Making sense of Kant in easy steps

Chris asked:

I would like to ask If I am understanding Kant correctly in the following manner? I am not going into Hume and unnecessary terminology.

I understand Kant in 3 steps.

Lets take for example that I see an apple in front of me and how it is that I can perceive it.

1. Our brain have innate ability to enforce upon the world the concepts of spatial temporal and cause and effect (this might very well differ for other animals) at this stage the apple is merely a thing in front of me and I know this because of my innate abilities (at this stage of reasoning I have no idea it is an apple)

2. The second step is the 4 main categories (this we also know innate?) this being (a)quantity I sense ‘one’ apple , instead of many.(b) Quality I sense that it is real and not just in my mind. (c) Relation I sense the object in relation to the “table” on which it stands? (d) modality (have no idea what this really is)

3. The third step is reason Here we give all the particulars linguistic terms and characteristics all by means of reason ergo the subjective nature.

In a nutshell the senses perceive raw data that (1) the brain structures in space and time and then (2) I apply the categories and (3) then I apply reason to explain what it is?

This is how I understand Kant.

Can anybody please explain Kant to me in three or four steps?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This is not a good way of handling this problem. Kant understood something fundamental about our sensory and intellectual capacities despite not having our science at his elbow. He realised what we discovered scientifically much later: That the objects and events ‘out there’ in the world are not directly discernible in themselves (as Dinge an sich). What we apperceive is the energy they radiate. You touch and encounter resistive force. What you hear and see are electromagnetic waveforms. That’s nothing much to go by. Accordingly organisms like our brains evolved with the capacity of discerning the structure behind these packets of information.

Your Point 1 is therefore something totally different. Namely, first, the brain’s capacity to identify a spatial location for some coherent strands of this information in relation to other strands. Second, a capacity based on memory to identify its temporal relation to other strands, which are either earlier or simultaneous. Third, a capacity to engender in your consciousness a sense of the three-dimensional coordination of these impressions, e.g. ‘there’ in space, ‘now’ in time. This does not mean that either space or time are independent realities, although we conscious creatures developed such an intuition.

Next, the brain has the capacity of grouping those energy strands into different kinds of impressions, such as aural, tactile or visual. This permits you to identify the source as a tangible object, a sound or a colour. Again, you must understand that the colours or sounds or the hard/soft feel of things are your impressions. An ant would not gain the same impressions from the same phenomena, so they are not objective, but related to your possibilities for perceiving them.

The categories also come in; and again they are a capacity of the brain which is necessary to make sense of what you perceive. So you grasp from this the meaning of ‘a priori’. Certain conditions have to be met in order to understand the impulses which affect your sensory apparatus. The senses and the brain must have a prior capacity to unravel the information, before any of it can be become meaningful to you as a conscious being.

But now complications arise for which we cannot rely on science any more, as your intellectual capacity becomes involved. You may easily perceive quantity, but differentiating between contingent and necessary is unlikely to be possible to apes or crocs.

Once all these conditions have been fulfilled, it is possible for a judgement to be formed. All told, the premise underlying this is of a world external to your consciousness, which your senses explore and relay the information they collect for the brain to manipulate into sensible conscious impressions.

But now, do not lose sight of the fact that this is continuous and simultaneous. The responsibility of the brain is to produce stable impressions in your consciousness, so that you can orient yourself in the world and navigate with reasonable assurance that your impressions reflect an accurate picture of your surroundings. Reality, however, is seamless, hence mistakes are possible and frequent.

Even this account is a simplification of a very complex process. But I hope it helps you over the hump of your travails with the basics of Kant’s theory.


Answer by Henk Tuten

The influence of Kant on the Western way of handling reality is huge. I’ll try to evade difficult words, and I’ll try to pinpoint the essence.

You write: ‘This is how I understand Kant.’ In fact the idea ‘understanding’ or ‘intelligence’, that we western people got so acquainted to, is made believable by the complex conceptual scheme that Kant created around it. It originated already from the ancient Greeks (especially Aristotle) and was revived in Catholicism (Roman Christianity).

But Kant became godfather of western reality. His prestige was made so big, that for ages no serious scientist dared to contradict Kant. ‘Intelligence’ or ‘understanding’ presumes a ‘mind’ that is preprogrammed with Natural Law (whatever that is). This is Kantian belief. The preprogramming tells us what is ‘good’ and what is ‘wrong’.

Looking at things from an evolutionary standpoint we human animals have sense experiences, that our body made into behavior. The most effective behavior was archived in DNA (hardware). DNA can change, but very very slow (many thousands of ages). On shorter term and locally we have cultural realities that compete in offering parts to DNA. The criterion is simple: behavior that survives for many hundreds of ages makes a good chance.

Our western dual reality (mind and body) was extremely succesful, but finally now is in deep crisis, so most of this view will fade.

Behind what enters DNA is not ‘intelligence’ but only effectivity. If killing all competitors would have been effective for millions of ages, than earth would by now be inhabited by 1 or 2 species, so obviously such behavior is not effective. We can try to design a logic behind DNA, that might make it a fine tool, but in the end the only logic is effectivity (what works on earth).

Kant’s view: natural law (eternal) exists, and is preset in ‘mind’. And ‘mind’ (the capacity to ‘reason’) is spiritual/ abstract. You have to believe in it.

Kant obviously was very clever (convincing), but in the end only offers his own version of the hypothesis, ‘metaphysics’ that became base of Western Science.

Take care: this is only my interpretation of Kant’s views, it’s easy to find different ones on Google, with much higher ‘scientific’ ratings (authors with more ‘intelligence’). The only thing that matters is: which view will survive?


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