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Section Four: The General Question of the Prolegomena: Is Metaphysics possible at all?

25 September, 2015 - 16:22

Were metaphysics actually present as a science, one might say: Here is metaphysics, you only require to learn it, and it will convince you permanently and irresistibly of its truth. In that case the present question would be unnecessary, and there would only remain one which would more concern a testing of our acuteness, than a proof of the existence of the thing itself; namely, the question, How is it possible, and how is Reason to set about attaining it? Unfortunately, in this case, human Reason is not in such a happy position. There is no single book that can be shown, like for instance Euclid, of which it can be said: This is metaphysics, herein is to be found the chief end of the science, the knowledge of a Supreme Being and of a future world, demonstrated upon principles of pure Reason. It is possible, doubtless, to bring forward many propositions that are apodictically certain, and that have never been contested; but these are in their entirety analytic, and concern more the materials and the elements of construction, than the extension of knowledge, which is our special object in the present case. But even when synthetic propositions are produced (such as the princi- ple of sufficient Reason), which though they have never been proved from mere Reason, that is, apriori, as they ought to have been, are willingly admitted; even then, whenever it is attempted to make use of them for the main purpose, one is landed in such unstable and doubtful assertions, that it has always happened that one system of metaphysics has contradicted another, either in respect of the assertions themselves or their proofs, and has thus destroyed all claim to a lasting recognition. The very attempts made to establish the science have without doubt been the primary cause of the scepticism that so early arose, a mode of thought in which Reason treats itself with such violence, that it would never have arisen but from the latter’s utter despair of satisfying its chief aspirations. For long before man began methodically to question Nature, he interrogated his own isolated Reason, already practised, in a measure by common experience; because Reason is always present, while the laws of Nature generally require to be laboriously sought out. And so meta- physics floated to the surface like foam, and like foam, too, no sooner was it gathered up than it dissolved, while another mass of it appeared upon the scene which some were always found eager to grasp; while others, instead of seeking to penetrate the cause of the phenomenon in question, thought themselves wise in laughing at the futile exertions of the former.

The essential feature distinguishing pure mathematical knowledge from all other knowledge apriori, is that it does not proceed from conceptions themselves, but always through the construction of conceptions. (Critique, p. 435.) Since, therefore, in its propositions it must pass out of the conception to that containing the corresponding intuition, these can and ought never to arise from the dissection of conceptions, that is, analytically; in other words, they are, in their entirety, synthetic.

I cannot refrain from remarking on the disadvantage resulting to philosophy from a neglect of this simple and apparently insignificant observation. Hume, indeed, feeling it a task worthy of a philosopher, cast his eye over the whole field of pure knowledge aprioriin which the human understanding claims such extensive possession. He, however, incon- siderately severed from it an entire, and indeed the most important, province, namely, that of pure mathematics, under the impression that its nature, and, so to speak, its constitution, rested on totally different principles, that is, solely on the principle of contradiction; and although he did not make such a formal and universal division of propositions as is here done by me, or under the same name, yet it was as good as saying, pure mathematics contains simply analytic judgments, but metaphysics, synthetic judgments apriori. Now in this he made a great mistake, and this mistake had decidedly injurious consequences on his whole conception. For if he had not made it, he would have extended his ques- tion respecting the origin of our synthetic judgments far beyond his metaphysical conception of causality, and compre- hended therein the possibility of mathematics a priori; for he must have regarded this as equally synthetic. But in the latter case he could, under no circumstances, have based his metaphysical propositions on mere experience, as he would then have been obliged to have subordinated the axioms of pure mathematics themselves to experience, a proceeding for which he was much too penetrating.

The good company into which metaphysics would then have been brought must have ensured it against contemptuous treatment; for the strokes aimed at the latter must have also hit the former, and this neither was nor could have been his intention. The result must have been to lead the acute man to considerations similar to those with which we are now occupied, but which must have gained infinitely by his inimitable style.

