1. Physics: The Pre-Critical Period
Kant's early pre-Critical publications (1746-1756) are devoted primarily to solving a variety of broadly cosmological problems and to developing an increasingly comprehensive metaphysics that would account for the matter theory that is required by the solutions to these problems. Kant's first publication, Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces (1746), explicitly attempts to solve the vis viva controversy, which had been hotly contested ever since Leibniz's attack on Descartes' laws of motion in the Acta Eruditorum in 1686. While Kant attempts to occupy an intermediary position between the Cartesian and Leibnizian positions by maintaining that both mv and mv² could be conserved in different contexts, what is of particular note is how his solution in Parts II and III rests on the conception of force developed in Part I. According to this conception, force is understood in terms of the activity of substances, an activity that Kant then uses to explain how the motions of bodies are generated, to solve the mind-body problem, and to account for both the possibility of other, actually existing worlds and the three-dimensionality of space.
His solution to the vis viva dispute is especially interesting, because it presages his later approach to philosophical controversy. Rather than offering a conclusive argument in favor of one position, Kant seeks to mediate between the two parties, Leibnizian and Cartesian. He argues that each measure of force is correct, but in different contexts. Kant distinguishes two ways of studying bodies, “mathematical” and “metaphysical,” and claims that they presuppose distinct conceptions of body. According to mathematical mechanics, a body cannot accelerate unless an external cause acts on it; for that reason, Kant declares, the Cartesians' quantity mv is the only one appropriate measure of force in this context. “Natural bodies,” in contrast, have features that mathematics brackets. One such feature is a capacity for “vivification,” whereby a body increases by itself the force of motion that an external cause merely “awakens.” In light of that, Kant concludes, the Leibnizian quantity mv2 is the correct measure of force in metaphysical considerations of “natural bodies” (1:140f).
Kant develops his account of the nature of substance in greater detail in A New Elucidationof the First Principles of Metaphysical Cognition (1755). While the first two sections of this work undertake revisions of Wolff's principles of non-contradiction and sufficient reason, the third section argues for two substantive principles that are alleged to follow from the principle of sufficient (or rather, following Crusius, determining) reason, namely the principles of succession and coexistence. The main thrust of the principle of succession is directed against Leibnizian pre-established harmony, arguing that only causal connections between substances can bring about changes in their states. Kant's position appears to be designed to account primarily for changes of bodily states (with changes in mental states being parasitic upon them, as was explicitly asserted in the True Estimation). For he maintains that mutual changes of state require mutual interaction, where it is clear that changes in motion are precisely the kind of mutual change that he has in mind (since one body cannot move closer to another without the other body moving closer to it). The principle of coexistence then argues that harmonious causal interaction between otherwise isolated, independently existing substances is possible only by means of God's coordination (just as Leibniz thought was required for harmonious relations between the states of such substances).
Kant's Physical Monadology (1756) takes as its task the reconciliation of the infinite divisibility of space, as maintained in geometry, with the simplicity of substances, which Kant believes is required in metaphysics. As was the case with his earlier works, the essential feature of his reconciliation lies in the way in which his matter theory is supported by his metaphysical views. Specifically, Kant asserts that simple substances fill space not by means of their mere existence, but rather in virtue of their spheres of activity. As a result, any division of the relevant spheres of activity does not compromise the simplicity of the substances themselves, since the spatial properties of substances (including the infinite divisibility of space) arise from the interaction between their activities rather than from their intrinsic features. In the course of the Physical Monadology, Kant also argues for the necessity of attractive and repulsive forces and attributes a significant role to the force of inertia. Kant's acceptance of such Newtonian principles represents an important change of position over the True Estimation, where Kant rejects the principle of inertia and pursues a dynamical theory much more in line with Leibniz's views.
In addition to these works, which bridge the gap, as it were, between physics and metaphysics, during this period Kant is interested in a series of specific issues in cosmology and empirical physics. For example, Kant writes several short exclusively scientific essays between 1754 to 1757, including “Brief Outline of Certain Meditations on Fire,” “Investigation of the question of whether the Earth has suffered changes in its axial Rotation,” “The Question of the Aging of the Earth, considered physically” as well as three papers on earthquakes. Of much greater significance is his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755), which represents an important contribution to science as such. For in it Kant explains how one can account for the formation of the solar system from an initial state, in which matter is dispersed like a cloud, solely by means of the interaction of attractive and repulsive forces. In 1796, Laplace, unaware of Kant's argument, would develop a very similar derivation, with the result that the view is now typically referred to as the Kant-Laplace nebular hypothesis.
Some of Kant's youthful insights have yielded long-lasting contributions to scientific knowledge. His intuition that tides slow down the Earth's rotation over time is correct. In his New Remarks toward an Elucidation of the theory of Winds, Kant correctly explained that North-South winds in our hemisphere suffer a Coriolis deflection due to the Earth's rotation. Moreover, broadly Kantian accounts of planetary formation have been the dominant model since the emergence of sophisticated nebular models in the 1970s (see, e.g., Safronov 1972 and Prentice 1978).
Later in his pre-Critical period (1763-1770), Kant attempts to build a comprehensive metaphysical account on the basis of the framework that he had established in his first works. Thus, in his The Only Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God (1763) he attempts to extend his reasoning to fundamental issues in both philosophical theology and teleology, presenting, for the first time, his now famous criticisms of the three traditional arguments for the existence of God, while developing a new theistic proof, based on the idea that God is necessary as a real ground of the possibilities of things. After reading Hume's Enquiry concerning Human Understanding in German translation sometime after 1755, Kant distinguishes between real and logical grounds/opposition in his Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy (1763) to avoid Hume's objection that there is no logical contradiction in the existence of one thing not following the existence of another. But in this work he is also interested in exploring the notion of a real ground/opposition further by applying it more widely, e.g., to bodies, mental states, etc. Also relevant is Kant's Concerning the Ultimate Foundation of the Distinction of the Directions in Space (1768) which modifies his earlier account of space insofar as he seems to hold that certain spatial properties — viz., chirality, or handedness — may not be able to be explained entirely in terms of direct relations between material substances. In his so-called Inaugural Dissertation (1770), Kant continues to develop a more comprehensive philosophical system, which would encompass the principles of both the sensible and the intelligible world, and in so doing modifies his account of space and time even further. Over the course of the next ten years, during which he published almost nothing, Kant would revise his views more systematically, with the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 representing the first major step in his “critical turn.”
Adickes (1924), Harman (1982), Friedman (1992), Laywine (1993), Schönfeld (2000), Kuehn (2001), Lefevre & Wunderlich (2000), and Watkins (1997, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2013) have emphasized the importance of scientific issues in the development of Kant's thought during his pre-Critical period, as he reacted to Leibniz, Newton and other, more immediate predecessors (such as Christian Wolff, Christian August Crusius, Leonard Euler, Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, and Martin Knutzen). Smith (2013) reconstructs Kant's picture of matter in the Physical Monadology.
2. Physics: The Critical Period (Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science)
Though Kant discusses issues relevant to physics in various works throughout the Critical period (esp. the Critique of Pure Reason), his views on this topic are developed most explicitly in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786), which consists of a preface and four chapters.
In the Preface to the Metaphysical Foundations Kant (i) analyzes the concepts of nature and science so as to establish what conditions must be met for a body of knowledge to constitute natural science in the proper sense, (ii) explains why science so understood requires “a pure part” (4:469) and what criteria would have to be satisfied for such a pure part to exist, (iii) argues that chemistry and psychology cannot at present meet these criteria, and (iv) describes what procedure should be followed to satisfy these criteria and thus to provide the “pure part” that science proper requires.
