From Ten Blind Leaders of the Blind by Arthur M. Lewis 1910
See also 350 Books on German Philosophy on DVDrom (Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hegel)
The history of philosophy records a series of defeats, resulting in final and complete disaster. Twenty centuries of herculean labors, performed by the greatest intellects the race produced during that period, and philosophy ends where philosophy began — the will-o'-the-wisp it pursues is as far beyond the reach of Kant as it was of Plato.
Round and round it moves in a fatal circle from which there is no exit. It builds its imposing temples on foundations of sand, and no sooner is the capstone planted in triumph than the entire superstructive falls into ruin.
Philosophy, never daunted, rolls her Sisyphus stone to the very summit of the mountain and then, when victory seems assured, back it tumbles to the starting point.
Her aims are lofty; her head is among the clouds; she despises science, which grovels among sordid facts, but science, content to investigate that which has been gathered from experience, and which can be verified by observation and experiment, moves forward in a line, not always straight, but forever advancing.
To-day systematic, speculative philosophy is abandoned and science holds the field triumphant and unchallenged. Science has succeeded in the search for truth where philosophy failed. Where philosophy o'erstretched the chasm with a rainbow, science spanned it with a steel bridge. Philosophers have piled speculation on speculation, they have erected system after system, every system claiming to give the sum total of human knowledge, and yet they are no nearer an agreement on first principles than were the philosophers of ancient Greece. The cry, "Back to Kant," has no more relevance than back to Paracelsus, or, back to Plato. In fact, philosophy always gets "back" to where it starts from without being urged.
Science, on the other hand, moves on from one conquest to another, refusing to accept that which cannot be tested, wasting no time in idle speculation on matters beyond verification, she achieves more in ten years than philosophy has to show for two thousand.
When philosophy rejected the only sure ground of knowledge — -experience — it condemned itself to perpetual sterility. Joseph Dietzgen says: "After the repeated creation of giant fantasmagorias, it found its solution in the positive knowledge that so-called pure philosophical thought, from which all concrete contents have been abstracted, is nothing but thoughtless thought, without any real object back of it."
So thoroughly discredited had mere speculation become by the middle of the last century that Ludwig Feuerbach boasted: "My philosophy is no philosophy."
If, however, posterity should forget the ponderous labors of the philosophers the name of Emanuel Kant will still be entitled to a foremost place among the thinkers of the world.
In 1755, long before he constructed his system of philosophy, he published a book of two hundred pages, which deserves a place by Newton's "Principia" and Darwin's "Origin of Species," a book which will more and more in the future constitute Kant's chief claim to live in the memories of men. It was entitled "A General Theory of the Heavens," etc., and gave to the world the famous theory of "nebulae," which has done more to emancipate astronomy from theology than even the epoch-making discoveries of Newton himself.
This epoch-making theory is too often ascribed to Laplace, who did not publish his "Systeme du Monde" until forty-one years later, in 1796. It is conceded that Laplace discovered the theory independently, although subsequently, as Kant's book seemed to go straight to oblivion, when it was published.
Born in Konigsberg, son of a saddler, in 1724, he lived there eighty years, never leaving it further than a walk into the country. Twice he contemplated marriage, but in the first instance he reflected so long, the lady married another, while by the time he made up his mind in the second case, the object of his consideration had left town.
After nine years as private tutor to various families, he began to win recognition, and after fifteen years as "Privat-Docent" he obtained the professorship he desired, the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics. He set himself as his life task the solution of the world-old problems of philosophy. Undeterred by the fate of his predecessors, he believed it possible to succeed where they had failed. He believed he had discovered a new method, an open sesame to the hitherto insoluble mysteries of the universe.
Above all, his philosophy was to be critical "The Critical Philosophy." This criticism was to be aimed at the very organ of knowledge itself — the faculty of reason. Like all other philosophers, Kant believed he had blazed out a new path, destined to lead to the promised land of certitude. In this, however, Kant deceived himself.
He published his celebrated book, "A Critique of Pure Reason," which contained the first half of his philosophy. It was an examination of the powers and limitations of reason and the sense perceptions. This book made a great stir in Germany in spite of its clumsy and difficult terminology.
The main position established in the "Critique of Pure Reason" is that the understanding is not capable of perceiving things as they really are, but only as they appear to be. What we behold is the "phenomena," behind that, and wholly invisible and imperceptible to us, there is the "noumena" or "things in themselves" — the things as they are in reality. So far Kant lands in complete skepticism.
Hume had landed in skepticism, because he held that the understanding was treacherous and its conclusions could not be relied on; therefore, philosophy and religion became alike impossible. What appeared to be the same result was reached by Kant, asserting as he did, not that the understanding was too treacherous to be trusted, but that it was unable by reason of its own limitations to penetrate beyond appearances and ascertain those certainties which are essential to philosophy and religion alike.
It seemed as if Kant was to give skepticism the philosophic status in Germany which Hume had already obtained for it in Britain. The "powers that be" were hardly disposed to accept this without protest. The censor allowed the book to pass on the ground that it would "only be read by deep thinkers." It is said that Frederick II protested and was assured by Kant that his fears were groundless, that he intended to give religion a new foundation and would defend the existing order.
