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Saturday, August 23, 2014


Recently, this blog has been rather intensely focused on Marx's economic theories and his claim that there is a tendency in capitalist economies for the rate of profit to fall.  Today I should like to turn my attention in a quite different direction, to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.  In the course of paying a personal tribute to the half century anniversary of the publication of my first book on  Kant's philosophy, I made some rather bold claims about what I accomplished in that book.  Emboldened by the absence of snarky responses in the Comments section [due perhaps to the fact that everyone was wrapped up in the Marx-debate], I shall today undertake in a very lengthy post to reprise what I think is my most important contribution to our understanding of Kant's theories, namely my argument that the deepest conclusions of Kant's theoretical philosophy -- his epistemology, as we would call it today -- undermine and contradict the core theses of his moral theory.  The argument, which I have made in several places not much noticed by the scholarly world, is, to the best of my knowledge, original with me and has neither been anticipated nor commented upon by any other Kant scholars.  This is going to take me a while, folks, so if Kant is not your thing, now would be a good time to catch up on your FreeCell or Spider Solitaire or watch those back episodes of House of Cards that somehow escaped you when they first came out.

Speaking broadly, Kant began his philosophical career committed to defending the fundamental claims of both science and ethics.  Science, for Kant, meant the Newtonian Physics of his day, with its universal causal laws governing the movements of bodies in space.  Ethics meant the rigorous demands of the particular form of Protestantism known as Pietism, which, as learned at his mother's knee, emphasized the absolute bindingness of the demands of reason and the importance of resisting the temptations of sensuous desire.  To these two tasks Kant brought the version of metaphysics that he had learned at university from his teacher, Martin Knutzen, who was a follower of Gottfried Leibniz.

There were many well-known difficulties and disputes in the so-called Rationalist school about the relation of physics and mathematics to the claims of metaphysics, and Kant's first serious effort to resolve those disputes was laid out by him in 1770 in the form of his Inaugural Dissertation, a formal presentation on the occasion of his elevation to the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Königsberg.  In brief, Kant's idea was to assert that there were two cognitive sources of knowledge -- Reason and Sensation [or Intuition, as it was called then.]  Reason, he argued, gives us knowledge of things as they are in themselves -- knowledge that, roughly speaking, is the substance of Leibnizean metaphysics.  Sensation, or Intuition, on the other hand, gives us a somewhat less robust knowledge of things as they appear to us under the forms of Intuition, which are space and time, this latter knowledge comprising Euclidean Geometry and Newtonian Physics.

Almost immediately after presenting the Inaugural Dissertation, Kant became aware of the powerful sceptical arguments of David Hume, which, be it noted, were directed precisely against the causal inferences of Newtonian Physics, as well as against the sorts of arguments advanced by Leibnizean metaphysics.  Kant understood that Hume's arguments, if not completely rebutted, would destroy the defense he had erected of Newtonian Physics, and leave him with nothing but an utterly unacceptable scepticism.  Kant withdrew his hastily announced plans to publish a "Critique of Reason" and embarked on a feverish decade long rethinking of everything he had until then taken for granted, an effort that resulted, eleven years later, in the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason [1781.]

During this period of the most extraordinary philosophical effort, Kant had always in mind his desire to defend the fundamental claims of Ethics.  Indeed, during this same decade, Kant seems to have worked through, in his mind and in some cases on paper, a complete philosophical position that made a place not only for his defense of Newtonian Physics, Euclidean Geometry, and Ethical Theory, but also for radically new theories of aesthetics, of the concept of teleology, of law and politics, and even of religion.

The key to the entire enterprise was the distinction, taken over from Plato and incorporated already into the Inaugural Dissertation, between Appearance and Reality [or, to use the terms of art that appear in the Critique, between Phenomena and Noumena.]  In the course of working out a response to Humean scepticism, Kant gave up for all time the claim that we can have knowledge of independent reality, of things in themselves, to use the phrase he coined.  [Autobiographical aside.  The German for "thing in itself" is ding an sich.  When I bought a tiny motorcycle in Oxford in 1954 and drove it to Rome, I called it the "ding nicht an sich" because, I said, it was a phenomenal motorcycle.  Oh well.  I was only twenty.]