The feature of Kant's conception of natural science proper that is most immediately striking is how restrictive it is. It requires that cognition (i) be systematically ordered (ii) according to rational principles and (iii) be known a priori with apodictic certainty, i.e., with “consciousness of their necessity” (4:468). Because properly scientific cognition must satisfy these strict conditions, it requires “a pure part on which the apodictic certainty that reason seeks can be based” (4:469). But since Kant identifies pure rational cognition that is generated from concepts with metaphysics, it follows that science proper requires a metaphysics of nature. He then specifies that such a metaphysics of nature could consist in either a “transcendental part,” which discusses the laws that make possible the concept of a nature in general — “even without relation to any determinate object of experience” (4:469) — or a “special metaphysical” part, which concerns a “particular nature of this or that kind of things” for which an empirical concept is given.
Kant's very conception of natural science proper thus immediately gives rise to several systematically important questions. First, if the “transcendental part” of the metaphysics of nature can be identified with the results of the Critique of Pure Reason, then the Metaphysical Foundations is a work in special metaphysics. But what exactly is a special metaphysics? In particular, what particular natures or kinds of things could be its object? And how precisely can an empirical concept of such things be given without compromising the necessity required of the pure part of natural science? Second, how is the special metaphysics provided by the Metaphysical Foundations supposed to be related to the transcendental part of the metaphysics of nature that was established in the Critique of Pure Reason? Does the former presuppose the principles of the latter or are they logically independent, but still related to each other in some other way? Another question concerns the method of special metaphysics. Is that method the conceptual analysis (of the notion of matter), the transcendental investigation of the presuppositions of the mathematical science of nature, or something else entirely?
First, Kant suggests that in special metaphysics the principles of the transcendental part “are applied to the two species of objects of our senses” (4:470). Thus, the particular kinds of things that could be investigated in a special metaphysics are (i) the objects of outer sense, i.e., matter, and (ii) the objects of inner sense, i.e., thinking beings, which would thus result in a doctrine of body and a doctrine of soul. Kant then argues that because “the possibility of determinate natural things cannot be cognized from their mere concepts … it is still required that the intuition corresponding to the concept be given a priori, that is, that the concept be constructed” (4:470), which is a task that requires mathematics. This is Kant's justification for his famous claim that “in any special doctrine of nature there can be only as much proper science as there is mathematics therein” (4:470). This argument suggests that the necessity required of the pure part of natural science derives from the necessity of the rules by which the mathematical construction of determinate things must proceed.
Kant then uses the claim that science proper requires the construction of the concept of the object in a priori intuition to exclude the possibility that chemistry and psychology, at least as they were practiced at that time, could count as science proper. In the case of chemistry, the problem is that “no law of the approach or withdrawal of the parts of matter can be specified according to which … their motions and all the consequences thereof can be made intuitive and presented a priori in space (a demand that will only with great difficulty ever be fulfilled)” (4:471). Since its principles are “merely empirical,” it can, at best, be a “systematic art” (ibid.). The case of psychology is more complex, since Kant provides (at least) two separate reasons in the Preface for denying it the status of natural science proper. First, Kant claims that mathematics is inapplicable to the phenomena of inner sense and their laws, though he grants that the law of continuity (discussed, e.g., at A207–209/B253–255 and A228–229/B281 in the Critique of Pure Reason) ought to apply to changes in our representations as well. He downplays the significance of this application of the law of continuity, however, by noting that time has only one dimension, which does not provide enough material to extend our cognition significantly. Second, Kant also complains that empirical psychology cannot separate and recombine the phenomena of inner sense at will; rather, our inner observations can be separated “only by mere division in thought” (4:471). Kant's fuller views on chemistry and psychology will be discussed further below.
Second, in explaining how mathematics can be applied to bodies Kant asserts that “principles for the construction of the concepts that belong to the possibility of matter in general must first be introduced. Therefore a complete analysis of the concept of a matter in general [must be provided in which it] makes use of no particular experiences, but only that which it finds in the isolated (although intrinsically empirical) concept itself, in relation to the pure intuitions in space and time, and in accordance with laws that already essentially attach to the concept of nature in general” (4:472). Kant then explains that this means that the concept of matter must be determined according to the Critique of Pure Reason's categories of quantity, quality, relation, and modality (4:474–476). Further, Kant holds that “a new determination” (4:476) must be added to the concept of matter in each chapter of the Metaphysical Foundations. This suggests not only that the principles argued for in the Metaphysical Foundations are to be developed “in accordance with” the principles defended in the Critique of Pure Reason, but also that both the concept of matter and the Metaphysical Foundations itself is structured according to the Critique of Pure Reason's table of categories.
Unfortunately, these points of clarification do not resolve all of the issues that are immediately raised by Kant's pronouncements about what is required for natural science proper. One further issue that is relevant here concerns the concept of matter that is at the heart of the Metaphysical Foundations. Kant introduces it in the Critique of Pure Reason (A847–848/B875–876) as the concept of something that is impenetrable, extended, and inert. Yet, in the beginning of the Preface of the Metaphysical Foundations, he describes it as whatever is an object of outer sense, and later he argues that the “basic determination of something that is to be an object of the outer senses had to be motion, because only thereby can these senses be affected” (4:476). Whatever weight one accords Kant's justification of the connection between matter, outer sense, and motion, one faces a dilemma. If the concept of matter, most fundamentally, is simply the concept of any object of outer sense, then how is it still empirical in any genuine sense (and what has become of the structural difference Kant draws between the Critique of Pure Reason and the Metaphysical Foundations)? If, by contrast, impenetrability, extension, and movability are deemed the basic traits of the concept of matter, then how can one know a priori that any object we might encounter in outer sense must behave in accordance with the laws that would govern matter so defined?
Moreover, even if one can find an appropriately nuanced sense in which the concept of matter is empirical while still allowing for an appropriate kind of necessity, questions can still be posed about the “new determinations” that are to be added to that concept in each chapter of the Metaphysical Foundations. For example, what is the justification for each specific determination that is added when one thinks of matter as having a quantity, a quality, etc.? Also, what is the relationship between each new determination of matter and the various claims that Kant makes in each chapter of the Metaphysical Foundations? In particular, when Kant explicitly invokes principles for constructing concepts belonging to the possibility of matter, is his idea that these principles are required insofar as they make experience of the relevant “new determination” of matter possible (so that Kant would be developing a transcendental argument in the Metaphysical Foundations similar in many respects to the Critique of Pure Reason)? Answers to these questions depend on how one interprets the arguments Kant develops throughout the Metaphysical Foundations.
The conception of science that Kant presents in the Preface has been the focus of considerable attention over the past several decades. In the German literature, the issues raised above have been discussed at length by Plaass (1965), Schäfer (1966), Hoppe (1969), Gloy (1976), and Cramer (1985). Pollok (2001) has recently produced a detailed and comprehensive textual commentary on the Metaphysical Foundations. Important work has also been done in the English literature by Walker (1974), Brittan (1978), Buchdahl (1968, 1969, and 1986), Parsons (1984), Butts (1986), and Watkins (1998a). Friedman (1992, 2001, 2002 and 2013) has been especially influential on these issues as well.
The first chapter of the Metaphysical Foundations, the Phoronomy, considers the quantity of motion of matter and how it is to be constructed in intuition a priori (so as to produce the kind of rules that are necessary for our experience of matter in motion). Since extension and impenetrability are not directly relevant to how different magnitudes (or degrees) of motion can be represented, Kant restricts his discussion in this chapter to matter considered as a point. Since the motion of a point in space can be represented straightforwardly, the main issue is how to represent the composition of two different motions. Kant's primary claim in this chapter is that due to the relativity of space (i.e., the fact that every motion can be viewed arbitrarily as either the motion of a body in a space at rest, or as a body in a state of rest in a space which is in motion in the opposite direction with the same velocity) “the composition of two motions of one and the same point can only be thought in such a way that one of them is represented in absolute space, and, instead of the other, a motion of the relative space with the same speed occurring in the opposite direction is represented as the same as the latter” (4:490). The proof of this Theorem considers the three possible cases for the composition of two motions: (i) The two motions are in the same direction; (ii) the two motions are in opposite directions; (iii) the two motions enclose an angle. Kant then shows how one can construct a priori in intuition a single motion out of the two motions described in cases (i)-(iii). The synthetic a priori outcome of this constructive procedure is a composition theorem that covers two fundamental results of classical physics: the parallelogram rule for velocity addition, and the Galilean kinematic transformations. The theorem is needed for architectonic reasons too, not just as a foundation for science. Kant uses the composition theorem as a premise in his Dynamics, so as to infer a priori to forces from the composite motions they cause (e.g., 4:497). And, he invokes the theorem explicitly in his Mechanics, in the course of “constructing the communication of motion,” i.e. deriving the laws of impact (4:546).
