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Monday, August 25, 2014


Perhaps because I spent fifty years in the classroom, I think of this blog as an open-ended continuing class, with no registration limits, no prerequisites, no constraints on subject matter,  and of course, no exams or grades.  It calls to mind the great line from one of the songs in Guys and Dolls, sung by Nathan Detroit:  "It's the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York."

Thinking of the blog in this way has many advantages, but there is one downside, I find.  It makes me feel that I ought to be able to answer any question posed by one of the "students," especially when it is asked by someone who actually was my student in real life.  Andrew Blais asks several questions provoked by my lengthy post on the relationship between Kant's First Critique teaching and the theses of his moral philosophy.  Now, Andrew really was my student, back in the days when I was still a Professor of Philosophy.  I directed his fine doctoral dissertation, which then became a very good book.  So when he asks me about Plato and possible worlds and one thing and another, I feel that is incumbent upon me to have answers.  Unfortunately, I am really, really out of touch not only with the very latest journal article of 2014, but also with the very latest journal article of 2004, 1994, 1984, and even 1974.  So my reply to his questions, which I shall give here, are offered with more than the usually cautionary caveats.  [I am reminded of a practice of the Vietnamese restaurants in Paris.  They put mouth-watering photographs of some of the dishes on their big, glossy menus, and then add in small letters the warning that the actual dish may not actually look like that!]

After an opening clearing of his throat, Andrew asks:  "An often mentioned metaphor or allegory for the appearance/reality cut is Plato's cave. So, why is it that the contradiction in Kant's understanding doesn't have a counterpart in the cave allegory? If there is no counterpart, what has to be added to get the analogous contradiction?"  The distinction between appearance and reality, on which Kant's entire philosophy is founded, does indeed have its origin in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, as Andrew says.  The difference is this:  Plato [in his guise as Socrates] argues that the philosopher, by a process of rational inquiry and critique, can ascend from the experience of appearances to a knowledge of reality, while still, of course, retaining an awareness of appearances and an understanding of their relation to reality.  Having achieved that higher [or deeper] knowledge, the philosopher can then act in the world in accordance with it, even though he will to be sure be scorned, as Socrates was, by those still trapped in the realm of appearance.  That is the allegorical meaning of the journey out of the cave into the sunlight.  Something like this notion is present in the teaching of the Inaugural Dissertation of 1770, although in that work Kant does not talk about principles of right action.  But as a consequence of his encounter with Humean scepticism, Kant gave up the position of the Dissertation, and instead embraced the view that our knowledge is forever confined to the realm of appearance, for all that we can formulate an empty idea of independent reality.  Hence for Kant, but not for Plato, there is a problem in making sense of the claim that the philosopher acts in the realm of appearance as one who has a knowledge of independent reality.  There is also the historically more complicated difficulty that the Greeks, Plato included, had no clearly formulated notion of laws of nature, and hence no philosophically usable idea of causal determinism.

Andrew goes on to make a second point that raises much more complicated questions.  Here is what he says:  "The relation between the noumenal ethical self and the phenomenal physical self is similar to the counterpart relation between objects in different possible worlds. Socrates in one world is F, but in another, he is not F. The conundrum is how to understand how it could be that it is the same Socrates that is and is not F. The Kantian conundrum is how to understand how it could be that Socrates is a causally caught up object and yet also a free agent. If there is an way to understand the modal case, isn't it clear that there should be a similar way to understand the Kantian case?"

I am now going imitate to Wiley Coyote and rush pell mell off the edge of a cliff, my legs pounding fiercely until I pause, look down, and discover that I am no longer on solid ground, at which point I will plunge to my destruction.  I am counting on the many serious philosophers who read this blog to weigh in and correct me.

For the first two millennia and a bit more of Western Philosophy, metaphysics took primacy of place over epistemology.  Questions about being, about what is, were thought of by virtually all the great philosophers as primary, questions about what we can know being considered as secondary.  Aristotle distinguishes in the Physics between things that are first in the order of knowing [such as the nature of substance] and things that are first in the order of knowing [such as sensory accidents.]  It is for this reason that he called the group of essays dealing with Being and associated matters "First Philosophy."  [It was only a medieval accident that these essays came to be called Metaphysics.  In the manuscript of Aristotle's works with which the Scholastics were working, those essays came after the Physics -- ta meta ta physika.]  His speculations about the processes of our knowing were consigned to a relatively secondary work, De Anima.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, René Descartes dramatically reversed this age old prioritization with his proclamation that the one absolutely certain truth on which he was able to found his reasoning was cogito, I think.  The power of Descartes' arguments swept away two thousand years of belief in the priority  of the order of being over the order of knowing.  For the next two centuries, every great philosopher devoted his most intense speculations to the question, "What can I know?," and all of them followed Descartes in taking as their primary task an analysis of the cognitive powers and limits of the human mind.  It is for this reason that we find works with such titles as Essay Concerning the Human Understanding, Principles of Knowledge, A Treatise of Human Nature, and, of course, Critique of Pure Reason.

Even in the middle of the twentieth century, when I was an undergraduate, epistemology took pride of place over metaphysics, which in the analytic circles I frequented, was viewed with suspicion.  All of this changed shortly thereafter.  As a consequence of the work of Saul Kripke and a number of other philosophers, questions of being once more strode forward to the head of the class and took the place of questions about the cognitive capacities of the human mind.  [This may help to explain why Saul, then an undergraduate, stopped coming to my course on the Critique after a few weeks, apparently having decided that nothing was happening there that he needed to pay attention to.]  All of this was tricked out with some very fancy modal logic, and eventually gave us this talk about possible world semantics and such.

