Paul Strathern states that Kant never actually read David Hume's most celebrated work "A Treatise of Human Nature", although he read and spoke on his work "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding". He then goes on and conjectures that had Kant in fact read this specific work, Kant would have realized the inherent flaws of metaphysical systems.

What points from Hume's "Treatise of Human Nature" have bearing on Kant's philosophy in ways that could have changed it?

  • Perhaps I misunderstand the question, but Kant already was a philosopher when he read the Enquiry (in the tradition of Leibniz), which he wrote "awakened" him from his "metaphysical slumbers". And Kant's critical philosophy is explicitly anti-metaphysical, he rejected reasoning about "intelligible entities" as vacuous, and denied that we can have any knowledge of "things in themselves". We also know that Husserl, who did read the Treatise and denied that Kant influenced him "even a little bit", nonetheless ended up with a transcendentalist philosophy very much in Kantian spirit.
    – Conifold
    Jun 16 '15 at 18:08
  • @Conifold Thanks for the reply! I should clarify that by "metaphysics" I mean speculation that tries to understand the ultimate nature of reality. This is different from post-Kantian secular metaphysics which might be what we nowadays think of as "traditional". So are you saying Kant was not a metaphysician? But surely Kant is well known for his metaphysical deductions - and they gave centuries of employment to philosophy professors (including Hegel).
    – M.R.
    Jun 16 '15 at 18:22
  • Kant is known for his criticism and rejection of traditional metaphysics, the only version that existed in his time. His deductions are either meant to demonstrate contradictions in metaphysics (like antinomies), or are about conditions of possibility of our knowledge, and so are epistemological, not metaphysical. As for philosophers after him they had to make do without metaphysics like Husserl and Carnap, or to reinvent what is meant by metaphysics to escape Kant's critique, like Hegel and Heidegger. See answer.
    – Conifold
    Jun 16 '15 at 20:28
  • I found the SEP article on "Kant and Hume on Causality" very helpful. The authors also talk about which of Hume's works Kant might have read and when.
    – iphigenie
    Jun 16 '15 at 22:05
  • @Conifold Thanks for helpfully editing the OPs question. I've reworded the last part to avoid what I take to be a problematic ambiguity that was still left. As a result, I've withdrawn my close.
    – virmaior
    Jun 18 '15 at 4:32

Kant is famous exactly for the breaking with the tradition of metaphysics that preceded him. His point was that all our experience is about phenomena (appearances), and that "ultimate nature of reality" is inaccessible, if it has any meaning at all. That "rational intuition" postulated by previous philosophers, like Descartes and Leibniz, to break out of this limitation was based on misapplying concepts of experience to noumena, entities that can not be objects of any possible experience. He calls "transcendental illusion" taking "a subjective necessity of a connection of our concepts… for an objective necessity in the determination of things in themselves". And he illustrated, in antinomies of pure reason, that such misapplication is not only a category error, but can lead to contradictions. According to Kant, the purpose of philosophy is elucidation of empirical knowledge that we do have, through critical analysis of its sources, not metaphysical speculation about reality, which does not and can not produce any knowledge. See Kant's Critique of Metaphysics.

Kant credited Hume for helping him so see the light, "it was my recollection of David Hume that broke into my dogmatic slumber", and he characterized his critical philosophy as a "Copernican revolution", writing "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, which would agree better with the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us. This would be just like the first thoughts of Copernicus, who, when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and left the stars at rest".

The main deviation of Kant from Hume is that while Hume denied the possibilty of non-empirical knowledge altogether, Kant pointed out that mathematics or the principle of causality in physics, which Hume criticized most ardently, are treated as true a priori, i.e. non-empirically. However, he sought a justification for this not in metaphysics of "reality", but in our own constitution. His ingenious idea was that we ourselves insert non-empirical aspects into our own experience:"So the Humean problem is completely solved, though in a way that would have surprised its inventor… the complete reverse of anything that Hume envisaged — instead of the concepts (of the understanding) being derived from experience, that experience is derived from them".

What Kant sees as his solution to the Humean problem, as inspired by Hume's Enquiry, covers also a more expanded version of it in the Treatise. However, a century later Husserl, who read all of Hume's major works including the Treatise, and considered himself influenced by Hume and not by Kant, developed a different non-metaphysical philosophy. But it is still in the style of the "Copernican revolution" and analyzing how knowledge is acquired, so it is highly unlikely that reading the Treatise would have changed the major themes of Kant's philosophy.

After Kant philosophers who still insisted on doing metaphysics had to either reinvent it, or to find a new source of metaphysical knowledge. Some notable examples are Fichte, Hegel and Heidegger. "Hegel's project of constituting the world through logic could be read as an attempt to demonstrate that the conditions of the possibility of our thinking of objects are the conditions of the possibility of the objects themselves". Heidegger, and the entire tradition of existentialism, goes further by rejecting the centrality of knowledge to both life and philosophy altogether, because "existence precedes essence". This leads to a very different kind of metaphysics based on direct "insights" into existence. Alternatively, Husserl's version of transcendental philosophy reexamines empirical experience and points out that our perception is not purely sensory, but also involves simultaneous grasping of ideas or forms of objects, the aspect Husserl called ideation. One way or another all successors had to deal with Kant's critical takedown of old metaphysics.


From the Woods/Guyer translation of Kants Critique of Reason:

In order to make room for his own dualistic defence of both modern science and human autonomy, Kant like Descarte, Locke and Hume felt he had to rein in the pretensions of traditional metaphysics, represented to him by Wolff and Baumgarten...[which he called] dogmatism...which he regarded as capricious, opinionated and faction-ridden...and consequently unstable.


Kant wanted to distinguish his own critical stance towards scepticism from several other ways of rejecting it, which he also regarded as being dangerous for the cause of reason, sceptism, the position he took Hume to advocate...

But he doesn't demolish metaphysics completely - he is providing a critique and a coherent grounding:

The opening book of the Transcendental Dialectic is therefore a derivation and even a limited defence of transcendental ideas such as the immortal soul, free will and God which dogmatic metaphysics had always been preoccupied with.


Kant has misled those who have supposed that all his work in the years preceding this point was slumbering in Wolffian Dogmatism and that he awoke from slumber through the sceptism of Hume.


Further it should not be thought that Kants mature philosophy ... represents an outright rejection of the philosophy of his predecessors, above all the original philosophy of Liebniz.

Since his system can be thought of as

attempt to synthesise Leibnizs vision of the pre-established harmony of the principles of nature and the principles of grace, with the substance of Newtonian science and the moral and political insights of Rousseau.

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