Until recently, very little has been written directly on Kant's Phoronomy. (By contrast, Kant's philosophy of mathematics has long received considerable attention.) Palter (1972) first broached the Phoronomy from the modern standpoint of coordinate transformations between frames. Pollok (2001) is a historically rich commentary. Friedman (2013) untangles the complex strands of thought in Kant's chapter. His leading idea is that Kant's categories of quantity (of the First Critique) guarantee that motion is a magnitude, hence mathematics is applicable to the motions of bodies--as kinematics.
The second chapter of the Metaphysical Foundations, the Dynamics, considers how it is possible to experience matter as filling a determinate region in space. Propositions 1–4 are devoted to exhibiting the nature and necessity of repulsive forces. In Proposition 1 Kant argues that repulsive force is required for matter to fill space, since solidity, understood by “Lambert and others” as the property matter would have by means of “its mere existence” (4:497), cannot truly explain how one matter resists another matter's attempt to penetrate it. Kant then specifies several central features of repulsive forces in Propositions 2 and 3. Repulsive forces admit of degrees to infinity, since one must always be able to think of a slightly greater or lesser force, and although matter can be compressed to infinity, it can never be penetrated, since that would require an infinite compressing force, which is impossible.
In Proposition 4 Kant draws an important consequence from his characterization of repulsive forces, namely that matter is infinitely divisible (4:503). What is especially striking about this point is that it represents a significant departure from his own earlier Physical Monadology, where he had accepted attractive and repulsive forces, but denied the infinite divisibility of what ultimately constitutes matter, namely physical points or monads. It is true that part of Kant's rationale for his change of position on this point stems from the “critical turn” undertaken in the Critique of Pure Reason (and in its Second Antinomy in particular). For once one recognizes that both space and spatial properties such as divisibility are not properties of things in themselves but rather only appearances, one can reject the proposition that seems to necessitate the acceptance of simple substances, namely the idea that simple substances must precede the wholes they compose (4:506). However, Kant's proof also seems to depend, in its details, not merely on the idea that every space is filled by means of some repulsive force or other, but on the stronger claim that every space is divisible into smaller spaces that are filled by different repulsive forces.
Propositions 5–8 are all devoted to attractive force. In Proposition 5 Kant argues that matter must have an attractive force in order to fill space. Kant's argument is that if there were only repulsive forces, then matter “would disperse itself to infinity” (4:508) since neither space nor other matter could limit it. Proposition 6 argues that both attractive and repulsive forces must be considered essential to matter. That is, attractive forces alone are not sufficient to account for matter filling a space, since if matter consisted solely of attractive forces, there would be no force to counteract the attractive force being exercised and the universe would collapse into a single point. Together, Propositions 5 and 6 make up a ‘balancing argument’, which Kant had already used in the earlier Physical Monadology. (A balancing argument is an existence proof for a type of force. Its premises are (1) an accepted universal fact, viz. that a certain stable configuration obtains; and (2) a type of force independently known to exist. The argument seeks to prove that the stability in question is impossible unless a second kind of force exists to balance the first kind. In Kant's particular version of the balancing argument, the universal fact is the constancy of mass density in a control volume; and the given force is “original repulsion,” whose existence he proves in Proposition 4.) Proposition 7 then specifies how attractive forces are to be understood, namely as the immediate action of matter on other matter through empty space (and therefore at a distance). Kant thus directly confronts the metaphysical question of how to understand attraction that Newton attempted to avoid by positing it merely mathematically. As Kant interprets the situation, Newton “abstracts from all hypotheses purporting to answer the question as to the cause of the universal attraction of matter … [since] this question is physical or metaphysical, but not mathematical” (4:515). In response to the “most common objection to immediate action at a distance,” namely “that a matter cannot act immediately where it is not” (4:513), Kant argues that action at a distance is no more problematic than action by contact (whether it be by collision or pressure), since in both cases a body is simply acting outside itself. Proposition 8 concludes by arguing that attractive forces act immediately to infinity and by adding a “preliminary suggestion” (4:518) as to how one might be able to construct the concept of cohesion (which Kant understands as attraction that is restricted to contact).
In the General Remark to Dynamics Kant addresses two main issues. First, Kant considers how it is that the specific varieties of matter (e.g., water as different from mercury) might be reduced, at least in principle, to the fundamental forces of attraction and repulsion. The second issue concerns the fundamental distinction between the “mathematical-mechanical” and the “metaphysical-dynamical mode of explanation”. The former mode of explanation, which is associated with the postulation of atoms and the void, employs nothing more than the shapes and motions of fundamental particles and empty interstices interspersed among them. It contrasts with the metaphysical-dynamical mode, which employs fundamental moving forces (e.g., attraction and repulsion) in its explanations. Kant grants that the mathematical-mechanical mode has an advantage over the metaphysical-dynamical mode, since its fundamental posits can be represented (indeed, “verified” (4:525)) mathematically, whereas he repeatedly admits that the possibility of fundamental forces can never be comprehended, i.e., their possibility can never be rendered certain. However, Kant thinks that this advantage is outweighed by two disadvantages. First, by presupposing absolute impenetrability, the mathematical-mechanical mode of explanation accepts an “empty concept” at its foundation. Second, by giving up all forces that would be inherent in matter, such a mode of explanation provides the imagination with more freedom “than is truly consistent with the caution of philosophy” (4:525).
Given that the bulk of Kant's matter theory is presented in the Dynamics, it is unsurprising that it has received the greatest amount of attention in the literature. Of particular note are discussions by Buchdahl (1968, 1969), Brittan (1978), Kitcher (1983), Butts (1986), Carrier (1990), Friedman (1990), Malzkorn (1998), Warren (2001, 2010), Pollok (2002), Holden (2004), and Engelhard (2005). Friedman (2013) is an extensive commentary, under the overarching theme that Kant in the Dynamics aims to explain how certain features of body – density, volume, static weight – become mathematizable, as Newton's dynamics illustrates paradigmatically.
The third chapter of Kant's Metaphysical Foundations, the Mechanics, concerns how it is possible to experience matter as having a moving force, that is, how one matter communicates its motion to another by means of its moving force. Kant begins, in Proposition 1, by clarifying how the quantity of matter is to be estimated before stating, in Propositions 2–4, three Laws of Mechanics.
After first defining the quantity of matter and the quantity of motion (or, in contemporary terms, impulse, i=mv), Kant asserts that the quantity of matter, in comparison with every other matter, can be estimated only by the quantity of motion at a given speed (4:537). Kant's proof proceeds by way of elimination. The quantity of matter, which is the aggregate of the movable in a determinate space, cannot be estimated by counting the number of parts it has, since, as was established in the Dynamics, every matter is infinitely divisible. Nor can one estimate the quantity of matter merely by considering its volume, since different matters can have different specific densities. As a result, the only universally applicable way of estimating the quantity of matter is to hold the velocity of matter constant.
In Proposition 2, Kant states his First Law of Mechanics: the total quantity of matter remains the same throughout all changes in matter (4:541). His proof seems to rely (i) on the principle of the First Analogy of Experience that no substance arises or perishes throughout any change in nature and (ii) on the identification of what in matter must be substantial. On this latter point, Kant quickly assumes that the ultimate subject of all accidents inhering in matter must be the movable in space, and that its quantity is the aggregate of the movable in space. In his remark to this proposition, Kant explicitly notes that there is a crucial difference between spatial and non-spatial substances, since the latter, unlike the former, could gradually fade away by degrees. (Kant cites the possibility of consciousness as a concrete example.) Kant uses this difference to argue that since the quantity of matter consists in a plurality of real things external to each other that cannot fade away (as consciousness might), the only way to decrease its quantity is by division.
