David Hilbert on Unification

At the end of David Hilbert’s Mathematical Problems, Hilbert goes into the details for his motivations for what we may call unity of science thesis. These reasons are as poignant today in my view as they were in his own time. Motvations could be summarised thusly:


  • Divergences/fracturing mathematics into subdisciplines will mean specialised areas will not engage with other areas outside their specialism

  • The most important innovations are driven by simplicity, more refined tools and less complication.


The first thesis is a problematic of overspecialisation and genrefication of any kind of academic research. Becoming so niche that one is essentially writing for a peer group that is too specific and few. Perhaps this is inevitable in the world of industrial research and constant innovation. If we are to believe that subdisciplines and specialisation are a necessity, then we cannot understand Hilbert’s second thesis, of parsinomy. Granted, more needs to be elaborated if such a unification thesis were to work. Unification has its own problems, but there is a bonus to clarity and it is a matter of fact that many great scientific innovations are of the sort that unify and simplify seemingly irrelevant areas (Maxwell Equations or Relativity for example).

 The conclusion of Hilbert’s lecture is as follows:

The problems mentioned are merely samples of problems, yet they will suffice to show how rich, how manifold and how extensive the mathematical science of today is, and the question is urged upon us whether mathematics is doomed to the fate of those other sciences that have split up into separate branches, whose representatives scarcely understand one another and whose connection becomes ever more loose. I do not believe this nor wish it. Mathematical science is in my opinion an indivisible whole, an organism whose vitality is conditioned upon the connection of its parts. For with all the variety of mathematical knowledge, we are still clearly conscious of the similarity of the logical devices, the relationship of the ideas in mathematics as a whole and the numerous analogies in its different departments. We also notice that, the farther a mathematical theory is developed, the more harmoniously and uniformly does its construction proceed, and unsuspected relations are disclosed between hitherto separate branches of the science. So it happens that, with the extension of mathematics, its organic character is not lost but only manifests itself the more clearly.

But, we ask, with the extension of mathematical knowledge will it not finally become impossible for the single investigator to embrace all departments of this knowledge? In answer let me point out how thoroughly it is ingrained in mathematical science that every real advance goes hand in hand with the invention of sharper tools and simpler methods which at the same time assist in understanding earlier theories and cast aside older more complicated developments. It is therefore possible for the individual investigator, when he makes these sharper tools and simpler methods his own, to find his way more easily in the various branches of mathematics than is possible in any other science.

The organic unity of mathematics is inherent in the nature of this science, for mathematics is the foundation of all exact knowledge of natural phenomena. That it may completely fulfil this high mission, may the new century bring it gifted masters and many zealous and enthusiastic disciples! [David Hilbert, 1900]


On opposition to Gay Marriage (and a Kantian thought)

It’s 8am, I’m very tired at the start of the day. I am still recovering from the two prongs of having worked late and went to sleep later. I got up only to check emails on my phone. I saw a message following an ongoing email discussion about the recent news of the legalisation of Gay Marriage and I suddenly had a surge of intellectual thought. I shouted out “AUGUSTINE!” and then thought to myself: this is a victory for Kantian philosophy. Okay, so many that bit most people won’t understand, I don’t think most people understand the things I shout out in public anyway. However, I thought I’d venture to explain myself further. A single word expresses about 1600 years of literature.

The orientation of my thoughts are around a certain story of current affairs, namely, the legalisation of same-partner marriage in England and Wales (but not Northern Ireland, and not yet Scotland). I find several things objectionable all at once, and I thought I’d go through them systematically.

Bad arguments

I think one of the things that I thought notable was the television coverage summarising the issue. One view was an old Conservative MP whose background of edcuational and cultural priviledge gave him the wisdom of the following proclamation: marriage is between a man and a woman, it has been so historically for years and should continue to be so.

That’s not really a reason, or an argument. It’s an old man stating his view in the guise of a discussion of implementing a legal measure. I think that’s what Aristotle called demos kratos. I found an interesting piece from the New Humanist from Jason Wakefield effectively debunking what are thinly veiled layers of anti-gay bigotry. Arguing from the premise of tradition or the status quo is bad for democracy, is bad for rational argument and insulting to the idea of progress. I do think however, there has been a good rational case following the likes of Mark Vernon to be wary about imputing the historic standards of marriage as an institution to what is effectively a newly emerging acceptance of wider sexual difference. Of course acceptance of difference (overcoming bisexual erasure, transgender issues and non-monogamy) is a battle of many fronts, of which same-sex marriage is one particular front.

For the purposes of this post I shall not go into those issues in particular. Instead, I shall consider some of the appeals of the kinds of attitudes that would be inclined to reject homosexual marriage and I shall take these into more philosophical consideration.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – essentialism

I hold this claim to be an essentialist appeal to the meaning of the term. By essentialist I would take it to mean a broadly Kripkean view that there is a certain ‘this-ness’, or natural kind appeal. This kind of appeal would assert that there is a point at which the object of marriage has been (excuse the pun) Christened in a brute way, as say me pointing to a glass of water and saying: THIS is water.