Thus, Kant rejected completely all the claims of Leibnizean metaphysics.  In doing so, he had clearly in mind his desire to defend the truths of morality, to resolve the apparently irresoluble conflict between the determinism of physics and the freed will presupposed by morality.  Classical physics says that everything happens according to immutable causal laws, and morality demands that we act freely.  Kant thought that by limiting our knowledge to the realm of Appearance, he had carved out a separate sphere, the sphere of things in themselves, in which Reason and Freedom could reign, in which the laws of morality held with absolute unconditional universality and necessity.

It is very important for everything I am now going to say to form some sense of the fever in which Kant must have worked for those eleven years, constantly trying to keep track of and find a place in his argument for the enormous range of subjects on which he was forging new doctrines.  [Biographical aside:  An early hagiographic account of Kant's life, published shortly after his death, describes him as much distressed in his last years because he could "no longer bring the full force of his intellectual powers to bear on his philosophical work."  When I read that, I thought of the monster in the old Frankenstein movie with sparks coming out of his head like an enormous Tesla Coil.]  To hold it all together, Kant devised a framework, or architectonic, as it has come to be called, with a place for everything, and everything in its place, all organized according to Kant's schema of the cognitive faculties of the mind:  Reason, Understanding, Imagination, Sensibility, Will, and so forth.  Indeed, so prolific and indefatigable a schematizer was he that he actually elaborate a number of not entirely compatible schemata -- at least three in the First Critique alone.  This framework, the architectonic, served to help Kant keep track of where he was in the elaboration of his arguments.

Now, if Kant had merely been one of the most important philosophers ever to live, the unfolding of this grand scheme, eventually set forth in a Three Critiques and a raft of other books, would have been enough to immortalize him.  Lord knows, the rest of us would be blissed out at the thought of producing something that is even a bare shadow of this grand scheme.  But Kant was even more than this.  He was capable, as he worked on the spelling out of his grand plan, of seizing on key elements of the argument and diving below the surface, following the train of his intuition as deep as it took him, no matter how he was forced by the logic of his investigation to change long held and much cherished philosophical beliefs.  I think of him at these moments as being like Gandalf the Grey, who followed the Balrog into the deepest reaches of the Caves of Moria and did battle there, emerging triumphant but changed, as Gandalf the White.

Just such a moment occurs in the Transcendental Deduction of the Categories in the First Critique.  As he dives deep into the analysis of the Concepts of Understanding, in an effort to combat Hume's scepticism and defend the knowledge claims of Newtonian Physics, Kant is guided by the belief, laid out in the structure of the Architectonic, that the Categories of Causation, Substance, and the rest are class concepts that have hypothetical, or as we would put it, problematic application to things in themselves.  This allows him to say that although they can never yield knowledge of things in themselves, since that knowledge requires Intuition, or Sensibility, which is constrained by the mind-imposed forms of Space and Time, nevertheless we can still form coherent meaningful propositions about the actions of things in themselves, among which are morally free persons.  Hence, he believes, he has made room for morality by limiting knowledge.

But in the depths of his investigation, Kant finds that Categories are in fact rules for the synthesis of a manifold [or manyness] of sensible intuitions.  And since the Categories are rules for the synthesis of a manifold, they cannot have even problematic application to something that is not a manifold of intuition at all, which is to say they cannot have even problematic application to things in themselves.  Only insofar as they are understood as rules for the synthesis of a manifold do the categories serve to undergird our knowledge of physics. 

In short, in the process of solving the problem of finding a response to Hume's scepticism,  Kant has in fact left no room at all for ethics, for the rational laws of morality, for the Categorical Imperative.


If there is anyone at all left reading this, let me give you some examples to illustrate the problem Kant has fashioned for himself.  First of all, Kant's pre-philosophical notion of the human condition is that it is a ceaseless struggle between duty and inclination, between what we know we ought to do and what we would like to do.  Not all philosophers see ethics this way, of course.  Plato and Aristotle see ethics as concerned with discovering how to live the good life, where the phrase "good life" is deliberately and intentionally ambiguous -- the good life is both a virtuous life, a life well lived, and a truly happy life.  The struggle between duty and inclination makes almost no appearance in Greek ethics.  Bentham and Mill thought the paradigmatic ethical problem was the "hard case," a situation in which competing and conflicting claims require us to figure out, taking everything into consideration, what will be best for all.  Their solution is to convert moral deliberation into a calculation, a summing up of pleasures and pains according to some general guidelines for weighting them and so forth.  Neither of these is Kant's idea of ethics.  Kant does not think that the central human problem is how to be happy, nor is he especially worried about hard cases.  He thinks that everyone -- including a peasant in North Prussia where Kant lived -- knows what is right and wrong:  Tell the truth, keep your promises, do unto others as you would have others do unto you.  When readers of his ethical writings protested that the Categorical Imperative was just a fancy version of the Golden Rule, Kant agreed, and said that since we all know what is right, you would hardly expect a moral theorist to tell you something new!

