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Delving into the Truth of Idealism and Realism through Kantian Philosophy

Kiyoshi Chiba
Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Confronting Philosophy as a Personal Matter

I started reading about social and political theory when I was in junior high school, and by the time I was in high school, I was knowledgeable enough to engage in political discussions with my friends. Eventually, my fascination shifted towards philosophy, and I decided that I wanted to study philosophy at Kyoto University. When I first visited the university, I was surprised to see many of the students reading Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc. At the time, about a third of the students in the Faculty of Letters started off by pursuing studies in Philosophy, but by the time they reached their junior year, these numbers declined. By my third year of studies, which was when students chose their major, the only ones who were left studying philosophy did so not just out of curiosity, but with a determination to make it their main academic focus.

I was originally interested in phenomenology, a philosophical study that focuses on subjectivism and consciousness. In my studies, I began seriously reading the original texts of modern phenomenologists such as Husserl and Heidegger. It took me half a year to finish reading Heidegger's Being and Time in German, and I had a very difficult time making sense of it. It was around that time I was told by one of my professors to read Kant and that no matter what I did, I would eventually have to study Kantian philosophy. That's when I first encountered the theories of Immanuel Kant, said to be one of the founders of German idealism. In the 18th century, Kant countered the conventional worldview of objectivism by developing a philosophical system of subjectivism, based on human consciousness and ideas, and laid them out in his philosophical critique, Critique of Pure Reason. He has greatly influenced many modern philosophers, and any student of philosophy must at some point study him. However, this was not the only reason why I wanted to delve into Kant's philosophy as something truly worth studying.

Soon after I started reading Kant, I experienced something that forced me to directly confront philosophy as a personal matter. This experience led me to believe that there must be some truth to the ideas of idealism and solipsism, which declare that the world is only how one sees it, and that reality is limited to what one can perceive. This greatly changed the way I saw and thought about things. However, I also believe that there are elements that cannot be ignored in the philosophy of realism, which declares that the world exists independently of our consciousness, and that reality exists regardless of whether we do or not. The insight I gained from studying this philosophical confrontation is not that one side is correct and the other is not, or that one side incorporates itself into the other, but that there is truth to both sides of this conflicting argument. This personal insight has become the core of my philosophical pursuits to this day. The works of Kant focus on this dual nature of reality, that there is truth in both philosophical theories as he tries to find harmony between them. I eventually began to feel a strong motivation in making his philosophical pursuits my own.

Continuing on to graduate school, I studied abroad during the third year of my doctorate program at the University of Bonn in Germany. The research project for my doctoral dissertation was ambitiously titled "Kant's Philosophy on Self and Time" and spanned all four chapters of my dissertation. But my PhD supervisor in Bonn convinced me to narrow it down to just one chapter. In the end, my research for the first chapter alone developed into a 400-page publication (picture below). While I was in Germany, I felt very much at home; the environment strongly encouraged people to propose clear counter-arguments in discussions, as well as closely examine the stances of one another. The fact that I was able to carve myself a niche in the forefront of discussion surrounding Kantian philosophy, and to seriously delve in my studies is something I truly cherish. I also found Germany to be a very open-minded country that accepted cultural diversity. Nobody batted an eye while I walked along the Rhine in my padded kimono to keep myself warm in the cold weather.

Kiyoshi Chiba,
Kants Ontologie der raumzeitlichen Wirklichkeit: Versuch einer anti-realistischen Interpretation der Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Kant's Ontology of the Spatiotemporal Reality: Essay to an Anti-Realist Interpretation of Critique of Pure Reason, published by Walter de Gruyter, February 2012

University of Bonn

Munsterplatz in Bonn and the statue of Beethoven

Demonstrating the True Value of Subjectivism

The Kant Prize from the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Bonn (left) and the Research Award from Waseda University (right)

My research, which focuses on Kantian philosophy, may seem like a dull subject to most people. However, I am very happy and proud to have had the honor of having my work recognized for the best doctoral dissertation prize for the academic year of 2009 to 2010 from the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Bonn—which, coincidentally, is titled the "Kant Prize (Kant Preis)"—as well as the Waseda Research Award (High-Impact Publication) for the 2016 academic year.

