Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A QUICK REPLY TO ENGLISH JERK

Before I continue with today's Part of Reading The Critique, let me respond to a question asked yesterday by English Jerk [I will never get used to these web handles.] Here is what he/she/they/it say/s: "Another question we might raise is the one Meillasoux opens his interesting book After Finitude with: If we accept that Kant has grounded the natural sciences, what happens when the natural sciences are capable of determining (through carbon-dating and the like) that specific spatio-temporal objects existed before the human species? If the world was timeless before there were people to impose temporal structure on it, how did we ever arrive at the moment in which such people could come into being?"

This is an interesting question, which reveals a fundamental but natural misunderstanding of what Kant is saying. Now, to pose the question, it is not necessary to invoke carbon-dating and other fancy stuff. Let me instead talk about the birth of my big sister, Barbara, which occurred on August 24th [I think], 1930, three and a half years before my own birth. How on earth can that event be dated if it took place before I was even alive? Well, you might reply, your mother was alive [and present at the event, after all.] But Kant does not begin his argument with the premise, "Mrs. Wolff can attach the 'I think" to any of her representations." He begins with the premise, "The 'I think" can attach to any of my representations." it is not someone's consciousness that exhibits a unity -- it is my consciousness that exhibits a unity. Kant's argument is essentially, ungetoverably first-personal [a fact that will cause monster problems for his ethical theory, although he seems not ever to have realized that.]

But then, how can I talk about my sister as having been born in 1930, and about my parents as having been married nine years before that, and of my father as having been born twenty-nine years before my sister, and so forth, never mind about the French Revolution and the Roman Empire and Plato and dinosaurs and all?

Well, think about it, Kant tells us [this he really did understand, and thought about, as did Hume, by the way.] Every judgment I make about things distant from me in time or in space [such as my Paris apartment or the Crab Nebula] is grounded in a present perception, from which I reason on the basis of scientific laws. Indeed, connection by laws to a present perception, Kant will tell us later on in the Critique, is the definition of what it is to be empirically real. So, my statements about Rome or Old Regime France or my sister's birth all start from some present perception -- a bit of old wall or a coin dug up in Italy, or a yellowed document in the Bibliotheque National, or a hand-written notebook apparently recording my mother's experiences of Barbara's first year. My statements about the formation and the evolution of the earth start with laboratory observations which I interpret as evidence of something that theories tell me is radioactive decay of unstable elements. All of it, all of it, starts with some present perception.

On the one hand, this is extraordinary. The entire spatio-temporal spread of the universe, from the Big Bang to the present, stands on a diversity of perceptions now present to my mind? But what else could it stand on, if it is ineluctably I who am asserting the propositions in question?

In this respect, Kant comes down entirely on the side of the Empiricists in the great Empiricist Rationalist debate. This is what it means to give up, once and for all, the claim that we can have knowledge of the independently real. "Scientific realism," ass a contrary position in the 20th century came to be called, is, according to Kant, wrong, indeed, wrong-headed. The doctrine known as Phenomenalism when I was a youth is, he tells us, the correct way of understanding our knowledge of the physical universe.

OK. Back to the Critique.

5 comments:

Marinus said...

"A Quick Reply to English Jerk" would be a great title for a rock album. That is all.

Michael said...

Is Kant a scientific antirealist in the sense of, e.g., van Fraassen? That is, does he deny that scientists are committed to the entities posited by their best theories when those entities cannot be directly observed (as is the case with, e.g., certain subatomic particles)?

I would have thought that entities whose existence we infer on the basis of causal reasoning would count as empirically real for Kant. For example, we can't see quarks directly, but we do use them to explain macro-level experimental results. Since quarks thereby play a role in the overall causal structure of the phenomenal universe, they're phenomenal and not noumenal. Would Kant still deny that they are phenomenally/empirically real?

I may simply be misunderstanding the kind of scientific realism you have in mind, Professor Wolff, but when I see talk about scientific realism/antirealism I immediately think of van Fraassen and company.

-Mike K. (There seem to be two Michaels posting regularly, so hopefully this helps prevent mistaken identity a bit.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I may have misused the term "scientific realism." Sorry about that. Kant would certainly have affirmed the empirical reality of things not directly observable [like the past!!!] Connection according to laws to a present perception is the criterion of empirical reality. In this case, the present perceptions are, let us say, the laboratory observations of instrument readings.

Michael said...

That helps. Thanks! I think "scientific realism" is one of those terms such that, if you ask five different philosophers what it means, you'll get eight different definitions.

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