Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’

Describe Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’ and explain (and outline) how he hopes it will give rise to synthetic apriori knowledge. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason [1781] was birthed out of the Leibnizian-Wolff tradition. He rejected this tradition due to a dislike of the principles of Sufficient Reason and Non-Contradiction. Although much of the Critique can be read as a spirited attack on this tradition, Kant’s real catalyst for the writing the Critique was the empiricist David Hume, and the way one reads the Critique is informed by the awareness of the Critique as a duel attack.
The creation of the ‘synthetic a priori’ and the ‘Copernican Revolution’ that gave rise to it are both conversant of this attack. This essay aims to outline and defend how the ‘Copernican Revolution’ evolved and how this ‘metaphysical revolution’ formed the concept of the ‘synthetic a priori’. In the Preface to the Critique Kant describes metaphysics as once being the ‘queen of all sciences’ (A ix). Yet, despite this, he argues that reason in metaphysics fails to have the stability of mathematics or natural science.
The conflict of Newtonian science with Leibnizian metaphysics, rationalism with empiricism, and natural science with morality and religion, are all instances of metaphysics as a ‘battle ground’ (Gardner 1999: 20). Kant argues that: “If the various participants are unable to agree in any common plan of procedure, then we may rest assured that it is very far from having entered upon the secure path of a science, and is indeed a merely random groping” (B vii).

