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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Saturday, July 30, 2011

READING THE CRITIQUE PART NINE TERMINOLOGY

Some More Terminology


Inasmuch as I must clear up some last minute things before flying to San Francisco for a week-long family gathering, and in view of the fact that I have arrived at the most difficult part of the Critique, I thought that instead of continuing today, I would spend a few moments clearing up some more matters of Kantian terminology. So this will be a brief post, explaining Kant's use of three terms, all of which can mislead the unwary: Deduction, Transcendental, and Idea.


Deduction: All of us are familiar with this term, which in philosophical contexts usually means an argument that derives conclusions from premises by the rigorous application of the rules of logical inference. In Kant's day, that would of course mean a syllogistic argument. But there was another use of the term ":deduction," in the law of Kant's day. A deduction in the law was a demonstration of title, an argument showing that someone had a legitimate claim to something. Kant decided to take over this jurisprudential usage, and apply it to a certain kind of argument that was central to his undertaking. A "deduction of a concept," in Kant's sense of that phrase, is a demonstration that the concept has legitimate application to a certain sphere of objects. This is not a demonstration that the concept actually does have instances. Only experience could settle that. But a deduction of the concept. if successful, would show that it is possible for the concept to find correct application in experience.


Now, at the most superficial level, we can provide deductions of concepts like "horse" or "man" or "blue" or "sharp" by exhibiting a man or a horse or a blue thing or a sharp thing. We can also provide deductions of such concepts as "unicorn" by specifying the perceptual evidence that would justify us in applying the concept to an object -- viz. seeing a white horse, with a single horn in the middle of its forehead, that is unusually attracted to virgins. [I say "at the most superficial level" because eventually, Kant will argue that concepts like "horse" and "man." since they involve the concept of substance, require something more elaborate in the way of a deduction. Sorry for all the quotes, by the way. When I was young and impressionable, Willard van Orman Quine beat into me the distinction between use and mention and I never got over it.]


But concepts like "cause" and "effect" and "substance' cannot be given deductions in this same way because, as Hume so powerfully argued, mere examination of our sensory experience is inadequate to demonstrate that we are in the presence of a causal connection or a substance. So a fairly powerful argument is going to be needed to establish that "cause and effect," "substance," and a number of other concepts can find legitimate employment in experience. Kant calls such an argument a "Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding," which is the title of the most important section in the Critique.


Transcendental -- Transcendent: These two terms have completely different meanings in Kant's writings. He draws a very sharp and absolutely clear distinction between them. Unfortunately, he then more or less forgets that, and constantly uses one when he means the other, forcing the reader to keep adding or subtracting an "al" when the term crops up. This is very irritating, no doubt, but Kant never gets confused, he is just uncharacteristically sloppy, so with a little care it is always possible to tell which term he means. "Transcendent" means just what you would imagine it should mean, namely "going beyond the limits of experience." Thus one of the most important conclusions of Kant's argument in the Critique is that we can never have knowledge of transcendent reality. This means that we can never have knowledge of the existence and nature of God, or of things as they are in themselves. As we shall see, one of the consequences of this limitation on the scope of our knowledge is that we can never know that we are free, that we are moral agents. We can believe that we are [he says], we can act as though we know that we are [he says], but we cannot know that we are, because such knowledge would go beyond the limits of experience, it would be knowledge of the transcendent.


"Transcendental" doesn't mean anything like that at all. As Kant uses the term, it means what today we would call "epistemological." That is to say, a transcendental investigation is an investigation into the possibility, nature, grounds, and limits of knowledge. It is a philosophical investigation designed to determine whether we can know anything, under what conditions we can know anything, and what sorts of things we can and cannot know, by virtue of the structure and limits of our cognitive faculties. Since at a superficial level Kant does not think there is any problem about ordinary concepts like "horse" and "man," he does not think we need to give an empirical deduction of them. But as we have seen, he very definitely thinks we need to demonstrate that concepts like "cause and effect" and "substance" can find legitimate application within experience, so we need an epistemological argument to establish that very strong claim, contra Hume. Kant calls that argument a transcendental deduction. Such an argument not only proves that the concepts have legitimate application within experience but also marks out precisely the limits of their legitimate application, so that we are not tempted to try to employ them transcendently [NOT transcendentally], as metaphysicians have been doing since Plato's day.


Once having formulated the notion of a transcendental deduction, Kant was quite taken with it, and it shows up all over the place in his writings. In the Third Critique, for example, he offers a Deduction of Judgments of Taste. The official Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding appears in the section bearing that name, but as we shall see, the real argument is not completed until many pages later, in the section called The Analogies of Experience, and once we understand the argument at its deepest level, we shall see that Kant really has a fully successful argument only for the concept "cause and effect" and maybe for the concept "substance." Still and all, that is not just chopped chicken liver, as they say in the culture I grew up in.


Idea: As I noted in one of the very first parts of this extended series of notes, the philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had a variety of terms they used for the notion of cognitively significant contents of consciousness. Locke uses "idea," Hume uses "perception," and Kant uses "representation." Kant had so much he wanted to say that he felt the need for an elaborate multiplication and differentiation of terms to keep it all straight. First of all, he distinguishes between two mental faculties that, on the face of it, look pretty much the same, namely Understanding and Reason. Both of them introduce unity into a manifold of elements. Understanding introduces unity into a manifold of sense contents, or perceptions, and the "functions of unity," as Kant calls them, by which it does this he calls concepts. Understanding has both a merely logical use and a real use. In its merely logical use, it unifies a diversity of elements or contents of consciousness by formulating judgments. Hence the various logical forms in which it does this are called by him "Functions of Unity in Judgments." [See the first table above.] In Understanding's real use, it introduces unity into a manifold of perceptions and the various forms in which it does this -- we have not yet learned just what these actually are -- he calls Categories.