There are two kinds of ways of replying to this essentialist appeal. The first way is through permutation, and the second is to reject that it is essentialist. Let’s consider permutation. If we followed the thought experiment that christening some object and claiming some ‘this-ness’ to the criterial nature of the thing, as if we just point to something and say: THIS is marriage (like say, pointing to a couple arguing; buying furniture at Ikea on a saturday afternoon; appearing as a legally recognised couple in the eyes of the law etc). We can say that the ‘this-ness’ of what it means to be a couple (or coupledom) will still hold even in different conditions.

Permutation of a condition like, say, the recognised gender of either party in a marriage may still preserve many of the aspects of putative coupledom. Perhaps the essence of a marriage is in something else than its gendered membership: things like having arguments about what colour to paint the spare room; whether to take on parental responsibilities; buying furniture from sofa-world or being in love with each other. We can turn this case on its head and say, if we look at putative cases of opposite-sex marriages and find some element missing (like say: a married couple not having parental commitments/buying furniture together/being in love), would we still essentially call it a marriage? I will leave that question open. The kripkean essentialist account, as I understand it, can reasonably account for permutation. The seeds of a watermelon grown on mars that tastes salty and takes a square shape, is still a watermelon according to this essentialist view. Absurd maybe, but I don’t think the argument against same-sex marriage can take essentialist appeals as a rational option.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – social construction

An alternative view to the thesis that marriage is traditionally supposed to be between a man and a woman is to look at social construction, essentially (excuse the pun) a contrasting ontological perspective. Namely that of social construction. There is an overwhelmingly good case to consider the historicities of institution of marriage. To see marriage as a tradition is correct, but to quote Eddie Murphy’s character in Coming to America, it is also tradition that times must, and do change, my friend. To canonise history is a mistake, to canonise tradition as fixed is also an insult to our understanding of social construction, and perhaps to make an embarrassing ontological mistake. This is a bad reason to make an appeal against gay marriage, not least because it raises more questions than it would purport to answering an issue.

Historical reflections I: Natural Law (Thomism)

Some Catholics may be familiar with this kind of view. Natural law is the basis of many Catechistic principles. Natural law is a notion which has a large basis in Aquinas that through Reason we can see the work of God, and through His nature we can see his will, which in turn informs our moral understanding.

This issue is important from a perspective of faith, because there are many ethical issues that are not addressed in Scripture, and so another recourse is needed to create a religious persepctive. Natural Law appeals to lookings at purported facts of nature and imputing that seeing the teleology (or design/intention) of the natural world suggests God’s will. Perhaps a neat caricature of this view is the Flanders and Swann line: “If the Juju had meant us not to eat people, he wouldn’t have made us of meat!”.

Natural law has an interesting set of applications, this is not to speak of whether it is agreeable or disagreeable. Natural law has a philosophical utility in the kinds of conclusions it makes under the assumption of telos: for example: because humans and other animals have incisors, we are supposed to eat meat. Because of the female reproductive system, only procreation between a man and a woman is permitted. However this kind of view is so strong it would be against a whole lot of things: cybernetic implants and other post-humanist implantations to extend human ability and human life; vegetarianism is immoral. Not least a whole gamut of other philosophical problems: the naturalistic fallacy (which is a whole big issue in itself); the problem of interpreting God’s nature correctly (another big theology issue); the role of socialisation being undermined as ‘human nature’ is overemphasised, and perhaps most intuitively, the desiderata of an ordinary moral theory is to preserve certain things like: murder is wrong or the wrongness of sexual violence. . Natural law would seemingly have the same kinds of problems that sociobiology would have in taking an ambivalent acceptance to the these cases of nature. Not least to say that same sex relations actually happen in non-human mammals as part of a social ritual. Wouldn’t it then be considered natural? (or within nature’s repetoire?). Let’s go back to natural theology later.

Historical reflections II – Separate but Equal

The appeal of separate but equal has been a justification for a variety of contexts. When I googled the phrase earlier, it referenced a misquotation to the attitudes of the Jim Crow era in the USA. The rationality is that many hold there already to be an institution (the civil partnership) for same sex couples, which fulfills the function of marriage. However, it is the point it doesn’t, and to introduce a tier system which essentially is on the basis of sexuality is to establish a level of segregation that forms a barrier to equality.

I think that this rational strategy could be established more, and this may pose an interesting avenue for non-homophobic opposition to gay marriage. However, there is something prima facie suspicious when we introduce an idea of tiers about legally recognised relationships, and the fear that civil partnerships (which heterosexual couples are legally allowed to have) reflect both an aysmmetry (thus suggesting a tiered aspect) or a perception among some of the public that civil partnerships are marriage-lite’’. Which is essentially the fear that Mark Vernon expressed.

Historical reflections III – biblical references

Ah, now if we are taking a Christian perspective, we could appeal to the scriptures. Particularly 1 Timothy, and Romans. These are the writings of St. Paul, who is generally accepted as a scriptural ground for opposition to homosexuality. Then of course there is Leviticus 18 in the ‘Old Testament’/Jewish Scriptures. But then again, if we read into it, Leviticus also forbids tattoos! I do wonder sometimes when I watch the God channel on freeview digital television if some of these cool looking evangelicals who hold to the literalness of scripture know about Leviticus.

