Immanuel Kant on Rationalism

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  • 0:01 Immanuel Kant
  • 0:43 Reason vs. Experience
  • 1:45 Analytic vs. Synthetic…
  • 4:07 A Priori and A…
  • 5:35 Synthetic A Priori Knowledge
  • 8:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson reveals the approach Kant took as he considered what knowledge reason is responsible for providing. You'll also learn what type of statement helped philosophers take a big step forward in their discussions of knowledge.

Immanuel Kant

Consider the following three statements:

Dogs are canines.
All dogs bark.
One dog plus two dogs equals three dogs.

You might think of these as somewhat obvious-sounding statements, but a few simple statements about dogs can reveal something interesting about how philosophers distinguish between different types of knowledge.

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher of the 19th century who made big waves in his field. In this lesson, we'll focus on what he had to say about these three types of statements and why his theories are considered so influential.

Reason vs. Experience

Kant arrived on the philosophy scene with two very strong traditions to understanding knowledge already firmly in place and often at odds. A tradition of rationalism claimed that what we know comes from reason, while a tradition of empiricism took the view that what we know comes from sense experience.

You might wonder why there was such a division between those who argued in favor of reason being primary compared with those who argued that experience is primary. Can't both play a role?

If this is your point of view, Kant would agree with you! According to him, reason and experience are both related to how we acquire knowledge. Kant found a way to explain that they're related and by the end of this lesson, you'll have a better idea of why he saw both empiricism and rationalism as limited in explaining truth individually.

Analytic vs. Synthetic Judgements

In order to better understand this topic, Kant took a look at how rationalists understand knowledge. He considered the question of, 'What is pure reason actually capable of accomplishing? What are its limitations?'

Let's take the earlier statements about dogs once again, and we'll come back to how reason fits into the picture:

Dogs are canines.
All dogs bark.
One dog plus two dogs equals three dogs.

First, consider 'Dogs are canines' and what this really means. We know that the word 'canine' is another way to describe a dog. Saying dogs are canines holds no information about dogs that is separate from the very definition of a dog. Instead, we're simply using another word in the language to describe what is already true about dogs without any room for question. By definition, a dog is a canine. It's a little like saying, 'Dogs are dogs.' It's not particularly informative, unless you've never heard the term 'canine' before today. Kant referred to this type of statement as an analytic judgment, or put simply, it's definitional.

How about 'All dogs bark?' This provides a different kind of information. It's more than a definition of a dog. It's a description that isn't necessarily a given and aims to describe dogs. It's about information and in this case, misinformation about dogs since there are some dogs that do not bark. This type of statement is called a synthetic judgment, one that contains more than just the definition and provides information.

Kant called this a synthetic judgment because you have to synthesize one thing, in this case dogs, with another thing, that they bark. The phrase 'Dogs are canines' doesn't require synthesizing because the two ideas - dogs and canines - are really the same thing. In other words, the term 'dogs' contains the idea of canines.

Before we get to the last phrase, let's consider another set of terms Kant used to describe these two different phrases.

A Priori and a Posteriori Knowledge

Kant would add another label to the first phrase, 'Dogs are canines', the label of a priori knowledge, or knowledge that comes from reason. This means it's not experience in the world that would prove or disprove that dogs are canines. They're just canines, and as long as we know the language of these words, we can reason 'Dogs are canines' is a true statement. We don't need to experience dogs in any way to know this.

Since 'canine' is a category to which a dog belongs by definition, remember that we already said it was an analytic judgment. Combining the two descriptors then, the statement 'Dogs are canines' is an analytic a priori statement.

What about the second phrase, 'All dogs bark'? This is knowledge that has come from experience of dogs and is called a posteriori knowledge. Knowing whether dogs bark can only come from experiencing dogs, or learning from others who have experienced them.

We can also remember that the statement is a synthetic judgment because it provides information about dogs, not just a definition and synthesizes the concept of dogs and bark together. Combining the two descriptors then, the statement 'All dogs bark' is a synthetic a posteriori statement.

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