Kant's Second Law of Mechanics, stated in Proposition 3, is that every change in matter has an external cause. (Immediately after this principle, Kant adds in parentheses a version of the law of inertia that is much closer to Newton's: “every body persists in its state of rest or motion, in the same direction, and with the same speed, if it is not compelled by an external cause to leave this state” (4:543). Since Kant's Second Law of Mechanics is not identical to Newton's law of inertia, it would require argument to show that, and by means of what additional assumptions, the former entails the latter.) The proof of the main principle depends on the Second Analogy of Experience (which asserts that all changes occur in accordance with the law of cause and effect and thus entails that every change in matter has a cause) as well as on the further assumption that matter has no internal grounds of determinations (such as thinking and desiring), but rather only external relations in space. In his remark to this proposition, which clarifies this “law of inertia,” Kant explains that inertia is to be contrasted with life or the ability of a substance to determine itself to act from an internal principle. Thus, a body's inertia “does not mean a positive striving to conserve its state” (4:544), but rather what it does not do, its lifelessness.
Kant also asserts that the very possibility of natural science proper depends on the law of inertia, since the rejection of it would be hylozoism, “the death of all natural philosophy” (4:544). In a later remark in the Mechanics, Kant explicitly objects that “the terminology of inertial force (vis inertiae) must be entirely banished from natural science, not only because it carries with it a contradiction in terms, nor even because the law of inertia (lifelessness) might thereby be easily confused with the law of reaction in every communicated motion, but primarily because the mistaken idea of those who are not properly acquainted with the mechanical laws is thereby maintained and even strengthened” (4:550). Kant goes on to point out that if inertia were to entail an active force of resistance, then it would be possible that when one moving body hits another, the moving body has to apply part of its motion solely to overcome the inertia of the one at rest and might not have any motion left over, as it were, to set the body at rest into motion, which is contrary to experience (and Proposition 2).
Kant's Third Law of Mechanics, expressed in Proposition 4, asserts the equality of action and reaction in the communication of motion. Kant formulates a version of the Third Analogy of Experience (according to which all external action in the world is interaction) and suggests that the main point at issue in mechanics is establishing that mutual action is necessarily reaction. Kant's argument for this law is based on the following line of thought: (i) if all changes of matter are changes of motion; (ii) if all changes of motion are reciprocal and equal (since one body cannot move closer to/farther away from another body without the second body moving closer to/farther away from the first body and by exactly the same amount); and (iii) if every change of matter has an external cause (a proposition that was established as the Second Law of Mechanics), then the cause of the change of motion of the one body entails an equal and opposite cause of a change of motion of the other body or, in short, action must be equal to reaction.
In Remark 1, Kant then shows how his position differs from that of other authors. Newton “by no means dared to prove this law a priori, and therefore appealed rather to experience” (4:449). Kepler likewise derived it from experience, though he went further, conceiving of it in terms of a special force of inertia. Certain unnamed “transfusionists” (presumably Locke and perhaps Descartes or Rohault) attempted to deny the law altogether by suggesting that motion could simply be transferred from one body to another in the communication of motion, a view Kant rejects on the grounds that explaining the communication of motion in terms of the transfer of motion is no explanation at all and also amounts to admitting that accidents could be literally transferred from one substance to another.
Kant's Laws of Mechanics have been discussed widely in the secondary literature. One can point to discussions by Palter (1972), Duncan (1984), Friedman (1989, 1992, and 1995), Brittan (1995), Westphal (1995), Carrier (2001), and Watkins (1997 and 1998b). Much of the modern tradition of scholarship used to regard Kant's laws of mechanics as derived from, or even identical with, Newton's three laws in the Principia. Watkins (1997; 1998b) showed that Kant's formulation and justification of his laws was strongly influenced by a philosophy of nature stemming from Leibniz not Newton. Stan (2013) further corroborated these findings. As a result, it is safe to say that Kant's foundations of mechanics were significantly shaped by post-Leibnizian rationalism too, not just Newton's mechanics. This fact is now reflected in Friedman (2013), the most recent and detailed account of Kant's interpretation of the conceptual foundations of mechanics. Stan (2014) examines the conceptual link between Kant's theory of matter and his laws of mechanics.
The final chapter of the Metaphysical Foundations, the Phenomenology, focuses on how the motion of matter can be experienced modally, that is, in terms of it being possibly, actually, or necessarily in motion. Its three Propositions specify (in accordance, Kant suggests, with the results of the three previous chapters) that (i) rectilinear motion is a merely possible predicate of matter, (ii) circular motion is an actual predicate of matter, and (iii) the equal and opposite motion of one matter with respect to another is a necessary motion of that matter. In the General Remark to the Phenomenology, Kant discusses the status of absolute space, which had been presupposed by the possible, actual, and necessary motions of matter at issue in the three main propositions, and explains that since it is not itself an object of experience, it must be represented by means of an idea of reason (in Kant's technical sense of “idea”, namely as a concept for which a corresponding object could never be given to us in intuition). Though we can never know absolute space, it nonetheless functions as a regulative principle that guides us in our scientific practice by forcing us to look for further conditions for the conditioned objects we meet with in experience. Kant's view that ideas of reason can function as regulative principles is developed in the Appendix to the Transcendental Dialectic in the Critique of Pure Reason.
Friedman's interpretation (1992) of the Phenomenology deserves special mention. According to him, in light of Kant's rejection of Newton's absolute space and time, he must give an account of the concept of true motion – as change of true place over time – presupposed by classical mechanics. To this end, Kant “views the laws of motion as definitive or constitutive of the spatio-temporal framework of Newtonian theory,” hence these laws “count as a priori” for him (p. 143). The reason Kant takes them as constitutive is the following. In Kant's Phenomenology, the three Newtonian laws define a concept of true motion: the true motions of bodies just are those that obey the dynamical laws. Moreover, the concept must be given “objective meaning in experience,” viz. measured empirically. To do so, Kant views Newton's three laws as holding primarily in a privileged system of reference, namely the center-of-mass (CM) frame of the system of the world, which the CM-frame of our Solar System approximates to a very good degree. Thus, by measuring the motions of bodies relative to this frame, we produce objective experience of these motions. However, this frame must first be located. To do so, Kant thinks, we must likewise count the law of universal gravitation as a priori, not empirical-inductive. If we know a priori that all bodies in the Solar System necessarily attract each other, from their observable, mutually-induced accelerations we can infer their masses. In turn, knowing their masses will enable us to locate the CM-frame of the system. (In a system of bodies, the center of mass is the point relative to which the bodies' distances are in inverse proportion to their masses.) With respect to this distinguished frame, the motions of bodies count as their true motions, Friedman claims. Hence, immediate and essential gravitation “cannot be straightforwardly obtained from our experience of matter and its motions – by some sort of inductive argument, say” – because universal gravitation is “necessarily presupposed in making an objective experience of matter and its motions possible in the first place” (pp. 157–158). However, the CM-frame of the Solar System is just approximately an inertial frame. Scientific inquiry must ultimately look beyond it, to better and better approximations of an inertial frame. And, Kant's absolute space is just the concept that directs our search for such approximations. More recently, Friedman updated and expanded his interpretation in (2013). In view of recent scholarship, Friedman has now made a convincing case that it is Kant's laws of mechanics – not Newton's three laws, as claimed in (1992) – that define the privileged frame (Kantian absolute space) relative to which bodies have true motions, in the Phenomenology.
Apart from Friedman's interpretation, there is relatively little secondary literature that discusses Kant's Phenomenology. Palter (1971) interprets Kant's doctrine of absolute space and motion in terms of transformation groups for Galilean kinematics. Carrier (1992) provides an alternative to Friedman's account of Kant on absolute space. Stan (forthcoming) is an alternative to Friedman's reading of Kant's doctrine of circular motion, and its relation to Newton's dynamics.
