Immanuel Kant, for my money, ranks in the top five of most brilliant and influential philosopher's of the last five hundred years. Perhaps at #1. That is not a claim I make lightly! The world is a big place and five hundred years is a lot of time. There was no shortage of brilliant and influential thinkers who appeared and left their unique impressions on the world during that period. Existing fields of inquiry spurned more thinkers than ever before and entirely new fields of inquiry were created, including all of modern science. Regardless, my money is still on Kant.
I am going to disqualify the scientists right off the bat for one simple reason - transformations in philosophical outlooks have always preceded corresponding transformations in science and technology throughout human history. Although the lag time between those transformations has been decreasing, the relationship has still held. As we will discuss below, many of the most influential scientists were also influenced by Kant's philosophy explicitly or implicitly. I am also going to disqualify the inventors of technology for the same reason.
So that only leaves the philosophers and theologians. The latter have steadily declined in their influence during that era which culminated in the "death of God". Of the philosophers, I suspect many people would be tempted to go with David Hume. I disqualify Hume because Kant's core philosophy engaged critically with Hume and it seems clear to me that Kant's epistemology won out over Hume's. After that only one other name comes to mind - Rene Descartes. Although many people still don't realize it, Descartes' philosophy has influenced the collective experience and thoughts of the Western world at the deepest level.
In Descartes' philosophy, we find a clear division of the world into 'spirit-mind' and 'matter'. The former became the private realm of inner experience and the latter became the public realm of knowledge. We can systematically study the realm of matter and share the results with others, but, according to Cartesian dualism, we cannot do the same for the realm of mind. It is no overstatement to say that Descartes' mind-matter divide helped make all of modern science possible. It provided a framework in which individuals could distance their subjectivity from the world of 'things out there', if not in practice then at least in theory.
Even in Descartes, though, we can imagine a thread which connects the two realms; a reality in which the private overlaps with the public; the 'inner' with the 'outer'. It would take the brilliance of a mind like Kant's to make our imaginations an exercise in futility. Kant's most well-known and influential insight now rests at the base of that branch of philosophy we call "epistemology". Rather than asking about the true essence of the world we live in, as was common for all Western metaphysics since Plato, Kant desired to shift the discussion towards the question of how the world can even appear to us in a way that makes it an object of our knowledge.
Kant answered his own question as follows - by the time we become conscious of our experiences of the world 'out there', our internal organization has already structured those experiences with categories. Further, those categories cannot be said to correspond with any aspect of the underlying reality; categories which cannot be said to directly link up with the "things-in-themselves". Let's imagine we have a sense perception X and another sense perception Y. Before we become aware of those perceptions, our unconscious intellect has already structured the perceptions into the category of cause (X) and effect (Y) so that Y always follows from X.
The a priori cause-effect judgment our mind unconsciously imposes on the perceptions reflects no knowledge whatsoever of the essence which underlies X, Y or the X-Y relationship. If X and Y actually exist and they happen to be in an actual cause-effect relationship, then it would be nothing more than dumb luck that we stumbled upon it. There is nothing within our conceptual judgments and the experiences structured by them which directs us towards such a conclusion about the underlying reality. It was a brilliant maneuver by Kant to reverse Hume's relationship between perceptions and judgments - judgments come before perceptions.
The same reversal holds true for any of the usual qualities and relations which we seem to experience, according to Kant. Substance and attribute, necessary and contingent, unity and multiplicity - these are all added to experience through our own unconscious intellect before we are even aware of the experiences. What is undeniable for Kant is that the appearances of the world as our intellect finds them (phenomenon) can never be traced back to the things-in-themselves (noumenon). The latter remain forever beyond our sensory and cognitive capacities; imprisoned behind an impenetrable wall of a priori judgments.
I forgot to mention - our entrance into the genius mind of Kant and, if all goes according to plan, our break out through to the other side will be aided by a Spirit Guide who shall remain nameless for now. Back to Kant - he was a genius and prolific spirit and therefore my short critique cannot possibly do his output justice. Still, the above ontic-epistemic division is clearly found in Kant's philosophy. It is that claim, precisely as it has been stated by our Spirit Guide above, which has been the most influential force in the world for centuries now. Kant himself put the task before him succinctly:Ideas for [Kant] are nothing other than the higher points of view of reason from which the lower entities, which the intellect has created, are understood. The intellect brings soul phenomena, for example, into a relationship; reason, as the faculty for ideas, then grasps this relationship as though everything went forth from one soul. But this has no significance for the thing itself; it is only a means of orientation for our cognitive faculty. This is the content of Kant's theoretical philosophy insofar as it can be of interest to us here...