Essentially metaphysical judgments are, in their entirety, synthetic. We must distinguish between judgments belong- ing to metaphysics from metaphysical judgments proper. Among the former are comprised many that are analytic, but they only furnish the means for metaphysical judgments, these forming the entire purpose of the science, and being all synthetic. For when conceptions belong to metaphysics, as, for instance, that of substance, the judgments arising from their dissection belong also to metaphysics; e.g., substance is that which only exists as subject, &c., and many more sim- ilar analytic judgments, by means of which an endeavour is made to approach the definition of the conception. Since, however, the analysis of a pure conception of the understanding (such as those metaphysics contains) cannot proceed differently from the analysis of any other conception (even an empirical one) not belonging to metaphysics (e.g., air is an elastic fluid, the elasticity of which is not destroyed by any known degree of cold), it follows that the conception but not the analytic judgment, is properly metaphysical. The science in question has something special and peculiar in the production of its cognitions apriori, which must be distinguished from what it has in common with all other cognitions of the understanding; so, for instance, the proposition, “all that is substance in things is permanent,” is a synthetic and properly metaphysical judgment.

When the conceptions aprioriconstituting the materials of metaphysics have been previously collected according to fixed principles, the dissection of these conceptions is of great value. They can be then presented as a special department (as it were a philosophiadefinitiva), containing solely analytic propositions relating to metaphysics, though quite distinct from the synthetic, which constitute metaphysics itself. For, indeed, these analyses have nowhere any important use, except in metaphysics, that is, in reference to the synthetic propositions, to be generated from these dissected concep- tions.

The conclusion drawn in this section is then, that metaphysics is properly concerned with synthetic propositions apriori, and that these alone constitute its purpose, but that, in addition to this, it requires frequent dissections of its conceptions, or analytic judgments, the procedure in this respect being only the same as in other departments of knowl- edge, where conceptions are sought to be made plain by analysis. But the generationof knowledge apriori, as much in intuition as in conceptions, in fine, synthetic propositions aprioriin philosophical cognitions, make up the essential content of metaphysics.

Wearied, then, of the dogmatism that teaches us nothing, as well as of the scepticism that promises us nothing, not even the rest of a permissible ignorance, led on by the importance of the knowledge we need, rendered mistrustful by a long experience, of all we believe ourselves to possess, or that offers itself in the name of pure Reason, there only remains one critical question, the answer to which must regulate our future procedure—Ismetaphysicspossibleatall?But this question must not be answered by sceptical objections to particular assertions of any actual system of metaphysics (for we do not admit any at present), but from the, as yet, only problematical conception of such a science.

In the Critique of Pure Reason, I went synthetically to work in respect of this question, in instituting researches into pure Reason itself, and in this source endeavoured to determine the elements, as well as the laws of its pure use, accord- ing to principles. The task is difficult, and demands a resolute reader, gradually to think out a system, having no datum other than Reason itself, and which, therefore, without supporting itself on any fact, seeks to unfold knowledge from its original germs. Prolegomena should, on the contrary, be preparatory exercises, designed more to show what has to be done, to realise a science as far as is possible, than to expound one. They must, therefore, rely on something known as trustworthy, from which we may with confidence proceed, and ascend to its sources, as yet unknown to us, and the discovery of which will not only explain what we already knew, but at the same time exhibit to us a range of many cognitions, all arising from these same sources. The methodical procedure of Prolegomena, especially of those destined to prepare a future system of metaphysics, will therefore be analytic.

Now it fortunately happens that, although we cannot accept metaphysics as a real science, we may assert with con- fidence that certain pure synthetic cognitions are really given apriori, namely, pure mathematics and pure natural science, for both contain propositions, partly apodictically certain through mere Reason, and partly recognised by uni- versal consent as coming from experience, and yet as completely independent of it.
We have, then, at least some uncontested, synthetic knowledge apriori, and do not require to ask whether this is possible, since it is actual, but only—Howitispossible, in order to be able to deduce from the principle, rendering possi- ble what is already given, the possibility of all the rest.

  1. Kant’s ‘regressive’ method in the Prolegomena can be called a defense of metaphysics by means of a ‘companions in virtue’ strategy. Kant first identifies a key feature of metaphysical claims—they are synthetic and a priori—and then looks to see whether some more established sciences, whose existence and legitimacy we take for granted, share this feature. What other sciences fall into this category?