Immanuel Kant’s Preface to the “Critique of Pure Reason”: Summary & Understanding

Immanuel Kant is a philosopher of profound consequence and importance. He situates himself in the nexus of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment; sometimes he is seen as a schizophrenic figure who is at once in both camps. Both sides will claim Kant when it suits them and both sides will toss him out when it suits them.  As such, we’re going to explore the prefaces (1781 and 1787) and introduction to Kant’s great work: The Critique of Pure Reason.

Kant was something of a late bloomer in philosopher, especially when compared to the other German idealists and romantics whom he is a sort of father of: Fichte and Schelling were famous by their early and mid-twenties, Hegel by his mid-thirties, but Kant did not garner his reputation until the 1780s and already in his fifties.  Unlike his contemporaries and heirs, he also travelled little; preferring instead to remain in Konigsberg for much of his life.  Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason establishes an important tradition with the German idealist and romantic tradition: dealing with the problem of post-Cartesian rationalism and British empiricism, especially the new science of Francis Bacon.  Part of Kant’s worry is the same worry that Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel are all concerned with—namely, avoiding epistemological nihilism (though they each go in different directions in trying to resolve this issue).

For Kant, the problem of modern philosophy was the implicit dualism of both Descartes and Bacon.  Though Bacon was a materialistic monist, the implied dualism of the new science was the man vs. nature split that Bacon promoted in Novum Organum (1620); in separating man as something apart from the natural world which prompted man to unclothe and subdue nature in order to bring about the “empire of man” and “reign of man.”  Bacon’s dualism is also carried over in Hobbes and Locke, insofar that they continue to present man in opposition to the natural world (as hostile to man and therefore needing conquest) wherein the worry of the German philosophers prior to Kant (Hamann and Herder) and then to Kant himself was that man was going to be reduced to an atomistic ball of matter in motion – a robot object without subjective consciousness.  Thus, from the new science, we reduce everything to object.  A very hollow and results-driven society would be the logical outcome of this philosophical worldview.

At the same time, however, Kant was also worried about Cartesian rationalism.  In placing primacy on the mind over the body, Descartes’ implied dualism led to a dangerous solipsism and subjectivism.  Though this is not the case with Descartes qua Descartes, Kant (among other German idealists) worried that the internal logic of Cartesian rationalism would lead to subjectivism writ large and therefore leave no room for the subject-object synthesis.  The new science would reduce us to object-object and Cartesian rationalism would leave subject detached from object.  And so this is the backdrop to which Kant is responding.

Preface (1781 edition)

The shorter preface (1781 edition) outlines the problems that I have just provided as the historical backdrop to Kant’s famous publication.  In the opening paragraphs Kant acknowledges the problems to which he is writing:

Our reason [(Vernunft)] has this peculiar fate that, with reference to one class of its knowledge, it is always troubled with questions which cannot be ignored, because they spring from the very nature of reason, and which cannot be answered, because they transcend the power of human reason…Nor is human reason to be blamed for this.  It begins with principles which, in the course of experience, it must follow, and which seem sufficiently confirmed by experience.

Kant’s actual project is what we can call transcendental idealism. Admittedly, Kant is playing from the already established Christian epistemological tradition of phenomenological realism.  As Kant highlights in the opening paragraphs, there are limits to what reason can know due to our finitude.  This does not preclude reason from understanding as British utilitarian philosophers have unfairly written of him bequeathing the “irrationalist” tradition.  Kant is only irrationalist insofar that irrationalism is not to be understood as rejecting reason outright, and placing emphasis on emotion or feeling or subjectivity, but rather that reason cannot come to know everything.

Instead, Kant’s epistemology links reason with experience; the union of the transcendental with empirical or phenomenological. The realm of reason and its a priori concepts are to be confirmed (proven right) in this world of experience (phenomena).  Like St. Augustine and other Christian philosophers before him, Kant hopes to keep human rationality and experience united; simply without the theological framework that explicit Christian philosophers hold to.  “This, the only way that was left, I have followed, and I flatter myself that I have thus removed all those errors which have hitherto brought reason, being unassisted by experience, into conflict with itself,” Kant writes. This laid the foundation for the apperceptive transcendental unity of consciousness. The self, in other words, is that which is behind perception. You can never look into the world and see the self because the self is the one doing the looking; to find the self is an inward and introspective endeavor, not an exterior and outward endeavor. Epistemologically, Kant secularizes Christian idealism.