This world is a manifoldness of things in space and of processes in time. The fact that precisely this thing confronts me or that I experience precisely that process is of no consequence; it could also be different. I can think away the whole manifoldness of things and processes altogether. What I cannot think away, however, are space and time. For me, there can be nothing that is not spatial or temporal. Even if there were some non-spatial or non-temporal thing, I can know nothing about it, for I can picture nothing to myself without space and time.
Perhaps no words have shaped the Western world more since Christ walked the Earth. The Kantian ontic-epistemic divide has impressed deeply upon nearly all of the major thinkers within philosophy, science and politics since the 18th century. It also sprawled its tentacles through the Church. Kant's influence on subsequent German philosophers, who were incredibly influential in their own right, is obvious. Philosophers such as Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. The latter two thinkers deserve an honorable mention here for their critically insightful efforts.I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.
― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
Schopenhauer began to bridge the Kantian divide with his assertion that the essence of Reality is the volitional Will shared by all creatures. Since the noumenon is Will, we can experience it by introspective practice; an meditative emptying of our consciousness of all "illusory" representations until we are only left with experience of pure Will. Another way of attaining such experience is through [good] art and music. The problem with Schopenhauer's thought was, ironically, that all ideas about the Will must also be disclaimed as illusory and epistemically unhelpful. A conceit such as that restores the ontic-epistemic divide for all intents and purposes.
Friedrich Nietzsche further specified Schopenhauer's Will to be a "will-to-power"- a Will in service of at least one tangible aim. For Nietzsche, reacting to the increasingly abstract and detached philosophy of his era, all important metaphysical concepts must be found within the sphere of daily experience rather than 'out there' in abstract intellectual space or within the still depths of ascetic practice. "Power", in that sense, is a radical interest in one's own ambitions and creations within life. It can either be willed consciously, which leads to 'healthy' states of being, or it can operate unconsciously within the guise of "obedience-duty", "virtue", "selflessness", etc., which then yields to pathologies of every sort. If we are able to harness our own will-to-power, to be truly free, then we must necessarily experience the noumenon in that process.Schopenhauer carried to extremes the view that all conceptual content is only subjective, is only a phenomenon of consciousness. With him, it is absolutely out of the question for the idea to have participated as a real principle in the constitution of the world. For him, will is the exclusive world ground. Therefore Schopenhauer could never find a way, with any content, of handling the specialized branches of philosophy...
The individual entity, the individual phenomenon, cannot be of interest to Schopenhauer, for he knows only one essential thing to say about it: that it is a manifestation of the will.
Yet Nietzsche's world-conception remained frustratingly incomplete before he himself suffered from a pathological state and died. It may be for that reason alone we must withhold from him the mantle of most influential philosopher. While Nietzsche's philosophy remained relatively contained until decades after his death, the Kantian divide has continuously influenced not only philosophers, but Western intellectuals of all sorts for several centuries up to and including the present day. Below are some of the more notable ones along with some mostly intuitive speculation on how the divide manifested in their systems of thought:Attend! This is my gospel for their ears: I am Zarathustra, the godless, who asks, Who is more godless than I, that I may rejoice in his teaching?
I am Zarathustra, the godless; where do I find my equal? All those are my equals who determine their will out of themselves, and who push all submission away from themselves.
-Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
- Charles Darwin - On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and Darwin's evolutionary theory was a revolutionary development in our understanding of human history. Yet what stands out the most in Darwin's conception of evolution was his exclusive focus on the evolution of only the outer forms of life. Therein lies an implicit assumption that nothing can be known about the inner soul life of living beings. What appears to distinguish humans from non-humans, our self-reflective consciousness, is completely ignored. This glaring hole in Darwin's thought is a direct result of the Kantian divide. If not for that, then Darwin's theory may have also addressed the evolution of consciousness itself.