Reason does the same thing that Understanding does -- that is, it introduces unity into a diversity of elements. But the elements on which it imposes unity are concepts, not perceptions. Reason too has a merely logical employment and a real employment. The merely logical employment of Reason produces chains of syllogistic reasoning -- what Kant calls ratiocinatio polysyllogistica -- one of my all time favorite philosophical terms. Reason, he tells us, has a built-in irresistible thirst for bringing these efforts to completion. It produces out of its own inner resources the notion of the unconditioned, for which it is constantly seeking to find employment. He calls this notion of the unconditioned an Idea to distinguish it from concepts, which are one and all conditioned in their employment by being limited to the sphere of things as they appear to us.


Reason, endlessly busy, elaborates many versions of the Idea of the Unconditioned, such as an Infinite Being [God], a Prime Mover, a First Cause, a First Premise that is not itself the conclusion of any prior syllogism, a Necessary Being, Absolute Unity, Absolute Simplicity, Absolute Totality, the Absolutely Universally Unconditioned Moral Law, and so forth. In fact, Kant concludes, all of Metaphysics if nothing but Reason's ceaseless attempt to apply the various forms of the Idea of the Unconditioned.


Now, this innate tendency of Reason is impossible to root out and eliminate, Kant says, and it leads the mind constantly to overreach, claiming things that it cannot possibly know. Eventually, he will trace all of the Antinomies bedeviling previous philosophy to this fatal flaw. However, waste not, want not. Kant decides that properly understood and contained, Reason's lust for the Unconditioned [my term, not his!] has its uses. It is what drives the forward march of science, for example. When physicists first try to unify all terrestrial motion in Galileo's laws, and all heavenly motion in Kepler's laws, and then seek to derive both the laws of terrestrial motion and the laws of celestial motion from Newton's single set of laws, they are answering Reason's call to seek the Unconditioned. When Einstein spent the latter part of his life unsuccessfully seeking a way to derive the general theory of relativity and the laws of electromagnetism from a single set of equations, he was answering the same call.


So, this is what Kant means by "Ideas of Reason."


And with that, I shall complete my packing and get ready to see my son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, and Susie's sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. See you in a week.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A BRIEF ADDENDUM ABOUT PURE INTUITION

A Brief Aside About Mathematics


I am skipping over so much in my effort to lay out what I see as the core ideas in the Critique that every so often I get to feeling a little queasy. After posting today's segment, I reflected that I had said nothing at all about Kant rather strange doctrine of manifolds of pure intuition and its relationship to the epistemological peculiarity of mathematical knowledge. Let me try to remedy that here. This is in the nature of an aside, and not really a part of the line of exposition I have been developing.


Kant thinks that mathematics is significantly different from physics, in the following way. We could not, he thinks, possess the concepts of mass, velocity, and the rest that turn up in the propositions of the physical sciences without first having had sense experience of physical objects. In this respect, he agrees with the empiricists in the great debate between the empiricists and the rationalists. As he says in the famous opening sentence of the portion of the Introduction to the Critique added in the Second Edition, "There can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience." [B1] [He goes on, in the first sentence of the second paragraph, to add, "But though all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience."] And so he is on his way to the argument that there is a mind-dependent, mind-contributed element in our knowledge, the element that makes knowledge of experienced objects possible a priori.


But Kant thinks that mathematics is knowable a priori in a stronger sense than this, because the concepts we deploy in Geometry -- circle, line, angle, triangle, and the rest -- can be constructed by the mind in intuition entirely independently of all experience. We may derive the concept of mass from experience, but we do not, in the same sense, derive the concept of a triangle from experience. [Even though, to be sure, we as living human beings do not start thinking about logic and mathematics and philosophy until we have lived for a bit and had lots of sensory input.] He thus agrees with Plato and the rationalists about this. We can construct in intuition, he believes, mathematical objects we have never encountered in sense experience. [Remember Plato's argument that we can never abstract the concept of a perfect circle or a perfectly straight line from our sense experience of plates or sticks.]


How can this be? Kant concludes that over and above space and time being the pure forms of sensible intuition, space and time are manifolds of pure intuition given to the mind by itself, and completely devoid of sensory content. What are manifolds of pure intuition? Manifolds of relations that are not relating anything to anything, as far as I can understand what he is saying. This is not a dumb view, although it is very difficult to understand. I may be totally wrong, but it is my impression that the great Dutch mathematician L. E. J. Brouwer held a similar position. Perhaps if Charles Parsons is reading this, he will weigh in and correct me, since he really does know a very great deal about Brouwer.


Just to repeat, Kant's motivation for advancing this view is, in the first instance, his desire to explicate the special epistemic status of pure mathematics, although -- waste not, want not -- the doctrine of pure intuition crops up later on and plays an important role in Kant's theory of a priori synthesis.


Well, I just thought I would mention it.

