Kant’s great contribution was to point out the revolution in natural science effected by Galileo and Bacon and their successors. This stands in principle even though all the rest of his philosophy wither away. Prior to Galileo people had been concerned with reading laws in Nature. After Galileo they read laws into Nature. His clear recognition of this fact makes Kant the fundamental philosopher of the modern world. It is the greatest contribution to the philosophia perennis since St. Thomas. But this has to be dug patiently out of Kant. Kant himself so overlaid and obscured his discovery that is has ever since gone well nigh unrecognised.
We may, in fact we must, refrain from following Kant in his doctrine of metaphysics. The modelling of metaphysics on physics was his great experiment. The experiment is manifestly a failure, in pursuit of what he mistakenly believed to be the best interests of metaphysics.
But, putting the metaphysical experiment aside, the principle on which it was founded abides, the principle of our categorial activity. Later, in Ch. XVIII, we will see in more detail how this principle is essential to the modern development of the philosophia perennis.
Kant was truly the philosopher of the modern world when we look judiciously at his work. As a motto for the Kritik Kant actually quotes a passage from Francis Bacon in which is laid down the programme for the pursuit of human utility and power. [Footnote: The passage is quoted again in this work on [Ardley’s] p. 47.] As we saw in Ch. IV, it was Bacon above all who gave articulate expression to the spirit behind the new science. Now we see that it was Kant who, for the first time, divined the nature of the new science. If Bacon was the politician of the new régime, Kant was its philosopher although a vastly over-ambitious one.
What was needed was for someone to point out clearly the ‘otherness’ of post-Galilean physical science, i.e. the fact that it is, in a sense, cut off from the rest of the world, and is the creation of man himself. [Footnote: See [Ardley’s] p. 53.] The new science has no metaphysical foundations and no metaphysical implications. Kant had the clue to this ‘otherness’ in the categorial theory, but he took the rest of the world with him in the course of the revolution and hence only succeeded in the end in missing the point.
Most people since then, rightly sceptical about Kant’s wholesale revolution, have been quite hostile to the Kantian system in general. Others, perhaps without realising it, have rewritten the revolution in their own terms, and thus have perpetuated Kant’s principal errors (as e.g. Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. [Footnote: See [Ardley’s] Ch. VII.]
A thorough sifting out of Kant has long been required in order to separate the gold from the dross.
What is needed is not a wholesale revolution, like Kant’s, but a limited revolution. This, it has been suggested in Ch. III, can be effected along the lines of Eddington’s Procrustean bed theory, which is what Kant should have said, and perhaps what he wanted to say, but what he could not quite manage to articulate.
Kant’s mistake was to think that the world had to be transformed to know it. The truth is that the world may be transformed, if we so dictate, and then it is not to know the world but to control it.
The story of Kant and his problem is the story of a man who saw far but not quite far enough. In him a great enlightenment was mingled with a great darkness. We shall see in Ch. XVIII in what way the purged Kant is the successor of St. Thomas and the completer of his great edifice.
Taken from Gavin Ardley’s “Aquinas and Kant”, Ch.VI: Immanuel Kant.