Reading Kant again has given me a whole lot of mixed concerns. One of which is whether I would read it too charitably, or read it in a say that was so sympathetic, that I’d compromise some kind of genuine critical insight. Another concern was that being so familiar with the text, I’d think of it in terms of rote learning and repetition. Many of the great commentators like Guyer go over an exegesis of certain passages, but not without letting certain things slide. A good interpreter does not let anything slide, to colloquially put it.
Reading the introduction was like coming back home, many of the passages I’ve always imagined that Kant possibly said it, or reminds me of something I’ve thought about in a dream. For this post, lets stick to some specific issues.
How Kant’ cuts reality
One observation I have is that Kant seems to really go on about certain points and issues, to the point of tireless or meticulous repetition. In the Introduction, Kant insinuates (but does not make as explicit as later) a distinction between two kinds of statements. To put it in the most simple terms, there is a fundamental difference between the empirical and the non-empirical. Another overlapping distinction is between the Transcendental realm of knowledge and the ordinary, non-Transcendental world. There seems to be a real strong motivation towards maintaining this distinction. Another similar distinction may be made between the world as it may appear, and the world which is is in some way real by virtue of being outside of our conditioned reality (Noumenon). The distinction between Phenomenon and Noumenon seems spurious to the point that even if one accepts it, we can’t even determine (textually speaking) by what virtue this distinction is made. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s talk about the first two distinctions.
The distinction between the a priori world and the empirical is one about our knowledge of reality. Kant wants to emphasise, I suppose as a nod to work before his, that there is a genuine distinction. What is different with Kant is that he makes something more of this distinction than say, Hume, or even Ayer after him. For Kant, these two elements of experience-world and mental-world have a complex relationship. Firstly because non-empirical knowledge is of many kinds. Kant speaks of the a priori synthetic, which includes knowledge of things such as ethics and metaphysics (arguably mathematics as well). The a priori is a complicated world for Kant, not just an afterthought. A priorism informs the empirical world in numerous ways.
Kant affirms that the structure of empirical insight, experience if you will, is shaped by the non-empirical. In the Transcendental Aesthetic, Kant argues that time has a very important place in constraining experience. We can imagine not having a given memory x, but we cannot imagine the memory without time. This kind of argument which appeals to the centrality of the element of time (Kant argues a parallel notion for space), is prima facie convincing. The essence of it is that thought requires certain components in order for it to be thought. I feel that this kind of argumentative strategy is the one thing that makes me admire Kant’s work.
But of course, Kant’s Aesthetic goes wrong. There are issues with conceivability which Kant overlooks. Kant argues for the centrality of the ‘I’ in every thought a human being can have. To an extent this centrality is overstated, and empirical cases can answer to Kant’s account of time as well. There are many interesting pathological cases where an ‘I’ is not always presumed in thoughts. Depersonalisation, multiple or disordered personalities are ruled out tout court as metaphysically impossible by a notion such as the unity of apperception. The specific structure of Kant’s reality fails to cut along the ‘joints’. Don’t even get me started on why his account of time doesn’t work.
The First Critique is part of a greater structure
The most important aspect of Kant’s Critical period is the archictectonic. Kant ties his colours to the mast and makes his philosophical project more about the structure of the mind, than say, an exploration of the Divine nature and the imperative for our love of God, or a form of philosophical therapy through introspection. The Critiques also read like the work of a dull university professor who is only writing for a limited audience of his peers, if even that!
For Kant, the Critique is an examination, for that was the connotation of the term in his day. Critique can also be seen in our contemporary context as well, for the First Critique is a warning to the effect of: reason can only go so far. Kant emphasises this in the Transcendental Dialectic, and to some extent, also acknowledges this in his moral writings after the Second Critique. Scholars such as Frierson and Korsgaard acknowledge that Kant emphasises (in his work on Anthropology) the importance of empirical knowledge to refine our moral sensibilities. My personal obsession is what Kant says after the Dialectical critique of Rationalism: yes, reason can go so far, but ‘pure reason’ still has a role, I read this to be Kant’s systematicity thesis.
