Kant's Theory of Knowledge and Solipsism

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Kant's Theory of Knowledge and Solipsism

In his Critique of Pure Reason Kant set out to establish a theory of human understanding. His approach was to synthesise the opposing views of empiricism and rationalism. He took the empirical principle that 'all our knowledge begins with experience' [p.1] as a foundation of his philosophy, following Locke and Hume. In contrast to them, however, he also included the rationalist view that posits the existence of an apparatus of human understanding that is prior to experience, and is essential in order that we have experience at all. Thus, for Kant, the human mind does not begin simply as a tabula rasa, as supposed by Locke, but must necessarily have an innate structure in order that we may understand the world.

For Kant, this a priori structure is essential to philosophy. Kant argued that the simple empiricism of Hume and Berkeley inevitably leads to solipsistic idealism. In contrast, by uncovering the a priori structure of human understanding, as the necessary condition for conscious experience, Kant argued that he was able to avoid idealism, since the proof of the existence of an external world follows from this structure.

However, some commentators have pointed out flaws in Kant's theory that demonstrate that he does not necessarily escape the charge of solipsism. As Strawson states: 'Kant, as transcendental idealist, is closer to Berkeley than he acknowledges' [1, p.22]. Russell pointed out that all Kant's immediate successors, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, were led to develop his philosophy in a subjectivist or idealist direction, and 'fell into something very like solipsism' [2, p.689]. In this essay I shall examine this question, firstly by briefly expounding Kant's defence ...

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...uman understanding, based on Intuition and Conception is strong. However, the essential idea of noumena — an independently existing Reality — is weak. The crux of this weakness is Kant's insistence that noumena are simply unknowable. The revisions proposed by Schopenhauer and Nagel break with this insistence, and allow us to have at least a limited 'knowledge' of them, and therefore provide much needed support to the idea of noumena.


All quotes from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason are taken from Meiklejohn's translation. References are given by page number, since this translation does not include A/B numbering. Other references are as follows.

[1] P.F. Strawson (1966) The Bounds of Sense (Routledge)

[2] Bertrand Russell (1946) A History of Western Philosophy book 3, chapter XX (Unwin)

[3] Thomas Nagel 1986 The View from Nowhere (OUP)

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