3. Physics: The Post-Critical Period (Opus postumum)
Kant's interest in physics continued after the publication of the Metaphysical Foundations, in fact, until the very end of his productive years. Though Kant never completed a manuscript that could be put forward as a publication, the various notes, sketches, and drafts on topics in physics that he was working on intensively during this time (especially after 1796) were gathered together over a century after his death and published as his so-called Opus postumum.
Despite the fragmentary nature of the Opus postumum, Kant makes it clear that it is designed to fill an important gap in his system. Just as the Metaphysical Foundations had attempted to connect the transcendental principles of the Critique of Pure Reason and the principles that explain how matter is possible, the Opus postumum undertakes the task of effecting a transition from the special metaphysics of nature contained in the Metaphysical Foundations to physics itself. However, Kant does not clarify adequately what systematic principles would guide this transition project, nor is it clear whether he takes the project to yield substantive principles or heuristic guidelines. On the one hand, in a note that stems from a period shortly after the publication of the Metaphysical Foundations, Kant suggests that one could “follow the clue given by the categories and bring into play the moving forces of matter according to their quantity, quality, relation, and modality” (21:311), a procedure that could be similar to that of the Metaphysical Foundations. On the other hand, if the Metaphysical Foundations already presupposes an empirical concept (namely matter), the transition to be carried out in the Opus postumum cannot be understood as moving from something non-empirical to something empirical. As Kant struggles with the problems that result from trying to account for now much more specific features of matter, it is unclear that (or how) the categories are supposed to be of help in structuring Kant's argument. Thus, the precise argumentative structure of the Opus postumum (i.e., its relationship to Kant's other works and its fundamental presuppositions) remains problematic. Equally problematic is the exact nature of Kant's transition project. Given his stated aim to account for specific features of matter—e.g., particular aggregation states, special forces—one would think that such contingent features are a problem for empirical science not philosophy, since Kant sees the latter as pursuing knowledge that is, in various senses, necessary.
Whatever its form, the content of the Opus postumum includes reflections on a series of important topics in physics. Three clusters are particularly noteworthy. (1) Kant develops more detailed views about a number of outstanding issues concerning matter theory that he had discussed (often in a tentative way) in the Metaphysical Foundations, such as fluidity, rigidity, cohesion, and the quantity of matter. (2) Kant argues for the existence of an all-encompassing ether. This might seem to be a natural development, since the Metaphysical Foundations was non-committal on the point, but what is surprising is that Kant thinks that the ether can be established a priori (e.g., 21:222), which might seem to conflict with Kant's project in the Critique of Pure Reason (or with his description of his position as “formal idealism,” 4:337). (3) Kant also explores the idea that the subject must posit itself in positing the various forces in matter, a doctrine that has come to be known as the Selbstsetzungslehre, and attempts to incorporate it into his views on how man is situated in between the world of experience and God, whose existence is a central requirement of morality.
The Opus postumum has long been a topic of interest especially insofar as it offers the hope of clarification and development of central issues in Kant's Critical philosophy. While much of the original literature focussing on it was in German (Adickes 1920, Hoppe 1969, Tuschling 1971, and, more recently, Blasche, 1991 and Emundts, 2004), it has received increased attention of late in English with discussions by Friedman (1992, chapter 5), Förster (2000), Edwards (2000), Guyer (2001), and Hall (2006, 2009).
Kant was interested not only in the inanimate bodies studied by physics, but also in living organisms, which he viewed as deserving of additional philosophical scrutiny due to their special status, for two reasons. First, the symmetries and regularities of their structure and workings make them “in the highest degree contingent” (5: 360) and “mechanically inexplicable.” Second, organisms come from their own kind; grow their own functional parts, or organs, and repair them if they become damaged; and do in general exhibit homeostasis. These facts about them prompt Kant to claim that an organism is “cause and effect of itself” (5: 370). In a sense, a living entity is self-caused, and indeed by a causality that we can grasp solely “under the idea of purposes as a principle” (5: 383). Organisms, in other words, are “natural purposes,” or naturally occurring ensembles of parts purposefully fitted and working in unity.
It is just these peculiarities that create philosophical challenges not met with in physics and chemistry. Kant tackles them in the latter half of his third magnum opus, the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). In particular, he claims that attempting to explain organisms creates an inevitable conflict within reflective judgment, the faculty we employ in empirical concept formation, taxonomic classification, and the explanatory unification of particular laws. Kant describes that conflict in the Antinomy of Teleological Judgment (CJ §§ 69–78; 5: 385–415). The Antinomy obtains between two regulative principles, herein prefixed by an ‘R’ to distinguish them from two similar constitutive principles that Kant briefly discusses in the same place:
All generation of material things and their forms must be judged as possible in accordance with merely mechanical laws.
Some products of material nature cannot be judged as possible according to merely mechanical laws (judging them requires an entirely different law of causality, namely that of final causality) (5: 387).
A great deal of scholarship has aimed to elucidate this antinomy, and in the last decade these interpretive efforts have gained new momentum (see also the entry “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology” in this encyclopedia). In particular, sustained attention has been given to three questions: In what sense are organisms inexplicable mechanically, for Kant? What exactly is the contradiction that generates the Antinomy? And precisely how does Kant solve it?
First, clarification is needed about Kant’s claim that organisms cannot be explained ‘mechanically.’ In the Enlightenment, ‘mechanical’ was used in at least two senses: broadly, to denote explanation by physico-chemical laws of efficient causation; and narrowly, restricted to the theory of ‘compound machines,’ or assemblies of movable parts used to displace loads or transfer momentum, e.g. engines and watches. McLaughlin (1990) takes Kant to mean ‘mechanical’ in this latter sense. In artificial machines, parts precede the whole temporally, and determine it: the machine’s configuration results from summation over the parts; and its laws of operation are the same as those governing the parts. But organisms are different: the whole precedes its parts, or organs; and it has functions and aim-directed behaviors not present in them. Hence, organisms are mechanically inexplicable. Ginsborg (2004) construes Kant’s claim along different lines, in two senses. According to one, to explain something mechanically is to show that its production results, or would result, from the “unaided powers of matter as such,” i.e. Newtonian forces of attraction and repulsion, and “crude unorganized matter,” or arbitrary initial conditions such as masses, charges, configurations and motions. Organisms are inexplicable in this sense because their arising would be “in the highest degree contingent.” This is the notion operative in the Antinomy of Teleological Judgment, Ginsborg contends. But, she has argued, there is a second, stronger sense. Not only are organisms inexplicable by reduction to the structure and powers of their organs—rather, their symmetries and regularities and powers are not explicable from the “moving forces” of their inorganic particles either. Organism-level powers are not vector sums or integrals of physico-chemical forces that accelerate or reconfigure sub-visible particles.
Second, interpreters have also scrutinized the exact nature of the Antinomy. Insofar as the thesis and the antithesis are regulative principles, they may be seen as research policies, and those can be pursued separately, at different times, hence with no contradiction. Then why are they antinomic? Watkins (2009, § 2.2) explains that the two theses do not just recommend explanatory policies but express commitments to judging in a determinate way about biological phenomena. As such, they would be contradictory commitments: to judge organisms purely mechanistically and to judge them non-mechanistically. Teufel (2011) reads the two theses as hypothetical imperatives, imposed upon reflective judgment by practical reason. The Antinomy ensues, he contends, because they demand contradictory courses of cognitive conduct: to judge that mechanistic laws suffice to explain organisms and that they are insufficient for that task.
