4.2.4 Constructivism


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • How Immanuel Kant argued that the human mind constructs reality.
  • Kant’s key ideas of “the noumenal and the phenomenal,” “intuitions,” the powers of “sensibility and understanding,” and the “12 categories of the understanding.”
  • How Kant believed he had refuted the skepticism of the empiricists and once again found certain knowledge.
  • Strengths and weaknesses of the constructivist approach to knowledge.


Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind. – Immanuel Kant


By the end of the 18th century, we see that European thinkers who were so confident that Descartes and the Rationalists had discovered certain knowledge (episteme) were once again experiencing an age of Skepticism given the important work of the Empiricist David Hume. To some, it seemed philosophy was in a crisis, for if nothing was certain, how can we ever be confident in our understandings of the self and the world? Moreover, the empiricists Berkeley and Hume made it self-evident to most that we can never escape the confines of our separate minds in order to get to any kind of knowledge of what lies outside the mind. How can we trust our experience? Berkeley had believed that God gave assurances that our experience was objective and real, but Hume had shown that the mind has no percept of God and therefore the idea of God was equally unreliable. How were we ever to know anything with certainty again? Immanuel Kant responded to this crisis in epistemology with what he called Transcendental Philosophy.  Later philosophers would develop Kant’s ideas into what came to be known as Constructivism–the idea that the mind constructs all reality.

The word “transcendental” was not new in philosophy. The Medieval Schoolmen had used it to describe whatever could not be comprehended or classified under the so-called categories of Aristotle, who was the recognized prince of the intellectual world. These categories were ten in number: Quantity, Quality, Relation, Action, Passion, The Where, The When, Position in Space, Possession, Substance. Four things were regarded by the Schoolmen as transcending these mental forms—namely, Being, Truth, Unity, and Goodness. …. In the terminology of Kant, the term “transcendent” was employed to designate qualities that lie outside of all “experience,” that … cannot be reached either by observation or reflection or explained as the consequences of any discoverable antecedents. The term “transcendental” designated the fundamental conceptions, the universal and necessary judgments, which transcend the sphere of experience, and at the same time impose the conditions that make experience [indebted] to knowledge. The transcendental philosophy is the philosophy that is built on these necessary and universal principles, these primary laws of mind, which are the ground of absolute truth. (Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England, Gutenberg)

Immanuel Kant

We met Kant in our chapter on Ethics where we saw him emphasize the role of reason in moral deliberation. In his most famous work, the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), Kant sought to determine the limits and scope of metaphysics [theory of reality]. Also referred to as Kant’s “First Critique”, it was followed by his Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and Critique of Judgment (1790). In the preface to the first edition, Kant explains that by a “critique of pure reason” he means a critique “of the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all knowledge after which it may strive independently of all experience” and that he aims to reach a decision about “the possibility or impossibility of metaphysics.”

In response to the new skepticism, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant offered a new theory of knowledge which came to be known as Kantian Constructivism.

Kant’s new philosophy is sometimes called the “Copernican revolution of philosophy” to emphasize its novelty and huge importance. Kant brought together rationalism and empiricism. After Kant, the old debate between rationalists and empiricists ended, and epistemology went in a new direction. After Kant, no discussion of reality or knowledge could take place without awareness of the role of the human mind in constructing reality and knowledge.

Yes, Kant agreed, the Empiricists were correct; all knowledge must begin with experience. We are not born with innate ideas. But that does not mean knowledge comes from experience. Experience, or sense data, what Kant called intuitions, are only the beginning of knowledge. Sense experience must be processed by the power of the human mind before it can be said to be knowledge. The mind, in essence, “constructs” the world we know.

Ponder if you will….

Consider your laptop or desktop computer. How does it generate the meaningful images, sounds, and text it does? All that comes into your computer are 1’s and 0’s. If they went directly to your screen would look something like this:
Meaningless. But what does the amazing software of your machine do? It converts these raw bits of information into all the great stuff that you see on your screen. For Kant, the mind was a world-generating engine, not a passive video camera. Our world is created within our minds, and apart from what appears to our minds, we can say nothing about the world.

