Immanuel Kant’s Ideas on Knowledge

A Concept of Scientific Rationality

Seminar Paper, 2010

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0




1. The Contested Concept of Scientific Rationality

2. Kant’s Concept of Knowledge

3. Kant’s Concept of Science

Does the Beacon still shine? Conclusion on Kant as a Datum of Knowlegde



If one explores the concept of scientific rationality as it was developed from Aristotle on over Thomas Aquinas to Ludwig Wittgenstein and beyond, one is surprised by the discovery that as all schools or approaches reflecting on knowledge, also the concept of scientific rationality is less a solid set of rules, but more a contested battleground of ideas. What are the conditions of scientific rationality? Is there scientific truth or certainty? Is there something or somebody beyond the boundaries of knowledge? The materialistic concept or image of truth can be considered naïve, but still criteria for objectivity are a point of reference for every theory on science. In spite of the fact that the common notion among contemporaries still is the one of science as promulgator of definite truth, as it is obvious in the popularity of so-called “experts” in every trade or sphere of society and on every topic devisable and as it is strikingly evident in the success of applied economics to simulate scientific pedigree by wrapping false propositions into scientific methods resulting in neat graphs and tables, the concept of scientific truth is still very much argued about within the realms of academia. Between relativism and positivism confusion dominates the landscape, so that some declare that there is an “[…] assault on science and the role that philosophy of science has played in relation to it in terms of science or philosophy of science alone. Both have reflected a deep seated crisis in the very notion of scientific rationality”.[1] Nevertheless, science is getting on very well with the day-to-day business, evidently coming to results in the respective fields of study at an ever-increasing extra-potential rate. But when it comes to the reflection on the conditions of scientific thought and the principles by which to employ ratio, partly antagonizing, but also relating concepts are among others scientific and structural realism, positivism, instrumentalism, relativism, social constructivism, constructive empiricism and critical rationalism. These are the intermediate results of 200 years of post-enlightenment discourse on epistemology. But what has Immanuel Kant in stock to contribute to that discourse? That is the topic addressed in this paper: An outline of Kant’s concept of knowledge and a deriving theory of science with a backcloth of recent contributions of contemporary scientists, representing the current situation in this discussion. In general, “[…] the way in which Kant attempts to articulate a philosophical framework that places substantive conditions on our scientific knowledge of the world while still respecting the autonomy and diverse claims of particular sciences […]”[2] justifies consultation of his works on the topic at hand. Additionally, Kant and his thoughts on that matter are not the least suitable for depiction by the fact that his work undertook the mission to sooth the antagonism of rationalism and empiricism in his time which led not only to a synthesis, but to a re-assessment or even transformation of the respective theory as such.[3] Thus the paper is structured in the following order: Firstly, a short overview will be presented on the current status of the discussion on scientific rationality among selected scholars of philosophy in Europe and the United States. Secondly, a brief introduction on Kant’s transcendental argument out of the Critique of Pure Reason followed by an outline of a derivative Kantian application on sciences shall offer the background for a conclusive illustration on whether Kant and his approach on knowledge is still able to provide valid contributions in the discussion on the conditions for human understanding and the deriving or appropriate concept of scientific truth as well as rational argumentation. Apparently, the scope of a term paper puts restrictions on the depth of the description of sophisticated and abstract philosophical concepts. Therefore decisive and representative parts of a respective case are chosen for the sake of a condensed, but stringent argumentation.

1. The Contested Concept of Scientific Rationality

The first conquest for differentiation in terms of defining scientific rationality was according to Willem De Jong and Arianna Betty undertaken by Aristotle in his work of Analytica Posteriora, but:

“These standards got progressively shaped by and adapted to new scientific needs and tendencies. Nevertheless, a core of conditions capturing the fundamentals of what a proper science should look like remained remarkably constant all along”.[4]

Aristotle is referred to as the original designer of the “Classical Model of Science as an ideal of scientific explanation”.[5] In the following a system (“S”) of propositions and concepts or terms is depicted obeying to the following conditions:

“(1) All propositions and all concepts (or terms) of S concern a specific set of objects or are about a certain domain of being(s).