READING THE CRITIQUE PART NINE

We return to Kant's introduction of the Categories, or, to give them their proper name, the Pure Concepts of Understanding. "Pure" for Kant, by the way, means "without sensory content." After some pages of Architectonic elaboration, all of which is quite interesting and none of which need detain us in the slightest, Kant gets down to business. He approaches the important task of identifying all of the Categories -- which, you will recall, are the conceptual tools by which we impose some sort of unity on a manyness or manifold of perceptions -- by first considering the Logical Function of the Understanding in Judgments. In other words, he asks, leaving aside content, what can Logic tells us about the concepts we use when we form a judgment to unify some contents of thought? This is already getting gnarlier than I wanted it to, but Kant's notion is this: The cognitive faculties of the mind -- Reason, Understanding, etc. -- have a merely logical employment, which is pretty much the same as what Hume thought these faculties do, namely comparing contents of consciousness, be they perceptions or ideas, organizing them into genera and species, drawing purely logical -- i.e., syllogistic -- inferences about them, and so forth. But these same cognitive faculties also have what Kant calls a Real Use, by which he means a use that leads to knowledge that is not merely a collection of tautologies. Now, Kant says, if we can use our familiarity with Logic to identify and classify in tabular form the ways in which the Understanding, in its merely logical use, introduces unity into judgments, then we will be able to read off from that table the ways in which this same faculty, Understanding, introduces unity into a manifold of sensuous intuition and thereby gains us knowledge of things as they appear to us in space and time.


This is a really complicated, difficult, and powerful idea, and most students of Kant's philosophy spend a great deal of time and energy mastering the details of Kant's story, which we will get to in a moment. But this idea is also, when you think about it, utter hogwash. Why on earth should the mind do one thing -- forming judgments -- in exactly the way that it does something totally different -- namely, unifying a manifold of perceptions? Kant's answer is pathetic, really. He says that since both of these activities are carried out by the same faculty of the mind, the structure of the activities must be the same.


Now, people in Kant's day were very big on faculty psychology [think phrenology without the bumps on the head], and talked easily and at length about Reason, Understanding, Imagination, Judgment, Sensibility, and so on, as though one could ask someone to say "aaahh," look down her throat or up her nose, and just see the different faculties of the mind. But in fact, as is obvious after a moment's reflection, we distinguish one faculty from another functionally, by first identifying different sorts of things the mind does, and then positing a faculty for each one. Two functions, two faculties. So Kant has it totally backwards. You cannot prove that the mind does two things in the same way by tracing them back to the same faculty. You trace two things that the mind does back to the same faculty by first showing that it does them in the same way.


This is the point at which the truly great philosophers are distinguished from the merely important thinkers. [I do hope it is obvious that you are getting here Wolff's interpretation of the Critical Philosophy, and not just the standard story that you can find in any of a thousand books on the subject. For a detailed defense of this radical reading, I refer you once again to Kant's Theory of Mental Activity.] Even though Kant never ever foreswore his Table of Categories [which we have not gotten to quite yet], and even used it as a major organizing tool in his Architectonic, something in him knew that he had not yet really demonstrated the powerful claims he was making with its aid. So in two deep, difficult, brilliant passages, he returns to the problem and nails it. Those two passages -- the Deduction of the Pure Concept of Understanding in the First Edition, specifically the so-called "Subjective Deduction," and the Second Analogy of Experience -- are the very heart and soul of Kant's entire philosophical enterprise. They are, in my judgment, taken together, the most profound philosophy ever written. But it will be August, I suspect, before we get to them.


First things first: The Table of Functions of Unity in Judgment. I cannot get the tabular form to carry over into my blog, for some irritating reason, so I will do this in a somewhat different format. Here are the Functions of Unity in Judgment, reproduced from A70=B95.


I. Quantity of Judgments: Universal, Particular, Singular



II. Quality: Affirmative, Negative, Infinite



III. Relation: Categorical, Hypothetical, Disjunctive



IV. Modality: Problematic, Assertoric, Apodeictic



Good grief, Charlie Brown, where did they come from? Kant claims that they are simply a well-known logical classification, but scholars have poured over 18th century logic textbooks, and not surprisingly have discovered that Kant cobbled this table together from bits and pieces of this and that textbook. All twelve of the "functions" show up somewhere or other, but no text cites them all. This is just more of Kant's manic systematizing. Oh, did I mention that the first and second in each trio are thesis and antithesis, and the third is their synthesis? You think Hegel made that up? Sigh. All of this is just the lead-in to the boffo presentation of the Table of Categories. Here it is. You will recognize some of them, I am sure.


I. Of Quantity: Unity, Plurality, Totality



II. Of Quality: Reality, Negation, Limitation



III. Of Relation: Of Inherence and Subsistence (substantia et accidens), Of Causality and Dependence (cause and effect), Of Community (reciprocity between agent and patient)



IV Of Modality: Possibility-Impossibility, Existence-Non-existence, Necessity-Contingency



If you clear your head and look past this elaborate systematization of notions you never intended to use anyway [Limitation? Totality?], it should be obvious that the real philosophical meat is to be found in the Categories of Relation, and specifically in the second Category of Relation, "cause and effect." That was the focus of Hume's sceptical attack, that was what launched Kant on this whole enterprise and delayed the publication, of the Critique for nine years, and that, if anywhere, is where we are going to find Kant's answer to Hume. Sure enough, that is just the way things turn out. But so much else is happening philosophically along the way, much of it fascinating and important in its own right, that it is easy to lose sight of what is really going on.




SCARY THOUGHT

If, God forbid, Barack Obama and Joseph Biden should die, John Boehner would become President of the United States. We might want to think about revisiting the Constitutional Succession Act of 1947.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

ADDENDUM

Steven French, professor of the Philosophy of Science at Leeds [and obviosuly much more knowledgeable than I about these matters] sends the following addendum to my response to my son's questions:

"This is just to say that [Ernst] Cassirer, as a neo-Kantian, directly responded to the challenge posed by QM [Quantum Mechanics] in his beautiful book Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics (Trans. By O.T. Benfey), Yale University Press, New Haven, where he argues that it is not the concept of determinism that quantum physics bears upon, but rather the concept of *object*. Quite a bit has been written about that last point and, of course, about Cassirer in general in the past few years."