The manner in which he accomplished this is seen in his "Critique of Practical Reason," which presented the second and supplementary half of his philosophy. In this work the skepticism of the former volume is totally annihilated. It is accomplished thus: We must not despair of ever knowing the eternal verities, because this knowledge cannot be obtained by means of the understanding. We are, as human beings, equipped with a power of ascertaining truth wholly independent of reason or experience. By this means we are able to place great truths which have hitherto been disputed upon a solid foundation, which will render them impervious to all future criticism.
Thus Kant raised the question of questions: Have we any ideas that are independent of experience? Again he fought upon a battleground which had always proved philosophy's field of Waterloo.
The hopeless futility of Kant's philosophy came out clearly in his "Practical Reason." His great "Critical Philosophy" turned out to be a re-hash of theories which even in his day were beginning to be discredited, and which were destined a century later to be pulverized to powder by positive science and the Socialist philosophy.
In the previous century John Locke in his "Essay Concerning the Human Understanding" had anticipated the conclusion of nineteenth century science that all our ideas are the result of experience. This, however, Kant stoutly disputed, as he must needs do, his whole philosophy being directly at stake.
See also 350 Books on German Philosophy on DVDrom (Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hegel)
According to Kant, there are two sources of knowledge. Karjt himself denied this and tried to show that according to his own teaching there is only really one. He maintains that water cannot be said to have two sources, because it is composed of oxygen and hydrogen. Water, according to Kant, is not caused by oxygen and hydrogen — two things, but by the "union" of oxygen and hydrogen, which is one thing. This kind of word-juggling was a large part of the stock in trade of the philosophers, and went far to bring discredit on their fanciful conclusions. In spite of his efforts
to give it an appearance of unity — monism — to which it is by no means entitled, he falls into the most flagrant dualism.
He acknowledges that we have ideas drawn from experience — a posteriori. These ideas, he thinks, are to be trusted, Hume to the contrary notwithstanding. But the trouble is, these ideas are so limited — they teach us so little.
This painful and humiliating limitation of reason dependent on experience is remedied by Kant's discovery of an infallible source of truth separate from and independent of all experience. This he finds in human consciousness. As this is of supreme importance, Kant now undertakes to show that we possess many great truths which we cannot by any possibility derive from experience, but which we must, nevertheless, accept because they are bound up with the very nature of our being, ingrained in the laws of our mind, an integral part of our very consciousness.
As we might expect, these truths derived from consciousness are necessary and universal. If we wish to know what they are we must interrogate our own consciousness, much as though a man who wished to know the name of a street which he had never heard mentioned, nor seen in writing, instead of asking someone or consulting a map or some outside source of information, should shut him-
self up in a room and try to get it by cudgelling his brains.
We know that such an adventure could never succeed. The human consciousness can only give up what has previously been committed to it, and the effort to draw out from it anything else must be as unavailing as though we asked the memory for a line of poetry which it never possessed. This criticism is destructive of Kant's whole philosophy, as we shall see.
He says: "How far we can advance independently of all experience * * * is shown by the brilliant example of mathematics."
Kant's idea is that the mathematical truth that two and two make four is not derived by experience, but is one of those necessary, universal, unconditional truths which are at once clear to all because they are founded in the human consciousness itself. This seems plausible enough until it is examined more closely. It is true that when asked to give the total of two and two the response of consciousness is instantaneous. But is this because the truth is necessarily universal and unconditional, or is it because the sum is so simple and we have been over it so often by "experience." If the former is the case, as Kant contends, how is it that when the average man is asked to give the total of twice two hundred and eighty-three his "consciousness" does not respond with quite the same alacrity? That the result of this addition is five hundred and sixty-six is just as necessary, universal and unconditional as that twice two are four.
But when the average man is confronted with the more complex sum, instead of finding the answer waiting in his consciousness, he is obliged to revert in his mind to certain rules which he learned at school by the most toilsome kind of "experience." Even the simpler sum is insoluble to the consciousness of the child that has not learned the relation of numbers. True, children learn to count rapidly, but only by "experience." They are quick to perceive that the ability to count is necessary to the preservation, intact, of certain precious properties, and when a certain stage of
proficiency has been reached, it is surprising how great an outburst may be brought on by the insidious abstraction of one or two gingerbread cakes.
It is worthy of note, that when Alfred Russell Wallace wished to find an unoccupied area in Darwinism, where the ghosts of spiritualism might live and move and have their being undisturbed by "Natural Selection," he sought the same refuge as Kant — mathematics. He too maintained that the mathematical faculty could not be accounted for on purely rational grounds, and as Kant had ascribed it to a metaphysical (beyond-physical) source, he declared it to be an "influx" from the spirit-world. At bottom, Kant and Wallace are at one; they are both seeking to protect the fundamental belief of the theology current in their time from the encroachment of science.
