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Early ModernKant's Critical Philosophy

Philosophy in Germany in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was largely dominated by the legacy of the rationalist philosopher G. W. Leibniz (1646–1716), but by the middle of the eighteenth century German philosophers were increasingly well read in the empiricist philosophy of Locke and Hume. Kant's mature philosophy, advanced in his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781, rev. 1787; Critique of pure reason) and presented in a "popular" form in his Prolegomena (1783), is generally thought to be a critical synthesis of these two traditions.

Hume's skeptical worries focused Kant's attention on the nature of scientific knowledge. For Kant, the very idea of such knowledge rests on a presupposition that humans can have cognitive access to laws (as opposed to mere regularities) of nature. Given the viability of scientific knowledge, Kant supposes, one must be in the possession of certain concepts on the basis of which one can combine representations independently of experience. One such concept is "cause and effect." But Hume's attempt to account for the concept of causality within a skeptical, empiricist framework required that he hold that genuine laws of nature are cognitively inaccessible. Hume's skeptical worries, Kant famously remarked, "first interrupted my dogmatic slumber" (Schriften, vol. 4, p. 260); but Hume's skeptical solution was not a happy one for Kant, who never doubted human capacity for genuine scientific knowledge.

In the Critique, Kant is particularly interested in the questionable status of metaphysics as a science. The first words of the book attest to the "peculiar fate" of human reason—namely, that it is compelled to ask questions that are beyond its capacity to answer. Kant principally has in mind the classic questions of metaphysics: for example, whether the soul is simple or composite or whether the world is finite or infinite. Reconceiving of what the proper task of metaphysics should be, Kant takes a cue from the flourishing science of Newtonian physics. But while the goal of physics is to explain some particular array of phenomena, the goal of metaphysics is to give an account of nature as such. For Kant, metaphysics begins with an exhaustive account of human cognitive capacity as the source of the fundamental principles that determine what it is to figure in the domain of nature at all. The main argument of the Critique is a demonstration of the relevant principles, which Kant takes to be the basis of the laws of nature.


Berkeley, George. Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. Edited by Jonathan Dancy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Boyle, Robert. Selected Philosophical Papers of Robert Boyle. Edited by M. A. Stewart. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1979.

Descartes, René. Oeuvres de Descartes. Edited by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery. New ed. 11 vols. Paris: CNRS/Vrin, 1974–1986. The standard edition of Descartes's works, in the original Latin and French.

——. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. 3 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984–1991. The standard edition of Descartes's works in English translation.

Hume, David. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Eric Steinberg. Indianapolis and Cambridge, U.K.: Hackett 1977.

——. Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon 1978. Although the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding is largely a restatement of book 1 of the Treatise, it is generally thought to contain the more emphatic expression of Hume's skeptical position.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

——. Gesammelte Schriften. Edited by the Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, later the Deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin. 29 vols. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1900–. The standard edition of Kant's works, in the original German and Latin.

——. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Come Forward as Science. New ed. Translated by Paul Carus and revised by James W. Ellington. Indianapolis and Cambridge, U.K.: Hackett, 1977.

Locke, John. An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

Reid, Thomas. Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man. Edited by Derek R. Brookes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002.

——. An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. Edited by Derek R. Brookes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.

Melissa McBay Merritt

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEpistemology - Early Modern - Defining The Modern Tradition: Cartesian Beginnings, Nature As Mechanism, Theory Of Sense Perception, Skepticism And The Cartesian Framework