A BRIEF PAUSE FOR FAMILY DISCUSSION

My son, Tobias [the law professor], despite having much more important things to do, has been reading my blog posts on the Critique, and last night sent me the following two questions, which I have decided to address in a special blog post before continuing with my series on Reading the Critique. Here is what he said:



"After reading the entries from yesterday and today, I have a better understanding of the types of question that Kant was attempting to answer. In many ways, of course, these questions are now the subjects of the experimental sciences -- neuroscience, experimental studies of perception, particularly in the case of damaged or physically altered brains, and the like. So, two questions for you.

First: What type of answers did Kant think that he was producing about the nature of perception and our knowledge of perception? Was he attempting to produce what we would now think of as scientifically rigorous answers, but in the absence of the scientific method? That is to say, if he were informed about the science of the brain and the experiments that have shed light on the processes of perception, would that information be relevant to him in assessing the correctness and usefulness of his answers? Or was he aiming at a different kind of answer (which I suppose one might describe as "purely conceptual")?

Second: How much, if at all, should the fundamental transformation in our understanding of matter, energy and physics -- again, based on experimental science -- impact the value that we see in Kant's Newtonian-focused inquiry? The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, for example, would seem to have something important to say about the relationship between the nature of things as they truly are and the nature of things as they interface with our perception. Is it pertinent to suggest that Kant must be reworked in light of our evolving understanding of physics? Or, once again, does that misconstrue the nature of the answer that Kant was attempting to produce?"



Well, you can see why I was a bit relieved when he grew up and left home! Let me address each of these questions in turn, even though the replies to some extent anticipate things I have not yet said about Kant's argument.



First Question: As we shall see, Kant's deepest argument rests essentially on a series of claims about the nature of consciousness, specifically its unity and what sorts of activity of the mind [viz synthesis] is required to produce that unity. Indeed, the entire deeper argument of Kant's philosophy rests on these claims. Now, Kant clearly thought that his arguments were philosophical and logical in nature and did not depend at all on contingent facts about the operations of the brain. But recent neurological investigations have raised doubts about these sorts of philosophical arguments. Let me give just one example. When I was a lad, analytic philosophers were quite taken with the notion of what they called "contrast-dependent concepts." By this they meant pairs of concepts like up/down, left/right, in/out, and even -- this was rather controversial -- right/wrong and good/bad. The general idea was that it was logically impossible to possess one of the concepts in any of these pairs without also possessing the other. Well, a brilliant and delightful neurologist named Oliver Sacks has published a number of books in which he recounts some of the weird and fascinating cases he has encountered of patients who have a variety of neurological deficits caused by tumors, traumas, and so forth. In one of his books, with the engaging title The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, he tells of a patient who, as a consequence of a brain tumor [if I recall correctly] had and could use the concept "left" but did not possess and could not use the concept "right." Asked to look for something on her right, she would turn slowly to the left until she had rotated all the way around and had come upon the object lying to her right. There are lots of other odd cases recounted by Sacks, including those of people who seem to have lost the unity of consciousness that Kant asserts is the absolutely fundamental presupposition of being conscious at all, and yet who are manifestly conscious and can carry on intelligent conversations.



I don't know, obviously, what Kant would have said about these facts had he known them, but they do seem to me to constitute a very serious challenge to his undertaking.



Second Question: I am even less knowledgeable about theoretical physics than I am about experimental neurology, if that is possible, but I will say something about this question. To some extent, Kant's arguments about mathematics and physical science are independent of the particular version of those disciplines he assumed to be cutting edge. Particularly with regard to the mathematics of space, Kant makes no effort whatsoever to "derive" Euclidean Geometry from his arguments about space and time as the forms of sensuous intuition lying a priori in the mind. His arguments are really designed to prove that there is some mathematics of space, and to explain its epistemological status [namely, as knowable A priori on the condition that it is limited to things as they appear to us, and is not extended to apply to things as they are in themselves.] But the situation is more complicated with regard to physics. As we shall see [if I can somehow manage to keep writing this thing, day after day], Kant's argument really does entail traditional full-scale determinism of the Newtonian sort. Indeed, as we shall see, Kant argues that to be empirically real just is to be an element in a deterministic chain of causes and effects. So although I am not sure that the Heisenberg Indeterminacy Principle poses a real threat to his argument, I think Quantum Mechanics very well may. A modern version of these sorts of considerations, it is my impression, led Einstein never to accept Quantum Physics as a satisfactory account of the nature of the universe. See the famous quote from a 1926 letter by Einstein to Max Born: "Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the "old one." I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice."



Where does all of this leave us? With regard to the second question, I am really utterly incompetent to judge whether philosophy or logic or anything else compels us to search for a classical interpretation of Quantum Physics. What Kant would have said is equally a mystery to me. I am less at sea about the first question. I remain convinced of the solidity of Kant's deepest arguments, despite the fascinating counter-evidence adduced by Sacks and other neurologists. Perhaps when I am finished "introducing" readers of this blog to the Critique, I can return to that question and address it again.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

READING THE CRITIQUE PART EIGHT

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 Amazon.com, 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. :) ]

THE DEBT CEILING CRISIS

Although it may not have been evident, while I have been writing this seemingly interminable introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, a considerable part of my mind has been focused on the economic and political crisis now playing out before us. Quite obviously, I do not know how it will play out, but I do know how I would like it to play out, and I have some observations about how Obama has been playing his hand. Here they my thoughts, for what they are worth.

