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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Kant calls the antinomy of pure reason “the most
singular phenomenon of human reason” and praises it
as “a very powerful agent to arouse philosophy from
its dogmatic slumber and to stimulate it to the arduous
task of undertaking a critique of reason itself”
(Prolegomena, §§53, 53a). It has been thought that the
discovery of the antinomy must have played a decisive
role in the development of Kant's thought from the
pre-critical to the critical stage, about 1770; but efforts
to fix the date and to determine the occasion of the
discovery have led only to disputable and dubious
results. Unlike other Kantian themes, this one under-
went no gradual development in his published writings,
but sprang full-grown in its most elaborate form, all
at once, in the second chapter of the Transcendental
Dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason.

The word “antinomy,” like many of Kant's technical
terms, was derived from jurisprudence, where it
referred to a conflict between laws; or from biblical
exegesis, where it referred to a conflict between pas-
sages of scripture. (For a standard scholastic treatment
of the term in logic, law, and exegesis, see Rudolf
Goclenius, Lexicon philosophicum [1613; reprint 1964],
under “Antinomia.”) Kant, influenced probably by
Bayle's article on Zeno in his Dictionnaire (1697), saw
Zeno as the inventor of the antinomic mode of argu-
mentation or the “skeptical method” “of watching, or
rather provoking, a conflict of assertions, not for the
purpose of deciding in favor of one or the other side,
but of investigating whether the object of the contro-
versy is not perhaps a deceptive appearance which
each vainly tries to grasp, and in regard to which, even
if there were no opposition to overcome, neither can
arrive at any result” (Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd.
ed., p. 451; all page references to this edition). The
skeptical method is not skepticism but aims, rather,
at certainty; it is unresolved conflict of assertions which
induces skepticism.

The Transcendental Dialectic seeks to dispel the
illusion that pure reason can give knowledge of what
lies beyond the limits of sense experience. The cate-
gories (pure concepts of the understanding) organize
sense experience into knowledge of phenomena.
Extended by the demands of reason for total explana-
tions in metaphysics, the categories are thought to be
concepts of unconditioned objects of reason (noumena)
and are accordingly called, following Plato, ideas of
reason. When thus extended either to some supersensi-
ble substances (the soul or God) or to the totality of
phenomena which is not itself given as a totality in
perception (the world as a whole), they become
involved in various logical fallacies and produce
“transcendental illusions” which are natural to the
mind and inescapable until exposed by the critical
philosophy. The antinomy is the conflict inherent in
the “cosmological idea” of the world as a whole; looked
at historically, it is the conflict between opposing
theories in rational cosmology (one of the four divisions
of metaphysics in the Leibniz-Wolffian system then
current in Germany).

The opposed propositions are: Thesis 1, The world
has, as to time and space, a beginning; Thesis 2, Every-
thing in the world consists of elements which are sim-
ple; Thesis 3, There are in the world causes through
freedom (spontaneous causes); Thesis 4, In the series
of causes in the world, there is some necessary being;
Antithesis 1, The world is as to time and space infinite;
Antithesis 2, There is nothing simple, but everything
is composite; Antithesis 3, There is no freedom, but
all is nature (a complex of causes in space and time);
and Antithesis 4, There is nothing necessary in the
world, but all is contingent.

The theses, Kant holds, constitute the claims of
“dogmatic philosophy” about what cannot be experi-
enced; he calls them “rationalistic” and “Platonic,” and
they are, in fact, the teachings of the Leibniz-Wolffian
rational cosmology. The antitheses are described as the


teachings of “empiricism,” “naturalism,” and “Epicu-
reanism,” and represent the claims of empirical science
when extended into metaphysics. The moral interests
of mankind, Kant holds, are invested in the theses,
while the speculative (i.e., theoretical) interest favors
the antitheses, which forbid any “break in the thread
of physical inquiries” and urge “moderation in our
pretensions, modesty in our assertions, and the greatest
possible extension of our understanding... through
experience” (p. 498).

The antinomy arises, in each of its four phases, by
a formally identical argument. The major premiss is
a true proposition: “If the conditioned is given, the
entire series of all its conditions is likewise given.” The
minor premiss is also true: “Objects of the senses are
given as conditioned.” It follows that the entire series
of conditions for any object of the senses is given, and
is or contains its sufficient condition. The sufficient
condition can be either (a) some ultimate condition
within the series (e.g., an indivisible element, a begin-
ning in time, a necessary being); or (b) the infinite series
of conditions itself, no one of which is sufficient. Con-
clusion (a) is drawn by proponents of the theses, who
deny the validity of an explanation requiring an infinite
regress; and conclusion (b) is drawn by proponents of
the antitheses, who refuse to recognize any limits
which would terminate the temporal, spatial, and
causal regress of conditions.

