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Wednesday, July 27, 2011


And So, At Last, The Critique

We come finally to the book itself, published in 1781, and revised substantially by Kant for the second edition of 1787. [Subsequent editions merely made minor editorial corrections.] It is simply not possible for me to present a full-scale textual commentary even on the central and most important section of the Critique, the Transcendental Analytic. I did that fifty years ago in Kant's Theory of Mental Activity [still available on, even though Peter B. Smith Publishers, a reprint house that picked it up when Harvard allowed it to go out of print, has now itself folded.] Writing that book was the most intensive two years of work I have ever undertaken, and all this time later, I still stand by what it says about Kant. What I can do is try to explain the core ideas with which Kant is working, indicate where some of the problems are with his argument, go in some detail into the deepest and most important level of argument in the Critique, and then leave it to you to tackle the book on your own, perhaps with my Commentary as a guide. After I have completed these explicatory remarks, I will spend a little time discussing something that commentators on Kant's ethical theory generally do not realize or write about, namely the logical conflict between the deepest levels of Kant's First Critique thinking and the presuppositions of his reasoning in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason. That should be enough for an unusually hot July and August.

What triggered Kant's nine years of philosophical reflection, you will recall, was his realization that there is no way of demonstrating that we can know a priori with necessity and universality the truth of propositions about the independently real. In the language that Kant favored, we cannot have knowledge a priori of the unconditioned. His response to this realization was to foreswear henceforth any claims to knowledge of the unconditioned, which in his view was the terrain of Metaphysics, and retreat to knowledge claims about things as they appear to us in the guise of space and time, which, again in his terminology, meant in the mind-dependent forms of intuition. [Just to repeat myself, since these are difficult matters, both philosophically and terminologically, intuition is that capacity of the mind whereby it is in immediate relation to particular objects. Since our human intuition is passive, we must wait upon objects affecting our mind, and generating a diversity of sense contents on which the mind imposes the forms of space and time.]

This retreat was adequate, he concluded, to secure the propositions of the mathematics of space, which is to say Geometry. To be sure, those propositions could no longer be asserted with absolute universality, because we can have no way of knowing whether they are true of things as they are in themselves. We can only know that those propositions are true, and are true a priori, of things as they appear in space and time. But this is not nothing. Indeed, it is sufficient to provide a full epistemological justification of mathematical knowledge.

Since the objects to which Newton's Laws apply exist in this very same space and time, Kant initially thought that he could, by the same retreat or concession, the same restriction of scope to things as they appear to us in space and time, provide a parallel justification of the claims to the [qualified] universality and [qualified] necessity of Newton's Laws. Recall, also, that Kant was not unhappy with this hedged position, because he thought it would provide him with a resolution of the conflict between Free Will and Determinism [i.e., between Ethics and Science].

Pretty clearly, this is where things stood when Kant re-encountered Hume's arguments in the particularly provocative form in which they appear in Beattie's Essay on Truth. But Hume's sceptical critique is directed not at the claims of Metaphysics, which Kant had already given up [that attack would appear in Hume's posthumously published work, Dialogues Concerning natural Religion, with their devastatingly destructive critique of the arguments for the existence of God.] The causal judgments of Physics assert that one event -- which we identify as the cause -- necessitates a second event, which we denominate the effect. Because these two events occupy different locations in space and/or time, the mind's power of imagination can distinguish the one from the other, and since it can distinguish them, it can at the very least imagine that the one should appear in our experience without the other also appearing. Which in turn means that there is no necessity of connection between them [or connexion, as Hume would say]. But that necessity of connection is precisely what causal laws always assert to exist.

Kant saw immediately that Hume's arguments were, in the terms in which they were posed, unanswerable, and that if he was to provide a justification for Natural Science as strong as that he had provided for Mathematics, some very big and daring new theoretical move would be required.

At this point, things get very, very complicated. I am going to do my best in this blog format, but there are limits to what I can accomplish, especially since I cannot assume that people reading this blog have the Critique in front of them and are working through it as I write.

Kant's first move, which he stuck with, at least at some level, for the rest of his philosophical life, was to introduce a second set or system of mind-dependent forms that the mind imposes on the contents of its perceptual experience in the process of bringing them to consciousness. This time, the forms are conceptual, not intuitional, in nature, but the root idea is the same: In order for something to be an object for me, it must both conform to the forms of intuition -- space and time -- and also conform to these newly identified forms of conception, which Kant, resurrecting one of Aristotle's terms, calls categories.

Put as simply as I can, the idea is this: When the mind is affected by things as they are in themselves [the famous dingen an sich], the result is a manyness or diversity or, as the English translations have it, a manifold of sensuous intuition. The word "manifold," by the way, has all the wrong associations in English, because it conveys the sense of something organized or unified, whereas Kant's sense is exactly the opposite. The German is mannigfaltige, which really just means "manyness" or "multiplicity." Oddly enough, the closest any American philosopher has ever come to this notion of the Kantian manifold is William James' wonderful phrase, "a buzzing, blooming confusion."

The mind imposes a spatio-temporal order on its sensations [on its empfindungen], which is to say on colors, tastes, smells, sounds, hardnesses and softnesses -- that sort of thing. When organized spatio-temporally, sensations are called by Kant perceptions. Thus sensations are the content of perceptions, and space and time are the form of perceptions. [Kant is of course here deploying notions of form and content that were commonplaces in the philosophy of his time, and dated all the way back to Aristotle.] Kant, in common with many philosophers, thinks that sensations as such are variable, subjective in the usual sense of differing from person to person, hence not cognitively important. It is their spatio-temporal form that conveys scientific information to us.

But before this manyness of spatially and temporally organized sensations can be made to serve as the content of scientific judgments, it must in some way be gone through and held together. It must be unified. In short, it must be subordinated to concepts, which are forms of unity in judgment. This process of gathering the manifold or diversity of perceptions together and imposing unity on them Kant labels synthesis. The Categories of Understanding are the forms of unity lying ready in the mind [like the forms of intuition] that the mind uses to synthesize the manifold. Physical objects of the sort studied by the physical sciences are, Kant says, just manifolds of sensuous intuition organized by the Categories. And because the categories, like the forms of intuition, are prior to experience, in the sense of being already present in the mind waiting to be employed in the process of synthesis, we can know a priori that they will find employment in experience. There are, Kant tells us, twelve categories in all, and not surprisingly, the most important of them is cause and effect.

Oy veh. That is enough for one day. I shall continue this tomorrow. If anyone wants to just up and quit at this point, I will understand [not forgive, of course, just understand. :) ]


Michael said...

I'm hardly ready to quit. Indeed, I'm looking forward to the next installment.

At some point during this tutorial, Professor Wolff, I'd like to hear your take on why the Analytic, and especially the Deduction, is the central part of the First Critique.

As a non-expert, I've always placed it in the same position, but I've also heard serious Kant scholars lament the emphasis placed on the Analytic at the expense of the Dialectic. Very roughly, the idea is that Kant is trying very hard to establish what humans can and (especially) cannot know, and the latter only really gets developed in the Dialectic.

(Incidentally, as I might have mentioned earlier, I found a copy of your book in my department's small library and it's high on my list of things to read before the summer's out. So, if you address this there, let me know and I'll be happy to check the text.)

akapital said...

This brings back such great memories, please do continue on