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Monday, August 15, 2011


And so, after a break of one day, we return to the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason. Attentive readers of what I have written thus far may have noticed a curious consequence that seems to flow from the position Kant has staked out. Strange as it may seem, Kant appears to have committed himself to the view that the laws of physics derive from the human mind, Surely that cannot be what he intended! Quite to the contrary, that is precisely what Kant intended, and in two striking passages near the end of the First Edition Deduction, he says so flat out. Here are the two crucial passages, the first at A125, the second at A 126:

"Thus the order and regularity in the appearances, which we entitle nature, we ourselves introduce. We could never find them in appearances, had we not ourselves, or the nature of our mind, originally set them there."

"Thus the understanding is something more than a power of formulating rules through comparison of appearances [as Hume, in a sense, had suggested - ed.]; it is itself the lawgiver of nature."

The understanding is the lawgiver of nature. This is a simply extraordinary statement, and Kant means it to be. In the process of reproducing a diversity of sense contents in Imagination, thereby imposing on them a temporal order that is unified and necessary as a consequence of their being reproduced in accordance with a rule, I create nature. I can know a priori, with universality and necessity, that appearances, which is to say tables and chairs and planets and atoms, will obey the Law of Cause and Effect, precisely because I have myself imposed that Law upon them. It is the condition of the possibility of my being conscious, and of my consciousness having the unity that it in fact does.

Even before we move on to the completion of the argument in the Analogies of Experience, there is a great deal that needs to be said about Kant's dramatic claim. First of all, it is a radically subjective claim, in a certain sense. It is not we who are conscious -- it is I who am conscious. Cogito. Immediately, a question thrusts itself upon us, a question that in the eighteenth century was very far from the minds of even the most sophisticated philosophers: How do we know that everyone's mind has in it the same structure of Categories? Can we even ask such a question? Could the Categories of the Understanding be culturally variable, could they evolve historically, or could they be ideologically encoded, or racially encoded, or differ according to gender? Every one of these questions has been asked in the nineteenth century and subsequently, and every one of them has given rise to a literature. But these questions seem never to have so much as occurred to Kant, nor indeed did the corresponding questions occur to Hume, or to Locke, or to Descartes or Leibniz or Spinoza.

Second, a rather more interior question, if I may put it that way. Even if we accept without cavil the radically subjective, even solipsistic implication of Kant's argument, there is another question that ought to puzzle us. The Law of Cause and Effect asserts that all objects in space and all events in time are in thoroughgoing interaction with one another according to the laws of gravitation articulated by Newton. This can be so, on Kant's view, only if the mind, through the activity of synthesis, imposes the rules that are the Categories on a total manifold of sensibility, thereby producing the entire temporal run of events, past, present, and future. Now, I, as an empirical object, a being having a certain birth, life, and eventual death, occupy only one vanishingly small interval of the world-historical temporal sequence, and yet it is, according to Kant, my mind, my Understanding [it helps to put it in caps], that synthesizes the entire causally determined sequence of which my life is the merest proper part. Can Kant really mean that?

He pretty clearly did not put it to himself in quite that fashion. How could he have done so seriously? And yet, not only is this an immediately implication of the theory he has put forward, he actually, in a strange fashion, needs this extraordinary claim in order to carry out, later on, his planned resolution of the conflict between free will and determinism. We shall get to that in time [assuming that I do not totally lose all of you before then.]

Kant does address in one way this puzzle about my relation as a particular human being to the world order of causes and effects in space and time. His answer gave rise to what Erich Adickes called "the theory of double affection." It might be useful to say a few words about what that is all about. "Affection" is Kant's term for the impact of independent things on my sensibility. Now, in our ordinary thinking about the origins of our sense perceptions, we understand that physical objects interact with our sense organs, producing sensations. Air vibrating at certain pitches generates the sensation of tones, photons entering the eye strike the retinal cells and trigger electrochemical reactions that we experience as light. That sort of thing. All of these interactions take place in space and time, in what Kant calls the realm of appearance. But Kant also maintains that things in themselves affect our sensibility, producing the diversity or manifold of sensations that we reproduce in Imagination according to the rules of synthesis, thereby forming or constructing eyes and ears and brain cells and optic nerves and air and photons and everything else that is involved in ordinary empirical perception. What is the relation between these two processes?

Kant struggled with this question, which arises immediately out of the theory of the Deduction. One of his answers was to posit a full-scale doubling of "affektionen." To put it is simply and nakedly as I can, things in themselves affect our Sensibility, generation a manifold of pure intuition in space and time [not a manifold the pure form of which is space and time, but a separate pure manifold.] This pure manifold, which can, he says, be thought of as a manifold of relations, without sensory content, is actually the object of pure mathematical reasoning, giving rise to Geometry. It is also the subject of a priori synthesis, thereby producing a world of physical objects in space and tome which, sure enough as Newton claimed, have only such spatio-temporal properties as size, shape, density, and velocity. Among the many objects thus created by synthesis is the human body itself, with its sense organs. There is now a second affection of those sense organs by physical objects, which produces the sensory perceptions that we know ahs sights, sounds, etc. These perceptions do indeed obey the laws of association studied by Hume. But the tendency of this manifold of sense perceptions to exhibit such patterns of association, which Kant calls "the affinity of the manifold," is grounded in the (logically and epistemologically) prior pure synthesis of the pure manifold.

This, as clearly as I can state it, is Kant's attempt to sort out what he has committed himself to, and it is pretty clearly rather iffy. That is one reason for his oddly ambivalent statement in the Preface of the First Edition, quoted above.

Ok, enough for one day. Tomorrow we shall tackle the Second Analogy and see how Kant brings his argument to completion.


English Jerk said...

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?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That in fact is an easy question to answer from Kant's point of view, but it is a little complicated. Let me tackle it tomorow before going on to the Analogies.

English Jerk said...

Sound great! I'm enjoying the series very much, by the way.

jim said...

But these questions seem never to have so much as occurred to Kant, nor indeed did the corresponding questions occur to Hume, or to Locke, or to Descartes or Leibniz or Spinoza.

This is not exactly correct. In fact, I think Kant was worried about the possibility of contingent sources of the Categories. PR Sloan, in Preforming the Categories, gives textual evidence for the worry in both a biolgical and a cultural context. The worry is biological insofar as Kant uses biological terminology, preformation and epigenesis, to describe the origin of the Categories. The worry of cultural effects on the Categories grows out of his contact with Herder. He, of course, can't admit that the categories are contingent but I think it does become a worry for him.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is interesting. Can you point me to some sources?

jim said...

By far the best source is Zammito's,Kant, Herder and the Birth of Anthropology

Sloan's "Preforming the Categories" is what first got me interested.

Zammito's Kant's Persistent Ambivalence is also good, i.e short and accessible in a large chunk on Google scholar.