Which brings me to Andrew's question.  Why can we not make use of the modern discussions of possible worlds and so-called "counterpart theory" to resolve Kant's problem of making his talk about a causally determined phenomenal self and a morally free noumenal self compatible?  Because those modern discussions assume that one can talk about different possible worlds and their relation to one another without first determining what the subject of these discussions, the self doing the reasoning, can know about itself.  Take any text on possible world semantics and ask the simple question, "Who is doing the writing?"  Who is the self making those assertions?  How can that self arrive at the knowledge claimed in those assertions?  Kant grounds his entire philosophy on the proposition, "The 'I think' can be attached to every one of my representations," which is his version of Descartes' cogito. 

To put the point in a suitably Greek manner, there is no pou sto[a place 'where I may stand'] from which the modern possible worlds semanticist can contemplate both this world and other possible worlds equally so as to formulate propositions about them -- or at least, so Kant would argue, if he were to encounter this modern philosophical school.

Andrew concludes:  "This similar way to understand the Kantian case is adumbrated in your point about how the author of one narrative can't, or perhaps can, appear in another author's narrative. A narrative picks out a set of possible worlds. Suppose that the characters of our respective narratives pick out objects that are identical in the way that the Socrates who is F is identical with the Socrates is not F. To borrow a phrase, they are transworld characters. What is needed to resolve the contraction, in sum, is an understanding of how the same thing can have contradictory descriptions such as causally networked and free, but expressing the problem in terms of narrative already points the way to a resolution?"

Once again, note Andrew's precise wording.  "A narrative picks out a set of possible worlds."  But that is, strictly speaking, not true.  It is the narrator who picks out a possible world, and the narrator does this by creating the possible world by his or her words.  On this matter, I must refer anyone who has made it this far into this post to my essay, "Narrative Time" [which Andrew has clearly read], archived on and accessible through the link at the top of this page.

Well, I am looking down, and I have not started to fall yet, but that may just be because the Road Runner is not up on possible world semantics.  On to Timothy.



Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Part 1:

Ah, to say the least, I'm quite pleased at my remarks having had such a thoughtful response. I'll try the same. I did not anticipate your response to my remark about the cave. I thought that you would follow a somewhat different line of thinking, one that would pick up from a theme in Moneybags. Roughly, this is the theme that successful expression requires that the mode of expression, the style perhaps, possess syntactic possibilities that are capable of being congruent with the structure of thing being expressed.

With regard to Plato's allegory, there is the cave proper, and then there is the extension wherein it is considered what would occur were a prisoner to escape. As you point out, if I read you correctly, the allegory fails to capture Kant's understanding of the appearance/reality distinction, precisely because it suggests that we are able to shed our shackles, take leave of the cave and know the extra-cavernous world.

But, isn't there a paradox, similar to the one you noted in the case of Kant, with Plato's suggestion that shackle shedding, cave exiting and cognitive fraternizing with things in the sun are all possible?

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Part 2:

I think that the paradox can be explained in two ways: in terms the Platonism per se and in terms of the cave allegory.

First, how is it possible to use language to express anything about the world of reality, the world of Forms? Language is just another thing caught up in the Heraclitean flux. If nothing in the flux can serve as an object of knowledge, how can anything in the flux express knowledge? If ever changing things can't serve as the objects of knowledge, then how could any subset of the flux serve to express an eternal truth about the true and eternal objects of knowledge? Perhaps, then, language can't. But, a core Platonic axiom is that if you can't express what you think you know, then you don't really know it. So, what then is this knowledge of reality that can't be expressed with the only language that we have at our disposal? Well, that is, I think, the paradox analogous with the one you found in Kant.

Second, in terms of the cave, language is just a thing amongst the shadows. Well, not really, because as Plato describes the cave, there are two sorts of element in the world of appearances, namely shadows and echos, but leave that find point of Platonism aside for the moment. The point that in terms of the allegory, how is it possible for a thing of the shadows, the world of appearance, to refer to anything but shadows and echos. Just think that in terms of the allegory, a metalanguage would be echos referring to echos, shadows referring to shadows. Suppose that the prisoner sheds her shackles, her language could not express anything about the extra-cavernous world, but then she would not know it either. This is the point, I think, that you make in Moneybags about language needing to have structural possibilities that are adequate to express the structures of the topic at hand.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Part 3:

But all of this also seems to me to be your point about Kant's paradox, namely, that on the one hand the theoretical philosophy tells us that we can't represent the noumenal, since the categories are only the forms of consciousness, but the practical philosophy demands that we be able to do just this, since the objects of ethical discourse must be free. There is no analogous conflict, perhaps, in Plato, but there is analogous paradox.

This is all very complicated and even though I written much here, there is much more. So, let me finish with this thought. The power but limitation of the cave allegory raises the question of what a more adequate allegory might be that could capture if not all variations on the appearance/reality distinction, at least that of both Plato and Kant. I suppose that you might say that consequently, we should see that the goal is then to articulate that distinction without allegory and without metaphor. (See page 101 of Kant's Theory of Mental Activity:) So, here is a question, suppose that we had a literal account of the distinction in hand, would it suffer from a paradox similar to one that I've suggested afflicts Plato and the one that I've read you to saying afflicts Kant?