In 1781, after a ten-year hiatus, Immanuel Kant broke his silence with the massive first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason. It was vast, precisely because he had been so deep down inside himself thinking about this. It was so difficult to attach Kant’s critiques to the fashionable questions, concerns, and formulations of his age in the scholarly world, that the work was largely ignored on first publication.
A Puzzle of Knowledge
It’s hard to understand Kant now, but it was especially hard to understand Kant in that first edition. It took about ten years, another edition of the Critique, and some heavy efforts at explanation, revision, and publicity on the part of Kant and some of his friends and early followers, for others to begin to understand the impact of what Kant was doing.
Kant had effectively accomplished what people called the “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy; he shifted the focus of philosophical attention from objects to the subject to the knowing and acting subject.
Before Kant, it’s not entirely unfair to say that philosophers were caught in the naive assumption that the human knower can be taken for granted and that the puzzle is about how the outside world can be known. After Kant, it becomes clear that the puzzle of knowledge is not first and foremost a puzzle about how the world can be known, but about how we can know our world and in what, precisely, that knowledge consists.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Kant’s Critiques and Humanity
Kant, after the first critique, kept publishing works of enormous impact. He published two other very important critiques: the Critique of Practical Reason, which is kind of his ethics, and then the Critique of Judgment, which is a study of aesthetics and the theory of beauty and the understanding of the meaning of art; how people experience beauty in the world.
Kant’s work can be understood as an attempt overall to retain something of the theoretical and intellectual ambition of Leibniz while reckoning seriously with the challenge of other thinkers, especially Hume and Rousseau. His work is important for all aspects of later philosophy and political theory; modern life in general.
His understanding of the human and of the human’s predicament, thinking how it experiences the world, has shaped all aspects of our life. Throughout his mature work, Kant tried to show that human reason has real power but also real limits and that the best exercise of that reason is to use it to chart the limits of human thinking and thereby to deduce as clearly as possible without direct knowledge what it cannot properly know.
Learn more about Aristotle and the Socratic legacy.
Kant and Hume
In his other critiques, and especially in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant suggested that metaphysical theodicies cannot accomplish what they set out to prove; theodicies of the sort that Leibniz offered. Here he had learned a lot from David Hume.
Like Hume, he thought that the evidence of the world was simply indeterminate between there being a good god and there being no such deity and even whether there is a bad god. Furthermore, he thought that the indeterminacy extended so far as to make any explicitly theoretical claims in this realm of thinking not confident enough to be defended.
The Goodness of God vs. Evil
Kant argued that arguments for and against the goodness of an omnipotent God in the face of the reality of evil are, in fact, interminable, they’re unending; and that this fact, that we can show that these arguments for the goodness of God and against the goodness of God both can continue without being radically refuted but also will continue ad infinitum without being finally completely evidenced, completely proven, shows us (he thought) that sheer reason cannot answer our questions in this area.
He thought, something more is required of us than sheer speculative cognition if we are to find a satisfactory response to the problem of evil; and what that is, is what Kant calls “practical reason.”
Learn more about the nature and origins of evil.
Why Do We Have a Problem with Evil?
Practical reason is the topic of his second critique, the Critique of Practical Reason. Here he says, if theories can’t help us intellectually solve our problem with the problem of evil, what we need to do, then, is investigate why the problem is for us at all? That is, we need to problematize, identify as a puzzle, and begin to be curious about the fact that evil bugs us.
Deer are not troubled by the fact that lions hunt, stalk, and eat them. Antelope do not generate seminars about the problem of the wolf. Humans are the only creatures who seem to have this puzzle about why bad things happen to us.
When we do this, when we investigate this experience we have, we discover that we have another source of a kind of quasi-knowledge inside us apart from reason in the persistent urging of our will itself toward resisting evil, expressing outrage at it, and working to repair evil where we can.
In short, we discover that it is our will that tells us what is evil and makes us experience it as evil. This experience of the will’s opposition to evil is the basis of what Kant calls practical reason properly understood.
Common Questions about Immanuel Kant’s Critiques: A Revolution in the World of Philosophy
Immanuel Kant’s critiques were large and hard to understand because he shifted the focus of philosophical attention from objects to the subject to the knowing and acting subject. It took ten years and many revisions for people to finally grasp what Kant was trying to convey.
Immanuel Kant published two other very important critiques: the Critique of Practical Reason, which is kind of his ethics, and then the Critique of Judgment, which is a study of aesthetics and the theory of beauty and the understanding of the meaning of art.
Like David Hume, Immanuel Kant thought that the evidence of the world was simply indeterminate between there being a good god and there being no such deity and even whether there is a bad god.