Karl Marx - The force of outer form obsession is strong in Marx. When the realm of noumenon, i.e. the inner realm of human souls, remains forever beyond our reach, metaphysics itself becomes a useless enterprise. What is left for the intellectual aims of humanity is economic and political theory; a one or, at best, two-dimensional concern for relationships of resources and power. Human existence is reduced to a class struggle dialectic which is projected backwards through human history and forwards into human destiny. Spirituality, i.e. the search for higher realms of knowledge, is viewed as nothing more than an "opiate for the masses". Marx famously remarked that he "turned Hegel on his head", and I would add that he used Kant to do it.
Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung - The connection here is a bit more tricky, especially for Jung. But it is hard to deny that the psychoanalytic term "unconscious" implies a realm of experience extremely distant from our everyday conscious experience. A realm engulfed in pure darkness like a black hole from which no light can escape. To be fair, the psychotherapeutic aim was to make increasingly more of the unconscious realm conscious, but the implication was also that there would always be a remainder of pure darkness; an event horizon past which all intellectual knowledge is effectively annihilated. Both of these seminal psychiatrists of the 20th century admit to being heavily influenced by Kant's philosophy.
Albert Einstein - Einstein's theory of general relativity predicts that nothing in the Universe can travel faster than the speed of light. Following from that, his equations also predict the existence of black holes from which no light or information can escape. There is a physical "event horizon" past which we can know nothing, like the psychic event horizon of the unconscious. The main difference between Einstein's theory and those of Freud/Jung is that the former's equations predicted black holes despite his desire to avoid doing so. It would therefore be unfair to say Einstein was theorizing under duress of the Kantian divide. On the other hand, physicalist science in general was most certainly held under the spell of such philosophical influences.
Here in the United States, we have the pragmatists such as William James and Charles Sanders Peirce who sought to re-conceptualize our idea of "Truth". Rather than "Truth" as a series of abstract concepts about nature which directly mirror the real state of 'things' existing beyond our conscious experience, the pragmatists recognized Truth as a practical knowledge which cannot come from anywhere but our direct experience. It was a deft maneuver because, even if the Kantian divide holds firm, the meaning we find from pursuing concrete aims is proclaimed more True than the state of 'things' we can never experience or know.
Across the Atlantic in England, we have brilliant philosophers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Owen Barfield who, unfortunately, rarely get recognition as such. To say they are underappreciated would be a gross understatement. Early in the 19th century, Coleridge was already busy at work attempting to restore the human individual to her rightful place as a microcosm of the macrocosm. Everything objectively meaningful in the Cosmos can be discerned from the inner workings of the individual, according to Coleridge, especially in the process of Thinking ("primary imagination").
The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographica Literaria
Another philologist and deep philosophical thinker was Martin Heidegger, who stood somewhat apart from traditional Western metaphysics. Heidegger, especially in his later works published after World War II, made a compelling case for rejecting the Kantian divide. He embraced a philosophy in which the phenomenon of daily life concealed yet also unconcealed Reality (Aletheia). What conceals Reality is the multitude of bare perceptions separating the world into isolated fragments, and what unconceals its essential relations is the human activity of Thinking (what Barfield referred to as "conscious figuration" above).If people say the world we perceive is a 'construct' of our brains, they are saying in effect, that it results from an inveterate habit of thought. Why does it never occur to them that a habit is something you can overcome, if you set about it with enough energy?
The appearances will be 'saved" only if, as men approach nearer and nearer to conscious figuration and realize that it is something which may be affected by their choices, the final participation which is thus being thrust upon them is exorcised with the profoundest sense of responsibility, with the deepest thankfulness and piety towards the world as it was originally given to them in original participation, and with a fuller understanding of the momentous process of history, as it brings about the emergence of the one from the other.
-Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction
Rather than turning away from the perceptions of everyday life to speculate abstractly about concepts with our intellect, Heidegger wanted us to confront those perceptions with our Reason for the precise aim of reuniting them with their proper concepts. There was a magical way in which bare perceptions (including thought-perceptions) which draw away from us in daily life also call upon us to Think. It was the spiritual duty of every individual to heed that call (see Heidegger's lectures, What is Called Thinking?). He was certainly not alone in this perspective.
Heidegger spearheaded 20th century phenomenology and produced insights which will surely resound in Western philosophy for much more time to come. Yet he is still a relatively recent thinker and was heavily indebted to another thinker who came before him. That would be the German contemporary of Kant who directed his brilliance in the complete opposite direction of Kant's ontic-epistemic divide - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Most people know Goethe as the poet who wrote Faust and would be surprised to find out that his scientific and philosophical output was just as remarkable.A thing is a unity for our reason and the separation into “thing-in-itself” and “thing-for-us” is a product of our intellect. It will not do, therefore, to say that what is attributed to a thing in one connection can be denied it in other connections. For, whether I look at the same thing one time from this point of view and another time from that: it is after all still a unified whole...
