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  • Kant on the Method of Mathematics
  • Emily Carson


This paper will touch on three very general but closely related questions about Kant’s philosophy. First, on the role of mathematics as a paradigm of knowledge in the development of Kant’s Critical philosophy; second, on the nature of Kant’s opposition to his Leibnizean predecessors and its role in the development of the Critical philosophy; and finally, on the specific role of intuition in Kant’s philosophy of mathematics. One of the points that I want to make is that recognizing the importance of these first two issues is essential to giving an adequate account of the third. That is, only by appreciating how Kant uses the example of mathematical knowledge, and in particular the objections he had to previous accounts of such knowledge, can we understand the philosophical role that he ascribes to intuition in his own account of mathematics.

I don’t propose to explain the details of Kant’s philosophy of mathematics, but rather to compare his views on mathematics in the pre-Critical Prize Essay of 1764 to those of the Critique of Pure Reason, with the aim of showing how Kant’s doctrine of construction in pure intuition arises out of a combination of two factors: first, his attempt to ground the distinction between the respective methods of mathematics and philosophy, and second, his concern to defend the reality of mathematical knowledge against the views of those he called ‘the metaphysicians.’ The first factor demands an account of the certainty of mathematics, the second requires an account of its content. I shall argue that there is a possible conflict between Kant’s accounts of these features in the Prize Essay, a possibility which is finally ruled out only by means of the Critical doctrine of pure intuition. So I hope to show that there is a significant philosophical role for intuition in Kant’s account of mathematical knowledge (over and above the more logical role attributed to it on readings [End Page 629] such as those of Friedman, Beth, and Hintikka1) in reconciling the content of mathematics and its certainty.


Throughout his early writings, Kant appealed to the evidence and certainty of mathematics; his attitude towards metaphysics, however, underwent a dramatic shift. In the Physical Monadology of 1756, Kant asked how metaphysics and geometry can be united,

[f] or the former peremptorily denies that space is infinitely divisible, while the latter, with its usual certainty, asserts that it is infinitely divisible. Geometry contends that empty space is necessary for free motion, while metaphysics hisses the idea off the stage. Geometry holds universal attraction or gravitation to be hardly explicable by mechanical causes but shows that it derives from the forces which are inherent in bodies at rest and which act at a distance, whereas metaphysics dismisses the notion as an empty delusion of the imagination [1:475–6].2

He attempted in this work to reconcile the respective positions of metaphysics and geometry regarding infinite divisibility, thereby demonstrating that “it is neither the case that the geometer is mistaken nor that the opinion to be found among metaphysicians deviates from the truth” [1:480]. But in a series of works from 1762–3, Kant reveals a markedly different attitude towards metaphysics. For example, in “The only possible argument in support of a demonstration of the existence of God,” Kant says:

the mania for method and the imitation of the mathematician, who advances with a sure step along a well-surfaced road, have occasioned a large number of such mishaps on the slippery ground of metaphysics. These mishaps are constantly before one’s eyes, but there is little hope that people will be warned by them, or that they will learn to be more circumspect as a result [2:71].

In contrast, Kant describes the geometer as uncovering “with the greatest certainty” the most secret properties of that which is extended [2:70]. But the less conciliatory attitude to metaphysics comes out most clearly in Kant’s actual procedure in “The only possible argument.” In the Seventh Reflection, he presents an attempt to explain the origin of...


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