(2a) There are in S a number of so-called fundamental concepts (or terms).
(2b) All other concepts (or terms) occurring in S are composed of (or are definable

from) these fundamental concepts (or terms).

(3a) There are in S a number of so-called fundamental propositions.
(3b) All other propositions of S follow from or are grounded in (or are provable or demonstrable from) these fundamental propositions.

(4) All propositions of S are true.

(5) All propositions of S are universal and necessary in some sense or another.

(6) All propositions of S are known to be true. A non-fundamental proposition is known to be true through its proof in S.

(7) All concepts or terms of S are adequately known. A non-fundamental concept is adequately known through its composition (or definition).”[6]

Willem De Jong and Arianna Betti, both from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, who distilled the model above from Aristotle’s exhortations, explain their approach to obtaining that conclusion in the following paragraph:

“In the Classical Model of Science a proper science is characterized by means of propositions, concepts (or terms) and objects or being(s). These expressions are supposed to function as determinables, for history knows also alternative notions: instead of propositions, theses, judgments, thoughts […], sentences, statements may occur; instead of concepts, terms, ideas, (re)presentations […]; instead of objects […], things, (real) entities, etc.”[7]

According to these scientists, rationally, meaning consistent arguing sciences are those in which the postulates of deducibility and evidence hold, but not necessarily those of reality. Empirical sciences on the other hand refer to empirical foundation, i.e. data and analysis, conforming to the reality, but not necessarily to the postulates of deductively generated evidence. Thus, neither the empirical nor the rational sciences would necessarily meet Aristotle’s theory of science. Despite the fact that rational science turned away from Aristotle’s ideal by dropping his evidence postulate[8], Otávio Bueno, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami, states the following:

“[T]he traditional approach to scientific rationality presupposes that consistency is a necessary condition for rational theory change in science. This presupposition has been adopted for an obvious reason: Given the assumption that classical logic is the underlying logic of scientific theories, the inconsistency of a particular theory immediately establishes its triviality. That is, presupposing classical logic, if a given theory is shown to be inconsistent, then every sentence in the theory’s language is true”.[9]

In other words, the traditional approach to rationality associates rationality to the existence of substantial, self-evident proof as underlying condition of thinking. This is nicely captured or mockingly paraphrased by what Bastian “Bas” van Fraassen, first advocate of the concept of ‘Constructive Empiricism’, has called the ‘Prussian concept of rationality’: What is rational to believe is precisely what concerned individuals are rationally compelled to believe. The ‘Prussian concept’ introduces strict demands on rationality, a considerable amount of beliefs could turn out to be irrational if this explanation is applied.[10] Countering with a more lenient account of rationality, Bas van Fraassen coins ‘the English concept of rationality’: What is rational to believe includes anything that concerned individuals are not rationally compelled to disbelieve.


[1] Sheehan, Helena (2007): „The assault on scientific rationality: historical analysis and epistemological response”, transcript of lecture for 13th European Skeptics Congress, Dublin.

[2] Watkins, Eric (2007): “Kant's Philosophy of Science”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, retrieved October 13, 2010 from

[3] Dicker, Georges (2004): “Kant’s Theory of Knowledge – An Analytical Introduction”, New York, p. 3.

[4] De Jong, Willem / Betti, Arianna (2007): “The classical model of science: A millennia-old model of scientific rationality”, Amsterdam, p. 1.

[5] Ibid., p. 2.

[6] Ibid., pp. 1 & 2.

[7] Ibid., p. 5.

[8] Ibid..

[9] Bueno, Otávio (2007): “Scientific Rationality and Inconsistency: A Partial Structures Perspective”, Fresno, p. 1.

[10] Ibid., p. 2.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Immanuel Kant’s Ideas on Knowledge
A Concept of Scientific Rationality
University of Flensburg  (International Institute for Management)
European Ideas
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Immanuel Kant, Ideengeschichte, scientific rationality, knowledge, Erkenntnistheorie
Quote paper
Johannes Wiedemann (Author), 2010, Immanuel Kant’s Ideas on Knowledge , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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