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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.4 (2001) 559-580
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Problems in Kant's Vindication of Pure Reason
One of the most important questions in interpreting the Critique of Pure Reason concerns the proper way of characterizing Kant's view of the faculty of reason. Clearly, one of Kant's intentions is to show that reason is incapable of cognition of objects such as God or the soul, because such cognition would require going beyond possible experience. At the same time, he also wants to defend reason, to "institute a court of justice, by which reason may secure its rightful claims while dismissing all its groundless pretensions" (Axi-xii). Denied the possibility of attaining theoretical knowledge, reason instead finds its fulfillment in its practical employment, striving to bring the world into conformity with the moral law. This, however, can make it appear that the task of guiding action is one that reason must merely settle for, having unfortunately been denied its true goal, knowledge of the supersensible. It is thus difficult to see how Kant can claim to have vindicated reason.
Recently, a number of scholars have suggested that a proper understanding of Kant's account of reason can correct this purely negative view of Kant's theory. In particular, Richard Velkley and Susan Neiman have argued separately that Kant's emphasis on the goal-directed nature of reason's task helps to justify Kant's belief that the first Critique defends as well as limits reason. 1 Because this reading truly does justice to Kant's insistence on the unity of theoretical and practical reason, it goes a long way toward bringing out Kant's overall project in the Critique of Pure Reason. But I will argue that Velkley's and Neiman's defense of Kant's conception of reason, while persuasive as a reading of Kant's intentions in the first Critique and a clear improvement over a simply negative view of reason, is ultimately unsuccessful philosophically. I will show that Kant's defense of reason in the Critique of Pure Reason is vulnerable [End Page 559] to two strong objections, of which Kant himself was made aware of in the years after the publication of the Critique: We have no grounds, on the basis of the argument of the first Critique, to think that the goals reason sets for us can be achieved; nor does Kant's theory provide a basis for defending his conception of reason against other plausible and coherent sources of warranted assertion, such as religion or culture. Indeed, Kant's appreciation of the seriousness of the deficiency of his defense of reason in the Critique of Pure Reason helps to explain the importance of the concept of the purposiveness of nature in the later Critique of Judgment. First I explain in detail why it appears that Kant's analysis of reason produces only a negative result—that reason cannot attain knowledge of its objects. Second, I will look at how the readings of Velkley and Neiman attempt to defend Kant's account of reason's positive use. I will then argue that without some argument for the suitability of appearances to systematization according to ideas of pure reason, we can be assured neither of the possibility of reaching the goals reason sets for us nor of the superiority of Kant's views over competing views on morality and religion. In particular, I will look briefly at the writings of Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried Herder, with the intention of showing that they offer at least prima facie plausible alternatives to Kant's view of reason.
The central problem concerning Kant's conception of reason in the Critique of Pure Reason results from the conjunction of two of his most important philosophical claims. First, it clearly is crucial to Kant's philosophical outlook that "we cannot cognize any object that is thought except through intuitions that correspond to those concepts" (B165). But, second, Kant says that unlike the understanding reason does not relate directly to intuition, and...