Without even taking to account the fact that in a secular environment, this statement of belief is not admissible in a public discussion on the level of Government. We could challenge the canon of the Bible itself. To do this we must consider the historical organisation of the library that is the Bible. Why are the synoptic gospels canonical over others, or do we have any reason to doubt their historicity?

Closing: The victory of Kant’s moral religion

I consider the issue of gay marriage a victory for the broadly Kantian project, of elminating the cultus from religion, from separating ritual from value. The Kantian perspective on religion (which has lots of details) was deeply influential in beginning the historical Jesus project of research, commonly associated with what is called liberal theology.

One way we can see the issue of gay marriage in England and Wales, is to see it as undermining aspects of doctrinal Christianity. Slowly and slowly we are finding moral communion and consensus towards the acceptance of same-sex partnerships through a non-religious and public conversation. We are moving away from the likes of scriptural justification for the basis of our ethical values and moving towards public reason – perhaps.

Lately I have been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s ‘Jesus, Interrupted’, we might review this book at a later time, but one of the overarching theses of the book is the point that there are good grounds to doubt the literalness of the way that the books of the New Testament have been established. The organisation of the books of the Bible are a result of disputes in Early Christianity during the late-antique period, and following Kant’s perspective on philosophical anthropology (an issue I based my MA dissertation on), there are grounds on which we can sympathise with other moralities from different cultural origins, on the basis of their historical basis. Strip away culture and historicities, and we can find a better basis of our ethical values.

How about, say, the formula of humanity: to perceive rational beings as ends in themselves. Human agency as the basis of our respect towards others by virtue of being human, or by virtue of being a moral agent (I take these two to be interchangeable for now). I think its fair to say that those who may be opposed to their views are entitled to practice their cultural heritage within reason, and this measure should not be seen as an affront to their beliefs. I also think that this kind of discussion is the kind of thing that is another feather to the bow of liberal theology, and the subsequent way in which it undermines many of the precepts of fundamentalist and literalist belief.

In closing. I thought it was odd that I didn’t have a philosophical opinion about this issue, but then I realised I did have a dog in this fight. Trust me to show the relevance of Kantian philosophy in any social issue.

Michael (in conversation with Destre)

The Public Use of Reason

Lately I’ve been thinking about what some people refer to as freedom of the pen, or what Kant specifically calls the public use of reason. It is apparently flagrantly ignorant of me to believe that the reasons that people give for things are the reasons that they believe it to be the case, in a public fora. Many current affairs issues, political, social, economic or cultural rely on providing views as rationalised ideals and negotiable, subject to a truth or falsity, or part of the forum of rational discussion. However, it would be ignorant to suspect that more isn’t going on. Engaging in public discussion, whether this is a presence on the print media, bloggosphere, television or other form of video discussion, or even dare I say it, comments pages, often rely on a point of view that is backed up by a form of reasoning. The notion of a public use of reason presumes a communicability of our values to a wider audience, however there is an extent where privately, our values are not so communicable.

In this post I shall consider the distinction between private and public reasons; the application of public reason in ethics, aesthetics and finally some epistemic and normative considerations about communicability and the public use of reason.

Private and public use

What is a private appeal, or a private reason as opposed to the public use of reason? One may be to say that arguments against gay marriage for some people a thinly veiled prejudice against social change, or their inherent lack of acceptance of sexual difference. Another may be how I have encountered people who claim to be considered socialists who enjoy stating their point, but any appeal to conservatism by name (as in conservative thought and its history , or current party issues) will brand you as a party to right-wing tarnishing where their priming automatically inclines them to disagree. Often our public reasons are different to our private reasons. We cannot convince an agnostic audience of our view if we are basing it upon an unjustified fear, or an unquestionable conviction. However that said, I can often find a segregation of views, in that discourses may emerge where everyone is in broad agreement and the level of argumentation is poor because the vocabulary is non argumentative, and presumptive.

Just say a few words like ‘priviledge’ or ‘globalisation’ and our audience can be presumed. The appeals to private reason becomes a shorthand of an argument enthymatic. We cease to argue, and simply claim the assent of our listeners. If we disguise public reason as a private reason we undermine the role of the public forum, and we segregate those who disagree with us. By excluding those who disagree with us, we have no argument, simply we repeat views. Eventually if we are around enough repeaters, the shorthand for our reasons loses any form of reasoning. This to me looks like a form of populism.


To have a private reason does not undermine that we have this conviction. However, it may be that we cannot convince our audience of an argument, or the veracity of a claim, or a political/ethical position through it. In Kant’s own time, the role of Reason was an appeal against religious moralistic kinds of reason in addressing issues of public and ethical importance. It is one thing to hold a moral conviction, or one based on a religious insight, but it is inadmissable in a public discourse to assume that others will come from this background or form of conviction. In order to appeal to a wider audience we must appeal to a universal kind of language that appeals wider.

I suppose this is where my catholic leanings betray me. It was the view of many Catholic thinkers from Aquinas to the 19thC that our reasons should appeal beyond the convictions of faith, but using a wider language of reason. The truths of the world would be revealed through in their terms, not just the scriptural revelation of the Bible, but also through the observable and grasping empirical world. The emphasis on rational thought as well as a faith conviction is understood to be one of the differences between Catholic (rational theology, or analogia entis) and protestant (revealed, analogia fides, sola scriptus) Christianities.

