Kant says ‘philosophy is a mere idea of a possible science which nowhere exists’

So, what is philosophy?

It is a strange idea for anyone interested in philosophy to read that, in his famous Critique of Pure Reason, one of the greatest philosophers, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), didn’t believe that philosophy actually exists—or that anyone can learn it! ‘We cannot learn philosophy; for where is it, who is in possession of it, and how shall we recognise it?’ (A838/B866)

Read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason from here (Kemp Smith Translation)

So, what did he believe was possible for someone wanting to ‘do’ philosophy? He said, ‘We can only learn to philosophise, that is, to exercise the talent of reason, in accordance with its universal principles’ (A838/B866).

What did he mean by ‘learn to philosophise’? He makes two very clear points about what it looks like when someone is philosophising. It is not to be found in someone who has read all the books and has some kind of encyclopaedic knowledge of philosophical texts and systems. And it is not someone who thinks that philosophising is about winning arguments and being something of a smart arse.

On the first point, he says

‘Anyone, therefore who has (in the strict sense of that term) a system of learnt philosophy … although he may have all its principles, explanations, and proofs, together with the formal divisions of the whole body of doctrine, in his head, and, so to speak, at his fingers’ ends, has no more than a complete historical knowledge of [that system]. He knows and judges only what has been given him. If we dispute a definition, he does not know whence to obtain another. He has formed his mind on another’s, and the imitative faculty is not itself productive. In other words, his knowledge has not in him arisen out of reason, and although, objectively considered, it is indeed knowledge due to reason, it is yet, in its subjective character, merely historical’ (A836/B864).

And, somewhat bluntly, Kant says such a philosopher is not a real human being but ‘merely a plaster-cast of a living man. (A836/B864). Thus, he concludes, ‘philosophy can never be learned, save only in historical fashion; as regards what concerns reason, we can at most learn to philosophise’ (A837/B865)

Again, then what does he mean then by ‘philosophise’? Kant has a very clear picture of what it is to be doing philosophy. And it is not what many people might think.

Perhaps you have a picture of doing philosophy as sitting round a table having wonderful arguments about the existence or non-existence of God; perhaps you think the best philosophers are those that come up with the most crushing points that defeat their opponents in arguments; perhaps you enjoy such disputes, always hoping to outwit those you are arguing with. Kant does not share this view. It’s not clear that he sees this description as doing philosophy at all. He very clearly does not mean someone who always wants to win the argument.

He says this

‘For how can two persons carry on a dispute about a thing the reality of which neither of them can present in actual or even in possible experience-a dispute in which they brood over the mere idea of the thing, in order to extract from it something more than the idea, namely, the reality of the object itself? What means have they of ending the dispute, since neither of them can make his thesis genuinely comprehensible and certain, but only attack and refute that of his opponent? For this is the fate of all assertions of pure reason: that since they transcend the conditions of all possible experience, outside which the authen­tication of truth is in no wise possible, while at the same time they have to make use of the laws of the understanding-laws which are adapted only for empirical employment, but without which no step can be taken in synthetic thought-neither side can avoid exposing its weakness, and each can therefore take advantage of the weakness of the other.’ (A751/B779)

Or, in short, why try to win an argument when you are uncertain about the thing you are discussing. It ends up like this

‘Both parties beat the air, and wrestle with their own shadows, since they go beyond the limits of nature, where there is nothing that they can seize and hold with their dogmatic grasp. Fight as they may, the shadows which they cleave asunder grow together again forthwith, like the heroes in Valhalla, to disport themselves anew in the bloodless contests’ (A756/B784).

So, if doing philosophy is not about a historical knowledge of everything that went before, and it’s not about being clever and winning arguments—if these are just illusions about what philosophy is, then for Kant, what is philosophy about? His answer might surprise you…

Philosophy is about discipline. It is a negative exercise, to ‘guard us from errors’ (A 709/B 737). This discipline is the compulsion by which the constant tendency to disobey certain rules is constrained and finally extirpated’ (A 729/B 737, p. 575). Philosophy, he says, stands ‘greatly in need of a discipline, to restrain its tendency towards extension beyond the narrow limits of possible experience and to guard it against extravagance and error’ (A 711/B 739, p. 575).

‘Indeed, it is precisely in knowing its limits that philosophy consists’ (A 727/B 755, p. 585). But how many people ever come to philosophy, hoping to learn their limits?


All quotations from Kant, I. (1968) Critique of Pure Reason, trans. N. Kemp Smith, London: Macmillan.