Moreover, for each antinomy in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant derives both thesis and antithesis by deductive argument from alleged a priori premises. But, in the Antinomy of Teleological Judgment, he does not take that route. This makes quite pressing the question of his justification for the two R-claims above. As to the R-thesis, one might think that it can be easily deduced from Kant’s three Laws of Mechanics. However, we must remember that those laws are constitutive principles, whereas the R-thesis is regulative. A better interpretive avenue is that Kant’s three laws constrain the spectrum of particular empirical laws, including laws for biology, that scientists may seek. The constraint is that the Laws of Mechanics are basic: no other laws of material nature explain or ground them, while they must explain all other laws, directly or indirectly. So, for biological regularities to be turned into genuine laws, they must be integrable with the system of already known mechanical laws, and ultimately explained by the three Laws of Mechanics, the basis for all “interconnected experiential cognition” (5: 386). Even less well understood is Kant’s justification for the R-antithesis. Not only is there no official proof, it is not easy to know what the proof must establish. The R-thesis strongly implies that at issue is the origin of organisms; in contrast, the R-antithesis is about judging their possibility, which has to do with structure and functioning not production (Ginsborg 2001, 236). These are different aspects of organisms, and proving that they are mechanically inexplicable would require different arguments.
Third, Kant’s solution to the Antinomy has received sustained attention. In the first two Critiques, his general approach is to argue, for each antinomy, that both thesis and antithesis presuppose Transcendental Realism, insofar as they make claims about things in themselves; and to adduce Transcendental Idealism as the vantage point from which the initial contradiction is solved. However, that is not Kant’s approach to the Antinomy of Teleological Judgment. Accordingly, interpreters have sought to reconstruct a different solution on Kant’s behalf. Quarfood (2004) and Förster (2008) take the notion of an intuitive understanding (expounded at 5: 401–10) as the key to Kant’s answer. In particular, Förster explains, intellects like ours are discursive: they grasp objects through concepts as ‘parts’ assembled in temporally-extended judgments, and so mechanistically, he alleges. Hence, we need the concept ‘purpose’ to judge organisms solely because we have discursive intellects. However, an intuitive understanding could grasp organisms without purpose-concepts and regulative principles about judging teleologically. Hence, for this understanding, the R-thesis and R-antithesis need not be true, and so no antinomy arises. Breitenbach (2008) contends that the Antinomy is solved, or rather dissolved, if we note that thesis and antithesis are not really contradictory but complementary. They govern (reflecting) acts of judging in different contexts: the mechanistic R-thesis regulates explanatory conduct in empirical biology, whereas the R-antithesis governs ordinary judging about living nature as experienced in everyday, pre-theoretical encounters with it. The two principles epitomize “two different views on nature,” and are compossible (466). They just appear to be in contradiction; in fact, they complement each other, indispensably. McLaughlin (1990) submits that the Antinomy does not arise simpliciter but only under a special assumption, viz. that everything in nature is objectively explainable by us (162). Reject the assumption, and the contradiction vanishes, insofar as the R-thesis and the R-antithesis can both be true, but for different domains: the former holds for phenomena explainable by us, the latter for phenomena not so explainable. McLaughlin does not offer a general criterion for ‘explicability by us’ attributable to Kant, however, apart from mechanical explicability. Ginsborg (2008) focuses on how the contradiction might be resolved in the context of scientific investigation rather than in abstract, general philosophical terms. Building on Kant’s remark about subordinating mechanism to teleology (5: 414), Ginsborg contends that natural historians and physiologists may well explain the origin and workings of organisms ‘mechanistically,’ purely by physico-chemical laws, provided they apply them not to “crude” but to “organized” matter, i.e. organic stuff already endowed with a “formative drive,” a generic disposition to grow, reproduce and self-maintain. In turn, this organized matter itself is unintelligible without appeal to purpose and design terms. Thus, biologists ‘subordinate’ mechanism to teleology, and so the antinomic conflict between them is removed.
While these interpretive proposals collectively advance our understanding of how the Antinomy might be defused, each has its share of philosophical difficulties, as spelled out in Watkins (2009). Moreover, few of these construals heed close to Kant’s words, which suggest strongly that his solution relies indispensably on a “supersensible ground” (5: 413), or explanatory principle located in the noumenal world. That ground could unite both mechanism and teleology, by making both antinomic theses jointly derivable or explainable from it. However, since humans can have “no positive determinate” knowledge of any supersensible entity, the Antinomy is solvable in principle rather than solved in fact. Kant (at least in his official solution) does not seem to provide the details for an actual account of how the conflict at the heart of biological explanation is removed. The limitations that beset our understanding of Kant’s philosophy of biology so far, some of which we have expounded above, continue to drive interpretive efforts to cast more light on that part of his doctrine, as exemplified in Goy and Watkins (forthcoming).
In addition to the works mentioned above, Kant’s Antinomy of Teleological Judgment has been usefully discussed in Allison (1991), Cohen (2004), Ginsborg (2001), Kreines (2005), Steigerwald (2006), Zanetti (1993) and Zumbach (1984); see also the entry “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology” in this encyclopedia.
In the Preface to the Metaphysical Foundations Kant claims that chemistry, at least as he understood it in 1786, was not science “proper”, but such a claim leaves open the possibility that chemistry could be fully scientific in some other sense or that, with time, it could develop into science proper. Up through 1787, Kant accepted the fundamental tenets of Stahl's chemical theory, according to which water and air are fundamental elements that function as vehicles for change in both inflammable and “earthy” substances, and he commented on particular issues in chemistry in his various physics lectures. As a result, it is clear that Kant considers chemistry to be a science in some sense even during the Critical period. However, beginning in the mid-1780s (and extending through the mid to late 1790s), Kant becomes aware of significant new developments in chemistry (as evidenced in the Danziger Physik and documented in Lichtenberg's revised, third edition of Erxleben's Anfangsgründe der Naturlehre from which Kant lectured). In particular, Kant comes to reject Stahl's theory, favoring Lavoisier's anti-phlogistic account of combustion and calcination, which relied on his doctrines of latent heat and the caloric theory of the states of aggregation. While Kant never explicitly claims that chemistry, so understood, can be considered science proper, Kant's interest in these issues in the Opus postumum suggests that he was optimistic about providing the kind of foundation that would be required for it to attain this status.
Kant's views on chemistry have not been widely discussed in the secondary literature. However, outstanding discussions of Kant's views on the topic can be found in Carrier (1990, 2001) and Friedman (1992, chapter 5, III). Lequan (2000) is a philosophical survey of Kant's thought on chemistry throughout his development. McNulty (forthcoming) explains why Kant takes chemistry to miss the threshold for proper science – specifically, the sense in which chemistry is not mathematizable, in Kant's view.
Kant's views on psychology are intimately bound up with his more general position in the philosophy of mind. (See the separate entry on this topic.) Still, one can take note of the fact that Kant distinguishes between rational and empirical psychology and, in the Critique of Pure Reason's Paralogisms, denies that rational psychology contains arguments that could justify any substantive principles (especially concerning our immortality). Thus, only empirical psychology, it seems, could be possible as a science. However, if Kant continues to maintain that science requires a pure part, and denies that rational psychology contains any substantive knowledge that might constitute the pure part of psychology, then it follows that empirical psychology cannot qualify as science proper either.
At the same time, Kant's own project in the Critique of Pure Reason requires what one might call transcendental psychology, that is, the study of those faculties that are required for us to have cognition. Transcendental psychology thus differs from rational psychology insofar as the former presupposes that we have experience (albeit of a very general sort), whereas the latter is restricted to the mere concept “I think”. Thus, it would seem that many of Kant's most important claims in the Critique of Pure Reason would fall under the domain of transcendental psychology. As is well known, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason came under attack immediately after its publication (most notably by Johann Georg Hamann) for not presenting an explicit account of how we obtain knowledge of our transcendental faculties.
Just as Kant held that chemistry could either be scientific in less than the strictest sense or perhaps become science proper (depending on how it develops), the same could be said for psychology. For one, Kant may simply be objecting to psychology as it was practiced in the 18th century, e.g., as based on introspection (a method that both rules out the application of mathematics and gives rise to other difficulties, 4:471). Further, in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant holds that although objects can never be given in intuition that would correspond to ideas of reason, such ideas never the less function as regulative principles that direct our understanding with regard to what it should inquire into next. Thus, our idea of the world as a totality is supposed to drive us to look for smaller and smaller parts to bodies and objects in further regions of space and at earlier moments of time. But if we have an idea of our soul, then it too should guide our scientific inquiry into our own representations, which seems to imply that psychology is a legitimate scientific practice (even if it does ultimately fall short of being science proper).