For individuals to engage outside of their own community of conviction they must appeal to argumentation, or facts that support their convictions. In the public context, this may be through empirical studies, secondary anaylsis of existing data, or some other form of scientific appeal. It is not enough to communicate an ethical or political conviction on the basis of a feeling, and even if it were, it would not be reasoning but a form of rhetoric. Unfortunately, Rhetoric is very popular these days, when democracy is built on consensus and the confidence of the public. This isn’t necessarily to conclude that democracies are poorly suited to rational discussion, but rather it may suggest the importance of an informed and well reasoning populace.  By well reasoning, I mean those who can distinguish between reasons which are convincing to others beyond themselves.


When it comes to aesthetics, communicability is a bit of a difficult one for me. Why is it, you might ask, that a public form of reasoning could ever be important to justify what one’s favourite poem is, or why such and such a guitar riff is so powerful. I also consider it a point of asymmetry with ethics. In ethical and political discourse, it is considered a good to appeal to reasons of communicability, however when it comes to our experience/aesthetics, how could we appeal to anything but the subject-ive, or in other words, our response to the object?

Someone like MIchael or Destre would try to convince you that the reason to enjoy Bach is because of its formal beauty, but they themselves (Michael especially) would be personally highly emotively moved by the 48 preludes and Fugues, but could not possibly use this as an appealing reason to convince someone why they might like Bach. Appeal to private reasons I have stated resort to dispositions and temperaments that one already has, but how can we appeal to our sentiment of art and music when it is our personal response? The only way it would seem, is that if another agent we are talking with also has that engendered response. So I could only talk with other fans of Pearl Jam about my love of the ‘Ten’ album, and in this respect we are merely assenting agreement. This is not a form of communicability, only an assent to agreement or disagreement.

If political discourse worked this way, or ethical consensus, we would end up simply hanging around people we agreed with all the time. I think that this is in fact what happens in a lot of online discourse. People who tend to agree with each other camp together, and this may not be in political spheres but social spheres, the comedian Kate Smurthwaite has pointed out how a certain kind of comedian is commercially viable and popular due to the way that the industry of comedy orients towards favouring late-night comedy, where a certain kind of audience who enjoy a certain kind of joke are roused by samey routines that enable audiences to let off some steam.

Epistemic considerations

I think that communicability is a good way of trying to justify our beliefs. Instead of relying on our feelings and what we hold to be true as a brute fact (some epistemologists such as Williamson over the past decade have tried to encourage the merit of brute fact type reasons, or ‘primitives’ over epistemic schemes). Are we convinced of our beliefs if we can communicate it with others? I remember one piece of editorial advice I got from blogging here which was ‘if you can’t communicate it in simple words, you don’t have a valid idea’, communicability is quite a good epistemic benchmark for humbug arguments or reasons. In a sense, it is the first hurdle, the necessary benchmark but not one sufficient for being convinced of our beliefs. I propose this from a position that is unconvinced that epistemic primitives (such as the brute fact of our believing or percieving of some thing) are prima facie convincing.

Normative considerations

This whole proposal about the public use of reason is presumptive, I am for example presumptive of the fact that within public discourses, our believes must answer to some form justificatory schema and not brute reasons which command assent or disagreement among those whom there is no form of discussion, but simply appealing to what they already believe. This is what I would take to be a populism. So lets go back to our values. The public use of reason is what I would take to be a starting point in points of discussion, whether these are current issues or issues of political ideology. I would take it to be an epistemic norm and an epistemic good to hold to the ideal of the public use of reason.

Coda: current issues

I’ve been led to thinking about the public use of reason from a variety of stories that have emerged lately. The phenomenon of trolling, or specifically the appeal to derogatory and defamatory language as a form of silencing, undermining and derailing reminds me of the public and private distinction I have made. News services in the Gaming industry IGN and to a lesser extent, Machinima display a level of journalism which is outright misogynist at times and is unapologetic, this I think reflects the fact that a certain type of male gamer is so visible as the archetypical gamer, who casually swears, enjoys trash talk and wouldn’t think twice about the symbolism of using sexual violence analogies to describe playing a game. Gamers feel so strongly about this behaviour as a form of entitlement that they would go so far as to defame and troll a Kickstarter project forged by Anita Sarkeesian on Gender and gaming.

Likewise I have heard numerous stories of journalists and writers who have experienced campaigns of trolling and defamation for speaking out on various issues. Judith Butler had a petition against being awarded the Adorno Prize for her views on Israeli politics, her response was nuanced and pertinent to this distinction. I’ve also recently explored a website called Reddit, which has a bizarre mix of private reasons and public reasoning. There is one extreme where all of the threads are mostly reactionary and highly rated comments are those that refer to people as fagets in full caps lock, while others involve informed debate where people are open minded enough to disagree or willing to change their mind. The internet age was initially considered as a democratising force for creating an informed public who had a forum for public reasoning, but the way that customisation and orienting around ‘likes’ and ‘favourites’ surrounds an internet user simply around people and environments in which they would agree. It’s like going to a party and only hanging around with people you know: you don’t need to cover any new ground, being around those you agree with or share the same sentiments simply fosters a shorthand of discussion, where little is actually elaborated and everything is simply agreed upon.


