Kant on Truth in the Critique of Pure Reason

Written by on July 10th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Epistemology, about Truth Kant

|||Kant, Immanuel. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.|||

Portrait of Immanuel Kant The old and famous question with which the logicians were to be driven into a corner and brought to such a pass that they must either fall into a miserable circle or else confess their ignorance, hence the vanity of their entire art, is this: What is truth? The nominal definition of truth, namely that it is the agreement of cognition1 with its object2, is here granted and presupposed; but one demands to know what is the general and certain criterion of the truth of any cognition....If truth consists in the agreement of a cognition with its object, then this object must thereby be distinguished from others; for a cognition is false if it does not agree with the object to which it is related even if it contains something that could well be valid of other objects. Now a general criterion of truth would be that which was valid of all cognitions without any distinction among their objects. But it is clear that since with such a criterion one abstracts from all content of cognition (relation to its object), yet truth concerns precisely this content, it would be completely impossible and absurd to ask for a mark of the truth of this content of cognition, and thus it is clear that a sufficient and yet at the same time general sign of truth cannot possibly be provided. Since above we have called the content of a cognition its matter, one must therefore say that no general sign of the truth of the matter of cognition can be demanded, because it is self-contradictory. A 57-8/B 82

Immanuel Kant presents us with his definition of truth. At first glance, it seems to parallel the classical definition, that is, “the correspondence of the mind to reality.” However, his use of new vocabulary is very important. For Kant, the relation between a cognition and an object is much more complicated than the classical understanding of the mind’s conformity with reality.

On the one hand, Kant is arguing, against Hume, that we can know cause and effect. Kant is also attempting to defend geometry as a science of necessary propositions. On the other hand, he is fighting against the determinism that has sprung up since the new developments in the practical sciences. In order to save morality, Kant must show that we, as men, have free will. In order to defend both of these positions (the possibility of a priori sciences and the possession of free will), Kant develops a new epistemological system. He will have a new starting point, which Copernicus used also.3

The first question we must ask is, “What is an object?” For Kant, an object is not just something out in the world with which I interact. Through sensible intuition, I experience the thing. I see the dog running in the yard, and can become acquainted with all sides of the dog. I experience different manifolds4, through many perceptions, as the dog runs around. These perceptions occur in space and time. However, these two properties cannot be of things nor be things in themselves.5 Both are required before any possible representation. Kant calls these the “forms of intuition” (in contrast to the “matter” of an intuition or cognition). My mind projects space and time onto the dog that is a sensible object for me. Once I have a manifold of representations, the understanding uses the pure concepts of the understanding6 to create various propositions about a dog in general. The object, (i.e. of the dog), then contains these various propositions. An object, then, is not a simple essence, but is the conglomeration of all the things I can say about a dog.

Returning to the original citation, we see that Kant is looking for “the general and certain criterion of the truth of any cognition.” Is there a general truth that would apply to the agreement of every cognition and its object? This can be approached from two directions. Is there a cognition that applies to all possible objects? This does not seem possible because then the difference between objects would be unintelligible. Would there be a plurality? From another direction, a general truth could be something that applies to every cognition, regardless of its object. Going this route would ignore the actual relationship between the cognition and object, and would thus not reveal anything. Both methods have failed. Thus, there is no way to express a general truth about all cognitions.

There are various implications concerning Kant’s definition of truth. For one thing, God cannot be a possible “object” of knowledge for us. We would have to use the concepts transcendentally (without any intuition), which is impossible for us.7 Therefore, the statement “God exists” cannot be true, or cannot be known to be true, by us. God can only be an object of the will, not of the intellect. This has various theological implications. Another problem, and something Kant himself states, is that under his epistemological system the Laws of Nature are a product of the constitution of our minds.

About Brandon Bridger

Brandon Bridger graduated from the College of St. Thomas More. He is currently doing graduate course work in philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

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  1. “Understanding is the faculty of cognitions, which consist in the determinate relation of given representations to an object.” B 137 

  2. “An object is that in the concept of which the manifold of a given intuition is united.” ibid. 

  3. “In the same way, the central laws of motion of the heavenly bodies established with certainty what Copernicus assumed at the beginning only as a hypothesis, and at the same time they proved the invisible force (of Newtonian attraction) that binds the universe, which would have remained forever undiscovered if Copernicus had not ventured, in a manner contradictory to the senses yet true, to seek for the observed movements not in the objects of the heavens but in their observer. In this Preface I propose the transformation in our way of thinking presented in criticism merely as a hypothesis, analogous to that other hypothesis, only in order to draw our notice to the first attempts at such a transformation, which are always hypothetical, even though in the treatise itself it will be proved not hypothetically but rather apodictically from the constitution of our representations of space and time and from the elementary concepts of the understanding.” B 22 

  4. “A manifold that is contained in an intuition that I call mine is represented as belonging to the necessary unity of self-consciousness through the synthesis of the understanding, and this takes place by means of the category. The beginning of the deduction of the pure concepts of the understanding has been made, in which, since the categories arise independently from sensibility merely in the understanding, I must abstract from the way in which the manifold for an empirical intuition is given, in order to attend only to the unity that is added to the intuition through the understanding by means of the category.” B 144 

  5. “For in order for certain sensations to be related to something outside me, thus in order for me to represent them as outside and next to one another, thus not merely as different but as in different places, the representation of space must already be their ground. Thus the representation of space cannot be obstained from the relations of outer appearance through experience, but this outer experience is itself first possible only through this representation.” A 23/B 38 

  6. The pure concepts of the understanding are the “categories” (quantity, quality, relation, and modality, each with three sub-categories). The categories, for Kant, are types of propositions. 

  7. “Transcendental use of the categories is thus in fact no use at all, and has no determinate or even. . . determinable object.” A 247-8/B 304 For more on this topic, see Michael Rohlf, “The Ideas of Pure Reason” in The Cambridge Companion to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, ed. Paul Guyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 190-209.