Organizing Our Thoughts (a Paper?)
on a "Problematic" Philosopher

With Brief Reflections on Kant as an Example

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last modified March 19, 2004

This page is not for direct quotation in scholarly work.

See Philosophical Methods for the definition of problematic, agonistic, logistic, and dialectical methods.

In some philosophers (Aristotle, Kant, and Dewey, for instance) the problematic method dominates. Rather than interpret and reconstruct their whole texts as a deductive sequence (which might be doable but is more likely to work for a thinker whose method is logistic), it may be more fruitful to organize your paper taking into account the thinker's intellectual-rhetorical method.

1. What specific "problems" give the philosopher his or her subject-matter?

For example, in the Prolegomena and the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant is trying to answer the epistemological question "what can I know?" (In other works written at about the same time, he is also trying to answer the ethical question "what should I do?" and the spiritual question "for what can I hope?")
2. What earlier attempts to solve these problems seem to be most significant?
For Kant, relevant earlier attempts to answer the epistemological question included (but are not limited to) those of major theologians since Anselm on the existence of God, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, and Hume, among others on knowledge of substance; scientists like Newton whose Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy greatly impressed Kant.
3. What are the reasons that earlier investigations have been unsatisfactory?
To mention a few relevant for Kant in the area of epistemology: The proofs for the existence of God seem to suffer from devastating critiques, yet the idea of God still plays an unavoidable role in human ethical and spiritual life. Hume's critique of the alleged idea of cause seems persuasive and yet natural philosophers have made impressive progress toward what seems to be causal knowledge of nature.
4. What are the more or less indisputable relevant facts that have been turned up by earlier investigators?
For Kant in the area of epistemology, these included (but are not limited to): Sense-impressions play an indispensable role in knowledge of nature; sense impressions alone are insufficient for knowledge of nature.
5. What new insights does the "problematic" philosopher bring that enables him or her to resolve the earlier problems and create a new whole?
For Kant, the major insights (as he saw them) included (but are not limited to): (1) the realization that our knowledge of nature is partly a result of the active role the mind plays in organizing nature; (2) this active role takes place in two conceptually distinct stages, the stage corresponding to the imposition of the forms of intuition (time and space) and the stage corresponding to the imposition of the a priori concepts of understanding (the twelve categories)
6. How is the philosopher's judgment of the whole in one area (actually a subordinate whole) modified by his judgments regarding the (subordinate) wholes in other areas and the philosopher's vision of the overarching whole?
In his Critique of Pure (Theoretical) Reason, his major epistemological work, Kant maintains that we cannot "know" the existence of God because although we have an "idea" of God we do not have percepts (intuitions) corresponding to God. In his Critique of (Pure) Practical Reason, the ethical counterpart to the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues that although knowledge of God is unnecessary for insight into our moral duty, it is nevertheless important for us to believe that bad persons will be punished (even if they get away with evil deeds in this life). This important belief requires immortality of the soul and a cosmic judge, i.e. God. Thus, Kant's ethical reflections impact his metaphysical statements and modifies what would otherwise be a skeptical conclusion from his epistemology.
7. What role do subordinate (non-problematic methods) such as the skeptical (agonistic), dialectical, and logistic play in the thinking of the philosopher?
For instance, in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant uses a skeptical method to show that we have no knowledge of the existence of God. He also uses skeptical method to show that we do not know whether the universe has simplest parts (e.g., atoms) or whether it is divisible "all the way down."