Kant and Non-Materialistic Naturalism

Kant is, interestingly enough, concerned to uphold naturalism without materialism. While this seems odd at first blush, his reasons for doing so are fairly interesting and constitute a universally acknowledged important (though to what degree it’s successful is somewhat more in doubt) project. Let’s bracket to the side the fact that Kant has only a small number of not-so-good arguments for his position as well as some serious questions of coherence and see just what happens when we dig through his thought.

In more contemporary terms, metaphysical naturalism generally cashes out to a kind of materialism or physicalism – the only things that there are are material things (or, if we want to Quine things up, whatever we’re committed to by our best theories). It is, at its broadest, non-supernaturalism. The physical, causal order is all there is, in one way or another.

Kant was a naturalist in a slightly different sense: he took everything to be governed by mechanical laws but wanted to resist and undermine the assumption of materialism, which is more or less one of the driving reasons behind his transcendental idealism, which may be best understood as contrasting with its opposite, transcendental realism.

As I see Kant, he means two things by ‘transcendental realism’ (TR). (1) The epistemological thesis that we are fully aware of of the limitations of our own mind and can thus know the things in themselves, and (2) the metaphysical thesis that things exist in time and space apart from human cognition.This is a problem because the mathematical and mechanical laws of nature, on this scheme, govern literally every thing, including the things in themselves – and from this, Kant takes it, follows materialism.

Kant’s idealism needs little introduction, but setting it against TR, we can see that the basic gist is that (1) we aren’t fully aware of the limitations of our mind and can’t know the things in themselves and (2) the objects of our experience, things in time and space, exist as a result of our cognition and conceptual activity.

What this doctrine secures is this: a naturalism without materialism. How? By restricting the mathematical and mechanical laws of nature to the objects of our experience, Kant has protected the things in themselves from being naturalized or material-ized.

Put another way: if we can experience or know the things in themselves, then the universal laws of nature apply to them, because they apply to everything. By restricting our knowledge and experience from the things in themselves, Kant has both secured his naturalism (because the laws of nature apply to everything we experience) and attacked materialism (by showing that the universal laws of nature do not apply to everything).

If Kant is right then, naturalism is correct in the sense that universal laws govern everything we experience – but by restricting this to the appearances, he can both avoid and attack materialism, since the laws apply only to our experience and not to the things in themselves. Thus, while everything we expereince is ‘natural’, not everything is in nature.

3 thoughts on “Kant and Non-Materialistic Naturalism

  1. PeterJ May 11, 2015 / 12:02 pm

    Nice post WF. Not sure I agree with everything said about Kant here but then no two people ever do. 🙂

    it definitely needs repeating again and again that naturalism (anti-supernaturalism) does not necessitate materialism. Indeed, it does not even necessitate ‘things-in-themselves’. All we have to do is say that everything is natural. Job done. I would say religion at its best is naturalism while materialism is an appeal to paradoxes and miracles.

    If we have no idea what is natural and what is not then we have no means for defining ‘naturalism’ other than as an in principle rejection of the supernatural. To tighten the definition further would require either a great deal of speculation or omniscience.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ontologicalrealist May 13, 2015 / 8:45 pm

    Thanks whitefrozen for replying to my question before.

    ” The objects of our experience, things in time and space, exist as a result of our cognition and conceptual activity.”

    Do you agree or disagree with this statement?


    • whitefrozen May 13, 2015 / 8:50 pm

      I am a realist, so no, I do not agree with that – if you peruse the Torrance and Kant tags, you’ll find more in that subject.


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