First, what do I hope will happen? I hope that none of the more or less draconian budget slashing proposals now being floated succeeds, and that in the end, Congress is simply unable to pass a bill raising the debt ceiling that Obama can sign. Best of all would be if they are simply unable to pass anything. Then I would like Obama to invoke the 14th Amendment, saying that he took an oath to protect and preserve the Constitution and he will not allow the United States to default. He will be daring the House Republicans to impeach him, which they may do, after which he will not be convicted in the Senate and that will be that. He will have faced down the Tea Party and won. That is what I hope will happen. We shall see.

Now, some words about how Obama has been playing his hand. Liberals, Progressives, and other people more or less on the left have been excoriating him for months now, saying that he has no spine, that he is fatally ready to give away the store, that he is being rolled by the Republicans, and so forth. Well, maybe so, maybe so, but I don't see it that way. Let us recall that when all of this started, Obama said he wanted a clean bill just raising the debt ceiling, with nothing else in it. After months of negotiation, breast beating, finger pointing, and reproach, what are we likely to get? A clean bill raising the debt ceiling, or its presidential equivalent.

Politically, the Republicans in the House are in open warfare with one another, while Obama has managed pretty much to keep the lid on the discontent in House and Senate Democratic ranks. The public is clearly on the side of compromise, which Obama is now identified with, and the Tea Party fundamentalists are revealed for the fanatical nuts they always were. At whom are they most angry? John Boehner, for heaven's sake!

It is perfectly possible to conclude that Obama is a weak, unskillful politician who is just incredibly lucky in the character of his enemies. But mightn't we just for a moment consider the possibility that he is actually vastly more skillful and steely-willed than his opponents, and is managing this entire affair so that it ends more or less as he would like? I realize that does not comport with the common wisdom about him, but how many times does this sort of thing have to happen before we twig onto it? I could of course be wrong. The next week should tell.

There has been a good deal of nostalgia on the left for Bill Clinton, a stand-up guy who faced down Newt Gingrich, and so forth. Let us remember that good old Bill tried to reform health care and failed. He gave us DADT, which it took Obama and nineteen years to reverse. He signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which Obama is now challenging in the courts.

One last word: As I have often remarked, most people do most things the way they do most other things. America's first real look at how Obama does things was his management of his campaign for the nomination. That was arguably the most brilliant political campaign ever run in America. Its hallmarks were patience, extensive groundwork, and a preternatural ability to keep focused on a goal despite the hurly-burly of a campaign and a series of emotional distractions [Reverend Wright, etc.]

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

FOREWARNED IS FOREARMED

Very early this Sunday, we shall leave for a week-long gathering of Susie's family at a house rented in Stinson Beach, CA. I shall be able to access email and the internet with my IPad, but I shall not be able to post anything to this blog. So this Saturday should be the last post in the Kant series for a while. I plan to resume when I get back, unless I have run out of things to say before I leave [fat chance!].

PROPORTIONALITY

Horror film makers are accustomed to presenting us with monsters that are large relative to human beings -- think Godzilla. But as zoologists know, nastiness comes in all sizes. We have a hummingbird feeder on our porch, and Susie and I have just been watching a male ruby-throated hummingbird. He drinks at the feeder for a while, and then flies to a twig on one of Susie's many plants, perching there waiting to take another drink. If a female hummingbird comes to the feeder, he chases her away and returns to his perch. He is tiny, of course -- perhaps the size of my thumb. But his behavior is as aggressive and domineering as though he were a full-maned lion. Nature red in tooth and claw indeed.

READING THE CRITIQUE PART SEVEN

The Epistemological Turn


For the first two thousand years of Western Philosophy, the discussion of the nature of Being as such, which we have come to call "Metaphysics," was considered the foundation of all philosophy. Aristotle called the essays that we now label his Metaphysics "First Philosophy," meaning by this, as he himself said, those questions that are first in the order of being, not necessarily first in the order of knowing. Questions about the nature, conditions, and limits of human knowledge -- what we have learned to call Epistemology -- were treated by him as distinctly secondary, and of much less interest or importance. Aristotle consigned them to De Anima, very much the boondocks, philosophically speaking. There were always exceptions to these generalizations -- one thinks of the sceptic Sextus Empiricus, in whose writings some of Hume's arguments are anticipated. But to the profession as a whole, there was for two millennia no question that Metaphysics takes precedence over Epistemology, questions of Being having pride of place over questions of Knowing.


All that changed, abruptly and dramatically, with Descartes. Although his most important work is actually entitled Meditations on First Philosophy, thus echoing the traditional view, the very first paragraph of the First Meditation announces that Knowing will henceforth take primacy over Being:


"There is no novelty to me in the reflection that, from my earliest years, I have accepted many false opinions as true, and that what I have concluded from such badly assured premises could not be but highly doubtful and uncertain. From the time that I first recognized this fact, I have realized that if I wished to have any firm and constant knowledge in the sciences, I would have to undertake, once and for all, to set aside all the opinions which I had previously accepted among my beliefs and start again from the beginning."


There follow in rapid succession the famous doubts cast upon all things previously supposed to be true, culminating in the Second Meditation with the dramatic proclamation: "I must finally conclude and maintain that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true every time that I pronounce or conceive it in my mind."


Tanker trucks of ink have been spilled over this famous argument, and I do not intend to add to the torrent here. But I do want you to take note of certain central features of Descartes' startling break with his predecessors. I have already noted the reversal in the order of priority of Being and Knowing. In the next three centuries, Epistemology would become the Queen of the Philosophical disciplines, and Metaphysics, save in certain Thomist backwaters, would cringe in corners, grateful for a few crumbs of attention. Even more striking is the subjectivist turn, the turn inward to an examination of the instrument of knowledge, the mind, rather than the object of knowledge, the world. More and more, philosophers turned away from proofs of the existence of God or classifications of the categories of Being to an examination, an inventory, of the cognitive powers of the mind. The titles of the major treatises reveal this shift in focus: Rules for the Direction of the Mind, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, A Treatise of Human Nature, and of course Critique of Pure Reason.


