Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 64.djvu/478

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474
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

THE PROGRESS OF SCIENCE.

IMMANUEL KANT.

The centenary of the death of Kant was commemorated on February 12. There was a special celebration at Königsberg, where the philosopher spent his whole life; a monument is planned for Berlin, and a Kant Society has been formed in Germany. It would probably be difficult for most readers of a scientific journal to explain why Kant is one of the great men of the world, and next to Aristotle the most honored philosopher. In the preface to his 'Kritik der reinen Vernunft' Kant expressed his own view of the service he hoped to accomplish in the following words: "In metaphysical speculation it has always been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects; but all attempts from this point of view to extend our knowledge of objects a priori by means of conception have ended in failure. It is well to ask, therefore, whether greater progress may not be made by supposing that objects must conform to our knowledge. This would clearly agree better with the desired possibility of such an a priori knowledge of objects that could establish something about them before they are presented. Our suggestion is similar to that of Copernicus in astronomy, who, finding it impossible to explain the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they turned round the spectator, tried whether he might not succeed better by supposing the spectator to revolve and the stars to remain at rest. Let us make a similar experiment in metaphysics with perception."

Kant's rather remarkable lack of appreciation of the work of his predecessors led him to emphasize unduly the novelty of his own point of view. Yet subsequent philosophers have tended quite generally to regard him as its most representative exponent. And he forced the issue with such energy as to make himself the most prominent figure in the philosophy of the last century. He asserted repeatedly that we do possess knowledge of objects which is universal and necessary, and he asserted with no less frequency that in all such cases our knowledge has not conformed to objects, but objects have conformed to the necessities of thought. Just because we find that we must think of objects in a certain way, we must admit that this necessity springs from thought itself. In spite of the fact that this assumption is far from self-evident, Kant succeeded in imposing it upon his time with remarkable success. The philosophy of the nineteenth century witnessed as a result many noteworthy attempts to determine what reality must be by reference to the necessities of thought alone. The absurdities of Schelling and the subtleties of Hegel mark, perhaps, the extremes of this tendency.

But the significance of Kant is not seen only in this new inspiration given to the attempt to determine, not what reality is, but what it must be. For his philosophy had its negative side, which contained an equally important emphasis. Just because what we must think is due to the necessities of thought, we have no right, he urged, to extend the results of such thinking beyond thought itself and so pass to things as they are. Exterior to thought, beyond its controlling influence, they escape us utterly. The significance of this important limitation Kant exhibited most crucially when he criticized all attempts of speculative thinking to establish the