The method must therefore consist in our answering the question, with respect to each thing: What part does it have in the unified world of ideas; what place does it occupy in the ideal picture that I make for myself of the world? When I have understood this, when I have recognized how a thing connects itself with my ideas, then my need for knowledge is satisfied. There is only one thing that is not satisfying to my need for knowledge: when a thing confronts me that does not want to connect anywhere with the view I hold of things.
The ideal discomfort must be overcome that stems from the fact that there is something or other of which I must say to myself: I see that it is there; when I approach it, it faces me like a question mark; but I find nowhere, within the harmony of my thoughts, the point at that I can incorporate it; the questions I must ask upon seeing it remain unanswered, no matter how I twist and turn my system of thoughts.
We find this pattern often in the history of human thought - an occluded stream which flows 'underground' and parallel to the more obvious and noisy stream at the surface. The latter quickly wields all of the popular cultural influence while the former continues to flow quietly and patiently, biding its time. Goethe's philosophy in particular held a decidedly noble view of humanity and it's capacity for experience and knowledge of higher realms. Much like Heidegger, Goethe saw the magical redeeming quality of human Thinking, yet he arrived there a few centuries ahead of everyone else.One sees at once that [Kant's philosophy] is the polar opposite of the Goethean philosophy. Given reality is determined, according to Kant, by us ourselves; it is as it is because we picture it that way. Kant skips over the real epistemological question...
Kant accepted the customary concept of what knowing is and asked if it were possible. According to this concept, knowing is supposed to consist in making a copy of the real conditions that stand outside our consciousness and exist in-themselves. But one will be able to make nothing out of the possibility of knowledge until one has answered the question as to the what of knowing itself. The question: What is knowing? thereby becomes the primary one for epistemology. With respect to Goethe, therefore, it will be our task to show what Goethe pictured knowing to be.
Goethe was not interested in Kant's definition of "knowledge". What Kant considered knowledge Goethe rejected as irrelevant speculation about concepts which had become untethered from the concrete world. Instead, "knowing" for Goethe was disciplined, attentive and generous observation of the phenomenon which confronted him so that he could explore his own ideal and objective relationships with them. He did not feign an "objectivity" in his scientific or philosophical pursuits which simply does not exist in the real world. Goethe's desired to add back to the perceptual appearances what rightfully belonged to them but had been taken away.Were not our eyes profoundly of the sun
How could they behold the light?
Were not our strength from God's own being won.
How could we feel so in Things divine delight.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Something Like the Sun
If Kant's maxim was that it is impossible to directly experience and know a thing-in-itself, Goethe's maxim was Res Ipsa Loquitur - "the thing-speaks-for-itself".
Our Spirit Guide was responsible for working intensely on Goethe's archive at the end of the 19th century. He came to know Goethe's philosophy inside and out, and he saw in Goethe a kindred spirit who refused to retreat back into metaphysical abstractions like so many of their respective contemporaries. Rather, they wanted to immerse themselves in the phenomenal world and mine its depths for all the treasure it had to offer to genuine seekers of knowledge and wisdom. They dared to imagine a world-evolving essence which we can truly experience and know in our hearts and in our minds.In our knowing, however, we create a picture of the directly given that contains considerably more than what the senses — which are after all the mediators of all experience — can provide. In order to know nature in the Goethean sense, we must not hold onto it in its factuality; rather, nature, in the process of our knowing, must reveal itself as something essentially higher than what it appears to be when it first confronts us.
At first, the world presents itself to us as a manifoldness in space and time. We perceive particulars separated in space and time: this colour here, that shape there; this tone now, that sound then, etc... Precisely because the perceptual picture is something incomplete, something unfinished in itself, we are compelled to add to this picture, in its manifestation as sense experience, its necessary complement.
Knowing would be an absolutely useless process if something complete were conveyed to us in sense experience. All drawing together, ordering, and grouping of sense-perceptible facts would have no objective value. Knowing has meaning only if we do not regard the configuration given to the senses as a finished one, if this configuration is for us a half of something that bears within itself something still higher that, however, is no longer sense-perceptible.
