When Hume died in 1776, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was already one of the great philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment.20 Like most of the philosophers before him, Kant tried to propose the most accurate vision possible of the way in which the universe and humans function. That is what, in his Critique of Pure Reason, he calls a dogmatic thought.â A dogmatic thought is the belief that the mind has the capacity to know how the world works by just thinking, through speculation.
At the occasion of Hume’s death in 1776, many people read and reread the works of this great man. This was also the case with Kant, who reread some of Hume’s earlier writings as well. That is how he discovered, at the age of fifty-four, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which is a watered-down version of the Treatise of Human Nature. In reading this work, Kant was profoundly shocked and unsettled. He had the impression of having walked on a land mine. He immediately understood that Hume had perceived something powerful that nevertheless required some editing. The questioning of reason and knowledge carried out by Hume had manifestly solid foundations for Kant.
Kant was then in a crisis. He had published nothing since 1760. In an implicit and confused way, he felt that all dogmatic thoughts led to an impasse. But he could not put his finger on what bothered him21 He was trying to understand the rapport between two psychic phenomena:
1. What type of information enters the brain.
2. How this information is analyzed, categorized, and synthesized.
In this state of inner wandering, Kant discovered Hume’s Inquiry. He spontaneously took what he appreciated in Hume’s thought, while trying to circumvent the skepticism and the atheism of the great English thinker. Kant feared that the analysis of Hume could cause all that the philosophers of the Enlightenment had constructed to falter. As far as the workings of the mind, what Kant developed went much further than what the young Hume had succeeded in imagining. Kant then conceived of an immense project that breaks down into two phases:
1. Develop the themes initiated by Hume to give them an intellectual structure that Hume had not taken the time to specify.
2. Give to Hume’s thinking a structure that would allow Kant to support philosophy and science, while criticizing it.