Kant’s Copernican Revolution

This concept of critique was central to Enlightenment philosophy, coming from the Greek word “krinein”, meaning to “separate” or to “discern”, which is the origin of the word “crisis.”  Whereas the Greeks took the concept of critique and applied it to texts, Emmanuel Kant (1724-1824) used “critique” to re-conceptualize Western philosophy at a time of crisis. The Enlightenment had been caught between the demystification or disenchantment of a once sacred world and the secularizing of a thoroughly modern and material world, based upon scientific analysis. For the Enlightenment philosophers, “critique” and “reason” were indivisible, and Kant began a search for the conditions, which governed reasoned criticism. A form of analysis and deduction, critique, a concept central to Kantian thought, is an internal analysis of a concept in its own terms. A critique, by definition, cannot be conducted from the outside, looking in; an exercise, which would be more precisely called “criticism.” A proper critique, in contrast, must always examine given concepts from the interior and not impose ideas, alien to the argument, from the outside. The examination or interrogation of an idea–a critique–is rational and based upon the process of logical deduction. The result is the creation of an architectonic structure, an argument that is “built” systematically. Contemporary audiences are probably more familiar with the use of “critique” by the American art critic, Clement Greenberg who “interrogated” or critiqued painting, seeking its intrinsic qualities. Through a logical analysis of what was “irreducible” to painting, that which was absolutely necessary to painting, Greenberg deduced that for painting to be pure it must be purged of alien or outside elements. Painting, stripped of extrinsic elements, could be revealed in its basic structure, or definition, as a flat surface covered with pigment arranged in a design. As the nineteenth century progressed, the question shifted from how to use critique to question the nature of art to a new investigation into which art is worthy of critique. A critique of philosophy is nothing less than a search for the fundamentals of how humans create knowledge.

           Immanuel Kant

Living a quiet and retiring life of a college professor in Königsberg, Kant was, by his own account, awakened from his academic “slumber” by a challenge to Reason from an unexpected quarter.  An English philosopher, the ultimate empiricist, David Hume, who in his Treatise of Human Reason and Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1738) pointed out that reason, like religion, is only another instrument for establishing relations among ideas, based upon experience. Reason, as an independent mental entity, therefore, can tell us nothing about the world. To prove his point, Hume began with an account of the behavior or billiard balls. In privileging particular events consisting of the operations of cause and effect–a billiard game–Hume observed that, given the myriad outcomes, “Why then should we give the preference to one, which is no more consistent or conceivable than the rest? All our reasonings a priori will never be able to show us any foundation for this preference. In a word, then, even effect is a distinct event from its cause.” There is no evidence that the “order” of reason is necessary and this order and “pattern” actually has no rationale in nature, which is only an object upon which we have imposed our needs. “Cause and effect” were a belief system that we lived by but could not prove. If reason is only a concept and not an intrinsic quality of human thinking, if cause and effect  are unexamined assumptions then we are back to metaphysics. As Hume wrote, not foreseeing that he would challenge Kant: “Hence we may discover the reason why no philosopher, who is relational and modest, has ever pretended to assign the ultimate cause of any natural operation, or to show distinctly the action of that power, which produces any single effect in the universe.” 

As Roy Strong in The Creation of the Modern World.  The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment (2000) expressed it,

The concept of causation was doubtless the basis of all knowledge, but causality was not itself a demonstrable fact.  Experience showed the succession of events, but did not reveal any necessity in that succession—it was habit, which created the expectation that one event would invariably follow another.  Custom was not knowledge, however, and did not strictly justify projections from the past to the future, from the known to the unknown.  Causality was thus not a principle definitively derived from the order of things but a mental postulate.

