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Immanuel Kant was a virtual titan of philosophy, with an absolutely enormous influence upon subsequent philosophy and theology. This is no doubt due to his great insight and raw philosophical power; it is perhaps also due to the grave hermeneutical difficulties that attend study of his work. The British philosopher David Hume writes with a certain surface clarity that disappointingly disappears on closer inspection. With Kant, there is good news and bad news: the good news is that we don’t suffer that disappointment; the bad news is that it’s because there isn’t any surface clarity to begin with. We can’t turn to a settled interpretation of Kant to see whether he showed or even held that our concepts don’t apply to God; there is no settled interpretation.

The first thing to note, however, is that Kant often writes as if we can perfectly well refer to God. In the Critique of Practical Reason and elsewhere (Religion within the Boundary of Pure Reason; Lectures on Philosophical Theology), Kant regularly seems to refer to God and clearly takes himself to be doing exactly that. Even in the Critique of Pure Reason, his work most heavily influential in this skeptical direction, Kant often seems to suggest that we can indeed refer to and think about God. He often seems to suggest that the problem is not that we can’t think about God but that we can’t come to speculative or metaphysical knowledge of God. His aim in this Critique, he says, is to curb knowledge in order to make room for faith.1616   Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), Preface to second edition, Bxxx, p. 29: “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith“ (Kant’s emphasis). The faith in question, presumably, is like that expressed in the Critique of Practical Reason and elsewhere; it would certainly involve referring to God and taking his existence and attributes as a postulate of practical reason, a presupposition of the reality and seriousness of the moral life. Indeed, some who understand him this way believe that Kant was himself a theist, holding that the things in themselves are just things as they appear to God, that is, things as they really are.1717   See Merold Westphal, “In Defense of the Thing in Itself,” Kant-Studien 59/1 (1968), pp. 118ff. Of course if this way of thinking about Kant is correct, then on his view it is perfectly possible to refer to God; if that is possible, it is also possible to ascribe properties and attributes to him; and if that is possible, then our concepts do, indeed, apply to him. For example, the negative concepts not being in space and time and not being dependent on human beings for his existence would thus apply to him. Further, on this understanding of 10Kant, such positive concepts as having knowledge and having power would apply to God, as would having created the world. On this understanding, it would be an error to suppose that Kant showed that our concepts can’t apply to God—unless one were prepared to hold that Kant showed this but failed to notice that he did, thus mistakenly taking himself to be referring to that to which he himself showed it was not possible to refer. This latter is, of course, a possibility, although it would require an unusually high level of absentmindedness.

Still, the idea that according to Kant our concepts couldn’t apply to God is no mere fabrication, no merely thoughtless misunderstanding—or, more exactly, if it is a misunderstanding, it is one with considerable basis in the Kantian text. There is much in the Critique of Pure Reason to suggest this or something like it; at any rate, there is much to suggest that the categories of the understanding, which are concepts of the first importance, do not apply to the things in themselves (and thus not to God). For example:

If, therefore, we should attempt to apply the categories to objects which are not viewed as being appearances, we should have to postulate an intuition other than the sensible, and the object would thus be a noumenon in the positive sense. Since, however, such a type of intuition, intellectual intuition, forms no part whatsoever of our faculty of knowledge, it follows that the employment of the categories can never extend further than to the objects of experience. (A353, B309, Kant’s emphasis)

Here and elsewhere, Kant suggests that the categories of the understanding do not apply beyond the realm of appearance, the world of phenomena. (“Suggests,” I say; these passages, like all the others, contain more than a hint of possible ambiguity.) But if those categories do not apply to the noumena, the Dinge an sich, then perhaps the same goes for the rest of our concepts. And if our concepts do not apply beyond the world of experience, the world of appearance, then they do not apply to God, who, of course, would be a noumenon in excelsis. So the claim would be that Kant shows or believes (at any rate in the Critique of Pure Reason) that our concepts do not apply to God, in which case we cannot refer to or think about him.

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