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Wednesday, July 6, 2016


I continue my slow, careful re-reading of the Critique.  Today, I begin the Deduction in A, the heart of the book.  As I have been reading, I have once again been bugged by something in Norman Kemp-Smith’s translation that first caught my attention fifty-six years ago.  Indeed, although I shall be using the Kemp-Smith translation, I sent off yesterday to Amazon for Paul Guyer’s translation to see whether he gets this right.

Many of you will be familiar with the phrase “synthetic a priori judgment," which we might call Kant’s signature phrase.  Almost any philosophy student who has studied Kant will know that in the Critique Kant claims that the fundamental principles of math and science are synthetic a priori.

Except that Kant never says that!  What on earth do I mean?

Well, “synthetic” and “analytic” are adjectives.  They modify the noun “judgment” and related nouns, such as “[modes of] knowledge” [erkenntnisse].  “a priori” and a posteriori” are adverbs.  They modify verbs such as “to know,” “to assert,” “to possess” and the like.  There is no such thing as a synthetic a priori judgment.  There are, however, Kant argues, synthetic judgments that are known a priori to be true.  Showing that, and explaining how it can be, is one of the central tasks of the Critique.

Ascertaining whether a judgment is synthetic or analytic requires no philosophical heavy lifting, although sometimes it takes an ear finely tuned to the nuances of language.  But determining whether there are any synthetic judgments that can be know [to be true] a priori requires a deep investigation of what Kant calls Transcendental Philosophy, which is what we today call Epistemology or Theory of Knowledge.

Let me give you just one example, this concerning not “a priori judgments” but “a priori sensibility.”  At A76-77 = B102 Kant writes:  “Dagegen hat die transzendentale Logik ein Mannigfaltiges der Sinnlichkeit a priori vor sich liegen, welches die transzendentale Ӓsthetik ihr darbietet …”  Kemp-Smith translates this as “Transcendental logic, on the other hand, has lying before it a manifold of a priori sensibility, presented by transcendental aesthetic …”  This is clearly wrong.  Kant does not say that Transcendental logic has a manifold of a priori sensibility lying before it or presented to it by Transcendental aesthetic.  He says that it has a manifold of sensibility lying before it a priori or presented to it a priori by Transcendental aesthetic.  

The entire translation is filled with instances of this mistake.  I will be very curious to see the Guyer translation when it arrives tomorrow.


Acastos said...

Guyer/Wood: "Transcendental logic, on the contrary, has a manifold of sensibility that lies before it a priori, which the transcendental aesthetic has offered to it,..."

Kemp Smith even messes up "Dagegen", which doesn't mean "on the other hand", but "on the contrary".

Hope you change your mind about Kemp Smith's being "the only good translation".

mesnenor said...

The Penguin edition, which is a version of the old Müller translation by Marcus Weigelt - is quite good. Better than Guyer or Pluhar I think. Guyer tries to be very literal. I'd rather have a more fully English-ed translation, and keep a copy of the original to hand. An English translation that's nearly word-for-word with the German is no use to me. Might as well just have the German.

The best thing about the Kemp-Smith edition is the elegant way it presents the differences between the A and B versions of the text.

Acastos said...

Mueller/Weigelt: "Transcendental logic, on the contrary, has before it the manifold of a priori sensibility, supplied by transcendental aesthetic...". So, no....

Mikey said...

Prof Wolff,

I was under the impression that a priori and a posteriori modified analytic and synthetic, not judgments. Since analytic and synthetic are adjectives, "a priori synthetic judgements", for example should be OK.

To rephrase, I seem to recall that judgements can be analytic or synthetic. Analytic or synthetic things(?) can be so a priori or a posteriori.


wallyverr said...

For my own amusement, I tracked down (via a mix of Amazon and Google Books) some 14 books published since 1999 which are commentaries, analyses, or introductions to the CPR . I then e-skimmed to see which translation was used as the baseline in each book. Many authors of course said that they tweaked their chosen translation when appropriate.

Six used the Kemp Smith translation.

Four used the Guyer-Wood Cambridge translation.

Two used the Pluhar translation.

Two didn't choose a particular translation. (One of these is Bird, The Revolutionary Kant).

So there doesn't seem to be a strong consensus out there.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Mikey, look at what you just wrote. Analytic or synthetic things can be so a priori or a posteriori. A priori and a posteriori modify the verb to be, which in this case, really means to be known. Judgments are analytic or synthetic. They are known a priori or a posteriori. They are adverbs!

Jon said...

Does this grammatical error on Kemp Smith's part lead to genuine misunderstanding? If a priori and a posteriori modify the manner in which a judgment is made, I'm not sure transforming them into adjectives seriously distorts Kant's thought. I'm probably wrong about this, but I was curious.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It can lead to real confusion if one does not simply hear the revised and corrected sense in one's head. What is at stake is actually something very deep, on which my book is based, but that would take too long to explain with two fingers. :)

Mikey said...

Prof Wolff,

Right, and adverbs can also modify adjectives, in this case analytic and synthetic.

Or am I missing something of Kant's meaning? Something from the German perhaps?

s. wallerstein said...

According to an online dictionary (the first answer from Google), a priori can either be an adverb or an adjective. I imagine that a posteriori also can be an adverb or an adjective.

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