The general idea is that all assertions about the nature of Being [i.e., about substances, space, time, causation, the existence of God, and so forth] must be held hostage to an examination of the nature of Knowing, more precisely to an examination of the limits of the human mind's capacity to know the truths of those assertions, and indeed even its capacity to form the concepts in terms of which the assertions are framed. If the human mind is incapable of forming the concept of the infinite, or if it is incapable of apprehending an object adequate to the concept of the infinite, then it cannot possibly have knowledge of a being defined as infinite. Hence all Rational Theology must be set aside as consisting of claims that cannot justified. Notice that if one can form the concept of the infinite, then it may be possible to believe in the existence of an infinite being even if one cannot have knowledge of the existence or nature of such a being. This is what Kant means by his oft-quoted statement that he has limited knowledge to make place for faith.


The first and most important task of philosophy thus becomes an inventory of the powers, capacities, and limits of the mind, and this is in fact the form in which the Critical Philosophy is cast. Drawing on a long tradition of discussion of what were called "the faculties of the mind," Kant organizes his philosophy on the grand plan of a systematic inventory of the faculties of the mind: Reason, Understanding, Judgment, Sensibility, Imagination. In the full Kantian corpus, we find an examination of the theoretical employment of reason, an examination of the practical employment of reason, and an examination of the power of aesthetic judgment. Since each of these examinations is designed to ascertain whether the faculty in question can yield cognitively significant results, it is called a critique. So we have the First Critique, an examination of the theoretical employment of the cognitive powers of the mind; the Second Critique, an examination of the practical employment of the cognitive powers of the mind [i.e., their employment for action]; and the Third Critique, an examination of the power of Judgment in the making of aesthetic judgments [and also teleological judgments, but never mind that now.]


Even within each of these critical works, the organization is grounded in distinctions among the different cognitive powers of the mind. The Critique of Pure Reason offers us first a section devoted to the mind's receptivity for sensory content [The Transcendental Aesthetic],then a section devoted to the mind's capacity to form and employ concepts in the making of judgments [the Transcendental Analytic, with its two parts, the Analytic of Concepts and the Analytic of Principles], and then a section devoted to the mind's irresistible tendency to extend its legitimate capacity for organizing propositions into chains of deductive argument into ill-fated efforts to acquire universal and necessary knowledge of the independently real [The Transcendental Dialectic.]


Thus far, I am sorry to have to tell you, we are talking about the most superficial and least important level of Kant's thinking. All of this is merely classificatory and organizational, complicated as it may be. Things get vastly more difficult from here on, as well as very much deeper, philosophically.


Before turning to Kant's attempt to respond to Hume's sceptical criticisms of Newtonian physics, which, you will recall, is where we were when I paused to talk for a bit about the Epistemological Turn, I need to say just a few more words about Descartes, in preparation for Kant's deeper investigations. For Descartes, the defining characteristic of the mind is its capacity to form and assert judgments in consciousness. Even if these judgments are false, or if their truth cannot be known, nevertheless the mind is capable of forming them and asserting them. Hence, we may say that the most fundamental judgment a mind can formulate is simply "I think." Reflection on this elementary fact tells us that at its foundation, philosophy is a private, first-personal activity, carried on not by Reason as such but by an individual mind. This is why Descartes presents his revolutionary arguments in the form of Meditations, which are, after all, a mind's silent, interior communications with itself.


When we come to the most important and most difficult part of the First Critique, the "Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding," or Transcendental Deduction, as it is commonly called, we shall see that Kant reaches all the way back to this beginning point of Descartes' argument, and, in effect, shows us the correct conclusions that can be extracted from the simple proposition, "I think."

Monday, July 25, 2011

READING THE CRITIQUE PART SIX

Before continuing our story, I need to say a few things about the very interesting responses to yesterday's post, both in emails and as comments on the blog, concerning the logical status of Euclidean Geometry. This will be brief, because bigger things await us. I am afraid I did not make myself entirely clear, although I did try in a parenthetic aside. It is of course true that one can prove Euclid's theorems rigorously, using modern mathematical techniques, such as those suggested by Summortus [I love these web names!]. I mean, the theorems are true, after all. But the point is that they do not follow, by logic alone, from Euclid's definitions, axioms and postulates. The modern formalizations and axiomatizations of Geometry all involve adding some powerful additional algebraic or topological premises, as Marinus indicates. If one were to carry out such an axiomatization and, contrary to historical fact, present it to Kant, along with the possibility of alternative formal systems of Geometry, he would, I imagine, reply that although Geometry, thus reconceived, is analytic and hence logically rigorous, it remains the fact that we know with certainty that our space, that is the space in which material things appear to us, is Euclidean, and that proposition is both synthetic and known a priori.


Ok, enough about that. What is really important is the challenge presented to Kant by Hume's sceptical critique of the sorts of causal judgments that appear in Newtonian Physics. Hume's argument is quite simple -- deceptively so -- and easy to state. It can be summarized like this: The object or event we identify as a cause is distinct and distinguishable from the object or event we identify as its effect. Since the cause and the effect are thus distinguishable, it is possible to imagine one occurring without the other, our imagination having the power to separate distinguishable ideas from one another and call them to mind separately. But if we can imagine the one without the other, then we can have no ground for saying that one necessitates the other, which is what is meant by saying that one is the cause of the other. [By contrast, it is beyond the powers of our imagination, or of any imagination, to call to mind the idea of a bachelor who is married, or of a triangle with four interior angles.] Hence, causal judgments, involving as they do an assertion of necessity of connection between cause and effect, are never warranted by reason.


