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Friday, September 9, 2016


Jon Culp asks a very important question, a fully satisfactory reply to which is, unfortunately, beyond my abilities to supply.  Here is what he says:

“Bob, can you tell me, how can someone be a Kantian after the advent of non-Euclidean geometry, relativity theory, and quantum mechanics, each of which undoes some of the supposedly a priori elements of his philosophy? I'm not implying that you *are* a Kantian, but perhaps you could enlighten me.”

First let me give a simple answer, which is rather superficial.  It never occurred to Kant that Euclid’s  Elements and Newton’s Principia were not the last word in mathematics and physics.  The arguments he gives in the Aesthetic, even if they are in their own terms totally successful, only prove that there is some mathematics of space that can be known a priori to be universal and necessary.  He never makes the slightest effort to derive the axioms of Geometry from the arguments of the Aesthetic.

Similarly, the argument he begins in the Analytic of Concepts and [on my interpretation] brings to a close in the Second Analogy only shows, even if it succeeds, that there is a science of nature the fundamental principle of which [the Causal Maxim] can be established with necessity a priori.  The most that that demonstration shows is that the science of nature is a closed system, presumably compatible with Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, or String Theory, or whatever other theories of nature physicists come up with.  Now in fact Kant wrote a book called Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science in which he does actually try to pull Newtonian physics out of the conclusions of the Critique, but it is a flop, as you might expect.

So, at that superficial level, Kant is safe from Jon Culp’s question.  But that does not at all address the much deeper questions to which Kant, it seems to me, has no real answers.  Among these are:

1.         Once we attain some sophistication about axiomatised systems, and understand that there can be many alternative geometries or algebras, none of which has any greater claim to being rooted in mind-dependent forms of intuition than any other, what are we to make of such systems?

2.         What is the relationship between the fundamental principle of physics [the Causal Maxim, in some form or other] and the endlessly many particular physical laws derived from experimental observation and theory construction [the Problem of Induction, as it is called in some iterations]?

Kant really has nothing interesting or important to say about these questions, alas, and in fact seems not even to have recognized their possibility.

Well, that is a bit of a letdown, I am afraid, but there it is.  By the way, I do not consider myself a Kantian.  I do consider myself a Marxist, but that is another story entirely.


Chris said...

It seems to me that Kant was essentially arguing that the world is our representation (as Schopenhauer so aptly put it), and our representation is formed by the nature of our mental apparatus. This truth leads to the divide between the thing in itself (i.e., the world as it really is/noumenal), and the world as it appears to us, the phenomenal world.

Whether or not Einstein is wrong or right, or Euclid is wrong or right, wouldn't it be necessarily true - if one was a Kantian - that even Einsteinian relativity is still always a representation of the world conditioned by the nature of our mental apparatus?

So whenever someone comes along and says X science disproves Kant, I always think, but isn't X science being done within the framework of a particular mental apparatus, one which is always phenomenal and never noumenal.

Am I off Professor Wolff?

Anonymous said...

I would suggest the answer should be 'well, I'm not a 'pure' Kantian per se, but rather a neo-Kantian ...'
! And then point towards the likes of Cohen or Cassirer for responses to the revolutions in modern physics. Cassirers book on quantum mechanics in particular is a masterpiece (bottom line - it is not determinism that QM threatens but the very notion of physical object, and the revision of that notion that the theory promoted meshes just fine with Kants framework!). And there are of course numerous neo-Kantians beavering away today on ways to accommodate modern physics (see eg Michael Friedman or Michela Massimi).
Steven French

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, I think that is right. Good show.

Professor French [I am assuming you are the Professor French at Leeds], that is enormously helpful, and much more than I was able to say. Thank you.

Ted Talbot said...

I suppose you could construe Niels Bohr as a neo-Kantian, given his insistence on the classical describability of measurement procedures and observations in quantum physics. (I seem to recall Bohr somewhere referring to Kant appreciatively). While „objects of experience“ must therefore be classically describable, the explanations of their experimental behavior may very well be non-classical, involving a non-classical theory that conveniently organizes the data. A „quantum realist“ who moreover accepts the completeness of quantum mechanical state descriptions (without interpolating hidden variables as a classical basis) might then claim that while quantum theoretical systems could not of course be objects of experience they could be „thought“ via theoretical constructions. This drives a wedge between observational and theoretical terms which I’m not sure Kant would approve, and he might say that the quantum realist is making a leap of faith in the direction of things-in-themselves Mind you, I haven’t yet read Michael Friedman’s study on Kant and the exact sciences.

Matt said...

For examples of what people heavily inspired by Kant have done once giving up these ideas, it's good to look at Carnap and Hans Reichenbach (perhaps especially his _The Theory of Relativity and A Priori Knowledge_) There was a strong tendency (not a crazy one, given the influence of Mach on Carnap and Reichenbach, in part via Einstein) to see the logical positivists as Humean empiricists, but I think that Michael Friedman has pretty well established that Carnap and Reichenbach, at least, are better read as Kantians of a type trying to come to grips with non-euclidiean geometry and the theory of relativity.

In a very different way, at least stylistically, you can also read Foucault as a sort of modernized Kant. (His first publication was a translation of, and long introduction to, Kant's Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, and he had described his own work as applying a "historical a priori" in a Kantian way.

(I think there is a lot more similarity between Foucault and the logical positivists than had been accepted for a long time. This has been brought out in work by people like Ian Hacking.)

Unknown said...

If Chris is right, it is hard to see how Kant is not a solipsist.