Now inclination is a form of desire, which, like everything else in the realm of appearance, is causally determined [by physical or psychological forces, it matters not which]. Our rational will, which struggles against inclination to do what is right, is a power of the noumenal self, the self as thing in itself, unconstrained by physical laws and hence free to submit itself to Reason, not to Inclination.  This endless struggle between the phenomenal self with its inclinations and the noumenal self with its reason, is the defining situation of the moral life.  Purely noumenal beings -- angels, let us say -- would experience the Moral Law in roughly the way that we experience the laws of mathematics, as rational principles that, as rational beings, they naturally and freely obey.  But because we humans are, in the immortal words of Alexander Pope, "placed on this isthmus of a middle state, being[s] darkly wise and rudely great," we, unlike angels, experience the rational principles of morality as imperatives.  Hence, the Moral Law appears to us, but not to them, as a Categorical Imperative.  [Imagine, if you can, a mathematician who finds herself tempted to draw conclusions not implied by her premises, and who must steel herself to obey modus ponens against the sinister forces of inclination.] 

But this familiar story of reason resisting temptation, which is quintessentially the Kantian problematic, if I may speak à la franҫaise, is absolutely impossible according to the deeper teaching of the First Critique.  Within the realm of appearance, there can be no such conflict between the noumenal will and phenomenal inclination, because any willing of the noumenal self must make its appearance in the space-time continuum of Phenomena as causally determined by what went before, just like everything else.

Let me say that again, because it may be difficult for those of you who have studied Kant's philosophy in the usual manner to appreciate just what has happened here.  The successful refutation of Humean scepticism achieved in the deepest passages of the First Critique rests on an interpretation of space, time, inclination, and will that makes it absolutely impossible for the phenomenologically observed torments of the devout Pietistic Protestant to be correctly interpreted as a struggle between reason and Inclination, between Freedom and Determinism.  In short, Kant's epistemology appears to imply that his moral theory of impossible.

I say "seems" because there is in fact an available resolution of this contradiction, which though incredible is genuinely logically possible.  [I am not going to lay it out here, because this is going on entirely too long, but if anyone is interested, I will explain in the next day or two.]  But alas, that is only the least of it.  There is another problem bequeathed by Kant's epistemology to his ethical theory that is a genuine crusher, and I turn to that now.

Everyone will agree, I take it, that for Kant telling the truth and keeping one's promises are clear, unambiguous examples of moral duties.  Now think about it.  To whom do I tell the truth?  Another person, presumably, another rational agent.  It is to that rational agent that I have a duty of truth-telling.  The same is true of keeping one's promises.  I make promises to other rational agents, and it is to them that I owe the duty to keep my promises.  Thus it follows trivially, according to Kant, that it is possible for me to encounter other rational agents in experience, to whom I owe a duty of telling the truth, should I choose to speak to them, and to whom I owe a duty of keeping my promises, should I make them.  To be sure, I do not have a duty to speak to everyone I encounter, or promiscuously to scatter promises about the landscape like rose petals at a wedding.  But should I speak to someone else, I am obligated to speak truthfully, and if I make a promise to someone else, I have a duty to keep it.

Suppose we take seriously the deeper doctrine of the First Critique.  According to that doctrine, the realm of Appearance, with its laws, is a construction of the synthesizing ego, which in its activity is guided by innate rules for the synthesis of a manifold of intuition, rules that Kant calls Categories of Understanding.  Now, one of the darkest and most difficult teachings of the Critique is that the self knows itself only as it appears to itself, not as it is in itself.  [That is, if I am not mistaken, virtually a direct quote.  I do not have the Critique in front of me.]  This self is the synthesizing self, the rational self, the noumenal self.  Indeed, it is the moral self.  All of these are the same self in its different functions or actions or manifestations.

In other words, the moral self that wills the Categorical Imperative appears to itself in the realm of experience as a conditioned, desirous, historical self possessed of inclinations and temptations.  But now perhaps you see the problem.  What is the self to whom I owe this duty of promise keeping and truth telling?  To whom am I making a promise when I promise?  The answer must be, it can only be, that this is a another noumenal self, another moral self, different from me, whom I am encountering in the realm of appearance.