Unsurprisingly, Kant influenced empirical theory in early 19th-century Germany. (However, it was his transcendental psychology in the Critique of Pure Reason, not his views on empirical psychology, that proved to be most influential.) In particular, his doctrine of space and time as forms of sensibility was given a naturalistic construal in the physiology and psychology of perception. Since for Kant an a priori form of intuition need not be innate, it could unfold in the course of sensory experience. This led J.G. Steinbuch (1811) and C. Th. Tourtual (1827) to investigate empirically how spatial representation arises – specifically, how particular subjects become able to see things as arrayed in space, perceive objects as three-dimensional, and represent spatial structures more generally. Hatfield (1990, Chapter 4) surveys these post-Kantian developments in more detail.
Kitcher (1990) presents a detailed argument for the role of transcendental psychology within Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Sturm (2001) argues that Kant's critical comments about psychology are primarily directed against introspection-based conceptions of psychology. Hatfield (1990) is an acute discussion of the complexities of psychology as a science in Kant's view.
7. Other Sciences: History, Physical Geography, and Anthropology
Though Kant is sometimes quite strict about what qualifies as science “proper,” we have seen that he clearly accepts that other disciplines, such as chemistry and psychology, can be scientific in some other sense. (Kant is also extremely interested in providing an explanation of the nature and origin of organisms, which is central to an account of biology. For a more detailed description of Kant's stance on biology, see the entry on his views on aesthetics and teleology.) However, his explicit reflections about science (taken broadly so as to encompass not only “Wissenschaft” but any kind of “Lehre” or “Kunde”) extend even further so as to include bodies of cognition such as history, physical geography, and anthropology. (Even in the Metaphysical Foundations Kant leaves room for such “scientific cognition” by dividing the doctrine of nature into natural science — e.g., physics — and the historical doctrine of nature, which is separated further into natural description and natural history, 4:468). In the case of historical sciences, Kant views its cognitions as related not by subordination (as is the case in physics), but rather by coordination, since historical facts cannot be derived from each other, but rather merely related to each other in space (geographically) and time (chronologically). Kant views anthropology as overlapping to some extent in subject matter with empirical psychology. What enables the coordination of facts in each of these domains is not a theoretical, but rather a practical idea. In the case of history, it is the idea of reason (or freedom) that provides a guiding principle of coordination (cf. Kant's “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View”), while anthropology is framed by the cosmopolitan moral ideal of the world-best. Thus, it is clear that Kant's emphasis on physics throughout his career did not blind him to the value of other sciences, nor did it keep him from reflecting creatively on how best to account for them from the perspective of his Critical philosophy.
Kant's views on history are discussed by Yovel (1980) and, more recently, Kleingeld (1995 and 1999). Kant's Physical Geography has been discussed by Adickes (1911). Brandt (1999), Wood (1999), and Makkreel (2001) have recently published important discussions of Kant's anthropology. Sturm (2009) is a comprehensive monograph on Kant's philosophy of psychology and anthropology.
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- Ginsborg, H., 2001, “Kant on Understanding Organisms as Natural Purposes,” Kant and the Sciences, E. Watkins (ed.), 231–58, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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- Hatfield, G., 1990, The natural and the normative: theories of spatial perception from Kant to Helmholtz, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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If one is a psychologist or even has a passing interest in the field, one has likely encountered the question about whether psychology is truly a science or not. The debate has been prominent since psychology’s inception in the second half of the nineteenth century, and is evident in comments like that by William James who referred to it as “that nasty little subject”. Scholars of the field know this debate has continued on and off, right up through the present day. The debate flared in the blogosphere a couple of years ago, after an op-ed piece by a microbiologist in the LA Times declared definitively that psychology was not a science, followed by several pieces in Psychology Today and Scientific American declaring definitively that psychology is, in fact, a science. Just last month a long time scholar of the field authored the paper, Why Psychology Cannot Be an Empirical Science, and once again the blogosphere was debating the issue.
So what is the right answer? Is psychology a science or not? The answer is that it is complicated and the reason is that both science and psychology are complex, multifaceted constructs. As such, binary, blanket “yes” or “no” answers to the question fail. The answer I offer is that yes, it is largely a science, but there are important ways that it fails to live up to this description. To get a handle on why this is the right answer, let’s start with the construct of science, because if we are going to talk about the ways in which psychology is or is not a science, we had better have an idea of what we mean by both of these confusing terms.
Defining Science and Its Key Elements
For clarity of communication, it is often a good idea to start with some basic definitions, so let’s start with some generally agreed upon definitions of science from reputable organizations.
Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.
Science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge [based on] observation and experimentation to describe and explain natural phenomena.
These are solid definitions, but we need to flesh them out a bit. I consider science to be made up of four elements: 1) the scientific mindset; 2) the scientific method; 3) the knowledge system of science and 4) science as a rhetorical label. The first three are fairly straightforward and the fourth is particularly relevant for this debate and debates like it (i.e., involving what does or does not get classified as a science). These elements are crucial to understanding the ways in which psychology is and is not a science.
The first point to make is that the scientific mindset involves a set of assumptions about causality and complexity and how an observer can know things about the way the world works (technically, this is called a scientific epistemology). When one is thinking scientifically, one assumes that the natural world is a closed system that follows cause-effect processes that are lawful and discoverable (i.e., that there is no supernatural interference). The scientific mindset also includes the following characteristics: emphasis on empirical evidence (i.e., data collection) to develop explanations; attitudes of openness to possible (natural) explanations and a skepticism about tradition, revelation and authority; an emphasis on objectivity (i.e., independent from the bias of the observer); an emphasis on logical coherence; and the belief that humans can build systems of knowledge that do, in fact, correspond to the way the world actually works.
Another defining feather of science is its reliance on systematic methods of data collection and critical analyses of the ideas of science. These are the methods that students learn about when they are introduced to “doing science”, and include elements such as systematic observation, measurement and quantification, data gathering, hypothesis testing, controlled experimentation (where possible), and theory construction.
Although the scientific method is often touted as the sin qua non of science, it is not. Indeed, if science were solely a method, then it would not be all that valuable, a point that is sometimes lost on empiricists enamored with the scientific method. Thus, it is crucial to keep in mind that the scientific method is not an end unto itself, but rather is a means to an end. The ultimate desired product of the method is a cumulative body of knowledge that offers an approximate description of how the world works. In concrete terms, this refers to the body of peer reviewed journals, textbooks, and academic courses and domains of inquiry. Ideally, the body of knowledge will have a center that is consensually agreed upon (e.g., the Periodic Table in chemistry) and peripheral domains that represent the edges of scientific inquiry and where one will find much debate, innovation, and differences of the opinion.
A final element that is particularly relevant in this context is that the term science has much rhetorical value in our culture. If something falls under the heading “science” then it is justified in receiving respect in the knowledge that it offers. Indeed, it is the “justifiability” argument that is at play in many of the debates about whether psychology warrants the title. For example, Alex Bezerow’s op-ed piece on Why Psychology Isn’t a Science explicitly hits on this issue:
The dismissive attitude scientists have toward psychologists isn't rooted in snobbery; it's rooted in intellectual frustration. It's rooted in the failure of psychologists to acknowledge that they don't have the same claim on secular truth that the hard sciences do. It's rooted in the tired exasperation that scientists feel when non-scientists try to pretend they are scientists.
Thus for Bezerow, (real) scientists dismiss psychologists because they are rightfully defending their turf. In contrast, defenders of psychology as science have told haters to “shut up already” about psychology not being a science because, although messy, psychology clearly has the “chops” to warrant the term.
