Kantian and Neo-Kantian First Principles for Physical and Metaphysical Cognition

Research paper by Michael E. Cuffaro

Indexed on: 30 Jan '20Published on: 07 Jun '19Published in: arXiv - Physics - History of Physics


I argue that Immanuel Kant's critical philosophy---in particular the doctrine of transcendental idealism which grounds it---is best understood as an `epistemic' or `metaphilosophical' doctrine. As such it aims to show how one may engage in the natural sciences and in metaphysics under the restriction that certain conditions are imposed on our cognition of objects. Underlying Kant's doctrine, however, is an ontological posit, of a sort, regarding the fundamental nature of our cognition. This posit, sometimes called the `discursivity thesis', while considered to be completely obvious and uncontroversial by some, has nevertheless been denied by thinkers both before and after Kant. One such thinker is Jakob Friedrich Fries, an early neo-Kantian thinker who, despite his rejection of discursivity, also advocated for a metaphilosophical understanding of critical philosophy. As I will explain, a consequence for Fries of the denial of discursivity is a radical reconceptualisation of the method of critical philosophy; whereas this method is a priori for Kant, for Fries it is in general empirical. I discuss these issues in the context of quantum theory, and I focus in particular on the views of the physicist Niels Bohr and the Neo-Friesian philosopher Grete Hermann. I argue that Bohr's understanding of quantum mechanics can be seen as a natural extension of an orthodox Kantian viewpoint in the face of the challenges posed by quantum theory, and I compare this with the extension of Friesian philosophy that is represented by Hermann's view.