July 12, 2006

How I spent my summer vacation XV

Kant, Critique of pure reason, B ed., Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals, s. 1 and 2, and selections from Critique of practical reason

Immauel Kant, a German whose most well-known writings come from the late 18th century, is perhaps the single most influential Western philosopher since Aristotle. His most important works, called Kant's Critical philosophy, form a systematic and highly structured treatment of every area of philosophy, and it is only in the last few decades that Western philosophy has begun to move out from under Kant's shadow. Of course, since one of my philosophical hats is that of a Kant scholar, I might be a little biased.

The assigned reading covers the texts most fundamental to the Critical philosophy. The first Critique is concerned with epistemology and metaphysics, while the Groundwork and second Critique deal with meta-ethics. Unlike the other capsules, I am not even going to attempt to summarize Kant's thought here, even in these three areas. Kant is an incredibly dense and obscure writer, particularly in the first Critique, and there is radical disagreement among Kant scholars about virtually every aspect of his theory. Trying to capture the complexities of Kant's thought in a few hundred words is not just a daunting task for an apprentice philosopher, but a downright impossible one for the global expert. Thus, for a summary, the reader should peruse Paul Guyer's entry on Kant in the Routledge encyclopedia, especially sections 1, 4-9, and 11, and Karl Amerik's Interpreting Kant's Critiques. I will be considering Kant in the context of his predecessors -- as Guyer and Ameriks do not really do, and as we are asked to do on the exam.

While Hume and Leibniz* are usually identified as the biggest influences on Kant, I think Locke's Essay contains a number of themes that will see a more sophisticated development in Kant's first Critique. The first and foremost of these is undoubtedly metaphysical humility. For both Kant and Locke (and the early Moderns in general), a rigorous epistemology is a necessary prerequisite for any reliable metaphysics: without strict boundaries, we will constantly succumb to the temptation to engage in speculative flights of fancy, positing nebulous entitities and making invalid deductions from specious definitions. As a result, both philosophers posit aspects of reality that are absolutely unknown to us, and which we must treat as merely hypotheses we seem to be psychologically compelled to make. For Locke, these are substances and their primary qualities; for Kant, these are things-in-themselves or the noumenon. (The relation between things-in-themselves and the noumenon is somewhere between subtle and unclear; for the purposes of the exam, it is probably fair to treat them as synonymous.)

We also see a practical turn: recognizing that we can, at best, provide only compelling stories that rationalize our claims to knowledge, not secure them absolutely, we must eventually let pure, speculative philosophy go, and focus instead on our involvement with our world as agents. This is a feature of Kant that Heidegger and Levinas will pick up on in the twentieth century, but it is already present in Locke's answer to the challenges of scepticism about the external world in the Essay.

In the Paralogisms of the first Critique, Kant attacks Descartes' dualism, targetting the notion that one has a clear and distinct idea that one's own soul is distinct from one's body. Like Locke, Kant argues for the metaphysically humble thesis that this idea is a mere positing: we notice various mental activities, and posit a substance that has the power(s) needed to carry out those activities. But Locke is still a dualist, and the substance posited is still 'spirit', and thus distinct from 'matter'. For Kant, by contrast, the idea of one's own soul is merely the hypostasis of a formal' or 'logical' principle of one's thought; thus, positing a distinct, separable substance to 'explain' this principle would be like positing a distinct, separable substance to 'explain' the principle of contradiction. Kant is certainly inclined towards the view that we are more than merely physical beings -- he believes in freedom in the strongest possible sense, and often seems to be a determinist about the physical world -- but, he argues, we cannot know, in any strong sense, that our minds are not physical.

Leibniz, or at least the interpretation of him due to Christian Wolff and known as Leibniz*, was the principle rationalist influence on Kant; the views of Leibniz* certainly dominated continental European philosophy throughout the 18th century; and most of Kant's work prior to the development of the Critical philosophy was on natural science and in the Leibniz*-vein. In the Amphiboly of the first Critique, Kant targets several Leibniz*-ean doctrines, including the identity of indiscernibles, the principle of contradiction, the principle of sufficient reason, the identification of the simplicity of metaphysical atoms (monads) with the simplicity of thought, and the relationalist theory of space and time. Each of these is rejected in some way or another. Leibniz*-ean doctrines, broadly understood, are also those of the 'thesis' side of the four antinomies, and Kant's solution -- rejecting the 'transcendental illusions' about space and time that, according to him, give rise to these antinomies -- is also a rejection, in a sense, of these doctrines. See also Wilson's entry on Kant and Leibniz in the Stanford encyclopedia.

