Kant’s Critique of the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

Ironically the most notable critique of the Ontological Argument for God’s Existence comes from a theist. For Kant the argument represents a categorical error of sorts. Kant’s criticism calls “existence” into question. Kant refuted the way in which “existence” was used by Anselm in the form of a real predicate that contributed to the existence of a being. Recall, for Anselm the argument was made that a being that existed in mind only was inferior to a being that existed in mind and reality. Thus Anselm’s argument required for “existence” to be a real predicate.

Allow me to attempt at an illustration. On my desk before me sits a mug of Kona coffee that I find to have a slight to moderate floral aromatic with a fruity character. However, I can recall waking up this morning thinking about a cup of Kona coffee with these same qualities the exception being existence of course because it is only conceived of in my mind. The question is, would the former coffee be superior to the latter because it has one more quality that the latter coffee doesn’t have, namely “existence”? In other words, can we treat qualities such as “floral aromatics” and “fruity character” the same way we treat “existence” as if it is a real predicate? Kant says we kant.

Being is evidently not a real predicate, that is, a conception of something which is added to the conception of some other thing.2

“Being is not a real predicate.” In the same way that existence adds nothing to the qualities of my coffee, so does existence add no other qualities to God. Rather what Kant would say is that the concept of existence is now being exemplified in my coffee or God. If being is not a real predicate, then Anselm’s argument is negated. At least that is what Kant is maintaining. There have been refutations of Anselm’s claim and some who even defend the idea that existence IS a real predicate. This however is a brief explanation of Kant’s argument and any further arguments might be forthcoming.


1 Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the most influential philosophers in the history of Western philosophy. His contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics have had a profound impact on almost every philosophical movement that followed him.

2 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, tr. By J.M.D. Meiklejohn, in: Great Books in the Western World, vol. 42, Robert Maynard Hutchins edition in chief, Chicago, London, Toronto, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1952, Transcendental Doctrine of Elements,pp.181.

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Analytic vs. Continental Philosophy

A few weeks ago I was stopped in mid-sentence when I was asked what fundamental differences are there between Continental and Analytic Philosophy.  I paused for a moment and asked myself the same question.  It seems that I was at a loss for words.  The razor-sharp distinctions with which I always treated the two approaches became as dull as gumdrops as I rapidly work through the issues in my head.  Obviously, there are differences as every philosopher will attest; however they appear to be a bit foggy.

As an undergrad I came to think what divided the two was geography.  In other words, if you’re doing “Continental” philosophy you’re doing philosophy common to the continent which happens to refer to Europe.  Therefore, your interests would be in philosophers like Hegel, some of Kant, Nietzche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida, and others.  All of whom are representatives of Germany, France, and Denmark.

Generally speaking, Analytic Philosophers like Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Austin, Moore, Carnap, and Quine (just to name a few) are not of “the continent” (with the exception of Wittgenstein who happens to be Austrian and Frege German).  The problem I have with making the geographical distinction is not that it doesn’t pass the test of consistency.  Rather, geography doesn’t determine a particular philosophers approach.  What we do find is the reverse where Philosophers of the same geographical region represent different approaches to philosophy.  For example, Aristotle and Plato are both considered ancient Greek philosophers and differed on many points.

If a geographical distinction is as fruitless as I am suggesting that it is then perhaps we can find a functional difference as some have suggested.  After all the designator “Analytic” comes from a function of linguistic analysis which is something Analytics enjoy doing among.  However, we find Continental philosophers are not restricted from and often will analyze language as well.

So how do we distinguish the two?  As I said above there is a difference.  We usually notice it when we come across it.  Many philosophy departments tend to place great emphasis on one or the other.  The differences can’t be lineage or influence since they both have the same lineage.  Influences have shown to cross philosophical approaches.  Both Husserl (Continental) and Moore (Analytic) were influenced by Brentano.  Many would be surprised to know that Derrida (Continental) was influenced by J.L. Austin (Analytic).  Both approaches are primarily influenced in different degrees by Hegel and Kant.  Moreover, all are a “footnote to Socrates”.

The only distinctions I find useful are differences over style.  Analytic philosophers tend to place greater emphasis on argumentative clarity, formal logic and logical precision.  They tend to be more aligned with the sciences and mathematics.  Continental philosophers tend to be more literary, less reliant on formal logic, and are more concerned with political, social, and cultural issues.  I realize there are some like Brian Leiter who would like to see a more substantive divide.  Perhaps that’s a reasonable request.  Until that happens we ought to work at understanding the other side opposed to trying to distinguish it.

KANT: His Problem With David Hume

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In the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics we find an interesting statement made by Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) that opens up a dilemma that he refers to as “Hume’s Problem” (referring to the philosopher David Hume 1711 – 1776). It is here in the Prolegomena that Kant writes,

“I openly confess that my remembering David Hume was the very thing which many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the filed of speculative philosophy a quite new direction”

That’s interesting, Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature was the catalyst that woke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber”. You might be thinking to yourself “what exactly does that mean”?

