I have been told from numerous sources that Kant's arguments against empiricism basically "refuted" it, specifically the ones found in his "Critique of Pure Reason". Unfortunately, for me, reading Kant is like banging my head against a wall (i.e., not fun).

Is there anyone out there that can briefly state, in plain English, his strongest argument(s) against empiricism? Or, alternatively, point me in the direction of a paper that does so. The more layman terminology you could use, the better.


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    Can you define "concept empiricism" and suggest who may have held that position? I don't think Kant used that term.
    – virmaior
    Commented Apr 4, 2014 at 7:40
  • By "concept empiricism", do you mean "the concept of empiricism"?
    – martin
    Commented Apr 4, 2014 at 16:55
  • In CoPR Kant addresses both empiricism and rationalism, one far more verbosely than the other. If I remember right, it is rationalism that he spends most of his time on (being the position of his "dogmatic slumber"). It's been a while since I read it, and I mostly remember being disappointed by his neglect of one of them (probably, but not certainly, empiricism) and highlighting the section in my copy - which I now can't lay my hands on. I'm sorry I don't have anything more than vague recollections on the matter. I have a rough sense that there isn't as much about it as you might wish for.
    – Lucas
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 21:33
  • While your clarification uses the word "concept empiricism", I still don't know what the view is or entails. I get that its empiricism but not Locke's ideas. But what positively does it maintain? That we have think concepts but these receive their truth from experience? Such a view would be true of Aristotle, all of the empiricists, Kant, Hegel, and many others. What are "concepts" on such a view? How do we get them?
    – virmaior
    Commented Apr 6, 2014 at 2:22

4 Answers 4


Kant does not refute empiricism - he rescues it. It is Hume that philosophically undermined the standing of empiricism by using its analytical equipment against itself.

First, he showed that causality is logically not possible, all one can maintain is that coincidences happen. Hence empirical physics is not possible.

Second, he showed that one cannot draw morals from pure descriptions of man, sociey & nature. Hence empirical morality is not possible. Traditionally, of course morality had been underpinned by theology.

Third, he showed that the self was not unitary, that we, when we look into ourselves are a bundle of sensations. Thus empirical psychology isn't possible.

Kant tackled these criticisms and thus made empiricism possible again on all three fronts. His method was that mind was always complicit in our understanding of nature, and this not only for science, say when I look at a leaf under a microscope, or even consciously when I just look about my room and nor at the preconscious intuitive level that Freud theorised about; it is at a level so deep within us that they are neccessary for us even to have that thing called experience.

He said:

Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing.

This, in summary is empiricism and Humes answer to it - '[it has] come to nothing'. So he goes on to a different tack:

Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition

This on the face of it is astonishing. Can, I by thinking, make a chair into a kettle? Or turn a man into a moon? But this isn't what Kant is saying. He is supposing that our understanding of space & time is already inherent in our own minds - it is that part of our cognition that he calls the intuition (and not to be confused what we ordinarily call intuition), and we impose them onto the world.

One can see from this that he rescues causality - and thus rescues empiricism. He also shows that though we sense only fleeting sensations, and at bottom we are only a bundle of sensations, that bundle, the self also has a reality. He calls this the unity of consciousness. Finally, he founds morality - at least theoretically on a rational principle.

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    Thank you for your response. From my reading so far, it seems like empiricism simply claims that an empirical metaphysics is not possible, while on the other hand it in fact serves as the very foundation for modern empirical science (e.g., physics, "ethics", psychology) - i.e., unless it can be observed, we can make no claims to its legitimacy. Again, from my early impressions, it seems like Kant is trying to argue that there is some knowledge that transcends experience (i.e., "a priori" knowledge). So, really, it seems like they're arguing about epistemology at this stage. More to read... Commented May 27, 2014 at 6:08
  • I like this answer, although I'm not sure Hume would have agreed with your characterization of his arguments! (I would say instead that Hume showed that empiricism entails radical skepticism of a kind that few "empiricists" today would willingly take on.)
    – senderle
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 22:28
  • @senderle:Possibly not - they've been radically truncated! Commented May 28, 2014 at 23:34
  • I'd agree that most empiricists wouldn't go along with Humes arguments. I certainly found them his critique of causality troubling - given that physics 'works'; I do wonder how many working empiricists - aka scientists - have heard of Humes work; given the troubling contemporary divison/situation between philosophy and science. Commented May 28, 2014 at 23:45

