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Prolegomena to Every Future System of Metaphysics Which Can Claim to Rank as Science, Introduction

25 September, 2015 - 16:14

… My purpose is to convince all those who care to trouble themselves with metaphysics that it is indispensably neces- sary for the present to suspend their work, to look upon all that is gone before as non-existent, and, above all things, first to propose the question “Whether such a thing as metaphysics be even possible at all?”

If it be a science, how comes it that it cannot like other sciences win for itself a universal and lasting recognition? If it be not one, how is it that under the semblance of a science it is ceaselessly boasting and holding out to the human understanding hopes that are never extinguished and never fulfilled? Something must be definitely decided respecting the nature of this assumed science, whether it be to demonstrate our knowledge or our ignorance; for it is impossible that it should remain longer on the same footing as heretofore. It seems nearly ridiculous, while every other science ceaselessly progresses, that this which is supposed to be wisdom itself, whose oracle every one interrogates, is continu- ally turning round on the same spot, without moving a step in advance. Its votaries have also much decreased, and we do not see those who feel themselves strong enough to shine in other sciences, willing to risk their fame in this, where every one, ignorant though he be in all else, ventures upon a decided opinion, because in this sphere there is no certain weight and measure at hand by which to distinguish profundity from worthless jargon.

It is, however, not unheard of, after lengthened treatment of a science, when wonders are thought as to the progress made in it, that some one lets fall the question: Whether and how such a science is possible at all? For the human Reason is so fond of building, that it has many times reared up a lofty tower and afterwards pulled it down again, to see how its foundation was laid. It is never too late to become reasonable and wise; but it is always more difficult when the knowledge comes late to bring it into working order.

To ask, whether a science is possible presupposes a doubt as to its reality. But such a doubt must offend all those whose whole fortune, perhaps, consists in this supposed treasure; any one who starts such a doubt may always make up his mind then for resistance on all sides. Some, in the proud consciousness of their old and therefore, as they think, legitimate possession, with their metaphysical compendiums in their hands, will look down upon it with contempt. Others, who never see anything anywhere that does not coincide with what they have elsewhere previously seen, will not understand it, and everything will remain for some time as though nothing at all had happened to prepare or to admit the hope of a near change.

At the same time, I may confidently predict that the open-minded reader of these Prolegomenawill not merely doubt his previous science, but in the end will be quite convinced, that there cannot exist such a science without the demands here made being satisfied, upon which its possibility rests, and that inasmuch as this has never happened, that there is as yet no such thing as metaphysics at all. But as notwithstanding the search after it can never lose its interest, because the interests of the universal human Reason are so intimately bound up with it, he will confess that a complete reform, or rather a new birth according to a plan hitherto quite unknown, is inevitable, however much it may be striven against for a time.

Since the attempts of Locke and Leibniz, or rather since the first rise of metaphysics as far as its history will reach, no event has occurred that in view of the fortunes of the science could be more decisive than the attack made upon it by David Hume. He threw no light upon this order of knowledge, but he struck a spark by which a light might have been kindled, had it touched a receptive substance, to have preserved and enlarged its glimmer.

Hume took for his starting-point, mainly, a single but important conception of metaphysics, namely, that of the con- nectionofCauseandEffect(together with the derivative conceptions of Force and Action, &c.) and required of the Rea- son which professes to have given it birth a rigid justification of its right, to think, that something is so constructed that on its being posited something else is therewith necessarily also posited; for so much is contained in the concep- tion of Cause. He proved irrefutably that it is quite impossible for Reason apriori, out of mere conceptions, to cogitate this connection, since it involves necessity; but the problem nevertheless was not to be overlooked, how that, because something exists, something else must necessarily also exist, and thus how the conception of such a connection can be regarded as apriori. Hence he concluded that Reason completely deceived itself with this conception, that it falsely claimed it as its own child, while it was nothing more than a bastard of the imagination, which, impregnated by experi- ence, had brought certain presentations under the law of association, and had substituted a subjective necessity arising thence, i.e., from habit, for an objective one founded on insight. From this he concluded that Reason possessed no fac- ulty of cogitating such connections even in general, because its conceptions would then be mere inventions, and all its pretended aprioricognitions nothing but common experiences mislabelled; which is as much as to say, no such thing as metaphysics exists at all, and there is no possibility of its ever existing.

However hasty and incorrect his conclusion may have been, it was at least based on investigation, and it would have been well worth while if the good heads of his time had united to solve the problem in the sense in which he had stated it, if as far as possible with happier results; the consequence of which must have been a speedy and complete reform of the science.

But the always unfavourable fate of metaphysics, willed that he should be understood by no one. It is positively painful to see how completely his opponents, Reid, Oswald, Beattie, and, lastly, Priestley, missed the point of his prob- lem in taking that for granted which was precisely what he doubted, and on the other hand in proving with warmth, and in most cases great immodesty, what it had never entered his head to question, and as a result in so completely mistaking his reforming hint that everything remained in the same state as though nothing had happened. It was not the question whether the conception of Cause was correct and useful, and in view of the whole knowledge of Nature, indispensable, for upon this Hume had never cast a doubt, but whether it could be cogitated aprioriby Reason in such a manner as to constitute an inward truth independent of all experience, and therefore of a more extended use than that of being solely applied to the objects of experience; it was upon this that Hume desired enlightenment. The question was as to the origin of the idea, not as to its practical necessity in use; were the former ascertained, the conditions of its use and the extent in which it is valid would have been sufficiently obvious.