I’ve made a note that Kant emphasises these dichotomy-like paired distinctions: empirical knowledge/non empirical insight, phenomenon/noumenon, and they take place within a structure. Kant introduces space and time as the fundamental lens to all reality (the ‘pure forms of intuition’), further to that, Kant introduces the categories. As well as this, Kant has created a structure of mental experience. The mind has faculties: experience goes to sensibility/sensation, and sensation in turn is mediated by the faculty of understanding. Understanding is a very important category, in the First Critique, it is the basis for empirical experience but yet essentially a prioristic. Perhaps it is comparable to say, how machine code is so fundamental to a computer, yet is so abstract and unrelated to its lower codes that really do the work of ordinary computers such as Java or C++ (perhaps that’s just a bad example) that the latter requires the former to enable it.
For Kant, experience requires a structure, cognition requires a structure. Kant later makes the point in the Third Critique that structure is a fundamental human component to knowledge: that’s why design is so importantly perceived in nature. Structure may be crucial to phenomenon. Structure may even be more crucial to Kant’s specific ordering of the categories. Structure is a feature that goes back to Aristotle’s Organon, structure is a feature that lives after to Frege and beyond. This is the aspect of Kant that I think can be saved. Even if our patterning of the world can be strong (see my post on Shermer and patternicity), it still is so important that we perhaps cannot do without it. I can of course comment on the fact that Kant’s archictectonic is depicted in a vastly different way between 1781 to 1790 in the Third Critique, but I might leave that for a later discussion.
Kant: scientist or speculator?
One way in which I cannot take Kant seriously is that it is far too speculative, Kant is doing what we might call cognitive science in today’s context. The idea that Kant could be taken seriously as an intellectual who is doing a primitive form of cognitive linguistics, the psychology of perception as well as linking it with not-so-sciencey topics such as causation and necessity, just seems patently irrelevant to the contemporary audience. We have, as people in the 21st Century, taken the knowledge of the cognitive sciences to be the best model about how perception occurs. I would say further that the ‘success’ of such theoretical accounts is based on the wider technological implications that such models have brought about in technologies, further research questions and pharmacological innovations.
I suppose in Kant’s time, psychology was a vastly different subject. One of Kant’s main bugbears was the role of speculative science. Kant opposed the Sturm und Drang movement and charlatans such as Emmanuel Swedenborg. Kant wrote about the role of introspection as an opponent to any potential ‘psychology’ being a science proper, and to a great degree he was correct about this. It is still a legitimate question, however, to ask if Kant’s account of cognition can speak to a scientific audience. If we are to take Kant seriously, this requries that we do not look at the Historical views of the man, but the most charitable formulation of what his views point to (such as the importance of heirarchical structure, or the presuppositions of perception).
Reading Kant’s account of cognition also, in a small way, highlights the fundamental limitations of brain-based notions of perception. If we are looking at the brain, are we taking a first-personal or third-personal view? Are we presuming that the conditions of ceteris paribus and mutatis mutandis rules apply to different brains? Even if we know how the brain works (and that it is fundamentally flawed), does his help us in any way to escape said flaws? I suspect not. As creatures of evolution we may be slaves to our genetic heritage, this is the same thing however that enables us to be great people at the same time. Whether Kant’s emphasis on the mind is overstated from the third personal perspective is still a pertinent issue to contemporary cognitive approaches. Which is the cart and which is the horse? I’m also reminded of Paul Churchland’s thought at the end of his great work, on the implications on the fact that we may not be the only cognitive agents. The rules may be completely different, or relevantly similar.
Russell’s old dictum
I’m led to the old saying of Russell: that philosophical theories begin with something utterly trivially true and end up with something completely absurd and false. The notion that experience has a structure, or that we are confined to our prejudices seems right, but the direction that Kant goes to elucidate this account gives its own unique problems. However, when said so vague it can mean a great many things. Kant isn’t talking about cognitive bias, for instance, or the role of evolution on the development of our minds. Kant is emphasising the a priorism that takes place in the human mind. A priorism for anything other than mathematics doesn’t get very good press these days.
Michael and Destre