If I were to summarize what I've achieved in my research up to now, I would divide it into three points. First is the presentation of a strong argument in favor of the idealist position in the debate between the realist and idealist interpretations surrounding Kant's transcendental idealism, which has been a subject of discourse since the publication of Critique of Pure Reason. Second is the preparation of intellectual tools necessary for more fruitful interpretation of Kantian philosophy. Third is the application of those tools to clarify the aspects of Kant's idealism in more detailed and precise ways. With regards to the first point, when studying historical disputes, I began to think that although terms like "realist interpretation" and "idealist interpretation" were used in the discussions, the phrases were never clearly defined, which led to confusion in the arguments.

As for the second and third points, I came to the conclusion that the lack of clarity in the arguments surrounding my first point was not due to the negligence of scholars of the past, but rather the fact that there were no clear set of intellectual tools required to dissect the particulars of Kantian philosophy. By applying a modern analytical framework to the discussion, I was able to demonstrate a new method of interpreting these ideas. For example, we can apply the precise intellectual tools developed by analytical philosophers of the English-speaking world, such as the anti-realism of Michael Dummett and Crispin Wright and philosophical analyses surrounding the intuitionist mathematics and logic. In doing so, we can better understand the more subtle and detailed aspects of Kant's assertions and redefine the problems he presented.

What this research aims to do currently is to provide a consistent resolution to traditional disputes regarding the interpretation of Kant's works. With that said, there was the much wider, personal intention in my continuing pursuit of understanding the dual nature of subjective and objective worldviews. The philosophies of realism and the objective worldview are powerful ideas and today, there are many convincing arguments supporting both of these theories. For me to make the claim that there is truth in both subjectivism and objectivism, I must first demonstrate that—because it is currently not as well supported—subjectivism is worth the effort to more closely examine. This is how I came to pursue a more refined and convincing stance in support of subjectivism and idealism through interpretation of Kant's work.

Of course, my final goal is to demonstrate that these conflicting philosophies both contain truth, but for the time being, I have reached the point where I can provide some level of logical basis in support of subjectivism. However, this is an arduous journey for me to take. Although I have not become disillusioned of my initial conviction, I have, for the time being, decided to compromise absolute truth for a partial one in order to move on to the next step. This is where I currently stand in my philosophical pursuits.

The Persistent Pursuit of an Obscured Problem

With that said, although it is true that I have had to make compromises, compared to the absolute conviction I held when I started this journey, it is not as if I've given up and started down an entirely different path. My endeavors are not that tragic. For instance, I am currently trying to see what happens when I compromise a part of my argument to make the case that subjectivism and objectivism are both indispensable in terms of our understanding of ourselves, instead of boldly claiming that subjectivism and objectivism are both true.

Although it is not my intention to study only Kant, I believe it is worthwhile to continue studying Kantian philosophy with the aim of clarifying the ideas that are thought to be already known, but in fact not clearly understood. Kant brought the problems of the real world to light very effectively, and his philosophies are very relevant to our world today. His philosophies still attract the amount of fascination and discussion it does today because he presented the problems of existence, time, consciousness, self and intuition in their raw, jagged forms and in a way that leaves no room for compromise, rather than dulling the edges and explaining in a conciliatory manner.

It has been realized since the 1990s that the very ideas of "concept" and "intuition", which were considered as basic tools in philosophy in general, were not defined clearly enough. The arguments surrounding what "concepts" are, what "intuitions" are, and how they are different, have been pushed to the forefront. I believe approaching this problem using the framework of my research into Kant can lead to significant results. As I venture towards my goal, I keep finding myself questioning the clarity of certain concepts, leading me down a long and challenging detour—something that has always been a bad habit of mine.

Kiyoshi Chiba
Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Kiyoshi Chiba graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Kyoto University in 1995, earned his Master's degree from the Graduate School of Letters, Kyoto University in 1999, and then left university before completing a doctoral program at the Graduate School of Letters, Kyoto University in 2005. He enrolled in the master's program of the University of Bonn's faculty of philosophy (Germany) in 2001, and then enrolled in a doctoral program in 2002 and completed the program in 2012. He is a Doctor of Philosophy (Doktor der Philosophie). Before taking his current post in 2016, he worked as an associate professor in the Faculty of Humanities at Yamagata University, a post he first took up in 2012. He has received the Kant Prize from the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Bonn in 2010, and received the Waseda Research Award (High-Impact Publication) in 2016.