As Hume aficionados will recall, this argument appears in section iii of part three of the first book of the Treatise, "Why a cause is always necessary." Here, as they say in the blogging world, is the money quote:


"We can never demonstrate the necessity of a cause to every new existence, or new modification of existence, without shewing at the same time the impossibility there is, that any thing can ever begin to exist without some productive principle; and where the latter proposition cannot be prov'd, we must despair of ever being able to prove the former. Now that the latter proposition is utterly incapable of a demonstrative proof we may satisfy ourselves by considering, that as all distinct ideas are separable from each other, and as the ideas of cause and effect are evidently distinct, 'twill be easy for us to conceive any object to be non-existence this moment, and existent the next, without conjoining to it the distinct idea of a cause or productive principle." [page 79 in the Selby-Bigge edition of the Treatise.]


Was Kant aware of this argument? Yes. Beattie quotes the last part of this passage directly [beginning with "'twill be easy ..."] as well as several lines earlier on the same page. And those quotes were indeed included in the German translation of Beattie's work that Kant read. Thus my miniscule contribution to the ever-accumulating knowledge of the History of Ideas.


Now, Kant had forever given up hope of establishing a priori the truth of any of the familiar claims of rational metaphysics that had been the bread and butter of philosophy since Plato. He was prepared to throw Leibniz and the rest over the side, in part because he saw a way, by doing so, to carve out a space for his Ethical theory. Briefly -- we will have to return to this a good deal later on -- Kant was fully aware of the seemingly impossible conflict between the deterministic teachings of Newtonian science and the quite incompatible claims of Free Will on which moral responsibility rests. Having drawn a distinction between Appearance and Reality, between things as they are in themselves and things as they appear to us in space and time, he believed that he could successfully argue that Appearance is the realm of necessity, in which Newton's laws reign unchallenged, while Reality is the realm of freedom, in which the Moral Law rules supreme. In short, he thought he could resolve the age old conflict between Free Will and Determinism.


But if Hume was right -- and Kant, better than anyone else alive in the eighteenth century, could appreciate the full force of Hume's deceptively simply arguments -- than even when restricted to the realm of appearance, Newton's laws cannot be established with the requisite necessity and universality. This would, from Kant's point of view, be an utter disaster, leaving him with nothing but scepticism about the possibility of knowing anything other than mathematics a priori.


Kant postponed his plans for the immediate release of a Critique of Reason and launched into nine years of the most intense work. After his death in 1804, a hagiographic biography appeared in which the author, at one point, described Kant in his last years as distressed that he "could no longer bring to bear the full force of his intellectual powers" on his philosophical problems. When I read that line, I formed the image of Kant in that great nine year period, seated at his desk and bringing the full force of his intellectual powers to bear on his philosophical problems, sparks rising from his hair like a living Tesla Coil [think Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein.]


It was in this period that he conceived the framework of the so-called Architectonic as a way of managing and keeping control over the many more or less independent lines of philosophical investigation that he was pursuing simultaneously. Before talking about that framework and the central ideas on which it was based, and also launching into a extended discussion of Kant's solution to the challenge posed by Hume's sceptical arguments, I need to step back for a bit and talk about a fundamental reorientation in Philosophy that had been under way for a century and a half, and which Kant brought to completion. This reorientation is sometimes referred to as The Epistemological Turn, and it is the most important philosophical development between the early seventeenth century and the late eighteenth century. For those of you who are professional philosophers [assuming there is such a thing], I will just add that it is this Turn that was eventually directly rejected by Saul Kripke and a number of other late twentieth century Anglo-American philosophers [wrongly, in my humble opinion, but that really is another matter entirely.]



Sunday, July 24, 2011

READING THE CRITIQUE PART FIVE

At this point, I must talk for a bit about Euclidean Geometry. When I was a boy, we actually studied Euclid's Elements in High School geometry class. [Just to give you some idea of how things have changed, the Chairman of the Math Department at Forest Hills High School, Dr. Frank, taught a special class in the morning, before school started, for a handful of us who were whizzes at math, in which he introduced us to the mysteries of Analytic or Cartesian Geometry -- x and y axes and the formula for a circle or parabola and that stuff. These days, I gather that is taught in kindergarten.] Euclid was the gold standard for math in Kant's day, and everyone was fully conversant with the definitions, axioms, postulates, and theorems in Euclid's Elements.


The dream of Leibniz, and of a great many famous philosophers and logicians since, was to derive all of mathematics from logic, thereby demonstrating that the propositions of mathematics, like those of logic, can be known with absolute certainty a priori. Kant was convinced that this was in fact false -- that mathematical propositions make assertions that go beyond what is contained in the definitions of the terms with which they are expressed. Thus, he believed, mathematical propositions are synthetic, not analytic. But he was also sure that we know the truth of mathematical propositions a priori, not a posteriori [as Hume actually thought, by the way, although that has nothing to do with this discussion.] This posed a real puzzle for Kant. How could there be propositions that, although synthetic, could be known with certainty, a priori? [The famous Kantian conundrum inaccurately described as "the problem of synthetic a prior propositions."]


Why did Kant think that Euclidean Geometry is NOT analytic deducible from the definitions, axioms, and postulates? Well, take an actual look at the theorems in Euclid's Elements, or at any modern version of the same material. Each Theorem asserts some proposition, about lines or angles or triangles or circles, and somewhere in the proof, usually near the beginning, there is a "construction." Euclid will tell us, for example, to describe a circle about a point [one of the axioms says we can do that]. Then we are to select a point outside the circle, and connect it by a straight line to the point that serves as the center of the circle. [Another axiom says we can always connect two points by a straight line.] Now, we are told, where the line thus produced intersects with the circle, label that point A..