Recall those summer days when you and your friends would lie in the grass and look at the clouds. You would challenge each other to see in certain cloud formations objects or faces or animals. These images were not “in” the clouds, but your mind superimposed them “onto” the clouds. Kant is suggesting our minds do something similar with all our experiences. The intuitions that come from outside the mind are taken into our awareness by what Kant called the Power of Sensibility. This is the mind’s passive power, its receptivity. Yet for that sense data to become knowledge (for the clouds to become figures), the Power of Sensibility “sends” that data to the Power of Understanding. This is the active, constructive power of the mind. This power filters the raw intuitions through 12 different categories, the Categories of the Understanding. These categories organize the data according to Space, Time, Unity, Plurality, etc. In other words, it “constructs” from this raw sense data meaningful images, shapes, perspectives, in short, a meaningful “world.”

Portrait of Immanuel Kant

These 12 categories are what Kant calls “synthetic” a priori propositions. A term from logic, a synthetic a priori proposition is one in which the predicate contains information that is not present in the subject, but the truth- value of the proposition can be obtained without recourse to experience. For example, the proposition “Some bodies are heavy” is synthetic because the idea of heaviness is not necessarily contained in that of bodies. On the other hand, the proposition “All husbands are male” is what he calls an analytic proposition because the idea of “maleness” is already contained in the concept of “husband.” In general, the truth or falsity of synthetic statements is proved only by whether or not they conform to the way the world is and not by virtue of the meaning of the words they contain.


Ponder if you will….

Consider the concept of 3-D space. In order to be able to say, “I am over here, and that thing is over there,” you must have a concept of space to begin with. Kant points out that experience simply does not account for all the knowledge we have. He realized that in order to have experiences, our minds must already contain certain a priori concepts – like space, number, and time. Synthetic a priori concepts, then, are a necessary condition of having a mind. In this way, Kant sees reason and experience working hand-in-hand.

In this way, the two powers of the mind “construct” our world. Note, that this tells us nothing about the world outside our minds. Kant called this the “noumenal” world. Noumenal means “mysterious” or “unknowable.” He agreed with Berkeley and Hume that we can never know what lies outside of our consciousness. The thing in itself (Kant: das ding an sich) is ultimately beyond us. For Hume, this led to skepticism, his belief we cannot ever know reality. All we can know is the “phenomenal,” whatever appears within the mind. But here is where Kant makes his great, Copernican turn. Hume’s contention that reality was beyond us is upended by Kant, who radically alters the meaning of the word “reality.” Just as Copernicus took the sun from “outside” the center and made it central, so now Kant takes reality from outside our minds and makes it the construct of the mind itself. Reality is that thing that human minds generate.

However, does this solve the problem of Skepticism? How can we know that we are all constructing the same world? Kant argued that we all construct the same world because we must. The categories of understanding compel each of us to sort the data of experience in the same way. Kant here is speaking of fully adult, rational minds unclouded by emotion. He recognized that in some of us the “software” of the mind was broken or skewed. Still, he firmly believed that the very nature of mature human rationality would ensure us an “objective” and common experience of the phenomenal “world,” even though we can never reach whatever there might be in the noumenal.

Excerpts from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

In the passages that follow from Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” note the distinction he makes between a priori and a posteriori knowledge.

Do you agree with Kant that knowledge begins with experience but does not arise solely from experience?

That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt. For how is it possible that the faculty of cognition should be awakened into exercise otherwise than by means of objects which affect our senses, and partly of themselves produce representations, partly rouse our powers of understanding into activity, to compare, to connect, or to separate these, and so to convert the raw material of our sensuous impressions into a knowledge of objects, which is called experience? In respect of time, therefore, no knowledge of ours is antecedent to [comes before] experience but begins with it.

What two sources does Kant say knowledge arises from?

But though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of [comes from] experience. For, on the contrary, it is quite possible that our empirical knowledge is a compound of that which we receive through impressions, and that which the faculty of cognition supplies from itself (sensuous impressions giving merely the occasion), an addition which we cannot distinguish from the original element given by sense, till long practice has made us attentive to, and skillful in separating it. It is, therefore, a question which requires close investigation, and not to be answered at first sight, whether there exists a knowledge altogether independent of experience, and even of all sensuous impressions? Knowledge of this kind is called à priori, in contradistinction to empirical knowledge, which has its sources à posteriori, that is, in experience. (Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, Introduction, Part I, Project Gutenberg)

Note Kant’s observation that we need both reason and experience to build a proper foundation for understanding knowledge.

