How to Read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason

Many newcomers to Western philosophy have trouble reading the Critique of Pure Reason, and it truly is a very difficult book. But the fact is that it does all make sense, not just in some facile verbal way but logically -- and once you're used to certain idiosyncrasies (especially the old-fashioned scholastic terms and the seemingly artificial organization of the text), you'll be well able to find out for yourself what Kant's points were, and whether or not he really made them. Here are some tips to help you get started with a minimum of pain and bafflement.


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    Read the Prolegomena first, or at the same time. That book, which is both clear and short, is Kant's own account of what the Critique was meant to accomplish and what prompted him to write it. If you read the Prolegomena and think he's barking up the wrong tree, put off the Critique... until you change your mind. (The last bit doesn't apply to people taking a class, of course.)
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    Consider reading Kant's lecture notes on logic. They can be surprisingly useful because they show how he believed philosophical thought should be organized and expressed. Regardless of whether you take his "logical method" seriously, no one denies that Kant took it very seriously, and once you can recognize it in the Critique, many passages become much easier to follow.
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    Don't expect a profound spiritual or aesthetic experience. Contrary to his reputation, Kant is an excellent writer, but he's not trying to take you to a higher level here, or even to entertain you. At all.
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    Choose your text with care. Abridgments are tempting, but every sentence of the original is there for a reason. Make sure you have the full texts of both the first and second editions.
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    Don't skip the Introduction. Key claims are made there, and key terms defined. Starting with the first chapter of the main text ("Transcendental Aesthetic") can feel like running headfirst into a brick wall. (It is all right to ignore the Prefaces on a first reading.)
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    Read every word of whatever parts you do read. It's possible to skim through one of Kant's arguments and get an accurate feeling for the meaning, but the details of the argument do matter, because he very often appeals to them later on -- and also because he is trying to prove his theses, not to make them appealing or lull you into adopting them unawares.
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    Read for context and emphasis: does Kant mean "synthetic unity of the manifold", "synthetic unity of the manifold", or "synthetic unity of the manifold"? It's not that the concepts are different, but the author is pointing out something different about the concept depending on where and how he uses the phrase. Take the phrases, sentences, paragraphs out of context and they all sound like the same kind of hollow, pretentious, narrow-minded nonsense, but in fact there's a thread of logical connections by which they all hang together as more than the sum of their parts.
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    Read aloud! Believe it or not, this can help you trace out that thread of argument, chiefly by locating the place where the emphasis falls.
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    Question everything you read. You'll usually find that the statement was justified earlier (or, in some cases, will be explained in the next paragraph). Not only is this the safest way to read a book of Western philosophy, but it is the best way to restore the logical connections of the text once you have lost track of them, which will often happen.
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    Take notes. This probably goes without saying.


  • The Critique of Pure Reason was only the first (though the longest) in a series of systematic works describing Kant's mature philosophy. The moral philosophy outlined in the "Canon of Pure Reason" chapter was later explained more thoroughly in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason. The "System of Principles" was followed up on in the Metaphysical Principles of Natural Science. Finally, the Critique of Judgment, which apparently was not part of Kant's original plan but which he thought was needed to fill a gap in the system, is a foundational text for the modern study of aesthetics and also includes a section on the use of teleological principles in science. So if you're one of those people who reaches page A855/B883 and wishes there were more, don't worry! (Most of the advice on this page applies to these other books as well, of course, and some is applicable more broadly.)


  • There is debate over which English translation is the best to use, but the more important point is that none of them can be perfect, as there are places in the German text where reasonable translators make substantially different choices. If you're deeply into the Critique but can't work effectively from the German original (which is online at the University of Bonn, in addition to several print editions), you can get along by comparing different translations. If you can only go with one, the Mueller translation is probably the best compromise between fidelity and readability, but the others (Kemp Smith, Wood-Guyer, Pluhar) have their advantages. Meiklejohn's translation, besides being the loosest, doesn't include the first-edition material that was removed--and not all of it replaced--for the second edition of 1787.
  • Don't become a crank! By any reasonable standard, some valuable philosophical work has been done in the last two hundred years, even if different people may disagree on what it is. There are many reasons, some of them good, why modern philosophers don't talk about Kant all the time. When you're fully immersed, it can be hard to remember that. But tracing out the history of Kant's influence on his contemporaries and successors--Frederick C. Beiser's The Fate of Reason is a great place to start--will help reassure you that you are not the only person who ever understood him, and he has not been totally neglected ever since.

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