Empiricism in its most general form is the claim that all we can possibly know about the world and the laws which govern it are those things which we can directly apprehend by our senses. Hence, the very idea that objects continue to exist, unchanging, when no one's observing them, or that it is a law of nature that any event must precede and cause another, cannot be observed and can neither be known.

This is a very rough approximation, because you asked for it.

Kant's argument against this, can be roughly (again, very roughly) approximated as follows: any presumption that our senses can provide us with any information about the world, already must assume that the sense itself is caused, or it would be unable to provide us with real knowledge. Thus there is at least one law of nature which cannot be observed, defeating the general claim of empiricism.

I'm not confident that this kind of stripped-down explanation can really deliver a accurate account of what Kant attempted in this argument, but as long as you're aware of the limitations and dangers in trying to eliminate the details here, it should suffice. For reference, see the IEP entry on the topic, which gives slightly more detail over the version I've tried to provide here.

  • I'm wary to upvote it for the same reasons you're warry to answer in this way. A big problem is that at least Hume seems to have recognized the problem, offered roughly the same solution, and just differed in attitude.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 24, 2014 at 0:33
  • Thank you for your response. I find it interesting that people have interpreted me as asking them to "eliminate the details" or to write less rather than more, which is not what I asked for at all. I was very explicit in identifying that I simply desired for it to be accessible to the layman. In my experience, this often requires that people write more, not less. Of course, making "complex" material accessible is, at its core, the essence of teaching, and that is by no means easy! Commented May 27, 2014 at 5:56
  • Regarding the content of your response, I have upvoted it as it fits best with my own understanding of the debate thus far, although I believe I am interpreting Kant's arguments differently from you (I am also only picking out points that seem relevant to people outside of philosophy). I will award the +100 to whoever is upvoted the most, and will add my own answer afterwards. Commented May 27, 2014 at 5:59

In plain English, at the expense of greatly oversimplifying complex ideas:

Hume's empiricism states that all things rest on the evidence of the senses. Kant's reply is that the mind can still actively synthesize concepts to go beyond the domain of pure sensory data.

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    "the mind can still actively synthesize concepts to go beyond the domain of pure sensory data". I appreciate your attempt, but I have no idea what that means, as it could be interpreted a myriad of ways, each of which would require some sort of explanation for why he was claiming that. Additionally, an example would always be handy (as requested). Commented May 27, 2014 at 6:11

tl;dr version: Kant and Hume both recognize causality isn't out there in the world. Both accept the mind does it. Kant and Hume both don't see how we can perceive anything without it.

For Kant, this is a feature. Kant thinks its a feature of our reason. For Hume, it's a bug that give us the illusion of a world that makes better sense than it does. If you think being able to makes sense of the world is truth-revealing, then you agree with Kant. If you think it is just feeding our illusions, then you agree with Hume. That's what Kant's "refutation" hinges on.

Kant criticizes both empiricists and rationalists in his Critique of Pure Reason (hereafter CPR). The famous quote line regarding this is here:

Thoughts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind. (CPR B 75).

In short, his criticism of empiricists is that they are not at the end of the day empiricists about what it means to know. Roughly sketched, empiricism is the view that we perceive with our senses is true as a counterpart to Descartes' clear and distinct ideas. The problem is that there are two related questions:

(1) What is true?
(2) How do we know it?

The quote is also about this and compactly expresses Kant's view. But let's start with Descartes.

