St. John's College Santa Fe The Program

Turning the Beat Around: Kant’s Philosophical Revolution

By Garri Saganenko

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is the central text of modern philosophy. Thus the pretensions that attach themselves to the underbelly of philosophy like suckerfish live in this text; it is here that they were conceived.[1]  Apperception, Unity of Apperception, Judgements, Synthetic A Priori Judgements—there are dictionaries dedicated solely to Kant where the list continues ad infinitum, or is it ad indefinitum?…

I think you get my point, but what about Kant’s? It’s obvious. In fact, he lays it down straight in the early part of the book: How are synthetic a priori judgements possible? I’m kidding.  This question is really just a more technical way of asking ‘How can we know things without first experiencing them?’ The question of Kant’s point, however,  his purpose for writing the Critique, must be clearly stated if the junior class is to survive the 4+ weeks spent reading Kant (don’t worry, this most recent one did).

Let’s begin. For Kant, our philosophical problems stem from a clash reason has with itself: “Our reason has the peculiar fate that, with reference to one class of its knowledge, it is always troubled by the questions which it cannot ignore because they are prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, and which it cannot answer because they transcend the powers of human reason.”[2] In other words, there are questions we feel compelled to ask but do not have the means to answer.  In a way this should come as a relief to Kant and maybe for us as well.  Kant seeks the reader’s trust and this passage helps him gain it. By identifying the fundamental human conflict between a relentless capacity for inquiry and the limits of our understanding (running our head up against our cage as Wittgenstein might say), Kant doesn’t promise the reader the world, saying of those that do, “To attempt to solve all problems, and answer all questions, would be impudent boasting, and would be so extravagant a self-conceit as to forfeit all trust immediately.” Kant means to show us what we can and cannot answer, what questions our within range of answering, and this, for me at least, is a relief.


Kant intends to both strengthen our ability to both know things (via synthetic a priori judgments) but also to understand when we cannot objectively know things (Does the universe have a beginning? Do we have freedom or are our choices predetermined?)  This is his purpose.

But what about that foundation of modern philosophy stuff, what is Kant going to do differently than those that came before him? Whereas before most philosophers looked to the external world, to objects, to find answers about the world in itself, Kant believes himself to be in a situation similar to Copernicus: “We are here in a similar situation to Copernicus was in at the beginning. Unable to proceed satisfactorily in the explanation of the motions of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that the entire collection of stars turned around the spectator, he tried to see whether he might hot have greater success by making the spectator revolve and leave the stars at rest.”

The Delphic maxim ‘know thyself’ set the standard of inquiry for all philosophy to come, but this standard was directed to the external world (excepting Saint Augustine’s Confessions [3]). Kant, however, brings about a complete revolution (a la Copernicus) purposefully directing our attention inwards, to demonstrate that that all we can know about the outside world is known within us, prior to experience.


[1] Kant, unlike Socrates, believed philosophy wasn’t meant to be discussed in the town square, the agora, but scrupulously fashioned in solitude. Hence the terminology that is far-removed from the vernacular?

[2] All quotations are from the Penguin edition of The Critique of Pure Reason.

[3] Michael Brogan suggests this in the Fall 2015 issue of the St. John’s Review.

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