Kant, Immanuel

Kant, Immanuel
One of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all modern philosophers, the German Immanuel Kant has had a profound and lasting influence both in philosophy itself, and across the full range of intellectual disciplines, including of course sociology. The core of Kant's critical philosophy is generally taken to be his synthesis of the two rival traditions of empiricism and rationalism which dominated epistemology (or philosophical theory of knowledge) in Kant's time. Kant argued, against the empiricists, that there were true synthetic a priori judgements; that is to say, judgements which were not mere tautologies , yet which were not derived from experience. Kant's great work the Critique of Pure Reason(1781) is devoted to the demonstration of this claim and to the systematic derivation of those synthetic a priori concepts and judgements which were conditions of the possibility of our apprehension of space and time (the ‘forms of intuition’), and our making of objective judgements of experience (the ‘categories’-causality, necessity, possibility, and others). For Kant, however, the categories, whilst not derivable from experience, could be legitimately applied only within the field of possible experience. To use the categories to offer accounts of ‘things-in-themselves’, beyond possible experience, was to fall into irresolvable contradiction. So, whilst rejecting a central doctrine of empiricism, Kant nevertheless shared with the leading empiricists a concern to defend the cognitive status of empirical science against theological and metaphysical claims to knowledge of ‘things-in-themselves’ beyond experience.
Howvever, for Kant, thought about ‘things-in-themselves’ was unavoidable, even if knowledge of them was impossible. This was not least because of the necessity of a rational grounding for objective moral judgement. For an individual to be bound by a moral maxim requires both freedom of will and a unitary personal identity, neither of which is to be found among the contents of experience. Kant's treatment of aesthetics (in the Critique of judgement, 1790) also makes use of ideas (such as ‘the form of purposiveness’) which can have no application in objective judgements of experience. Despite the anti-metaphysical leanings of the central arguments of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, therefore, there remains a tension between a realm of objectively knowable objects of experience, on the one hand, and unavoidable allusions to an unknowable realm of ‘things-in-themselves’, on the other. This latter realm is especially required in the grounding of moral and aesthetic judgement and the identity of the perceiving, knowing, and acting subject .
The principal non-positivist epistemologies which have been influential in sociology derive from various European traditions of interpretation and resolution of these tensions in Kant's philosophy (most especially neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, and hermeneutics-for all of which see separate entries in this dictionary). Hegel's historical dialectic of self-realization of the ‘Absolute Idea’ arose from the critique of Kant's philosophy and went on to inform both the view of history and the epistemology of Marx and Engels.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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