Kant’s First Critique: The Transcendental Analytic

Kant’s chapter on the Transcendental Analytic is concerned with the positive role of reason. The cognitive psychology of Kant’s epistemology is of a large mental architecture which seems quite complicated for textual reasons as well as its own consistency. The idea of the big scheme is so prevalent in the Kantian philosophy, that even the exposition of this idea takes place within (wait for it)…a big scheme.

The essence of the Transcendental Logic was to point out that underlying most everyday experience is an underlying scheme, the Transcendental Analytic is, in Kant’s terminology, the explication of this scheme. Analytic, as a term means something akin to ‘taking apart’, which is what Kant attempts to do for the non-empirical component underlying of everyday experience. Another idiom of Kantian termology is that ‘deduction’ means something more akin to ‘demonstration’ or ‘proof’ of the items of Kant’s analysis. I note this because it is part of Kant’s critical philosophy to consist of an analytic to precede a deduction.

Kant establishes a few terms as part of his architecture. The Understanding contrasts to Intuition. Thought contrasts to Sensibility. The Understanding exists as an independent role from Sensibility.  An everyday perception would be the unity of the Understanding with the empirical component.

The Understanding

One feature of the Understanding is that it exists as an entirely independent entity from Sensibility, even though it co-opts with sensibility in the construction of everyday experience. A fundamental idea of the Understanding is that it is organised in a system. Because of Kant’s strict notion of the understanding of apriorism, he maintains that the understanding must form a system and the workings and relations of this system is discoverable a priori.

Logical features

To discover the workings of the fundamental aspects of this cognitive architecture, Kant essentially boils everyday perceptions idealised as propositions, to find the categorial features of what underlies them. In this way, it seems, Kant discovers the fundamental logical structure of the understanding. I’ve used the word ‘logical’ here, and I relate to my view (and Destre’s) understanding of what logical means.

It is in my view, as well as Destre, that the notion of ‘logical’ refers to what really means ‘categorial’, by categorial, I understand the fundamental aspects of reality which are so fundamental that they consist of constraints upon our understanding. It is for instance, the case that we understand terms as true or false, or even in between; we understand alethic modal terms, or other kinds of modes such as temporal terms or intentional terms. The one thing that unifies all formal logics is that they attempt to bank on a collection of fundamental categories. Alethic logic uses terms such as necessity; deontic logic pertains to intention while we might say that classical logic commits to the bivalence of the world being organised into true and false propositions. I consider this sense of ‘logical’ to be important because it is in my view that preseves a body of knowledge in a tradition spanning Aristotle to Frege, if we look at logic as a notion of the fundamental categoricity of reality, we subsume it as a form of metaphysics, and modern logic would continue as the ‘analytic’ of those terms.

The rule of three

One thing that really confuses me is that Kant organises the categories as a table, and each category has three branches. The table of elements is resoundingly similar to Aristotle’s categories and Kant acknowledges this. Kant considers Aristotle’s categories to be flawed however, where Aristotle elicits 10 categories, Kant expresses 12. Kant links the categories through distilling empirical linguistic claims and in doing so forms a table of judgments, these then have a more fundamental rooting on an isomorphic table of categories. The categories and judgements consist of genii: quality, quantity, relation and modality, within these are three specii.

What I find interesting about this table structure is that it exemplifies itself in some ways. The categories exemplify unity and plurality, Kant noted earlier in the Analytic, that unity is a fundamental idea to the understanding, but is it the most fundamental? Is it possible for instance, that one category precedes the structure in importance, or constrains it?

If we are to agree with this structure of the categories, it would essentially detail the structure in which we study metaphysics. Kant says that his intention of philosophy was to classify these notions but not to go much further with them. If we understand the archictecture of reality, there is still much more work within it to bring out its details. Another way to describe this is that we could say that Kant is creating a demarcation of subjects, in the same way that say, we understand the demarcation between pure and applied mathematics; astrophysics and microbiology, and even though we see their differences and appreciate why they are so fundamentally different, there is still much work to be done in the individual areas of pure mathematics, or microbiology. It is hardly the case that once we know the structure of reality or metaphysics through the table of categories, there is nothing more to be said about say, necessity or parthood, but what could be said by virtue of the table, is that those metaphysical features form part of a greater system.

With regard to the specific categories and judgments elicited in the table, I cannot get my head around the motivations for some of them. I would grant the importance of modality or perhaps quantity, but ‘relations’ could be realised in several other ways, and each particular branch should have, if we are to be convinced of this system, a description of why we should be motivated for the specific categorisation, instead of another one which may explain multiple categories all at once, the category of ‘community’ or ‘reciprocity between agent and patient’ seems the most arbitrary, and Kant does little to convince us of why this should be a category. Even if we accept Kant’s category scheme, there is a rational burden to convince us why each category should be considered on individual merits, instead of by its weight in place of the system.

Michael (following conversations with Destre)

[disclaimer: This was incredibly hard for me to read and more still to understand. My post serves as a set of notes for my own indulgence and hardly any definitive kind of reading, I am all very likely to change the way I’m reading Kant as I gain more insight or read it again and I do not assert this reading with any confidence at all, this chapter was a beast to read.]