Kant's resolution of the antinomy has two steps. (1)
The syllogism underlying both theses and antitheses
is fallacious, since it involves an equivocation of the
term “conditioned.” In the major premiss, it is taken
in “the transcendental sense of a pure category,” while
in the minor it is taken in “the empirical sense of a
category applied to mere phenomena” (p. 527). Hence
neither (a) nor (b) is proved. (2) But, though the argu-
ments are invalid, it might be said that either theses
or antitheses must be true since they are contra-
dictories. Kant replies (p. 532) that they are not con-
tradictories (“analytically opposed”) but only “dialec-
tically opposed,” each asserting more than is required
for it to be the analytical contradictory of the other.
Hence both thesis and antithesis may be false, and are
false if the additional element in them is false. This
additional element is the same in every thesis and every
antithesis, namely, the assumption that the things in
the world are given in experience as they are in them-
selves. The resolution of the antinomy requires the
denial of this assumption common to both sides.

Kant thereby achieves an indirect argument for his
doctrine of “the transcendental ideality of appear-
ances” (p. 534), the doctrine that the world we experi-
ence is not, and does not contain, a thing in itself but
is only phenomenal.

He derives a second indirect argument for the same
teaching by the important distinction he draws be-
tween the mathematical (first and second) and the
dynamical (third and fourth) antinomies (p. 557). The
former concern conditions homogeneous with the con-
ditioned, i.e., spatiotemporal conditions which would
be finite (if the theses were true) or infinite (if the
antitheses were true). The dynamical antinomies con-
cern conditions heterogeneous with the conditioned,
i.e., something supersensible (free causes or necessary
beings) as the condition for what is perceived—
asserting them (in the theses) or denying them (in the
antitheses). The first two theses and antitheses are all
false, but the theses and antitheses of the dynamical
antinomies may all be true (p. 560). The theses may
be true of the supersensible world of noumena (though
we do not know that they are true), while the antitheses
are known to be true of the phenomenal world (from
argument in the Analytic of the Critique). He claims
to have shown that there is no reason in logic against
Theses 3 and 4, and if there is good reason to believe
them to be true, no theoretical argument can forbid
their being affirmed (“primacy of practical reason”).
This resolution of the third and fourth conflicts thus
leads to Kant's “denying [theoretical, metaphysical]
knowledge in order to make room for [moral or
rational] faith” (p. xxx) which requires acceptance,
without apodictic proof, of the theses. Kant accord-
ingly refers to the antinomy as “the most fortunate
perplexity into which human reason could ever fall,”
for without it the case for the antitheses, which pro-
duce a metaphysical dogmatism “always at war with
morality,” would be too strong.

While the outcome of the doctrine of the antinomy
is the destruction of the dogmatic metaphysics of both
the rationalistic and naturalistic schools, in the context
of Kant's own philosophy the antinomy also has an
important constructive function. The opposing propo-
sitions, denied their metaphysical pretensions, become
regulative principles or maxims for the conduct of
inquiry. The totality of conditions is not given
(gegeben) but the search for the totality of conditions
(the unconditioned) is assigned (aufgegeben) us as a task
which must be performed without end. Thus, for ex-
ample, the second antinomy might well be summarized
in Whitehead's aphorism, “Seek simplicity, but distrust
it”; and the third in the opposing programs of the
ethical and the anthropological enterprises, one seeing
man as free (thesis) and the other seeing him as product
and part of nature under deterministic natural laws

In his Critique of Practical Reason and Critique of
Kant develops three further antinomies. In
the former, an antinomy concerning the relation of


happiness to virtue in the summum bonum is resolved
by the doctrine of the primacy of practical reason and
the postulates of pure practical reason. In the latter,
there are two antinomies. The antinomy of taste arises
in the conflict between the maxim, De gustibus non
est disputandum
and the fact that one does dispute
about taste; it is resolved by a clarification of what
is meant by an aesthetic concept. The antinomy of
teleological judgment, between the theses of teleology
and mechanism, is resolved by converting them into
regulative maxims and requiring that they complement
each other in the explanation of nature. But in neither
of the later Critiques is the doctrine of the antinomy
worked out with the extensive detail and wide ramifi-
cations to be found in the first, and the antinomic form
of argument is not entirely suitable to Kant's intentions
in these works.