A very good question to be asking. The term “dogmatic” has taken on different meanings through out history. During Kant’s time it referred to a way of thinking that wasn’t grounded in the surety of empiricism or experiential; rather it was more speculative in nature. Kant was trained by a rationalist philosopher by the name of Christian Wolff (1679-1754) and for the most part he initially adopted much of Wolffs philosophy. So when Kant says that Hume woke him from his dogmatic slumber you come away with the idea that Kant was to a certain extent a rationalist interpreting reality through conceptual means such as logic and feeling pretty content with that. That is until Hume awoke him.

Moving on, I am going to attempt to pinpoint out of Hume’s philosophical corpus the main point of contention that Kant must respond to. In Hume’s work Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding we find a serious critique of one of the most fundamental claims of philosophy. Here Hume writes,

“Custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It is the principle alone, which renders our experience useful to us, and makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past. Without the influence of custom, we should be entirely ignorant of every matter of fact, beyond what is immediately present to the memory and senses.”

Allow me to explain. Hume believed that experience was the bases for knowledge but he questioned causation. We typically think that event A caused event B because we observed it in the past. Hume says we have no basis for believing that the present will be like the past. When we see the subsequent event of A causing B it is a habit of thought or “custom”.

Going back to Kant. As I stated above Kant understands there is a problem with a purely rationalistic outlook on knowing and thus allows for experience in knowing. However, what Kant questions in Hume is the notion that causation is objectively vacuous. This in a nut shell is “Hume’s problem.” For Kant Hume is correct in his empiricism but his understanding of causation leads to a form of skepticism that Kant rejects.

Kant’s project is now laid out before him. What does one do if the claims of a pure rationalism or the claims of a pure empiricism are insufficient? You end up adopting a mixture of the two. That is exactly what Kant has done.

 

 

Recent Papers On Kant, Ethics, and Foucault

 

Kenneth F. Rogerson
Kant and Empirical Concepts
Although Kant is most well-known for his arguments in support of pure or a priori concepts, he also attempts to give an account of how empirical concepts are acquired. In this paper I want to take a close look at this account. Specifically, I am interested in a recent criticism that Kant’s explanation of empirical concept acquisition is, in some sense, circular. I will consider and criticize a recent attempt to solve this problem. Finally, I will argue for my own solution to the circularity problem relying, oddly enough, on Kant’s commitment to pure or a priori concepts of the understanding as well as the pure forms of the imagination. Briefly, I want to argue that Kant can give a coherent and non-circular account of empirical concept acquisition relying primarily on the a priori conceptual tools developed in the Critique of Pure Reason.
Sofie Møller (forthcoming). Rethinking Kant as a Public Intellectual.European Journal of Political Theory:1474885115611518.

In Kant’s Politics in Context, Reidar Maliks offers a compelling account of Kant’s political philosophy as part of a public debate on rights, citizenship, and revolution in the wake of the French Revolution. Maliks argues that Kant’s political thought was developed as a moderate middle ground between radical and conservative political interpretations of his moral philosophy. The book’s central thesis is that the key to understanding Kant’s legal and political thought lies in the public debate among Kant’s followers and that in this debate we find the political challenges which Kant’s political philosophy is designed to solve. Kant’s Politics in Context raises crucial questions about how to understand political thinkers of the past and is proof that our understanding of the past will remain fragmented if we limit our studies to the great men of the established canon.
Zeynep Direk (2014). Phenomenology and Ethics: From Value Theory to an Ethics of Responsibility.Studia Phaenomenologica 14:371-393.

There seems to be a shift in phenomenology in the 20th century from an ethics based on value theory to an ethics based on responsibility. This essay attempts to show the path marks of this transition. It begins with the historical development that led Husserl to address the question of ethical objectivity in terms of value theory, with a focus on Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. It then explains Husserl’s phenomenology of ethics as grounded in value theory, and takes into account Heidegger’s objections to it. Finally, it considers Sartre as a transitional figure between value theory and an ethics of responsibility and attempts to show in what sense, if at all, Levinas’ phenomenology of ethics could be an absolute break with a phenomenological ethics based on values.
Cristian Iftode (2015). The Ethical Meaning of Foucault’s Aesthetics of Existence.Cultura 12 (2):145-162.

In order to grasp the true ethical meaning of Foucault’s aesthetics of existence, I begin by explaining in what sense he was an anti-normativist, arguing that the most important thing about the “final” Foucault is his strong emphasis on the idea of human freedom. I go on with a brief discussion about Foucault’s sources of inspiration and a criticism of Rorty’s kindred plea for “aesthetic life”. I strongly reject the interpretation of Foucault’s aesthetics of existence in terms of narcissistic individualism, arguing, on the contrary, that it has a definite communitarian dimension. I also claim that it is rooted in the Socratic and Stoic understanding of “care of the self,” at the same time allowing new challenging developments fitted for our “post-duty” historical age, by way of analogy with the process of artistic making. I conclude with some short answers to a few questions regarding the status of this aesthetics of living.