Reading Kant: Transcendental Logic

In the section entitled Transcendental Logic, Kant introduces terms which may be familiar to the 18thC audience, and notions of philosophies past, but within his own gloss.This post will concern some thoughts on Kant’s Transcendental Logic chapter from the First Critique

Kant’s notion of perception: concepts and intuitions

Kant introduces his notion of idealism as it is typically understood, in quite pithy a phrase: Thoughts without content are empty, Intuitions without Concepts are blind.

Kant introduces a world of knowledge where sensory data is contrasted with ideas. This is not a particularly original move as it is something philosophers since Plato have been thinking about. What Kant does that is unique, however, is to elucidate a unique relationship between the two worlds. In contemporary eyes this kind of distinction still cuts ice: we can have a perception of some given thing, and then, we can also have the idea or thought of it. Perception examples are a little redundant in the sense that philosophy lectures and seminars often involve examples where people literally point at something and say THIS as the essential example, however in the form of the written word, it doesn’t wordk so well. If I were to say ‘this is a cat’, that would be the thought of what would essentailly be:

Kant cat lol

There is a certain intertwined nature about thoughts and our perceptions of objects. For Kant, one requires the other in a manifold of cases.If we didn’t have the idea of a cat as a thought, or the faculty of thought itself then the image above would make no sense. Concepts, or generalised notions establish the form of a thought, what that means is that our concepts about the image (it’s a white cat, the cat is next to a laptop, this is an internet meme template) are presumed and understood in order to grasp the image. One might be able to ask what is the nature of these general concepts: white, cat, laptop, and ask questions such as: is the cat an instance of a general concept cat (yes), and if so is that entity (Cat – genus) an entity suis generis. I think that by taking a different approach from the usual ontological realism/nominalism kind of frame, and focusing on perspective and human perception, Kant sidesteps the issue. Perhaps I’ll have more to say on this as I continue to read the Critique.

Intuitions without content are blind: I’ve tried to explain this by establishing the necessity of conceptual boundaries in order to organise experience.

Thoughts without content are empty, for Kant to maintain this, Kant will have to make a big disambiguation process by clarifying what he means. Kant maintains there is still such a thing as the a priori (and in his account gives differing kinds of a priorist structures in the mind – categories, time/space, logic). There are thoughts which are about the world, if we are to push the question about ontology and realism/nominalism, we might say that both are two sides of the same coin. If cats were a real suis generis entity, but cats did not exist in the world at all: that would be an empty notion. If we identify such and such to be a cat, and another such and such to be a cat, and then say that ‘cat’ is not a valid independent term, we’d need some kind of generic ideal to describe a plethora of similar items. Kant acknowledges that both the idea and the percept (whether its cat or some other object) are required as constituents of thought and perception. Observations seem to be a mix of the understanding and experience. Kant goes on to say more about elements of thought which are ‘unmixed’, in his disambiguation.

Transcendental vs. General logic

General Logic is introduced as what I would presume would be the syllogistical figures and inferential schemes of his day. Logic today is largely more formal, but still works within the remit of its original project of being an exploration in the rule of thought and inference. General logic concerns the rules of the world at a most general level, these rules would apply whether our perceptual selves existed or not. Transcendental logic, however, involves the agent. As the form of the Critique’s chapter structure will show, Kant’s exploration of this notion dictates the further structure of the book. Logic has three categories: analytic, dialectic and general. Analytic and dialectic are themselves divisions of transcendnetal logic, so Kant is using multiple distinctions here (getting confusing yet?).

For Kant, general logic concerns itself with aspects of what regular syllogistical logic does which is hardly anything new, such as the conditions of illegitimate inferences, or the general structure of valid and true objective statements. Transcendental logic by contrast, Kant seems to distance by some kind of contradistinction. Kant seems to say that transcendental logic, or that which concerns perception does not have as high the rigour of general logic. Again, Kant would have sidestepped a later issue in 19thC philosophy, namely, whether the laws of (syllogistical, or formal) logic were in fact, the laws of the mind. By making this distinction, Kant avoids this issue at the least, and I think would perhaps even answer that question in the negative.

Kant will eventually pad out his notion of analytic (transcendent) logic and dialectical (transcendent) logic as the main theses of his metaphysical and epistemological account, namely: the analytic concerns the confines in which experiential claims: perception and thought are possible and the illegitimate use of the mental faculties as a way of interring too much  (and falsely so) about the world. Reason is a great thing, but you can only go so far with it: that’s the punchline of Kant’s Critique, but lets not get too ahead of ourselves, and focus on some little points

Two notions of Objectivity

Kant mentions that objectivity is a signifier of something that is true. What is objectivity however? Kant will later say something such as: the categories operate as a grounds for objective knowledge. Kant also says that it is the exemplar of general logic (when applied correctly) that it is objective. I’ve mentioned that Kant divided between transcendental and general logic; where the former concerns the operation of the subject’s mind. Historically speaking, the construal of the word ‘objective’ has previously (to Kant) meant something more like ‘representational’ or ‘object of the mind’, so when Descartes says that God is an objective notion, he is speaking of God as an object that can be represented in the mind, which is very different to our more putative notion of objective, which means something like: true independent of the subject’s experience.