Recent criticism of the Kantian theory of antinomy
has focussed on testing the validity of arguments for
each thesis and antithesis, especially the first and sec-
ond in the light of modern mathematical analysis of
the concept of infinity; and on evaluating Kant's claim
that the resolution of the antinomy provides an indirect
proof of transcendental idealism or phenomenalism.
The third antinomy attracts most attention nowadays
from philosophers who defend or attack the theory of
the compatibility of freedom and determinism. The
fourth antinomy is of little interest, since it concerns
a scientific problem no longer pressing, and what is
philosophically interesting in it is better dealt with in
the following chapter of the Dialectic, the critique of
theoretical arguments for the existence of God.

Antinomic arguments (though not the name “antin-
omy”) are widely used in philosophy. “An antinomy
produces a self-contradiction by accepted ways of
reasoning. It establishes that some tacit and trusted
pattern of reasoning must be made explicit and hence-
forward be avoided or revised,” writes a modern logi-
cian W. V. Quine, in The Ways of Paradox (1966), p.
7. It is perhaps the most typical form of argument in
the Platonic dialogues. Among Kant's predecessors who
employed explicitly antinomic arguments and who may
have specifically influenced him were Arthur Collier
in his treatment of space (Clavis universalis, 1713),
and Christian August Crusius in his treatment of
causality and freedom (Entwurf der nothwendigen
[1745]). Nor should the rhe-
torical conclusion of Hume's Natural History of
(1757) be overlooked as a possible stimulus
to Kant.

The antinomic procedure was extravagantly devel-
oped by Fichte and Hegel, Hegel complaining that
Kant erroneously limited the antinomies to the cosmo-
logical ideas and, even worse, limited them to notions
and principles when, in fact, the world itself is full
of contradictions (Science of Logic, first part originally
published in 1812; translated by W. H. Johnston and
L. C. Struthers [1929], I, 253). At a time of growing
irrationalism in philosophy, the antinomies were highly
esteemed as striking down the pretensions of reason.
Among later philosophers, the influence of Kant's
antinomies can be seen in Charles Renouvier's Les
dilemmes de la métaphysique pure
(1901) and other
works, and in Nicolai Hartmann's “aporetic method”
in all his books.


Kant gives a simplified account of the antinomy in
Prolegomena (1783), §§50-54. The most extensive study of
the antinomy is Heinz Heimsoeth's Transzendentale Dialek-
Part II: Vierfache Vernunftantinomie (Berlin, 1967). In
English, the authoritative (but very unsympathetic and
critical) study is Norman Kemp Smith's Commentary to
Kant's Critique of Practical Reason
(London, 1918; 2nd ed.,
1923), pp. 378-521.

Detailed evaluations of the antinomy in the spirit of the
antepenultimate paragraph of this article are in P. F.
Strawson's The Bounds of Sense (London, 1967), pp.
176-206, and (chosen from a very large periodical literature)
M. S. Gram's “Kant's First Antinomy,” The Monist, 51
(1967), 499-518.

On the origin of Kant's theory of antinomy, see: Karl
Siegel, “Kant's Antinomienlehre im Lichte der Inaugural-
dissertation,” Kant-Studien, 30 (1925), 67-86; L. Robinson,
“Contributions à l'histoire de l'évolution philosophique de
Kant,” Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 31 (1924),
268-353, especially 308-39; and reply by H. J. de
Vleeschauwer, “Les antinomies kantiennes et la Clavis
d'Arthur Collier,” Mind, 47 (1933), 303-20; Joong
Fang, Das Antinomienproblem im Entstehungsgang der
(Mainz Diss., 1960); and Norbert
Hinske, “Kant's Begriff der Antinomie und die Etappen
seiner Ausarbeitung,” Kant-Studien, 56 (1966), 485-96.

On the antinomies in the later Critiques, see L. W. Beck,
A Commentary on Kant's Critique of Practical Reason
(Chicago, 1962), Ch. 13, and H. W. Cassirer, A Commentary
on Kant's Critique of Judgment
(London, 1938).

On Crusius as an antinomic thinker with resemblances
to and influence upon Kant, see Heimsoeth's Studien zur
Philosophie Immanuel Kants
(Cologne, 1956), Ch. 3, and
Beck's Early German Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., 1969),
Ch. 16.

On Hegel as an elaborator and critic of Kant's theory
of antinomy see M. Gueroult, “Le jugement de Hegel sur
l'antithétique de la raison pure,” Revue de Métaphysique
et de Morale,
38 (1931), 413-39.


[See also Causation, Final Causes; Cosmology; Free Will
and Determinism; God; Happiness and Pleasure; Hegelian;
Infinity; Metaphor; Rationality.]