This article was last modified on March 14, 2007.

The Impenetrability of Kant

Of all the philosophers since the beginning of time, one is given credit as the second most influential — second only to Plato. And he is also called the most influential in modern philosophy. I speak, of course, of Immanuel Kant.

However, I think Kane has another distinction that should be stressed: he is more or less indisputably the most difficult to understand and decipher. I am not the first to say so, and I won’t be the last… I merely point this out to put myself on record as saying my frustration with Kant is extreme, and I suffer some bewilderment in trying to determine why he is hailed as a monolithic figure.

Philosopher and historian of philosophy Douglas J. Soccio hits the nail on the head when he says, “[t]he Critique of Pure Reason is one of the most difficult books ever written. Philosophy majors approach it with dread and then forever after boast proudly if they manage to read th entire thing.” [Soccio: 385] I admit I have never made my way through the Critique and that the prospect of trying to sift the contents is something that I would rather never do.

The concepts of “phenomena” and “noumena” are confusing at first glance, then become clear… and then become more confusing when examined. “Transcendental Idealism” is a radical departure from the philosophy of the past. Soccio certainly recognizes that much of this is as clear as mud and perhaps not even comprehensable in any full sense. After explaining Kant’s theories (in a book designed for freshman), he freely admits that “your philosophy instructor may have other interpretations of Kant.” [Soccio: 398] If any two professors cannot even agree on what he actually said, how are we as students supposed to understand… let alone actually apply the teachings with any authority?

And how much can we take from Kant as being authoritative anyway? In one instance, he talks about a “substance” and later about “substances”. [Thomson: 236] At times he’ll tell us about how the noumena works (such as its ability to be affected by free causes) and at others he says the noumena is completely unknowable, making any mention of its properties highly suspicious. [Thomson: 240] Others have argued he has no clear grasp of the difference between permanent objects and semi-permanent objects, with relation to how we tell time (time is based on the movement of a temporary object or event against the backdrop of a permanent object or event). Of these, I find the noumena objection the most telling — he undermines his very foundations!

Unfortunately, if you take a philosophy class or pursue a philosophy degree, you will confront Kant. I tried my best to avoid him, but he kept popping up at the worst moments (like the gopher from Caddyshack). You can take my advice — read about Kant, read Kant directly if you must, but don’t strain yourself trying to understand him, because the moment you think you understand you’ve already begun to fool yourself.

Kant is undeniably one of the biggest figures in the history of philosophy, but he is also beyond a shadow of a doubt also the least digestible. Immanuel Kant makes Edmund Husserl seem like Dr. Suess.


Soccio, Douglas J. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy, Third Edition. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998.

Thomson, Garrett. Descartes to Kant: An Introduction to Modern Philosophy. Waveland Press, 1993.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

2 Responses to “The Impenetrability of Kant”

  1. Sethums Says:

    Maybe Kant is so highly regarded because he is so hard to understand?

  2. Kerry McCarthy Says:

    Love reading Kant.

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