Historical Background to Kant

In order to understand Kant’s position, we must understand the philosophical background that he was reacting to. First, this article presents a brief overview of his predecessor’s positions with a brief statement of Kant’s objections, then I will return to a more detailed exposition of Kant’s arguments. There are two major historical movements in the early modern period of philosophy that had a significant impact on Kant: Empiricism and Rationalism. Kant argues that both the method and the content of these philosophers’ arguments contain serious flaws. A central epistemological problem for philosophers in both movements was determining how we can escape from within the confines of the human mind and the immediately knowable content of our own thoughts to acquire knowledge of the world outside of us. The Empiricists sought to accomplish this through the senses and a posteriori reasoning. The Rationalists attempted to use a priori reasoning to build the necessary bridge. A posteriori reasoning depends upon experience or contingent events in the world to provide us with information. That “Bill Clinton was president of the United States in 1999,” for example, is something that I can know only through experience; I cannot determine this to be true through an analysis of the concepts of “president” or “Barack Obama.” A priori reasoning, in contrast, does not depend upon experience to inform it. The concept “bachelor” logically entails the ideas of an unmarried, adult, human male without my needing to conduct a survey of bachelors and men who are unmarried. Kant believed that this twofold distinction in kinds of knowledge was inadequate to the task of understanding metaphysics for reasons we will discuss in a moment.

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