Hume’s arguments were immediately recognized by Kant as a destructive attack on reason.  When Hume attacked the concept of cause and effect by pointing out that “cause and effect” were only a concept, not a reality, the Enlightenment was effectively over. Rational thinking alone could not make it so. As a believer in the powers of reason, Kant realized that he had to restore reason to its rightful place. To refute Hume, he had to create a system for reason that was universal, useful for experience, but not, as with Hume, bound by and to experience. Kant shifted the grounds of the argument away from the empirical to cognition, the actual judgmental structures of the human mind–that which makes reason possible. What were the epistemological grounds for reason? First, reason cannot be part of idealism–an unprovable belief system. We can use reason–logic–to reach irrational and unreasonable conclusions, but Kant proposed limits to reason. We should limit ourself to that which we can know and simply eliminate that which we cannot know. For example, we can use our imagination to create a God out of our ability to reason, but this is an illegitimate mode of thinking. Reason should be deployed within the limits of the empirical real world and is the mainspring of scientific thought. Hume’s emphasis of the actions of the billiard balls as a series of multiple instances of cause and effect–I strike the ball with a cue stick and it rolls–is limited to a particular instance. For Kant, reason had to be universal, in other words, reason must always function and the cause of this universality or transcendence could not be unprovable “idealism.” In order to explain his “critique” of reason, Kant turned to science. Interestingly, he did not discuss Galileo, who scientific conclusions were based on observations or experiences. Galileo’s findings were rejected by the Church, not because he did not see what he saw through his telescope but because his discoveries contradicted Church doctrines. Kant, however, was interested in a scientific analysis of what could not be seen but in what had to be deduced.


West German Stamp commemorating the 250 Anniversary of Kant’s date of birth

In his Critique of Pure Reason (1789), Kant discussed what he called “The Copernican Revolution” in which critique was shifted from an external focus on dogmas to a focus on the inner workings of understanding. The scientist, Nicolas Copernicus, questioned the assumption, which was the received wisdom, that the sun revolved around the earth. One could see this “truth” with one’s own eyes: the sun rises in the morning and then journeys around the earth, bringing the afternoon and then the evening, and finally night. There was no discernable reason to disbelieve what seemed plain to all who saw the sun rise and set and rise again in relation to the earth. The very reasonable conclusion, reached by the actions of reason itself, was based on empirical experience.  In 1530, in De Revolutionibus, Copernicus revolutionized scientific (and philosophical) thinking by putting forward the revolutionary hypothesis that the earth revolved around the sun. This extraordinary theory, inverting general knowledge, was based upon pure abstract reasoning or deductive thinking, based upon a hypothesis that was tested and provided proof of accuracy. The mathematics of planetary movements made sense only if one threw out the belief that the sun revolved around the earth and substituted another theory that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun. Seeing may be believing, but any belief has to be tested and proven. Scientific reasoning is based upon theory: one formulates a hypothesis that functions as a theory that is never proved and is always provisional. Any theory will stand until it is disproved.

As for Copernicus, his new theory was far too dangerous to publicize—he would be under instant interdiction from religious authorities, and he was the kind of person who sought perfection and could never release his theory. Although in the time of Kant, two centuries later, De Revolutionibus was still on the list of books forbidden by the Catholic Church, the ideas of Copernicus were not only accepted but were “proved.”  The “revolution” in thinking about the sun and the earth was the disregard of Copernicus of empirical evidence, which suggested that the sun revolved around the earth, and his faith in a hypothesis was based upon reasoned considerations.  Like Copernicus, Kant proposed that raw observation of raw experience was insufficient as an explanation of the world and argued that the human mind was capable of ordering perception through a priori conceptions.  The rejection of the notion of the passive receptive mind was Kant’s version of the Copernican Revolution: the mind ordered the world, not vice versa. In other words, it was the mind that understood the principle of cause and effect, a priori, and without this cognitive ability, experience in and of itself would never come to the conclusion that each effect had a cause. For example, if one puts a flaming match to a piece of paper, the cause, the paper will burst in to flame, the effect. It is understood that cause and effect is at work, and the judgment could not take place without the a priori in place. Without the cognitive ability to conceive of cause and effect, each time a flaming match touched paper, you would be surprised and shocked, unable to comprehend the relationship between the lit match and the burning paper. Empirical experience, in other words, would never be enough to order experience into what we call knowledge. This discussion continues in the next post.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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