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Kant’s notion of ‘critique’ in the Critique of Pure Reason

The publication of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 is widely seen as inaugurating the era of modern philosophy. It is the first of Kant’s three great critiques. Together these works systematised a new conception of subjectivity that gave birth to the German Idealist movement. They remain profoundly influential over two centuries later.

Kant’s notion of “critique” undergoes revisions during this period, although the basic themes are there from the outset. In particular, the concept is reworked between the CPR’s first and second edition, published in 1787. Kant responded to debates sparked by the first edition by rewriting the book’s opening chapters to defend and elaborate his stance. These changes include the famous characterisation of the critical project as a “Copernican revolution” in philosophy (CPR, Bxvi).

The two editions of the CPR have inspired different interpretive traditions. The first edition lies behind the dominant German reading, which focuses on the faculty of imagination and culminates in phenomenology. The French and English language readings, in contrast, tend to focus on epistemological concerns and take their cue from the second edition.

This short essay examines the concept of critique as outlined in the ‘Preface’ and ‘Introduction’ to the CPR, and the shifts that take place between the two editions. I look at how an initial judicial version of the critique is elaborated into a scientific project and an ethico-political one. Kant’s concern is to found both projects securely, in a single gesture, through the precise demarcation of the borderline between them.

Preface A: critique as tribunal

The preface to the first edition of the CPR (‘Preface A’) is a short polemical work – a philosophical manifesto that situates Kant’s new critical project with respect to its rivals and outlines its basic duties, standards and aims.

It opens with a celebrated description of the parlous state of contemporary metaphysics as a “battlefield of endless controversies” (CPR, Aviii). Kant draws out this metaphor, in a somewhat convoluted manner, to describe his main philosophical opponents: dogmatism, scepticism, empiricism and indifferentism. Critique, it will transpire, is opposed to all four schools.

The dogmatists are the dominant rationalist metaphysics of Leibniz, especially as interpreted by Wolff and Baumgarten. They are described as a despotic “queen” that was once revered but is now despised and besieged by the “nomads” of anarchist scepticism – a reference to Hume’s devastating attack on the metaphysics of causality.

Locke’s empiricists try to save the day, but their attempts fail. Metaphysics to fall back into “indifferentism” – the pop philosophy of Kant’s day that supported the pieties of dogmatism with glib common sense. Kant scarcely conceals his contempt for this latter school of thought.

To resolve this chaos Kant institutes a “court of justice” that will be “none other that the critique of pure reason itself” (CPR, Axii). Critique is thus introduced as a kind of tribunal that passes judgement on warring metaphysical parties and draws up a just settlement that all must abide by.

The spirit of Enlightenment political thought is palpable here. In a footnote, Kant claims that “ours is the genuine age of criticism, to which everything must submit” – even religion. Reason only grants “unfeigned respect” to that which can “withstand its free and public examination”, and religion’s majesty offers it no exemption from this interrogation.

Critique at this point is characterised by its reflexive nature. Reason turns its gaze upon itself and embarks on the difficult but necessary task of self-knowledge. This will allow it to secure its rightful claims, not by mere decree, but through its own legislative capacity.

Kant ends the ‘Preface A’ by stressing the preparatory character of critique. It is an arduous task, but one that clears the ground for a truly scientific metaphysics. It is this promise of future scientificity that dominates the rewritten preface found in the CPR’s second edition.

Preface B: critique as revolution

The ‘Preface B’ is differs from its predecessor not just in length and detail, but also in terms of its tone and concerns. The breezy self-confidence of the earlier preface is replaced by a furrowed brow, determined, laborious and at times defensive.

It opens with a question that returns insistently over the next few pages. Can reason in general and metaphysics in particular be set on “the secure course of a science”? Or is it condemned forever to “merely groping about” in the dark and at random?

Kant begins his answer with a historical survey of scientific reason to date. He considers logic, mathematics and physics, highlighting aspects of each form of thought that enabled it to successfully attain scientific status.

From logic – a discipline Kant views as essentially complete – we draw a simple but vital lesson. The power of logic, Kant argues, is intimately connected to its sharply delimited boundaries. Attempts to “improve” logic by enlarging its scope end up merely disfiguring it. The freedom of science is thus founded upon restraint in its sphere of application.

From mathematics and physics, Kant points to the active role of reason, revisiting the judicial metaphor of ‘Preface A’. Reason approaches nature with principles in one hand and experiments in the other. It does so to learn from nature, not as a pupil learns from a teacher, but as a “judge who compels witnesses to answer the questions he puts to them” (CPR, Bxiii).

Kant distils the lessons of this survey into his call for a “Copernican revolution” in metaphysics. The scientificity of mathematics and physics arise through a revolutionary break whose essential element is the inversion in the roles of object and subject. Rather than cognition conforming to objects, objects must conform to our cognition. We are the mobile and active element, not the stars that we gaze upon – hence the reference to Copernicus.

The precise procedure of this new scientific metaphysics is set out in a footnote on page Bxviii. Kant says his method is “experimental” in the sense that it posits distinctions. If these distinctions succeed in removing an otherwise intractable contradiction, the “experiment” is considered a success, and the scientific status of the distinction confirmed. This description concisely captures Kant’s actual method of argumentation throughout the CPR.

The second half of ‘Preface B’ is concerned with spelling out some consequences and benefits of this Copernican revolution in philosophy. In particular, Kant returns to the theme of how rigorously specifying the limits of pure reason can secure its scientific foundations.

This delimitation has a negative function – it debunks the “pretension to extravagant insight” of dogmatic metaphysics, and neutralises contradictions between metaphysical principles and those of Newtonian science. But critique also has a positive ethico-political role to play in terms of grounding the possibility of human freedom.

For instance, distinguishing objects of experience from things-in-themselves, and restricting the domain of causality to the former, prevents us from binding the soul with the same rigid laws that operate among phenomena (CPR, Bxxvii). Similarly, pure reason’s inability to provide proofs of the existence of God opens up a space for practical reason to operate – we “deny knowledge in order to make room for faith” (CPR, Bxxx).

The critique of pure reason thus lays the groundwork for the reconciliation of scientific and ethico-political forms of thought that were previously at loggerheads. It does so through the rigorous specification of its own limits – and it is to that specification that Kant turns to next.

The Introduction: critique as a special science

The ‘Introduction’ to the CPR does not undergo quite the same drastic rewrite between editions as the ‘Preface’. But Kant does expands the text significantly, adding sections that parallel the shift of emphasis between the two prefaces. These lay out a detailed discussion of mathematics and physics to justify and motivate analogous but more controversial metaphysical claims.

The ‘Introduction’ proceeds by setting forth distinctions that rapidly narrow down pure reason’s field of cognition. First we set aside empirical cognitions in favour of those that are purely a priori. Then we distinguish analytic judgements that merely clarify what has already been thought from synthetic ones that are truly creative. Pure reason is concerned with these synthetic a priori judgements, which Kant claims can be found in maths, physics and metaphysics.

The “general problem of pure reason” is recast in terms of asking how synthetic a priori judgements are possible. The critique of pure reason – conceived once more in reflexive terms as reason examining its own presuppositions – is thus presented as a “special science” that acts as the key to unlocking the more general question of scientific metaphysics.

Kant wraps up the introduction by reprising his argument about the autonomy of practical reason, though this sphere is now more rigorously specified as that of cognitions that are a priori but cannot be entirely separated from empirical experiences of desire and pleasure (CPR, B29). He ends by setting up the distinction between passive sensibility and active understanding – at which point the Critique of Pure Reason proper begins.


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This entry was posted on 27 October 2010 by in Philosophy and tagged .