It is quite clear that if nothing was being sought beyond the establishment of this non-physical origin of the methematical faculty, neither Kant nor Wallace would have given it a second thought. Wallace as co-discoverer of "natural selection" had, so his colleagues thought, closed the front door of science against belief in the supernatural, and he found it necessary to look for some rift or crevice by which it might re-enter. But Wallace had to contend with a much more formidable science in the nineteenth century than had Kant in the eighteenth. In fact, he had to show that the mathematical faculty could not be accounted for by "natural selection."
He must, therefore, prove that mathematical ability was not a useful variation, leading its possessor to victory in the struggle for existence. To this end he maintained that the great mathematical powers of a senior wrangler in an English university, were so little in demand, and withal so rare as not to constitute a material factor in the struggle for existence. As Professor Ritchie pointed out, in this controversy, Wallace overlooked the fact that the special powers of a senior wrangler are invariably accompanied by, and are the result of, a highly organized and well-trained brain, which undoubtedly is a very important factor in the struggle for existence, as it is fought out in modern society.
Reduced to simpler and more primitive instances the alleged difficulty at once disappears. It does not require great insight to see that an animal with a family of five, and possessing the ability to count them all and at once detect the loss of one, would be much more likely to rear all her young than another animal with a family of the same number, but unable to count above three, and which, therefore, would not search for missing offspring until more than two were lost.
In the attempt to place mathematics on a supernatural footing Kant and Wallace alike completely failed. The only important difference is that in the eighteenth century when Kant tried it, the thinkers of his day, still in the grip of metaphysical philosophy, received the assertion with great solemnity and acclaimed its propounder the greatest genius of his age. Kant himself had the temerity to compare his own work in philosophy with that of Copernicus in physics. Had he made this claim for his own work in the same field as Copernicus — his nebular theory — posterity would have upheld the analogy.
Instead of furthering the brilliant results of his work in physics, his work in philosophy tended to undo them. In physics he did much to destroy the useless theology of the middle ages, while in philosophy he labored to re-establish it on a better foundation.
So clear had the impossibility of this become by the middle of the nineteenth century that a similar attempt on the part of Wallace to achieve the same object, provoked among his contemporaries a tolerant and pitying smile.
As an illustration of the subterfuges by which the Kantian "independent" truths were established take this: "All men are mortal," everybody believes this, but they do not believe it from "experience," because it is quite clear that we cannot know this from "experience" so long as any of them are living. If from this general proposition we deduce the particular statement, "Thomas is mortal," before we could know from "experience" that this statement is true we should be obliged to wait until Thomas died.
This ingenuous reasoning was considered acute in the eighteenth century, but it calls for no extensive reply in the twentieth.
The real process by which such conclusions are reached has been laid bare by science; not by means of criticism so much as by consciously adopting that very method as a means of finding the truth. Science seeks to explain the unknown by the known. Whether the people who are now alive will all die belongs to the future, and is therefore unknown. But as everybody who ever lived in the past did die, we argue from this known fact of experience that the people now alive, being of the same species and the same in every other way, so far as this matter is concerned, will also die. The first and most essential method of modern science is to proceed in this way from the particular facts to the general law.
After a laborious but unsuccessful effort to prove the idea of causation to be independent of experience, like the mathematical faculty, he takes another plunge into the depths of his consciousness, and to the great satisfaction of Frederick II and the public censor, he brings up a personal God, the freedom of the will, a future life, and that much-lauded idea of duty, to which he gave the philosophical title: "The Categorical Imperative."
Although these things are all welded together in the Kantian system, we shall here confine ourselves as far as possible to his ethics.
When Kant listened to his consciousness he heard a voice saying: "Thou shalt!" Thus duty, besides belonging to a certain category, was also "imperative." "Thou shalt" would be absurd if he were not able to respond to the mandate, from which he concludes that man has a free will, a doctrine which biological science has completely exterminated.
If Kant had possessed the cautious mind of the present-day scientist he would have listened to the "Thou shalt" of his consciousness with some considerable suspicion. It may have occurred to him that the very words might be only an echo of his memory, reminiscent of the days when he sat at his mother's knee and the ten "Thou shalts" of the decalogue were impressed on his mind.
Could he have known what modern anthropology has since revealed, he would have known that he would only find in his consciousness, a jumbled mass of things put there in various ways during his childhood, boyhood, and youth.
When we remember that Kant had spent six years studying theology, and, had he not been disappointed in his application for a certain position, would probably have spent his life preaching, we are not surprised that the net result of the search of his consciousness was a collection of the theological ideas which were current in his time. The very formula in which he states his "Categorical Imperative" contains little more than the golden rule decked out in the verbal trappings of philosophy.
It reads: "Act at all times so that the maxim of thy action may serve as the principle of a universal law." The idea is that it is possible for all men to be actuated by the same motive and act in the same way. Ethical science, even without the aid of Socialism, has demonstrated that there is as yet no such thing as universal ethics.
"On that theory," says Haeckel, speaking of Kant's formula above quoted, "all normal men would have the same sense of duty." And he adds: "Modern anthropology has ruthlessly dissipated that pretty dream it has shown that conceptions of duty differ even more among uncivilized than among civilized nations. All the actions' and customs which we regard as sins or loathsome crimes (theft, fraud, murder, adultery, etc.) are considered by other nations in certain circumstances to be virtues, or even sacred duties."