The Thesis: Scepticism and Unattainable Certainty, Transcendental Idealism and Humanised Epistemology

It took a year, but eventually I got 23,000 or so words out of my computer and onto paper as part of my thesis. It goes by the rather ponderous and, some would say, wanky title of Scepticism and Unattainable Certainty, Transcendental Idealism and Humanised Epistemology.

Feel free to download the thesis in full, and may a whole slew of universities be inundated with my plagiarised work.

The introduction is below.

Scepticism and Unattainable Certainty, Transcendental Idealism and Humanised Epistemology


Western philosophy has had to contend with scepticism since its first days. Carried through the millennia has been a constant questioning or undermining of human cognition that, in its extremer forms, distrusts what we ordinarily experience and introduces a pervasive sense of doubt into what we think we know. Descartes, the inaugurator of modern philosophy, famously attempted to arrive at indubitability in the face of thoroughgoing scepticism after feeling himself adrift in the milieu of intellectual upheaval that he was living through. And such was his work’s impact that it drew the attention of the Western philosophical tradition more closely towards epistemological matters and guided the inquiries of those that came after him down the same path.

I argue, however, that this focus on scepticism leads only to philosophical dead ends. By making it the centrepiece of a philosophical program, one must either vanquish scepticism by establishing absolutely certain knowledge, as Descartes attempted to do, or one must pragmatically deal with the consequences of an undefeated scepticism, as Hume suggested. Yet by even entertaining the notion that an absolute certainty can be attained, I contend that an irrefutable doubt is injected into human affairs that enfeebles other more fruitful avenues of philosophical analysis by placing too arduous a condition on its development. Such scepticism pushes enquiry further away from its anchor in the ordinary perplexities of human experience, thereby making the pursuit of certainty for its own sake the arbiter of what makes for meritable philosophy rather than the insightful analysis of the less-than-definite way we live our lives. This is not to say that pure logic, for instance, is of no consequence, or that philosophy should be a simple affair free of abstraction. Rather, philosophy needs to be aware of its own limitations as a human endeavour and engage in its enquiries accordingly if it is to best examine life and thought.

The first chapter of this thesis is devoted to the analysis of how Descartes dealt with scepticism in the guise of methodological doubt. The analysis will centre on two specific areas: firstly, the extent of Descartes’ methodological doubt and whether or not what he left unquestioned is of significance; and, secondly, the philosophical result of applying Descartes’ methodological doubt if one were to admit that it had merit. My contention is that Descartes’ methodological doubt either does not go far enough or is inconsistent with other parts of his own philosophy, and, even if these shortcomings were overlooked, the exercise of methodological doubt results in a hampered philosophy whose enduring utility is limited.

The second chapter looks at how scepticism plays out in Hume’s philosophical work. Although an empiricist, I maintain that Hume, like Descartes, was left with consciousness as the sole indubitable point from which to build his epistemology. Hume’s empiricism, however, precluded him from recourse to metaphysical entities, and the naturalism he espoused was his means for explaining why we do believe in notions such as causality and the substantial self even though sceptical arguments demonstrate that they are unjustified. In this way, Hume’s naturalism is a pragmatic palliative to scepticism’s ills, although I argue that the palliative fails to properly account for the unremitting doubt that is at the centre of his philosophy.

Kant, however, found a way out of the sceptical impasse by reframing the epistemological debate. Kant is rightly considered as the synthesiser of the rationalist and empiricist positions, but what is often overlooked is the important role transcendental idealism plays in his dealing with scepticism. In much of the copious commentary on his Critique of Pure Reason, transcendental idealism is disparaged as fanciful or incoherent and many have attempted to extract what they find admirable in Kant’s work from the unwanted bedrock. Contrariwise, certain commentators have staunchly defended transcendental idealism from its detractors and have attempted to show its integral place in Kant’s philosophy. I take up the cause of the defenders, and, in the process, argue that transcendental idealism introduced a new framework from which to ask epistemological questions by undermining the starting assumptions behind Cartesian and Humean scepticism. Where before one only had recourse to arrive at absolute certainty in order to defeat scepticism or accept the consequences of unremitting doubt, I contend that transcendental idealism changed the nature of the epistemological debate so that more radical sceptical arguments are marginalised as undecidable. As a result, I maintain that transcendental idealism provides the justification for trusting a much larger portion of our ordinary experience in our epistemological enquiries, thereby enabling a renewed focus on developing philosophy that deals with the full weight of our lives.

In the third and final chapter, I examine what role transcendental idealism plays in the Transcendental Deduction, where the heart of Kant’s epistemology resides. I argue that Kant’s epistemological approach meant he could avoid falling prey to scepticism and having to prove that our cognitions match up with a more privileged, real or absolute reality that we as humans cannot access. Instead, Kant outpointed scepticism rather than delivering a knock-out blow by asking what we can justifiably be sceptical of given his groundbreaking model of human cognition. Kant’s model of human cognition had both active and passive aspects so that a conception of the world is constructed out of inchoate sensory data which is received. This meant Kant could draw a line between what can and cannot be known so that the certainty he was attempting to attain is much less ambitious in nature. As a consequence, ordinary human experience and its preconditions were able to form the foundation of Kant’s philosophy so that a model of human cognition could be developed that addressed human concerns without needlessly worrying about reality in a more absolute sense. I argue that not only does excising transcendental idealism from the Critique undermine its metaphysical support, but, more generally, any philosophy without transcendental idealism as its undergirding is tantamount to refusing to acknowledge the limitations of being human. Transcendental idealism is the means by which philosophy can address ordinary human problems without the spectre of scepticism hanging over its head, and any work done on the presumption that a picture of absolute reality can be developed will find a quixotic outcome at best.


3 thoughts on “The Thesis: Scepticism and Unattainable Certainty, Transcendental Idealism and Humanised Epistemology

  1. Now this is a strange site. First I saw some Proust, and then I saw some Spanish, including even Unamuno, and here comes el mismísimo Manolo Kant.Now next I’d want to find out whether you are European or American. Americans dislike Kant and love Hume.

    As to the Proust quote (about collecting old names would be almost like collecting old musical instruments): you said it was a classic, but you did not say anything else. Have you read him in French? It makes a lot of difference, you know.

  2. Australian!

    Hmmmm. Vaya cosas. “También los hay extraterrestres” said the portero of the edificio where I used to live when a friend of mine tried to explain to him that he was from the US and “más allá de Avila”.

  3. Yes, a rather strange site, unplanned and somewhat a farrago of readings and writings and interests.

    I think Anglo-Americans dislike Kant because the first bunch of interpretations in the English language were in a different tack to the continental interpretations (and with Kant, you need the help of interpretations). There’s been a fair bit of catching up with the continental interpretations in the English speaking world lately, and these lectures are a fantastic look at the first Critique from an American:

    Unfortunately, I fear I’ll never be able to read Proust profitably in the original French. I can read Spanish, Portuguese and Greek (with some dictionary help), but French I know only well enough to understand the gist of a French newspaper. Reading those intricate phrases of Proust’s with any semblance of understanding is beyond me and will probably remain that way forever.

    And Australia is sometimes referred to as the arse end of the world, perhaps al otro lado de Avila por la tierra.

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