There the human spirit steps in. It perceives that higher element. Therefore thinking must also not be regarded as bringing something to the content of reality. It is no more and no less an organ of perception than the eye or ear. Just as the eye perceives colours and the ear sounds, so thinking perceives ideas.
Our Spirit Guide's name is Rudolf Steiner and he, more than anyone else, has preserved the anti-Kantian strain of Goethe's science and philosophy for posterity. One of Steiner's core philosophical works was a book called The Philosophy of Freedom. It is a relatively short and masterful exploration of the human spirit in its confrontation with the phenomenal world, including the world of all moral values. Steiner also designed a spiritual center in Switzerland and named it the Goethaneum.
God died in the modern era, as Nietzsche proclaimed, and we killed Him. Now man wanders about his spiritual desert searching for his misplaced soul. We have been estranged from the eternal Source of our perceptual organs, which then leaves the spiritual chasm exceedingly vast. As Nietzsche also proclaimed, the only possible consequence of such a heinous crime is a species perpetually on the shores of nihilism as the waves grow larger and crash further inwards. Occasionally, our souls become especially alienated and we decide to test the waters. Other times, we ignore the waves and hope they will recede on their own. So how much longer can we really delay the inevitable consequences of the Kantian divide?At the beginning of his Critique of Reason [Kant] takes two steps that he does not justify, and his whole edifice of philosophical teachings suffers from this mistake.
He right away sets up a distinction between object and subject, without asking at all what significance it has then for the intellect to undertake the separation of two regions of reality (in this case the knowing subject and the object to be known). Then he seeks to establish conceptually the reciprocal relationship of these two regions, again without asking what it means to establish something like that.
If his view of the main epistemological question had not been all askew, he would have seen that the holding apart of subject and object is only a transitional point in our knowing, that a deeper unity, which reason can grasp, underlies them both, and that what is attributed to a thing as a trait, when considered in connection with a knowing subject, by no means has only subjective validity.
The contemplation of things in their connection to us always remained for [Goethe] a quite subordinate one, having to do with the effect of objects upon our feelings of pleasure and pain; he demands more of science than a mere statement as to how things are in their connection to us. In the essay The Experiment as Mediator between Subject and Object, he determines what the task of the researcher is: He should take his yardstick for knowledge, the data for his judgment, not from himself, but rather from the sphere of the things he observes.
This one statement characterizes the deep antithesis between the Kantian and the Goethean way of thinking. Whereas with Kant, all judgments about things are only a product of subject and object, and only provide a knowing about how the subject beholds the object, with Goethe, the subject merges selflessly into the object and draws the data for his judgment from the sphere of the things. Goethe himself says therefore of Kant's adherents: “They certainly heard me but had no answer for me nor could be in any way helpful.
-Rudolf Steiner, Goethean Science
Perhaps we do not have much longer, but profound thinkers like Goethe, Steiner and Barfield have shown that the Kantian divide is nothing more than a mental habit we have grown accustomed to. It is a psychological 'complex' which operates within our soul (psyche) undetected. As with any unhealthy complex, the first step is to recognize it exists and disclose it to ourselves - this we call confession. Next we acknowledge that we cannot continue to live in its possession and remain true to ourselves - this we call repentance. Finally, we implement a voluntary, disciplined, and sustained practice of dismantling the complex to make room for new ideal configurations to take root within us - after this, we say that we have been baptized in the Spirit.When the velocity of progress increases beyond a certain point, it becomes indistinguishable from crisis.
-Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances
None of the above can be undertaken with arrogance or pride - it is not we who achieve a transfigured form but the living Spirit working within and through us. What is required at first is only a modicum of faith in this Spirit who can imbue us with the power necessary to become who we are. It is a trust that, when we seek genuinely and diligently, we shall find that the world of phenomenon is not other than the world of noumenon. We will then come to know deep within our being that the thing-speaks-for-itself and it is our responsibility, and ours alone, to heed its call. Only that is worthy of free beings.
When the healthy nature of man works as a whole, when he feels himself in the world as though in a great, beautiful, worthy, and precious whole, when his harmonious sense of well-being imparts to him a pure, free delight, then the universe, if it could experience itself, would, as having achieved its goal, exult with joy and marvel at the pinnacle of its own becoming and being.
-Goethe, Aphorisms in Prose