Now the safe ground of experience being thus abandoned, it seems nevertheless natural that we should hesitate to erect a building with the cognitions we possess, without knowing whence they come, and on the strength of principles, the origin of which is undiscovered. Instead of thus trying to build without a foundation, it is rather to be expected that we should long ago have put the question, how the understanding can arrive at these à priori cognitions, and what is the extent, validity, and worth which they may possess? (Kant, Critique, Introduction, Part III, Gutenberg)

How to be a Constructivist

Constructivism is somewhat more complicated than simply combining Rationalism and Empiricism, although this oversimplification does get us more than halfway there. The Constructivist recognizes that our experiences shape our ability to reason, but we are limited to what we can experience because we cannot access the noumenal world. The pursuit of knowledge requires us to combine a posteriori knowledge with a priori reasoning. When faced with a truth claim such as “the Earth is flat,” the Constructivist would first ask what arguments and proofs there are for this claim. The Constructivist would examine both the logic and reasoning supporting the claim, as well as the empirical evidence provided in support of the claim. A logical argument that is well supported with empirical evidence will be very persuasive to the Constructivist.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Constructivism

Kant’s epistemology, as presented in his “Critique of Pure Reason,” has several strengths and weaknesses:

On the one hand:

  1. Kant attempts to reconcile empiricism and rationalism by proposing that knowledge arises from both experience and innate concepts of the mind. This synthesis aims to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how we acquire knowledge.  The combination of both reason and empirical experience in the creation of knowledge matches our human experience of the world. The argument that we gain knowledge through the use of both reason and experience is much stronger than the claim that we know things only by one process or the other. If you burn your finger on a hot stove, you not only learn through experience, but you are also able to reason that hot stoves will likely burn you.
  2. Kant understood that sense experience alone is meaningless if we do not already have an existing structure in our mind within which to evaluate and organize the experience. Our minds are active participants in knowledge creation, not passive. Part of that activity of the mind comes from our unique ability to conceptualize things like causality, space, and time. If we did not have this ability, our experiences would not be comprehensible.
  3. Kant’s concept suggests that our minds actively structure our experiences of the world. This idea opens up discussions about the relationship between the mind and reality, emphasizing the active role of the subject in shaping knowledge.
  4. Kant’s critical approach challenges metaphysical claims by highlighting the limitations of human knowledge. In stressing the noumenal, he aims to set boundaries on what can be known, leading to a more cautious approach toward speculative metaphysical reasoning.

On the other hand:

  1. Kant’s writing style and the intricate nature of his arguments make his epistemology challenging to understand. The dense language and abstract concepts can be a barrier for readers, leading to misinterpretations or confusion.
  2. Kant argues that human knowledge is confined to the realm of experience and cognition. While this limitation is a cautious stance, it also restricts the possibility of accessing knowledge beyond human perception, potentially limiting our understanding of broader truths.
  3. Kant’s emphasis on the mind’s role in shaping reality raises questions about the objectivity of knowledge. Critics argue that this perspective might lean toward subjectivism, suggesting that reality is purely a construction of individual minds rather than an objective reality outside human experience.  His constructivism helpfully explicates active, interested, perspective-laden features of interpretation-driven learning essential to higher knowledge, but it struggles to explain objectivity, the resistance of reality to some constructions over others in generating reliable understanding.
  4. Kant’s delineation of the limits of knowledge can be vague. The distinction between what lies within the realm of possible experience and what transcends it might not be explicitly defined, leading to ambiguity in understanding the precise boundaries of human knowledge. Constructivism admits we cannot know anything about the world outside of our experience. Because our mind shapes our experiences, we are limited to only what we can experience, thus, we can never have knowledge of reality as it is in itself.
  5. Moreover, modern studies are showing that the human ability to conceptualize things like space and time varies from culture to culture. Perhaps concepts like these are not as universal and objective as Kant had thought. If these studies are correct, doesn’t that put a chink in Kant’s argument that we share an objective reality?

Kant’s epistemology has significantly influenced modern philosophy, stimulating debates and discussions that continue to shape our understanding of knowledge, perception, and the nature of reality. Despite its weaknesses, Kant’s critical approach remains a pivotal contribution to the field of epistemology.



Works Cited

Becker, Johann Gottlieb. “Immanuel Kant.” LARGE NORWEGIAN ENCYCLOPEDIA, LARGE NORWEGIAN ENCYCLOPEDIA, https://snl.no/Immanuel_Kant. Accessed 12 Apr. 2022.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book