How do we know that the line intersects the circle? What? How do we know? Just look at it! The center of the circle is a point inside the circle, and the point selected is, by construction, outside the circle. Of course a line connecting the two points must cross the circle somewhere. And there you have it. Nothing in the definitions, axioms, and theorems laid down at the beginning of the Elements implies that such a line must intersect the circle, but it is immediately and indubitably obvious that it must. Mind you, this is not a well-established empirical generalization, grounded in endless thousands of attempts to connect points outside circles with centers of those circles. It is immediately apparent to the mind by construction, whether one actually draws such a circle and line or merely considers it in one's mind.


Kant realized that some very powerful explanation was required for this familiar and often overlooked fact about Geometry. His solution was that space itself is not an independently existing "container" of things -- an unding or non-thing, as he rather dismissively characterized Newton's account -- but rather the form of our sensuous perception of things, a form lying ready in the mind that is imposed by the mind on its perceptual experience. When we do Geometry, we are simply spelling out the innate mind-dependent spatial structure of that form of intuition.


A few hasty clarifications for modern readers. First, Kant says little or nothing about algebra, or even about arithmetic. You might think that the mind-dependent perceptual form, time, bears the same relationship to algebra that space does to geometry, but Kant does not go that way. Second, anyone living today will immediately ask, "How do we know that everyone has the same innate forms of intuition? Could they evolve over time? Could they be culturally dependent?" These questions seem never to have occurred to Kant, or to his contemporaries, although a century later they would have occurred to everybody.


So the metaphysics of monads is certain, and knowable a priori, and true of things as they are in themselves -- including substances, God, and all that good stuff. Newtonian physics is not true of things as they are in themselves. It and the geometry on which it is based are true only of things as they appear to the human mind in the space and time that the mind imposes upon its experiences. Could there be other rational beings with different forms of intuition? Yup, though Kant is not really interested in that possibility [space travel was a long time in the future.]


Now, we may imagine some thoughtful reader of the Dissertation asking: I can see how we can known the truths of mathematics a priori inasmuch as they merely spell out the mind-dependent spatial form imposed by the mind on its perceptual experience, but how can I know the truths of metaphysics a priori, considering that they are asserted unconditionally and universally of things as they are in themselves?


Well you might ask, little grasshopper.


Almost immediately after delivering the Dissertation [and getting tenure -- a rare commodity in those days], Kant realized that he had no answer at all to this pressing question. How indeed is it possible to have knowledge a priori of the independently real? Kant concluded that it was in fact impossible, and that he would therefore have to give up for all time the ancient search for metaphysical knowledge. So much for Rational Theology, which had for two thousand years and more been the Queen of the Philosophical Disciplines, and for Leibnizean metaphysics, besides.


This was, as by now should be clear, a huge decision on Kant's part, a dramatic tilt in the direction of the position of the Empiricists, the Sceptics. Kant announced this break with the philosophical tradition in which he had been raised in a letter to his friend Marcus Herz, who had occupied the ceremonial position of Respondent to Kant's Inaugural lecture. Kant promised Herz that very shortly he would publish a book entitled "A Critique of Reason," in which he would present his new position to the world. But then, Kant was struck by a thunderbolt that transformed his life, his thought, and our entire philosophical tradition.


It came about like this. An irritating little man named James Beattie published in England an attack on people he considered rank heretics and sceptics -- among whom he included David Hume. The book, called An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of the Truth, was a series of "refutations" of such famous sceptics as Descartes, Locke, and Hume, and it appeared in 1770. It consisted of arguments roughly like this: "X says that y. But common sense tells us that not-y. So X is wrong." Naturally, it was a smash success, and went through annual editions in 1770, 71, 72, 73, 74, and 75. But, God bless Beattie, he included in his book lengthy extracts from the sceptics he thought he was eviscerating. Hume, who cared very deeply for his own literary reputation, and who was by now actually quite famous as the author of a six volume history of England, was stung by Beattie's contemptuous dismissal of his anonymous, juvenile work, A Treatise of Human Nature [sigh -- the greatest work of philosophy ever written in English]. In a new edition of his essays brought out in '72, he disavowed the Treatise as a work of youth and took umbrage at Beattie's extensive quotations from it. Beattie replied rather grandly by removing from the '73 edition and all subsequent ones the passages from the Treatise that he had included in the original edition, including passages in which Hume stated his devastating critique of causal judgments.


Kant could not really read English, but a translation of Beattie's work appeared in German in 1772, and thanks to the goodness of the gods [whose existence Kant had given up any hope of proving], the translator used the 1st edition, with the passages from Hume intact. Kant read the translation, and being of course light years smarter than Beattie or anyone else then alive save Hume, immediately recognized that Hume's arguments constituted a mortal threat to the new position he had just then taken up as a necessary retreat from metaphysics. Hume's arguments called into question even the knowability a priori [or indeed any other way] of Newtonian physics, which Kant thought he had made safe by restricting it to the realm of things as they appear to us in space and time. Clearly, a much, much deeper and more elaborate defense of science was required. Kant set aside his plans for the immediate release of a Critique of Reason and embarked upon the labors that resulted, nine years later, in the Critique of Pure Reason and the rest of the Critical Philosophy.


Why have I told you this story in such detail? Because I am the person who discovered the whole Beattie business fifty-five years ago. It is the only genuine scholarship I have ever done in my entire life, and I am inordinately proud of it. You may find it all laid out in glorious detail in the Journal of the History of Ideas, in an article entitled "Kant's Knowledge of Hume via Beattie."