Additionally, as Kant makes clear, it used to be the case that metaphysics (first principles) was the queen of the sciences (knowledge) and, therefore, philosophy.  However, this has now changed because the new science and Cartesian rationalism.  First principles are in jeopardy and need rescuing.  This is Kant’s primary task: the salvation of metaphysics from pure subjectivism (Cartesianism) and the results-driven hollowness of the new science which ignores the whole and only concentrates on practical effects.

Preface (1787 edition)

The 1787 preface is the longer and more famous of the prefaces, though it is, in some way, just a lengthier explanation of the 1781 preface.  It is the 1787 preface that establishes the infamous German prefaces of idealist and romantic philosophy; Kant inaugurates a tradition in which prefaces are philosophical tomes in of themselves while the formal texts to which the preface is written for are verbose and elongated, dialectical, and are much harder to follow. (This is especially the case with Hegel.)

Kant’s preface deals with the same problem as before: How do we achieve a system of knowledge that can have any certainty? Kant’s answer is the unity of reason and experience rather than their separation with primacy given to empiricism out of the new science tradition and subjective rationality out of the Cartesian tradition (again, not that Descartes advocated such subjectivism but the Germans after Descartes recognized a worrying problem of the slippage into subjective solipsism within the Cartesian method and framework).  As Kant famously described, knowledge has essentially hit a barrier and now we’re dangerously walking the tight rope of nihilism.

The solution that Kant provides is what some call “epistemological agnosticism.”  Do not confuse this for agnostic theology or that we can’t be sure of anything.  Rather, it is that we can be certain of some things but not all things.  Kant argues that the success of logic is not when it is unbounded but when it is bounded – when logic operates within a framework of limitations we can have certainty.  Thus, Kant’s new preface establishes more clearly what the rest of the work contains ruminations over: what we can be certain about vs. what we can’t be certain about and, therefore, take as true on the axiom of faith.

Additionally, Kant explores why a priori knowledge is solid.  He separates the two into theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge.  The problem is that the new science is properly a theoretical school of a priori epistemology that has confused itself as being a posteriori and, therefore, will corrupt and reduce everything to just practicality (pragmatism).  Likewise, subjectivism which is properly aimed at practical knowledge confuses itself for purely theoretical and never, therefore, comes to apply itself in practical life.  This is the problem of modern philosophy for Kant.  And Kant’s entire metaphysical epistemology is grounded in the unity of theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge.  Theoretical knowledge can be understood as pure reasoning from encounter.  Practical knowledge can be understood as what to do with our newfound understanding of things.  But the two most always go together.  I reason to understand and, in coming to understand, translate this understanding in practical action.

Part of Kant’s preface also, esoterically, is dealing with the problem of atomization and “alienation.”  For Kant, we can only know through relationality, which is cut off through atomism.  In being isolated, and not part of relations and wholeness, we are bound to choose either/or rather than seeing everything united together.  We either choose pure speculative reason (subjectivism) or pure objectification (empiricism).  As such, we are cut off from wholeness which perpetuates the crisis of nihilism: epistemological nihilism through the relativity of subjectivism, and the life nihilism of hollow materialistic and utilitarian living that is already commencing from the new science.

To this extent, toward the end of his preface, Kant even lists his enemies: “materialism, fatalism, atheism, free-thinking unbelief, fanaticism, and superstition, which may become universally injurious, and finally of idealism and sceptism also, which are dangerous rather to the schools, and can scarcely even penetrate into the public.”  The problem of these schools of philosophy is that they are all nihilistic, in one way or another.  And for Kant, and the entire German idealist/romantic tradition, nihilism is the enemy.  Why Kant includes idealism in the list is not because of a rejection of idealism (e.g. the world we experience is fundamentally that which is perceived by consciousness) but because of his fear that pure idealism (subjective idealism, the direction that one of Kant’s disciples, Johann Fichte, actually moves toward) simply fools itself into thinking it has overcome the relativism to outright skepticism, then to nihilism, embedded into subjectivist epistemology.

