Transcendental idealism and the problem of the external world

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Philosophy Department

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Research Article

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Journal of the History of Philosophy

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Kantian transcendental idealism has often been praised for resolving dialectical conflicts and attacked for "representationalism." This paper defends Kant against "representationalism" by suggesting that pre-critical attempts to prove the reality of external objects lead to a dialectical conflict, which, while not explicitly outlined in the Kritik, the Kritik nonetheless resolves. That the Kritik resolves dialectical conflicts in addition to those which it explicitly describes is suggested by Reinhold's Briefe, which Kant himself endorsed. For Reinhold, attempts to justify religious belief produce a dialectical conflict between metaphysical appeals to speculative reason and hyperphysical appeals to "blind faith," which Kant resolves by reconciling both opposed claims. The dialectical conflict concerning the external world takes a similar form: The thesis describes Descartes's claim to know that representations correspond to real things by rational inference; the antithesis describes Hume's claim that conviction in the reality of the external world is merely the pre-rational "belief" that representations immediately correspond with external objects. Transcendental idealism resolves this conflict by demonstrating that conviction in the identity of representation and object is rationally justifiable. Therefore, far from reducing empirical reality to a mere veil of ideas, Kant actually rationally demonstrates the reality of the external world.

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