For Kant, the natural sciences and mathematics are in contrast to metaphysics because the former have undergone a peculiar process of stability. Kant adheres to a ‘Maker’s Knowledge Thesis’, which argues that a subject has supreme (a priori) knowledge of an object, if they are the maker of that object or able to reproduce it. Thus, maths has a priori status because we can construct mathematical objects ourselves. He affects to reproduce an analogous revolution in metaphysics.
At…Kant gives his ‘Copernican Revolution’ of metaphysics: “Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge.
This would agree better with what is desired, namely, that it should be possible to have knowledge of objects a priori, determining something in regard to them prior to their being given” (B xvi). The ‘Copernican Revolution’ attempts a compromise between the optimistic Leibnizian realists, who argue that we can have objective (a priori) knowledge of the external world through the Principle of Sufficient Reason and the Humean sceptics, who argue that we can have no knowledge beyond immediate experience.
By a ‘Copernican Revolution’, Kant intends a complete overhaul of what has previously been taken as objective fact: like Copernicus explained the ‘objective’ movement of the sun by the subjective movement of the observer on earth, Kant explains our knowledge of ‘objective’ external objects in terms of our subjective modes of cognition (Gardener 1999: 42). On the ‘Maker’s Knowledge Thesis’, for an agent to have a priori metaphysical knowledge, they must have at least partially formed a sum of that knowledge.
Kant claims that this is achieved by the input of our cognitive faculties on what we observe. Some critics question how Kant’s ‘revolution’ does not merely collapse into an account of Berkeley’s mind-dependence, that we ‘create’ the external objects in our own minds (Gardener 1999: 43). But Kant is not idealist in the way that Berkeley is, to say that the subject ‘forms’ the object by the modes of their cognition, is not to say that objects are the creation of our representations.
Kant does hold that there are objective external objects in the world, he merely denies that we can know them as such. He makes a distinction between objects as they appear to us and objects as they are in themselves. Locke makes a similar distinction between what he called the ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he argued that the secondary qualities such as an object’s colour, smell etc. is fundamentally different from their ‘primary’ qualities such as their size or extension.
The secondary qualities are things that can be known by the observer, but not as a property of the thing in its self, whereas primary qualities are independent of whoever is observing them, and are properties of the thing as it is in itself. Kant’s distinction is even more limited insofar as he does not think that any of the properties Locke describes as ‘primary’ are properties of an object in its self. He believes that all we can know of an object in its self is that it exists. If the fact that an object exists is all that we could ever know of an object in itself, then a rationalist perspective would hold that this s all we can ever know of that object (full stop) because they believe that knowledge conforms to the object. However, because Kant believes that the object conforms to knowledge, he also believes that we can know other things about the object through the faculties of our cognition. We can never have knowledge of a thing its self because we cannot have ‘Maker’s Knowledge’ of such a thing, but we can have ‘Maker’s knowledge’ of a thing as it appears to us because we ‘form’ these appearances with our own cognition. These are what Kant terms ‘synthetic a priori’ judgements.
Kant distinguishes “cognitions a priori… from empirical ones, which have their sources a posteriori, namely in experience” (Guyer 2006: 45). An analytic judgment is one in which “the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is contained in this concept A” (Guyer 2006: 46). They are concepts known through identity, such as ‘All bachelors are married men’. By contrast, synthetic judgements are those in which “the predicate B lies entirely outside the concept A, although to be sure it stands in connection with it” (ibid).
Championed by Hume, the orthodox view of the time was that while analytic judgements can be known a priori, given the fact that they can be immediately experienced and understood if you can understand the composite meaning of the proposition, synthetic judgements could only ever be understood a posteriori. A posteriori cognitions are merely based on the experience of an object and a synthetic judgement such as ‘this macbook is white’ can only ever be known by looking at the object (macbook) and a posteriori judging it to have a certain property (whiteness).
Kant disagreed with this Humean reasoning, and while he accepted that there could not be an analytic a posteriori, he did think that there could be synthetic a priori cognitions. Kant blames the instability of metaphysics on the fact that the possibility of ‘synthetic a priori’ judgments has never been considered. In the Preface of the Critique Kant argues that the ‘real’ problem of pure reason is “contained in the question: How are synthetic judgements a priori possible? ” (Gardener 1999). He makes an initial concession to the empiricists insofar as all knowledge necessarily ‘begins with’ experience.
However, he argues that from this it does not necessarily follow that all of our knowledge be derived from such experience (it may, conversely, be derived a priori) (Gardener 1999: 53). Kant argues in the Introduction of the Critique that “if we find a proposition such that in thinking it we think at the same time its necessity, then it is an a priori judgment; and if, in addition, it is not derived from any proposition except one that itself has the validity of a necessary proposition, then it is absolutely a priori” (B3).
Kant presupposes that we have this kind of knowledge: we have a priori knowledge of mathematical objects, and the principle of causation has ‘strict universality’ (Gardener 1999: 53). However, Kant does not regard these as analytic. Instead, Guyer argues that “[f]or Kant, all the fundamental propositions of philosophy as well as the contents of pure mathematics and even the basic principles of natural science are nothing less than synthetic a priori cognitions” (Guyer 2006: 47).
Kant argues that the term ‘synthetic’, when applied to judgments, “has a double sense of connecting a predicate with a concept in which it is not contained, and of presupposing a corresponding act of synthesis or putting together on the part of the subject” (Gardener 1999: 55). This is the act of ‘transcendental synthesis’. This process is significant when considering the a priori. Kant argues that although some concepts are indeed analytical, such as ‘all bachelors are married men’, concepts such as ‘every cause has an effect’ are not.
Such concepts are a priori by virtue of being necessary, but they are also synthetic because they intend to add something to the sum of human knowledge. According to Kant, any informative concept must also be synthetic (Gardener 1999: 56). Because of this, Rawls advances two analytically distinct criteria for analyticity: a judgement is analytic if (1) Its truth can be determined on the basis of conceptual considerations or the meaning of its composite terms; (2) “if it is self-evidently true rather than such as to extend our knowledge” (Gardener 1999: 61).
These criteria have lead critics to argue that Kant confuses two different versions of the analytic/synthetic distinction; the first definition of analyticity encompasses what Kant calls ‘synthetic a priori’ because they would be true for conceptual reasons. However, These critics fail to give an account of how conceptual considerations are intended to extend knowledge the way that the synthetic a priori entails.
Some critics argue that Kant’s method of proving the existence of synthetic a priori judgments is analytic, an argument of regress from the effect back to its cause. By arguing as such, they thus accuse Kant of presupposing the very thing he is intending to prove. Guyer argues that “[o]f course, if one doubts that mathematics and physics do contain synthetic a priori cognition, then the use of this analytic or regressive method to arrive at further metaphysical truths is in trouble from the outset” (Guyer 2006: 48).
Kant admits that his methodology is analytical in the Prolegomena, however, in the first edition Kant argues that his process was synthetic, by inquiring within pure reason itself. In the Preface Kant argues that his objective is “to demonstrate and make comprehensible the objective validity of his concepts a priori”. In the Introduction to the First Edition Kant argues that reason “…finds itself compelled to resort to principles that go beyond all possible use in experience, and that nonetheless seem so little suspect that even common human reason agrees with them.
By doing this, however, human reason plunges into darkness and contradictions; and although it can indeed gather from these that they must be based on errors lying hidden somewhere, it is unable to discover these errors…[t]he combat of these endless conflicts is what we call metaphysics” (A viii). The ‘Copernican Revolution’ is the way Kant attempts to prove the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge without flying off into ungrounded metaphysics (Guyer 2006: 49). If we assume that the sensory representations and conceptual organisation of objects is contained only in experience, then knowledge can never be more than a posteriori.
But, if we discover cognitive ‘forms’ of these representations and organisations, then we know that nothing can ever be an object of knowledge without being subject to these forms, and thus that these ‘forms’ necessarily apply to the objects of our knowledge and therefore must constitute synthetic a priori judgments (Guyer 2006: 49-50). Bibliography: Gardner, Sebastian (1999) “Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason”, London: Routledge. Guyer, Paul (2006) “Kant”, Oxon: Routledge. Kant, Immanuel (Pluhar, Werner: Translator) (1996) “Critique of Pure Reason”, USA: Hackett Publishing Company.

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