One question on the old exams asks about Leibniz and Kant's respective analyses of 5+7=12. Leibniz was, in several respects, a predecessor to the logicists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although it is not covered in the reading, Leibniz would have analyzed 5, 7, and 12 in terms of the following numerical definitions:
5 =def 1+1+1+1+1
7 =def 1+1+1+1+1+1+1
12 = def 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1
Then, assuming a few axioms, we have the following analysis:
5 + 7 = (1+1+1+1+1) + (1+1+1+1+1+1+1)
= (1+1+1+1+1+1) + (1+1+1+1+1+1)
= (1+1+1+1+1+1+1) + (1+1+1+1+1)
= 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1
= 12, qed

Thus, in Kant's terminology, 5+7=12 would be an analytic truth, ie, true by virtue of the definition of the terms. (In)famously, though, Kant argues that all substantial mathematical truths -- including, explicitly, 5+7=12 -- are synthetic a priori. This means that these truths can be known without appeal to experience, but are not simply truths of logic or by virtue of definitions. In particular, Kant says, our knowledge that 5+7=12 requires some use of intuition. Unfortunately, an adequate and charitable reconstruction of this claim is only in the preliminary stages; I believe Daniel Sutherland's is the best thus far, but the reader is encouraged to consider the work of Lisa Shabel and, going back a few years, Michael Friedman. Following Sutherland, then, it seems Kant requires intuition for the representation of the operation of addition -- a manipulation of pure quantities -- itself. In particular, the different quantities (1, 5, 7, and 12) are distinct wholes, and are to be combined as parts into new wholes through this operation. That is, we need intuition to ground the mereological relationships represented symbolically in the form a+b=c. Contra Leibniz, we cannot appeal to the ideas of these formal numerals and the operation of addition by themselves, because these formal representations are meaningless without the intuitive representation.

While Kant was not probably not terribly familiar with Berkeley, he knew enough to be furious with the early reviewers who lumped the first Critique in with Berkeley's radical idealism. Many of the revisions made to the B edition were clearly deliberately intended to distance himself from Berkeley; yet Kant never tackles Berkeley directly. Even the Refutation of Idealism and its accompanying footnote shrug off Berkeley, and go instead after Cartesian scepticism about the external world. Berkeley and Kant do make the common move of idealizing Lockean primary qualities of spatial and temporal extension: space and time, and the phenomenal objects that inhabit them, have no proper existence without a mind to perceive them; and both Berkeley and Kant posit an unknowable something that grounds this phenomal, material world. But Kant, consistent with his metaphysical humility, does nothing more than posit this noumenal foundation for the phenomenal world as a formal hypothesis: it might be Berkeley's God, or Leibnizean monads, or Spinozistic substance, or (most likely) something radically incomprehensible to our limited minds. Berkeley abandons this humility as soon as it's given him his idealism, constructing an elaborate and tenuous metaphysics of mental substances affected by the Christian God. Thus, although he is a 'material idealist', he is still a 'transcendental realist', believing the conditions the human mind requires of its experiences to be conditions binding on existence per se.

Hume, like Locke, is a master of metaphysical humility, and it was Hume's sceptical empiricism that caused Kant to develop his radical challenges to the continental, rationalist tradition. At the same time, Kant is concerned to secure certain claims to knowledge from Humean scepticism, most notably causation. To understand Kant's reaction to Hume, it is important to recognize that Kant's epistemology is essentially Humean in certain respects, and radically non-Humean in others. In particular, like Hume, Kant argues that all of what Locke would identify as our ideas are empirical in origin. Also like Hume -- and unlike Locke -- Kant argues, further, that there are certain nonrepresentational features of our cognition. In Hume, these are the instincts that compel us to believe in causal connections and sympathize with our fellow human beings; in Kant, these are much more significant, involving (at least) both the pure intuitions of space and time and the categories. Thus, space is not a representation of some feature of the world, some experience or collection of experiences; it is a structure we impose on our experiences as a way of organizing them into a coherent world. Similarly, the category of causation is not some experience or collection of experiences, or a representation of some feature of the world, but instead a structure we impose on our experiences so as to organize them into a coherent whole.

Thus, rather than holding universal causality and the regularity of natural laws to be characteristics we attribute of the world against our most rigorous rational judgement (as in Hume), Kant claims that we can show a priori that they are necessary and ineliminable components of human phenomenology: the idea of a coherent human experience without causal connections is literally absurd. This is the task of the Second Analogy.

Hegel, selections from Phenomenology of spirit

I don't understand Hegel at all. Go ask Natalia.

Interesting philosophical link: God and morality

Total pages read: 2302

No comments: