The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Philosophy IV.


By Professor Ralph Barton Perry

IT IS generally admitted that Kant is one of the great epoch-making philosophers, like Socrates and Descartes. There are two things that are universally true of intellectual epoch-makers: first, they embody in themselves certain general tendencies of their age, which are usually due to a reaction against the more pronounced tendencies of the previous age; second, their thought is peculiarly germinal, and among their followers assumes a maturer form, in which the originators would scarcely recognize it as their own. Let us consider these two aspects of the philosophy of Kant.


From among the pronounced tendencies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries I shall select two for special emphasis. In the first place, it was characteristic of these two centuries to isolate and over-emphasize either one or the other of the two great sources of human knowledge, sense-perception or reason. Locke and his followers attempted to convert reason into a mere echo of sense; while for Descartes and his followers, sense was always viewed with suspicion as confusing the intellect, or as supplying only an inferior sort of knowledge which must yield precedence to "rational science." Extreme sensationalism or empiricism seemed to have reached an impasse in Hume; while rationalism degenerated into formalism and word-making in Wolff. Thus Kant's greatest work, the "Critique of Pure Reason" (1789), was an attempt to correct these extreme views by making the necessary provision for both sense-perception and reason. Perception without conception, he said, is blind; while conception without perception is empty. Kant's critique was aimed first at excessive emphasis on sense-perception. He showed that the bare sequence of sense-impressions can never yield the connections, necessities, unities, laws, etc., which are required for science. The intellect must supply these itself. They constitute what Kant called "categories," the instruments which the mind must use when it works in that peculiar way which is called knowing. But it follows that they are not by themselves sufficient for knowledge. They cannot themselves be known in the ordinary way because they are what one knows with. And since they are instruments, it follows that they require some material to work upon; they cannot spin knowledge out of nothing. Hence the data of sense are indispensable also. In short, to know is to systematize, by the instrumentalities native to the mind, the content conveyed by the senses. This is the Kant of the first Critique, the Kant of technical philosophy who numbers many faithful devotees among the thinkers of to-day.


A second and more general tendency of seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophy was its comparative neglect of what are vaguely called the "spiritual" demands. These centuries themselves may be regarded as a reaction against what was thought to be the excessive anthropomorphism of earlier times. Man had erred by reading himself into his world; now he was to view it impersonally and dispassionately. He might prefer to record the findings of perception, or the necessities of reason, but in either case he was to repress his own interests and yearnings. Of course at the time it was confidently expected that morality and religion would in this way be served best. Men believed in the possibility of a "natural religion," without mystery or dogma, a rational morality without authority, and a demonstrable theology without either revelation or faith. But gradually there developed a sense of failure. Man had left himself too much out of it, and felt homeless and unprotected. Early in the seventeenth century Pascal had announced the religious bankruptcy of the mathematical rationalism of Descartes.[1] Natural religion was readily converted into atheism by Hume. The most vigorous and stirring protest against the whole spirit of the age was made by Rousseau, who urged men to trust their feelings, make allowance for the claims of the heart, and return to the elemental and spontaneous in human nature. The same note was caught up by Jacobi and Herder. Finally Lessing, in his "Education of the Human Race" (1780),[2] turned the attention of philosophy to the history of culture, to the significance of human life in its historical unfolding. It is a strange paradox that Immanuel Kant, valetudinarian and pedant that he was, should have represented this rising revolt of sentiment and faith. But such was the fact. Let us, then, view him in this light.


