2015 Winner

Kant’s Construction of Nature: A Reading of the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science


Michael Friedman

[Cover] Kant’s Construction of Nature: A Reading of the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science

About the book

Friedman’s book is the first systematic examination of Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (MFNS, 1786) in English but is certain to be at the center of all subsequent research in any language. Friedman’s contextual ‘reading’ examines FMNS simultaneously, as it were, from three distinct perspectives, i) the aftermath of the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence especially in the light of Euler and Lambert, ii) Kant’s own intellectual development from the Leibnizian metaphysics of his pre-critical works and iii) the mature works of transcendental philosophy, the B-edition of the Critique of Pure Reason and the Prologomena. The result is a stunning new interpretation of MFNS revealing Kant’s profoundly deep insights regarding both Newtonian physics as well as its problems with Absolute Space and Absolute motion. Especially since the revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics in 20th century physics, Kant’s text has acquired a bad rap, for example, that Kant sought to demonstrate by pure reason what Newton had discovered by observation and experiment. In Friedman’s rendering, to the contrary, Kant’s principal aim was to explain how the application of pure mathematics to the empirical concepts of mathematical physics becomes possible. The textual difficulty is that it would appear that the application of mathematics that enables physics to be a “proper science” requires the “construction” of the empirical concepts of physics, i.e., the a priori presentation of an intuition corresponding to the associated concept. But Friedman denies, also on firm textual grounds as well, that the concepts of physics can be constructed in Kant’s technical sense. In place of “construction”, Friedman argues that Kant develops a special metaphysics that explains step-by-step how it is possible that the fundamental concepts of Newtonian physics: duration, momentum, and force acquire universally applicable methods of measurement. This interpretative strategy mandates that certain laws of physics must be true for there to be, in the first instance, a universal measurement procedure for mass. Appealing to the modern notion of implicit definition, Friedman claims that for Kant, the mechanical laws of motion do not merely state empirical facts about true or absolute motion, but define a privileged frame of reference in which they are satisfied. This then is an a priori presupposition of empirical physics. Similarly, Friedman argues, convincingly, that a special metaphysics pertaining to corporeal nature underlies Kant’s dynamical concept of matter, yet that same metaphysics provides what is described as “an indispensable service to transcendental philosophy” by furnishing examples where the categories and principles of pure understanding are realized in concreto. By the same token, this special metaphysics is indispensable for giving “sense and meaning” to the concepts and principles of general metaphysics. Friedman has thus succeeded in situating Kant as a tertium quid between the metaphysical physicists of the Leibnizian school and the mathematical-mechanical tradition stemming from Newton. The dogmatic taint has been lifted from MFNS, and an extraordinarily refreshing vista on this difficult text has been created.

Cambridge University Press
ISBN 978-0-19839-4
646 pages · 2013

[Photo] Michael Friedman

About the author

Michael Friedman is the Frederick P. Rhemus Family Professor of Humanities, Director of the Patrick Suppes Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, and Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University. He received his PhD from Princeton University in 1973, and then taught at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Indiana University (in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science) before going to Stanford. Some of his more recent books include Reconsidering Logical Positivism (1999), A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger (2000), and Dynamics of Reason: The 1999 Kant Lectures at Stanford University (2001). He is the editor and translator of Immanuel Kant: Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (2004), the co-editor of The Kantian Legacy in Nineteenth-Century Science (2006), and the co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Carnap (2007).

The 2015 Fernando Gil Prize for Philosophy of Science

The jury awarded the 2015 Fernando Gil prize for philosophy of science to Michael Friedman for his book: Kant’s Construction of Nature: A Reading of the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science published by Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Michael Friedman is a very well known American philosopher of science. He earned his A.B. from Queens College, City University of New York in 1969 and his PhD from Princeton University in 1973. He has taught at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Illinois, and Indiana University; and is now Professor at Stanford University. Michael Friedman established his international reputation with his first published book: Foundations of Space-Time Theories: Relativistic Physics and the Philosophy of Science, Princeton University Press, 1983. This won both the Matchette Prize of the American Philosophical Association, and, in 1987, the Lakatos Prize for philosophy of science. As well as his more technical work on the philosophy of physics, Michael Friedman has written insightful works on 20th century philosophy, particularly the Vienna Circle. In this connection his very striking and original book: A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger, Open Court, 2000 sheds new light on the split between analytic and continental philosophy. Perhaps, however, the center of Michael Friedman’s thinking has been constituted by his love of Kant’s philosophy, and his conviction that Kant’s approach can be adapted to give a satisfactory account of contemporary science. His book on Kant’s Construction of Nature has two aspects. From one point of view it is a scholarly contribution to the history of philosophy. Michael Friedman gives a radically new reading of Kant’s key text Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science. The jury was particularly impressed by the depth and accuracy of his scholarship – the work of many years of study. Kant’s text is related to Newton, Euler and Lambert, and to Kant’s own pre-critical writings. The Metaphysical Foundations was published in 1786 between the first (1781) and second (1787) editions of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It is therefore a central text for considering the development of the critical philosophy as a whole. However, Michael Friedman’s book is not just a contribution to the history of philosophy. For the neo-Kantian school, of which he is such a prominent member, this detailed study of Kant can provide the basis for constructing a philosophy of contemporary science. These then are the reasons why the jury decided that the book is a worthy winner of the Fernando Gil prize for 2015.