However, I’m not at least at this moment which sense Kant wants to use. It is often acknowledged that Kant is indeed moving away from this representational notion of objectivity towards this more putative sense, but it does seem in some ways muddled. Consider:

  1. The categories imposed by the perceiving subject are a grounds for objectivity
  2. General logic is characterised by objectivity (putative sense)
  3. To speak of objective truth for logic in the transcendental sense is impossible insofar as it applies to sensation (a concession to Hume)

These three are all claims of Kant, but their use of ‘objective’ dont seem to meld well in my view.

Michael (following conversations with Sinistre)

Reading Kant: The Archictectonic

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

The Kantian Popper (or the Popperian Kant?)

I’ve mentioned in many posts that I have been leisurely reading Popper’s ‘Logic of Scientific Discovery’. The further I go into it, the more I come to see his Vienna roots.

I admit something. I don’t know too much about Popper. I’ve always heard of Popper from second hand admirers among my sociologist friends who see him as one of the great heroes of LSE’s philsophical heritage (also included in that list are Lakatos and Feyrabend). I think perhaps I have misapprehended popper as a mid-late 20thC philosopher of science, the not-so-distant ancestors to the philosophers of science I had come to know in Bristol.

My Kant scholar approach is informed by a very minor understanding of the Vienna philosophers; I see them as having a distinctly Kantian heritage, despite their apparent anti-Kantian character. This route also follows the scholarship of the likes of Ernst Cassirer; who was for one note contemporamous to the great Vienna men. A more contemporary historian pertinent to this issue is Michael Friedman (I should add a tag as to how many references to Friedman this blog has).

I believe that Reichenbach’s notion of the constitutive a priori directly relates to what is understood as Kant’s ‘regulative a priori’ in his body of philosophy of science. As I have also considered; I think that the ‘foundations’ approach is a step forward and the supreme example of this, Carnap’s Aufbau, is a superior attempt at the philosophical foundations of what I think Kant’s desiderata for any future scientific theory must amount to. Did Kant anticipate a Carnap? That’s a question for another post.

For various exegetical reasons, I have maintained that Kant has set a series of conditions for what he called ‘science proper’ which included:

1. Reductionism: all propositions of science must relate to another by means of a higher order system to explain the principles of the lower order. Applied physics requires theoretical physics, theoretical physics requires calculus and calculus in turn requires certain metaphysical/mathematical foundation assumptions to allow the conditions of such to susue.

2. Relata by laws, higher and lower. A revised way of stating the above is to note that Kant (may have) believed that the relata of this higher lower ordering system that justifies higher and lower discourses takes place by explicitly formal laws; these laws must be formal insofar as they actually apply.

3. Systematicity, or the unity of science. These principles must form a system that relates one kind of physical phenomenon with anohter. A general physics must account for all of its constituent parts; matter, heat, sound, energy, motion etc. If we had a theory of planetary motion (such as astrology) that made predictions and claims about a person’s wellbeing and future; it would only be a respectable theory (well, one reason at least) if it had something to say or relate to say, the notion of elements; heat; energy; conservation of mass, and they all in turn were candidates or subsets of a higher formal system; say, a mathematics of change (calculus) or general principles that took place over it as a genera, and yet formed the foundations of the given discourse astrology.

Popper’s vision of science seems distinctly Kantian as he says the following:

1. We must understand scientific principles as universal claims; and even thought there are doubts about the validation of every instance of F=ma (due to the limitations ofthe universe and our own means  of testability – namely, we can’t live forever and there is a great dataset of cases that we can no longer verify because they belong in the past). It is better, to crudely state it; to be a universals advocate of the sentences of science and to underlay them as a formal substructure of sentences; than to take the empiricist vision of dealing only with particulars.

2. Particulars cannot take us far enough with induction. Induction has its own epistemological and psychological problems. Which is our motivation to take a more rationalist ‘foundations’ approach.

3. The formal structure of science seems to take great precedence in Popper’s theory. It does not matter that our formal laws cannot map to real observances, or even that real observances cannot map to their porpositional expression. An example of the latter is this: to say ‘I am hurt’ is of very detached relevance to the felt experience of pain. The very fact of your reading this shows that this message is coded in a propositional format. Perhaps the best way to communicate the fundamental inexpressability of those things that propositions relate to would be to make an example of a non-propositional utterance (‘ouch’), or to hit you.

4. The ‘alms ob’ premise. Kant takes to the notion that while we may always have doubts about whether the actual formalisation of science maintains true of the world; we must take to the transcendental assumption that the world as it appears to us is just that; we must take some things for face value, or understand things in the way that we are forced to understand it; because of the brute fact natureo f our understanding to make us think it so. The categories of the understanding such as causation or orientation are things we understand just because they are so; but it is always valid to question them.

Popper takes quite well to what some commentators (I think it’s Bennett and HW Cassirer) call the ‘as if’ premise. If we are to take to certain assumptions or theorisations of science as idealisations or things we may imagine are ‘as if they were true’.

5. The conditions of possibility. Popper holds that the systematisation of science requires what I’ll call a mother premise, namely; that there is one fundamental condition at the top of a scientific theory which acts as a decider of what the other norms are. In a sense, Popper provides the notion of what I sometimes call a metanorm; a norm that decides norms.