One of the most famous of Kant's remarks was that he proposed to effect a Copernican Revolution in thought. As Copernicus had established a new center for the planetary system, so he proposed to establish a new center for knowledge. This new center was to be the mind itself. The errors of the earlier period had been largely due, he thought, to the attempt to make knowledge center in the object, it being expected that the mind should reflect, either by perception or reason, the nature of an outward and independently existing thing. This method leads inevitably, said Kant, either to scepticism or to what is just as bad for philosophical purposes, dogmatism. The new way is to expect that the object shall conform to the mind. Thus nature, which in the earlier view was construed as an external order by which the mind is affected, or which the mind is somehow to reproduce by its own ratiocination, is now construed as the original creation of the mind. It owes all of its arrangements and connections, even its very distribution in space and time, to the constitution of the knower. The mind imposes its conditions on the object, and thus gets out of nature what it has already put into it. The bearing of this on man's spiritual claims is apparent. It is now nature that is creature; and man, in virtue of his intelligence, that is creator. The fatal world of fact and necessity, that seemed so alien to spirit, turns out to be but an expression of the intellectual part of spirit.


But a Rousseau might still complain that this victory of spirit over matter was dearly bought, since it left the rest of spirit in harsh subjection to the intellectual part. What guarantee is there that the intellect, thus clothed with authority, will make due allowance for the claims of sentiment and conscience? Kant's answer lies in his famous doctrine of the "primacy of the practical reason."[3] Nature, he says, is indeed the work of the theoretical faculties; and the theoretical faculties can recognize only facts and laws. But the theoretical faculties are themselves but the expression of something deeper, namely, the will. Thinking is a kind of action, and action in general has its own laws, revealed in conscience, and taking precedence of the rules that govern any special department of action, such as knowing. This does not mean that conscience over-rules the understanding, or that the will can violate nature; but that conscience reveals another world, deeper and more real than nature, which is the proper sphere for the exercise of the will. This is the world of God, freedom, and immortality. It cannot be known in the strict sense, only nature can be known; but it can and must be believed in, because it is presupposed in all action. If one is to live at all, one must claim such a world to live in. So Kant, who began by justifying science, ended by justifying faith.


I have said that it was the fate of epoch-makers to have their ideas promptly converted into something that they never meant. Kant was a cautious, or as he terms it, a "critical" thinker. He concerned himself with questions regarding the possibility of knowledge and the legitimacy of faith; and avoided so far as possible making positive assertions about the world. But his followers were fired with speculative zeal, and at once passed over from "criticism" to metaphysics.

There resulted the great Romantic and Idealistic movement that formed the main current of philosophical thought during the nineteenth century.

In the idealistic movement the Kantian theory of knowledge is united with a pantheistic tendency that may be traced continuously back even to Plato himself. According to this pantheistic view, nature and God are the same thing viewed differently. God, foreshortened and taken in the limited perspectives defined by man's earth-bound intelligence, is nature; nature, consummated, seen in its fullness and harmony, is God.

For all we have power to see, is a straight staff bent in a pool;

And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see;
But if we could see and hear, this Vision—were it not He?[4]

Nature, on Kantian grounds, is the work of intelligence, and intelligence, in turn, obeys some deeper spiritual law. That law, when interpreted according to the Platonic-pantheistic tradition, is the perfection of the whole. There are many possible variations of the view. The perfection of the whole may be regarded as a moral perfection, the ideal of the moral will, as suggested by Kant, and more positively and constructively maintained by Fichte; or as the ideal of reason, as was maintained by Hegel and his followers; or as a general realization of all spiritual values, a perfection transcending moral and rational standards, and more nearly approached in the experience of beauty, or in flashes of mystical insight, as was proclaimed by the sentimentalists and romanticists. In the popular literary expressions of the view, these varieties have alternated, or have been indiscriminately mingled. But it is this view in some form that has inspired those English poets and essayists, such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Emerson, Tennyson, and Browning, who so profoundly influenced the men of the last generation. There is thus a continuous current of thought from the closest philosophy of the sage of Konigsberg to the popular incentives and consolations of to-day.

  1. See Pascal's "Thoughts," Harvard Classics, xlviii, 348ff.; 408ff.
  2. H. C., xxxii, 185.
  3. H. C., xxxii, 305ff, 318ff.
  4. Tennyson, "The Higher Pantheism," H. C., xlii, 1004.