But the realm of appearance is, so to speak, a story that I, the noumenal self, am telling to myself -- myself, the appearance of that noumenal self.  How on earth can another noumenal self show up in my realm of appearance?  If I may put it this way, how can another author show up in my story?

The deep arguments in the First Critique by which Kant manages to refute Humean scepticism are inherently and ungetoverably solipsistic in their implications.  This does not pose any crippling problems for Kant's understanding of Newton and Euclid, but it is fatal for his conception of the moral condition.

To the best of my knowledge [I hope readers who are more clued in to recent Kant scholarship will correct me if I am wrong], I am the only Kant scholar who has ever pointed this out.  How can that be?  Well, a simple answer is that almost no Kant scholars write full-scale commentaries on the First Critique and also write full-scale commentaries on the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals -- except for me.


Howie said...

Might your insight have ramifications for Freudian theory? Equating the noumenal self with the unconscious, so that we may have an oblique relationship thusly with ourselves, or am I getting things confused?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am afraid you are getting things confused, since the noumenal self is pure reason, and the unconscious is pre-rational.

JR said...

In papers in the early 70's I argued that Hume's own efforts to explain the relationship between experience and the experiencer ends up in a nearly identical disaster. Within empiricism he cannot "get to" (experience) the self as an experiencer who is having experiences. Nor "get to" any other experiencers of the kind he thinks "the real he" is. Thus, on the epistemological side the distinction between Continental Rationalists and British Empiricists pretty much collapses. None of them can "peek behind the veil" of phemonmena or experiences to experience that there are others mit Dingen an sich, that they are more than mere images on a (my) screen. (Of course, even 'screen' itself becomes problematic.)
Now I wish I, too, had gone on to examine the implications of that for Hume's moral theories. Huzzah for you for doing just that with Kant.

Timothy said...

Thank you for this illuminating post. I'd be interested in the follow-up you mention; at the moment I'm coming up short as to how it'd be possible, so it's intriguing.

I'm also curious to understand why you say Kant successfully refuted Humean skepticism - I had understood that Kant was trying to rebut what's now called Hume's metaphysical argument on induction (is this mistaken?), but the induction literature largely takes for granted that that "metaphysical" argument (perhaps not the best word for it) was successful.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

I've got four thoughts.

(1) In short, Kant's understanding of the appearance/reality cut is contradictory when it comes to fitting the physical and the ethical together. I know that leaves out nearly all of it, but let me put it this way so as to explain the second thought.

(2) 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?

(3) 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?

(4) 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? This may be Robert Howell's point, by the way; I never made it through his book....

Unknown said...

JR, maybe I misread your question, but is that not the point with Hume? That starting from empiricism, he reaches a position of complete scepticism on not only he real existence and behaviour of what we experience, but also of the experiencer? He does say that there is a stream of consciousness, but that we do not even experience (let alone know) a 'thing' where this stream could be taking place. And as dar as I know, Hume's ethics makes no metaphysical claims, remaining in the world of phenomena.

ZV said...

Mr Wolff. Hope you are well! Thanks for the reading list you recommended me a few months back, on which I have made no progress as yet. But I have a pressing query for you. I have, only just now, at 5am in London discovered a philosopher of great originality Henri Bergson. As a philosopher of authority I was wondering what you make of him, and in particular his views on Kant;

"It may now be understood that Henri Bergson was dissatisfied with Kantianism, which limited the bounds of reason to such an extent that it deemed knowledge of the absolute an impossibility. His method of intuition can in fact be seen as a response to Immanuel Kant, who believed that we can only know the world as it appears to us, not as it is in itself. He maintained that the attempt to know the absolute always resulted in antinomies, a kind of philosophical paradox caused by the limits of reason.[9][10]

Bergson responds by saying that the antinomies are the result of analysis, not intuition.[11][notes 1] An example of this is Duration itself, which Bergson maintains isn’t a multiplicity or a unity.[4] Depending on the viewpoint from which one begins, he will either reconstruct the absolute Duration as a unity or a multiplicity. Hence the antinomy of substance pluralism and substance monism, which can only be resolved through showing they are two representations of the same thing via a simple act of intuition. Thus real philosophy consists in placing oneself above the fray of oppositional schools of thought.[2][notes 1]"