I’ve specifically interpreted systematicity to be a metanorm; although Popper does not seem to be directing systematicity; he does make one proviso that relates to it; that we have an ordering langauge that makes sense of instances of particulars by instituting language terms that denote them as type. If we are to pose ‘marsupial’ as a universal we will always have the problem that universals cannot be justified by every instance; but the admission of this objection seems to be treated by popper as some kind of merit of his theory; as it is the same problem that induction has, but induction does not pretend to aspire to universals, because it cant. Some form of idealisation, or a language of types that in turn are ordered by ranking principles; e.g. the Linnaean hierarchical taxonomy.

Popper makes a point of not confusing universal types with sets and classes; perhaps this is something a Kantian theory of science may benefit from. We may have entities that have one class description; but fit multiple classes and sets. Kangeroo is a marsupial >> mammal; but it is also under classses and sets such as ‘australasian’; creatures that keep their children in pouches; ‘cute and cuddly’ or ‘parodied in family guy’ and they can be classified as such without inconsistency.

The relationships with Kantian systematicity and Popper’s vision of science are very intricate and subtle. I’ve just written this post to acknowledge just some of the potential issues and exegetical similarities that they have.

I’m also pleasantly surprised of Popper’s outlook; perhaps I may take his scientific character to be more Viennese than I thought.

6. Demarcation as the condition of science. Like Kant, Popper talks about ‘proper science’ (but not in those words). The problem of science is not of induction (contra Humean thinkers); but demarcation; namely, the separation of science and non-science; science and metaphysics; epistemology qua knowledge and scientific method qua pseudo/philosophical psychology.

Demarcation acts as a methodological primary premise in a similar manner to how Kant’s notion of ‘conditions of possibility’ works.


Budick on the misunderstandings of mainstream Kant scholars

In this post I would like to highlight some preliminary insights that are particularly noteworthy. This post may come to structure the content or themes of my forthcoming book review on the issue.

I am currently reading Sanford Budick’s ‘Kant and Milton’. The introductory blurb by Paul W. Franks (who is also ‘the’ person who writes on the topic of Kant’s systematicity) poses this thought: Kant and Milton? Surely there is nothing related between the author of Paradise Lost and the author of the Critique of Pure reason. Not so, says Sanford Budick, in a work which seems to challenge a great many tenets of Kantian scholarship.

My dissertation supervisor, who was quite well read on historical and contemporary Kant scholarship had the emphatic opinion that ‘Kant was a philistine!’ and then snorted with a self-congratulating jest. That is very much the popular opinion and I admit to having a similar prejudice myself, at least when it comes to music.

Not so for Budick. Kant was a well read man and this is demonstrated by various passages on his lectures on anthopology where he cites authors Pope and Milton. Many of the Milton citations are not referenced to Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes; but are assumed by the culturally learned of the 18thC Germans that they are Milton passages. You see, Budick points out that during the 18thC, Germany had a very anglophile orientation. The greats of Pope, Milton and Shakespeare were often translated. It is also well known, and consistent with the thesis (despite the fact that anglophile doesn’t include scotland) that the writers (who wrote in english) Hume and the Lord Earl of Shaftesbury were well received by Kant. It is often in good spirits of the enterprise of Kantian scholarship to know of the influences that permeate not only the culture of Kant’s time, but also of Kant himself.

Budick compares his study with the likes of a study on Kant’s moral philosophy (the author of which escapes me now) with the form and project of a work by Cicero. Budick offers reasons as to why Kantian scholars have forgotten this Miltonian influence on our understanding of Kant.

1. The Nazis. Well not exactly the Nazi’s; certain Kant scholars who were nationalist-socialist party members had strong nationalist roots and chose to control the influence of how Kant was read. For the nationalists; it was unacceptable to acknowledge any influence outside of Germany. It was simply unthinkable that a non-German such as Milton or Pope could have an impact on the work of any German thinker or poet. This purposeful ignoring of English influence has coloured our future understanding of Kant’s aesthetics today.

2. Milton is hard. This sounds to me like the same reason why Adorno is called an ‘elitist’. In order to understand Adorno you need to have the musical background of a serialist composer. You need to understand Bach, Beethoven, the Romantics (and dislike them), and serialist composition. Very few sociologists I suspect, neither know how to write a fugue nor how to play one.

This sounds like a weak objection to critique Adorno; it is simply akin to saying ‘I do not understand this’ therefore I will dismiss it. The challenge of Kant scholarship, and its joy, is the difficult language and terminology involved. This is the same issue for understanding Milton’s work. To understand Milton; one needs to understand the poetic devices and the cultural references. I have started to read Paradise Lost in preparation of this book review, and I found it much enjoyable. Many note the Aeneidae influences which are at some points subtle and others not so. Milton is writing an epic, the kind that seems to be all encompassing such to almost appear as a religious narrative.

The reason, Sanford suggests; that scholarship may take to a resistance to acknowledging the Miltonian influence on Kant is simply: Milton’s work is abotu the same kind of difficulty as understanding Kant himself. So, this doesn’t sound very promising for a non-expert reader to address.