The opponents of this celebrated man, to have done the problem full justice, must have penetrated deeply into the nature of Reason, in so far as it is occupied solely with pure thought, a thing which was inconvenient for them. They invented therefore a more convenient means, by which, without any insight, they might defy him, namely, the appeal to the common sense of mankind. It is indeed a great natural gift to possess, straightforward (or, as it has been recently called, plain) common sense. But it must be proved by deeds, by the thoughtfulness and rationality of what one thinks and says, and not by appealing to it as an oracle, when one has nothing wise to adduce in one’s justification. When insight and science are at a low ebb, then and not before to appeal to common sense is one of the subtle inventions of modern times, by which the emptiest talker may coolly confront the profoundest thinker and hold out against him. But so long as there is a small remnant of insight left, one will be cautious of clutching at this straw. And seen in its true light, the argument is nothing better than an appeal to the verdict of the multitude; a clamour before which the philosopher blushes, and the popular witling scornfully triumphs. But I should think that Hume can make as good claim to the possession of common sense as Beattie, and in addition, to something the latter certainly did not possess, namely, a critical Reason, to hold common sense within bounds in order not to let it overreach itself in speculations; or if we are merely concerned with the latter, not to require it to decide, seeing that it is incompetent to deal with matters outside its own axioms; for only in this way will it remain a healthy common sense. Chisel and hammer are quite sufficient to shape a piece of deal, but for copper-engraving an etching-needle is necessary. In the same way, common, no less than speculative understanding, is useful in its kind; the former when we have to do with judgments having an immediate bearing on experience, but the latter, where we have to judge, universally, out of mere conceptions, as for instance in metaphysics, where the self-styling (though often perantiphrasin) healthy understanding is capable of no judgment at all.

I readily confess, the reminder of David Hume was what many years ago first broke my dogmatic slumber, and gave my researches in the field of speculative philosophy quite a different direction. I was far enough removed from giv- ing him an ear so far as his consequences were concerned, the latter resulting merely from his not having placed his problem fully before him, but only attacking a part of it, which, without taking the whole into consideration, could not possibly afford a solution. When one starts from a well-founded, though undeveloped, idea that a predecessor has left, one may well hope, by increased reflection, to bring it further than was possible for the acute man one has to thank for the original sparks of its light.

First of all, I tried whether Hume’s observation could not be made general, and soon found that the conception of the connection of cause and effect was not by a long way the only one by which the understanding cogitates apriori the connections of things, but that metaphysics consists entirely of such. I endeavoured to ascertain their number, and as I succeeded in doing this to my satisfaction, namely, out of a single principle, I proceeded to the deduction of these conceptions, which I was now assured could not, as Hume had pretended, be derived from experience but must have originated in the pure understanding. This deduction, that seemed impossible to my acute predecessor, that had not even occurred to any one except him, although every one unconcernedly used the conception (without asking on what its objective validity rested); this, I say, was the most difficult problem that could ever be undertaken in the interests of metaphysics, and the worst of it was, that metaphysics, so far as it anywhere exists at present, could not afford me the least help, because the above deduction had in the first place to make metaphysics possible. Having now succeeded in the solution of Hume’s problem, not in one particular case only, but in respect of the whole capacity of pure Reason, I could at least more surely, though still only by slow steps, determine the whole range of pure Reason, in its limits as well as in its content, completely according to universal principles, which was what metaphysics required, in order to construct its system on an assured plan.

I am afraid, however, lest the carrying out of the problem of Hume in its greatest possible development (namely, in the CritiqueofPureReason) should fare as the problem itself fared when it was first stated. It will be falsely judged, because it is misunderstood; it will be misunderstood, because people, though they may care to turn over the leaves of the book, will not care to think it out; and they will be unwilling to expend this trouble upon it because the work is dry, obscure, and opposed to all accustomed conceptions, besides being diffuse. But I must confess, it was quite unexpected for me to hear from a philosopher complaints as to its want of popularity, entertainingness, and agreeable arrangement, when the question was of a branch of knowledge highly prized and indispensable to humanity, and which cannot be treated otherwise than according to the most strict rules of scholastic precision; whereby popularity may indeed follow in time, but can never be expected at the commencement. As regards a certain obscurity, however, arising partly from the diffuseness of the plan, in consequence of which the main points of the investigation are not so readily grasped, the grievance must be admitted, and this it is the task of the present Prolegomenato remove.

The above work, which presents the capacity of pure Reason in its whole range and boundaries, always remains the foundation to which the Prolegomenaare only preparatory; for the Critiquemust, as science, stand complete and system- atic even down to the smallest detail, before we can so much as think of the rise of metaphysics, or even allow ourselves the most distant hope in this direction.

We have been long accustomed to see old and worn-out branches of knowledge receive a new support, by being tak- en out of their former coverings, and suited with a systematic garment according to our own approved style, but under new titles; and the great majority of readers will expect nothing different from our Critique. But these Prolegomenawill convince him that it is quite a new science, of which no one previously had had the smallest conception, of which even the idea was unknown, and with reference to which all hitherto received knowledge was unavailable, with the excep- tion of the hint afforded by Hume’s doubt. But Hume never dreamt of a possible formal science of this nature, and in order to land his ship in safety, ran it aground on the shore of scepticism, where it might lie and rot; instead of which, it is my purpose to furnish a pilot, who, according to certain principles of seamanship, derived from a knowledge of the globe, and supplied with a complete map and compass, may steer the ship with safety wherever it seems good to him.

  1. As Kant reads him, what exactly was Hume calling into question?
  2. Is Hume’s problem merely about causation, or does it extend to other concepts? Why, or why not?