to understand itself through an aspect of it, human beings.

Kant says, this is not quite so. There has to be something in human beings that is apart from nature that is able to understand nature.  We do not understand what that “thing in itself” is but to Kant it is real, it is our deeper reality.  That thing in itself has its own apriori categories, its pattern of behavior; it is able to understand nature for it has ideas of nature existing in it. For example, a tree exists outside the human mind. But for the human mind to understand trees it has to be able to form concepts of trees and not trees. A tree is an idea, an apriori idea, in the mind. The human mind has categories for what exists outside it that is not shaped by the outside world.

What Kant is really saying is that human beings may be rational but that their reason is limited since it cannot understand the thinking self in them. His Critique of Pure Reason, in effect, is saying that pure reasoning by us would not enable us to understand certain things; we are unable to understand the thinker in us (the thing in itself), the human consciousness, and the human essence.

Kant means this as a check on the French enlightenment and its excesses, its belief that pure reason is enough to understand everything and make the world over to what we want it to become.

However, Kant was at the same time embracing the empiricist tradition of understanding nature, as it is, as well as saying that there is something that transcends empiricism, nature, in us, something that we do not quite comprehend hence there is limit to empiricism, to science.

Our reason is limited therefore we cannot know if God exists or not; we cannot know if there is life after death or not.

However, since belief in God and after life tends to engender moral behavior and society needs people to behave morally, we ought to encourage folk to believe in God and in life after death.

In different parts of his writing Kant becomes less hesitant about the existence of God and actually proposes that folk ought to believe in God.

Making concession to David Hume's skepticism and atheism is one thing but returning to the belief in God as a necessary category is quite another.

What Kant is saying is that there are two orders of being, the perceptual universe and the non-perceptual universe. In the world of the here and now, the phenomenal world, we can see things as they seem to be and grasp them with our five senses. The world of space, time and matter, the world of separation and multiplicity, is a perceptual world.

But perception is not enough to explain human thinking. There is something in human beings that is beyond perception. We do think, don’t we?  What is it that thinks in us?  (The neuroscientist says that thinking is the dance of neurotransmitters and electrical ions.)

In the meantime, Kant asks whether we can perceive our thinking.  No, we cannot understand the thinker in us through the five senses, it must be non-perceptual and beyond the pale of empiricism.

As Kant sees it, there is a way of understanding that is not empirical, and is abstract. Consider mathematics. How is it that human beings do mathematics?  Mathematics has its own categories that are not necessarily empirical? Kant believes that such ability has apriori and posteriori concepts of what exists in the external world; that there is a conceptualizer in us that understands things apart from empirical observation.

One plus one is two. This can be known from adding two things; it can also be known from pure mentation. There are things we know through experience of the phenomenal world and there are things we know from other thinking. Thus, there are categories of understanding, the empirical and the non-empirical, the physical and the spiritual (mind).

Kant made a tortured attempt to demonstrate that man is more than his body, that he is more than matter and energy. While acknowledging the reality of matter, Kant sought to demonstrate that there is something immaterial in human beings. That immaterial aspect of people he gave his own name but what he is really talking about is the concept of soul, a transcendent aspect of being in matter.

Kant sought to use philosophy to justify belief in God. Did he succeed? He succeeded for those seeking philosophical rationalization for belief in the existence of God, but for those that this world makes no sense for and they cannot possibly see how a god is behind it, Kantian philosophy is interesting rationalization, a means of deluding ones self into believing what is not true as true.

Kant wrote on all the usual subjects that Western philosophers concern themselves with: ontology, epistemology, aesthetic, ethics, morality, and so on. However, his influence primarily lies in his tortured efforts to differentiate the realm of matter and mind and argue that mind has its categories of thinking that is beyond the influence of matter. His convoluted language, apparently, persuade some folk into believing that he made his argument but when the verbiage is put aside he said the obvious: there is God and there is matter; there is spirit, there is matter; there is the human body and there is mind; matter and mind are two different entities. True or false? Take your pick.

There are no known answers to philosophical questions such as whether God exists or does not exist.  Kant provides us with words, words and more words but did not solve any problem we would like solved.

In the meantime, only empiricism, science, provides limited answers, answers in the material sphere. Science answers questions in the realm of matter and energy but does not address itself to what is before the coming into existence of matter, what was before the Big Bang?

Did I hear you say that before the Big bang nothing existed? Nothingness means everythingness; nothing in particular, is everything. So everything existed before this universe came into being, perhaps in different forms or in formless form? Think about it.


Immanuel Kant. A Critique of Pure Reason.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176