For Descartes, clear and distinct ideas are true, because of God and the fact that as long as I exist, I exist. For Locke, primary qualia are true. We know them through secondary qualia. Those two strands get upgraded by subsequent rationalists and empiricists. So Spinoza and Leibniz supply a more robust logic to how reason gets us truth and how we might possibly know it. For both we wind up with a kind of ration-infused universe that moves according to the laws of logic (and our sensory perceptions remain dubious). On the empiricist side, Berkeley turns out to be an idealist. Hume, in turn, sweeps out ideas like cause and effect (only to restore them as mental ideas of habit).

Kant's critique is a return to these problems via Hume's answer. Kant agrees with Hume that the rationalists are wrong about what is real. For him, what is real are empirical things. But where Kant disagrees (or possibly disagrees depending on how you interpret both when they talk about this) is on how we arrive at knowledge. Or at least how we are to view the mechanism.

Kant and Hume both agree that we've got causality in our minds and a few other notions and these help us sort the world. For Hume, these ideas come from experience but cannot be trusted because they are generalizations we engage in. For Kant, that won't do. One of Kant's argument for this point is that we cannot arrive at causation without a category of cause and effect already in our minds. In other words, he thinks the Humean skeptical project is inaccurate as a description of mind.

For Kant, our minds already and apply categories of understanding and forms of sensibility to to the real things they encounter. Thus, Kant's answer to how we know is that as rational beings, we frame our experience in the unity of apperception using categories and forms. For him, this is knowledge (at least of the human sort) -- which is part of why he thinks we cannot know things in themselves.

One major difficulty that makes it hard to answer is that it's not clear how different Hume and Kant really are on this view. The problem is that the a priori notion of cause that Kant talks about is one that he distinguishes from empirical experiences of causal relations. And then it's not clear how one moves between the two. Because Kant denies that you can arrive at the a priori sense of cause by induction.

That's the best I can really do with such a broad question...

  • I appreciate your effort. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the content here would carry little meaning to someone outside of philosophy. If empiricism is truly a theory of the mind, then its framework (and potential refutation) should, in my view, be able to be discussed in terms that would have meaning to the educated layperson. For instance: "Kant's answer to how we know is that as rational beings, we frame our experience in the unity of apperception using categories and forms". This won't mean much to anyone outside of philosophy. Commented May 22, 2014 at 0:37
  • @EleventyOne I'm not quite sure what to tell you. This is philosophy.se. Without a definition of "empiricism" or a clear problem you're referring to, it's going to be hard to give you an answer that is tailored to what you do and don't know about philosophy. (The "educated layperson" standard is difficult to measure against -- where I did my undergraduate in the US, everyone has to take a philosophy course; where I taught in the US, everyone takes at least two).
    – virmaior
    Commented May 22, 2014 at 0:54
  • @EleventyOne I've added a tl;dr version to the top. But you're basically asking the following -- explain the QM solution to the ultraviolet catastrophe in layman's terms without referring to details in the theories of classical or modern physics -- but for a question that is still open.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 22, 2014 at 1:01
  • I appreciate your attempt to clarify. As for: "But you're basically asking the following -- explain the QM solution to the ultraviolet catastrophe in layman's terms without referring to details in the theories of classical or modern physics"... I think that is a very poor analogy. The layman's experience with the "ultraviolet catastrophe" vs. the "mind" could not possibly be any more different. From my experience, it is a common mistake in philosophy to assume that misunderstood theories are due to a lack of knowledge on the reader's part, rather than a poor description on the author's part. Commented May 22, 2014 at 1:13
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    @EleventyOne I don't think the layman has an experience of Kant, empiricism, or Hume -- terms which I asked you to clarify when you asked the question... The average layman at best has no idea what they thought or what empiricism means in philosophy. Moreover, your question doesn't reference "mind" and there's no way to intuit that's the angle of the debate between Kant and Hume you are interested in...
    – virmaior
    Commented May 22, 2014 at 1:20

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