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Pure Religious Faith: Immanuel Kant

A Copernican Turn

People in ancient times believed that the Earth was the motionless centre of a universe composed of transparent spheres of various sizes seamlessly fitted into one another. This vast system of spheres was believed to be in a constant spherical motion, each moving sphere having one of the planets (the Sun and the Moon included) as its lodestar. This geocentric worldview was substituted by the heliocentric, or sun- centred, view only after the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543. The change took at least two centuries to gain the unanimous approval of leading scholars. When we believe today that the Sun moves only apparently through the ecliptic and that in reality it is the Earth that circles around the Sun, we can thank the great Polish astronomer of the late Middle Ages for this recognition.

In philosophy we also speak of a ‘Copernican Turn’ in an analogical sense. This turn is attributed to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who realized the sterile dogmatism of theology and philosophy in the midst of the rapid development of the natural sciences. Triggered by Hume’s skepticism, Kant realized that human knowledge must have a more solid foundation than mere belief. In order that philosophy and theology may gain a new foundation and begin their development, Kant proposed a radically new approach to traditional philosophical and theological questions. According to his ‘Copernican Turn’, in order to understand what reality is we need first to clarify the nature of our understanding. Reality is out there, but what we perceive as real is always determined by the structures of our understanding. So Kant thought that the main task of philosophy was to develop an overall theory of mind. Once we had an insight into the working of mind, we might better grasp what is presented to us as reality. Kant himself understood the ‘Copernican Turn’ in philosophy as the turn to the human mind which ensures the proper understanding of understanding itself.

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