Defining Psychology as a Science
Let’s turn from defining science to defining psychology. In what follows, I will be referring to psychology as it is presented in the academy, such as in Psych 101 textbooks. I mention this because it is different than the psychology that many people have in mind when they hear the term, which is the professional they might go see to talk with about their personal problems (note, the profession and practice of psychology is a whole separate issue).
There can be little doubt that academic psychology values and aspires to be a science, views itself as a science and, in many ways, looks and acts like a science. For starters, virtually every definition of psychology from every major group of psychologists define the field as a science. In addition, academic psychologists have long adopted the scientific mindset when it comes to their subject matter and have long employed scientific methods. Indeed, the official birth of psychology (Wundt’s lab) was characterized by virtue of the fact that it employed the methods of science (i.e., systematic observation, measurement, hypothesis testing, etc.) to understanding human conscious experience. And to this day, training in academic psychology is largely defined by training in the scientific method, measurement and data gathering, research design, and advanced statistical techniques, such as structural equation modeling, meta-analyses, and hierarchical linear regression. Individuals get their PhD in academic psychology by conducting systematic research and, if they want a career in the academy, they need to publish in peer reviewed journals and often need to have a program of (fundable) research. To see how much the identity of a scientist is emphasized, consider that a major psychological organization (APS) profiles its members, ending with the catch phrase “and I am a psychological scientist!” Indeed, mainstream academic psychologists are so focused on empirical data collection and research methods that I have accused them of being “methodological fundamentalists”, meaning that they often act as if the only questions that are worthy of attention in the field are reducible to empirical methods.
In sum, academic psychology looks like a scientific discipline and it has a home in the academy largely as a science, and psychologists very much behave like scientists and employ the scientific method to answer their questions. So, at this level, it seems like a pretty closed case. If something looks like a science and acts like a science, then it likely should be considered a science. But we are not quite done with the debate because the question remains: If all these things are true, then what is the problem? Why are there still so many skeptics? And why has psychology had such a long period of critics both inside and outside the discipline claiming that there is a “crisis” at the core of our field?
How Psychology Fails as a Science
From where I sit, the reasons for the skepticism are very clear. And it is NOT found in the methods nor the mindsets of psychologists, both of which are “scientific”. Nor is the primary problem found in the fact that what psychologists study can be very difficult to measure, nor is it because people are too complicated, nor because humans make choices, nor because it involves consciousness. Nor is it because psychology is a young science (note that this is a myth—there are many ‘real’ sciences that are much younger than psychology). These are all red herrings to the “Is psychology a science?” debate.
The reason many are rightfully skeptical about its status is found in the body of scientific knowledge—psychology has failed to produce a cumulative body of knowledge that has a clear conceptual core that is consensually agreed upon by mainstream psychological experts. The great scholar of the field, Paul Meehl, captured this perfectly when he proclaimed that the sad fact that in psychology:
theories rise and decline, come and go, more as a function of baffled boredom than anything else; and the enterprise shows a disturbing absence of that cumulative character that is so impressive in disciplines like astronomy, molecular biology and genetics.
Another great scholar of the field, Kenneth Gergen, likened acquiring psychological knowledge to building castles in the sand; the information gained from our methods might be impressive, but it is temporary, contextual, and socially dependent, and will be washed away when new cultural tides come in. Even mainstream icons, like Daniel Gilbert, readily acknowledge the cumulative knowledge problem. In this clip, he comments that one of psychology's big problems is that new paradigms simply “throw the babies out with the bathwater” and he wonders whether psychology as we know it will even be around in 10 or 15 years.
In technical terms, I am claiming that the core problem with the field is that it is “pre-paradigmatic”, which means that psychology completely lacks agreement from the experts about what it is and what it is about, what its foundational theories or even frameworks are, what its key findings are, and how it fits with the rest of the body of scientific knowledge. The fact that psychology has been around now for almost a 150 years and remains pre-paradigmatic is undeniably a very serious threat to the field's status as a real science.
To understand what paradigmatic science looks like, study Isaac Newton. Newton created a paradigm for understanding matter in motion that stands as a pinnacle of real scientific achievement. He mapped the behavior of objects in motion onto a new mathematics (calculus). Of course, those who know science know that Newton’s ideas were overturned at the beginning of the 20th Century, and his single paradigm was replaced by two paradigms, quantum mechanics and general relativity. But physics remains paradigmatic in the sense that these two paradigms are pillars that mainstream physicists agree on as providing us knowledge about how the world actually works. Likewise, chemistry is paradigmatic in that it has the Periodic Table and the laws of molecular forces to describe how matter changes chemically. Biology has cell theory, natural selection, and genetics, which together give it a foundational paradigm to describe living matter. Moreover, these broad domains of inquiry create a broad consilient (i.e., coherent) network of explanation that gives us knowledge of energy, matter, and life that is clearly worthy of the term "scientific".
Now, let’s shift and focus on psychology. In deep contrast to the broad disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology, psychology has no consensually agreed upon definition. Its most common definition, ‘the science of mind and behavior’ carries with it a deep dualism that is fundamentally unresolved by the competing paradigms of behaviorism and cognitivism (among others). Likewise, the field of psychology is completely unclear as to whether it deals in animals in general, with some animals (e.g., social mammals) in particular, or with humans only. Pick up any textbook or skim any basic intro to the field and what you get is a summary of major, competing, incommensurate models/paradigms that spell out a mushy territory between biology and human society. In addition, the start of the field begins with a review of major approaches that all have merit, such as behaviorism, cognitivism, humanism, psychoanalysis, evolutionary and cultural approaches (not to mention purely physiological or nonwestern approaches), all of which are different and competing angles on the subject matter, however that is defined.
When this paradigmatic mess is then combined with other problems people point out, such as how complicated animals/humans are, the problems of consciousness, the problems of human science that blend objective and subjective, the problems of the role of science in culture (and on and on), the confusion becomes overwhelming.
But we are not quite done because the problems of consensual knowledge grow ever deeper when we consider how psychology is currently structured. The combination of: (a) psychology being separated from philosophy by its scientific methods; (b) the failure of the major historical paradigms to achieve consensual clarity; and (c) the fact that many psychologists anxiously try to defend against claim they are not a real science by doubling down on data collection has given rise to a massive empiricism within psychology. That is, mainstream psychologists are almost obsessed with data and data collection. With few exceptions, for a psychologist to make a name for herself, she needs a program of research, a method of data collection, a way of scientifically cutting through folk understanding via operationalization, measurement and data analysis to achieve evidence for one’s perspective.
Why is this a problem? Because the mainstream is confused about where exactly the deep scientific problem within the field lies. To understand where the problem is, it is helpful to reference the well-known DIKW knowledge hierarchy, which shows that data and information are the base levels, which are then organized into knowledge systems (and, hopefully, ultimately wisdom).
What mainstream psychologists generally fail to realize is that the fundamental problem of psychology exists at the level of Knowledge and Wisdom, NOT at the levels of data and information. Unfortunately, the reward structures and existing justification systems are all about data gathering and information (i.e., the never ending call for more research). Unfortunately, religiously following the scientific method per se does not yield knowledge. It only yields data and information. From the vantage point offered here, there is no shortage of data and information—we already have an abundance of data and information. And certainly, no study is going to resolve the problems. Instead, the problems exist and have existed for more than a century at the level of knowledge—we can't even define what our field is about. Thus, the reason psychology fails to be a science is because it fails as a coherent system of knowledge that maps the relevant portion of the world. To see this obvious fact, ask 10 different psychologists the portion of the world they are trying to map when they use the term psychology and you will get 10 different answers. If you can’t even define the territory, you can’t develop consensual knowledge about it.
The Bottom Line
Is psychology a science? Yes, in the sense that psychology was defined by the application of scientific method(s) and psychologists conduct valuable research and have developed some key insights into animal behavior, cognition, consciousness, and the human condition. But a key feature of real scientific knowledge is that there is a clear, consensual center that provides a foothold to describe how (portions of) the world actually work. And it is here that psychology falls down in ways that physics, chemistry and biology do not. And it is in that sense that psychology is not a real science.