It is not that Kant is arguing against the reality (which he himself is part of) of the subject-consciousness perceiving and experiencing the world.  It is precisely this epistemological metaphysics that Kant nominally agrees with, his system of philosophy is going to be an attempt to explain how this avoids the problem of nihilism.  And, as Kant has already informed us, this is through the unity of subject and object in tandem with each other.

Kant’s famous statement in the 1787 preface that he had to “remove knowledge, in order to make room for belief,” has been wildly misunderstood and misquoted much like Marx’s statement that “religion is the opium of the masses.” What Kant is saying is that precisely because of the finitude of human reason, which when the world of experience ends and therefore cannot confirm from the union of reason and experience, that which lay beyond human reason and experience (the realm of pure subjective rationalism) is taken to be true by that axiom of faith.  We can be certain of some things.  We cannot be certain of all things.  That which we cannot be certain of we do not despair but accept on faith.

Lastly, Kant also explores freedom.  Like those before him Kant identifies freedom with the will.  Following St. Augustine, Kant lays out in his preface what his work more formally deals with concerning freedom: natural freedom and perfect freedom; natural freedom being the freedom of action and thought, perfected freedom being the understanding of truth translated into practical living.  From this we live fulfilled lives.  Kant also argues against Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke, insofar that the determinism of materialism in rendering the will moot and a simply in lock step with matter in motion, is not freedom at all.  If humans are bound to the mechanical laws of nature then humans cannot be said to be free.  Determinism, for Kant, is incompatible with the idea of freedom.


So what does Kant establish for us in his famous preface(s) to the Critique of Pure Reason?  He outlines what the entire work is about: how do we know anything at all?  Kant’s answer is that reason and experience go together in what is subsequently fleshed out as the synthetic a priori.  Our reason and preconceived ideas (which Kant argues is best seen in the form of judgement) are confirmed by experience or shown to be wrong by experience.  If wrong it is not the senses that are wrong but our reasoning which was wrong.  Furthermore, Kant is not an “irrationalist” as the English-speaking world uses that term.  Rather, Kant’s epistemology and metaphysics is out to save reason.  Kant simply suggests that human reason, being bound by finitude, has limits.  There are simply some things which we can never know with absolute certainty.   This does not preclude us from being able to know some things.

If you wish to read a more thorough explanation of Kant’s unity of transcendent reason with phenomenological experience, you can go to the aforementioned post linked earlier in this post.  As mentioned, it is properly a form of transcendental rationalism.  So to recap Kant’s basic arguments which he will further explore in the rest of his work: We have a problem with knowing; the problem of knowing is that we have embraced philosophical schools that do not keep the transcendent and phenomenological united; a priori knowledge is confirmed by experience, ergo our knowledge comes from the unity of reason with experience; the subject-object (or subject-predicate) problem is dialectical, but it is not one of confrontation; rather it is the unity of subject-object; our coming to know is through human rationality experiencing the world and this is available to anyone and not a historicist process of completion; freedom is fundamentally the freedom of the will, meaning the human is not bound to materialistic determinism; while we can know some things, we cannot know all things—this is because we are finite creatures while the realm of pure reason is that which is beyond us. 

The most important aspect to Kant’s philosophy is that we are subjects (endowed with subjectivity, or consciousness) in the world of objects, and ourselves an object.  As an object with consciousness, we are subject-objects able to understand the immediate world around us and understand our relationship to it.  To detach ourselves from the relationality of the world, to reduce ourselves to objects within the world of objects (rejecting our subjectivity) or the reject the world of objects altogether in the extreme embrace of pure subjectivity, leads to the crisis of metaphysics which, eventually, exhausts itself in a crisis of epistemology.  This is nihilism.  And this is what Kant is trying to avoid.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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