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Tuesday, December 31, 2013


In the past week or more, a number of you have posted interesting and suggestive comments on this blog, to which I have not yet responded.  I hope to do so before I leave for Paris on January 6th.  This morning during my walk [40 degrees -- quite comfortable], I turned over in my mind what I might say.  For some reason, I found myself recalling what I had written in the first volume of my Autobiography about my fruitful engagement with the Critique of Pure Reason.  It occurred to me that I had neglected to talk about one of the most important motivating convictions of that effort, and though it is very far indeed from any of your comments, I shall take a few moments to return to that pivotal moment in my intellectual development and try to capture on paper my thoughts from the late Fall months of 1959, when I was preparing the notes that served first as the basis of my lectures in Philosophy 130 at Harvard and then as the skeleton of my first book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity.

The philosophers among you [of whom, I believe, there are a goodly number] will know that in the most important section of the Critique, the Transcendental Analytic, the pivotal notion  is synthesis.  It is a priori synthesis, Kant claims, that explains both the unity of consciousness and the objective validity of the laws of nature.  Synthesis, Kant tells us, is an activity of the mind.  It is, in his words, a "running through and holding together" of the elements of a manifold of intuition, whether empirical or pure.  [Wow!  Just writing those words takes me back.  I hope they are not utterly incomprehensible to my readers.]

All of the commentators before me simply took Kant's characterization of synthesis at face value and then launched into elaborate scholarly disquisitions on the distinction between pure and empirical synthesis or the relation of schematized to unschematized categories [never mind.]  But I was completely unsatisfied by their extremely knowledgeable discussions, replete with citations of passages from Kant's many other writings, published and unpublished, including even the Nachlass, the barrel of scraps of paper left at his death.  I did not want to know every variant of Kant's use of the term "synthesis."  I wanted to know what on earth the term meant.  Until I could explain that to myself, the Critique would be a complete mystery to me.

Now, "running through and holding together" is not a description of a mental activity.  It is a metaphor [which, in my quirky mind, conjures up Tiny Tim singing "Tiptoe Through The Tulips."]  And I was unwilling to move forward a single step so long as this central term was explained merely metaphorically.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important this refusal was in my grappling with the Critique.  It is, indeed, the key to every bit of textual interpretation I have ever attempted, whether it be an interpretation of the works of Kant, or those of Hume, of Marx, or indeed [to descend out of the stratosphere] of Rawls.  We are often enraptured or mystified by the complexity of a philosopher's theoretical elaborations, so much so that we spend our time unraveling that complexity, without pausing long enough to make sure that we fully understand the central terms that the philosopher deploys.  A metaphor is a promissory note, and unless we can cash it in for a plain, literal translation, it is valueless.

So I went looking in the Critique for some clue to the precise nature of this activity on which Kant grounded his entire philosophical enterprise.  I found my answer, as the handful of you who have read my book will know, in a section of the Critique usually referred to by scholars as the "Subjective Deduction."   This is a portion of the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding.  Here at last I found a non-metaphorical description of the mental activity of synthesis.  [Indeed, in typical Immanuel Kant fashion, one finds not one but three related activities, to which he gives separate names -- "the synthesis of apprehension in intuition," "the synthesis of reproduction in imagination," and "the synthesis of recognition in a concept."  Never mind what all of this means.  I just find it soothing to say these old words to myself again, rather like a devout Catholic saying the Lord's Prayer or a little child lying in bed at night saying to herself "Once upon a time ..."]

There was just one small problem with my discovery.  When Kant came to issue a Second Edition of the Critique in 1787, six years after the publication of the First Edition, he revised or entirely rewrote certain sections of the book, including the Deduction.  And in the Second Edition Deduction the Three-Fold Synthesis totally disappeared, never to be seen again in any of Kant's subsequent writings!  Well, that posed a bit of a problem, to put mildly.  If Kant deleted the so-called Subjective Deduction from the Second [presumably authoritative] Edition, how on earth can I possibly make an idea found only in that passage the key to my entire interpretation of Kant's philosophy?

My answer is simple, and utterly unconventional.  The importance of a great philosophical work, I have always believed, lies not in its architectonic elaboration or the fretwork of its superficial detail but in the power and depth of its central insight.  A truly valuable interpretation will grasp that insight and struggle to make it perfectly clear and coherent, even if doing so requires ignoring or even contradicting some of the statements that the philosopher makes about what he or she is doing and what he or she believes is important in the work.  Now, clearly it is a matter of philosophical judgment what is and what is not the central insight of a work.  Hence, if I may steal a turn of phrase from the French, all good textual interpretations are guilty.

A powerful interpretation [what, in another context, Harold Bloom might call a strong reading] of a text will present the reader with a clear, non-metaphorical, simple, and -- dare I say it, beautiful -- reading of that text that seizes what is centrally important in the text and ruthlessly ignores everything else.  Those of us who undertake such interpretations make a gamble, when we begin, on a text, betting our time and effort and commitment that the text, if wrestled with all night like Jacob with the Angel, will yield up such a reading.

Well, that, more or less, is what I was thinking about this morning during my walk.  No herons, by the way, nor deer.  But as I approached home, I did see a hawk in a tree.


mesnenor said...

You write "The importance of a great philosophical work, I have always believed, lies not in its architectonic elaboration or the fretwork of its superficial detail but in the power and depth of its central insight." And you comment that this is "unconventional". That is unconventional because with that step, despite your background and training, you stepped away from doing analytic philosophy, and joined traditional philosophy, which has also become known (bizarrely) in North American academic circles, as "continental philosophy".

Analytic philosophy insists that a philosopher's work is nothing other than the arguments presented. To claim that there might be a central insight, or philosophical position that is something other than the arguments themselves, and that the arguments and "architectonic elaborations" are expressions of the underlying insight or position is quite foreign to the analytic tradition.

This meta-philosophical aspect of analytic thought is of course a direct result of its approach to language, which generally rejects language as being "expressive" of something extra-linguistic.

David Auerbach said...

I'm afraid that whatever analytic philosophy is, it isn't what you claim it is. Your last sentence ("This meta-philosophical aspect of analytic thought is of course a direct result of its approach to language, which generally rejects language as being "expressive" of something extra-linguistic.") is particularly odd, since it would be hard to find a so-called analytic philosopher who believes that. Of course, analytic philosophers' views on the relation of language to the world, of language to mind and indeed on all sorts of issues in philosophy are quite varied.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

What do you think of this?

Aristotle distinguished between literal and metaphorical predication in terms of the respective bases. The later is based on similarity and the former is based on common properties. Now, the common property thing smacks of Platonism and no one, but no one is a Platonist. So, there is no predication based on the possession of common properties, that is, there is no literal predication. So, what is left? Metaphorical predication that is based on similarity. So, suppose that you're a good nominalist, and you see predication as always based on similarities. Then, also suppose that you now approach Kant's place in the history of philosophy. He appears great not because he cashed in a metaphor, but because he not only offered up a top notch metaphor such as synthesis and stuff like the emptyness and blindness of concepts and perceptions, but he offered these metaphors that look like they will take centuries to think through. I don't mean cash in, but think through in the way that we evaluate metaphors without exactly having some literal truth before us.

Page 101 of Kant's Theory of Mental Activity has been at the back of my mind for almost thirty years. Argggg!

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

PS: Happy New Year!!!