Immanuel Kant II. – An Optimistic Sally

Kant opens the first Critique with a pleasant and august Sir Francis Bacon quotation:

Of our own person we will say nothing. But as to the subject matter with which we are concerned, we ask that men think of it not as an opinion but as a work; and consider it erected not for any sect of ours, or for our good pleasure, but as the foundation of human utility and dignity. Each individual equally, then, may reflect on it himself… for his own part… in the common interest. Further, each may well hope from our instauration that it claims nothing infinite, and nothing beyond what is mortal; for in truth it prescribes only the end of infinite errors, and this is a legitimate end.

I can say earnestly that after my recent marathon readings of Plato I am turning Baconian. Reading this makes me feel like I am on one of Nietzsche’s mountains breathing the cold, free air. Kant also gives a nice dedication to the Gracious Lord, which I take to mean God. That’s an exceedingly proper way to begin any endeavor. So far, so good.

This brings us to the preface to the first edition. The two prefaces are perhaps the most stark in contrast of any other difference in editions in the Critique. In the first, he explains to us that it is only natural for reason to want to soar, for reason has wings and aches to fly. However, “through no fault of its own” it begins to posit things that human experience could never support and the flight turns Icarian. Those most guilty of this hubris are the dogmatists, of course, and by this he means the scholastics.They made metaphysics into a despot and engaged in a constant war against the skeptics, whom Kant likens to “nomads who abhor all permanent cultivation of the soil, [and] shattered civil unity from time to time.” Nomads, Arabs, and sometimes Muslims are all quite alarming to Kant, and earn themselves brief mentions across his texts as the strange and foolish peoples who don’t appreciate the solidity of sedentary civilization and houses. Not being surrounded by structures makes him anxious.

The result of this war is that a people emerge called the indifferentists, whose ideology is “the mother of chaos and night in the sciences,” but even these people fail to maintain their posture and “unavoidably fall back into metaphysical assertions”. He carries on in this manner for a few pages and it is certainly a treat. Kant here is at his most theatrical and we probably won’t see anything like it from him again. Once he has set the stage, he introduces his own position, which is that all of these men have failed to see that reason has its proper limit and when that limit is held we avoid error and achieve certainty.

Towards the end he gives us his set up question: “What and how much can understanding and reason cognize free of all experience?” And this is what he will try to answer.

Now we are moving into the preface to the second edition and it is a far longer affair and lacks all of the triumph and drama of the first. After he released the first edition it met with somewhat mixed reviews and a lack of comprehension. So much so that Kant wrote what I am told is a brief explanation of the aims of the first Critique in a book called the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. And following that, a second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason. The second edition preface is a very involved, perhaps over-explanation of the entire project.

The introduction continues the march but it all serves the good purpose of readying your brain to receive Kant’s purificatory bath, forever cleansing your reason.

But although all our cognition commences with experience, yet it does not on that account all arise from experience. For it could well be that even our experiential cognition is a composite of that which we receive through impressions and that which our own cognitive faculty (merely prompted by sensible impressions) provides out of itself, which addition we cannot distinguish from that fundamental material until long practice has made us attentive to it and skilled in separating it out.

So the task is then to figure out what our cognitive faculty provides out of itself, meaning that this knowledge must be prior to all experience. Kant creates his transcendental philosophy to accomplish the task of determining “the possibility, the principles, and the domain of all cognitions a priori.”

Without lingering too long, we arrive at The Transcendental Doctrine of Elements, First Part, The Transcendental Aesthetic. Though the term aesthetic had by Kant’s time begun to acquire the meaning of being concerned with taste, Kant uses it here to refer to the principles of a priori sensibility, or what our cognitive faculty provides out of itself. The way in which our sensible intuition is mediated and given a form by our faculties. Objects affect us through our capacity of sensibility. Very plainly, I see the table and then I feel it and so on. That immediate relation between my cognition and experience of seeing or feeling is called an intuition. When I think think this using my understanding I generate concepts. The way in which I order appearance is its form, the form of sensible intuition. As Deleuze will point out, these forms (space and time) are not reducible to the order of concepts.

What are Kant’s reasons for telling us that space and time are not reducible to categories, that is, that there are two sorts of a priori forms: space and time on the one hand, the categories on the other hand, or if you like space and time are irreducible to the order of concepts. He gives lots of reasons, but he invites us to engage in at least one thought-experiment, as it’s the simplest it’s the one I’ll give you. He says, you see two hands, it’s the paradox of non-superimposable symmetrical objects. You see two hands, not only do you see two hands but you think two hands. Let’s suppose that, in reality, there are never two hands, there are always little differences, prints, traits, from the point of view of thought that is of no interest, you can always say that there are no two things alike. But you can still think, you can still represent to yourself two absolutely identical hands. Note that if I make Leibniz speak from off-stage, he would say: not at all, you believe you think it, but you can’t think it, you’ve just stopped the concept. But we will accept this sort of dare of Kant’s.

-Deleuze, Kant Lectures

Here I will try to give a brief Kantian account of these forms.

Space: The pure form of outer sense. Space is the property of my mind which represents objects to me as having relations to one another and to me, spatial relations. It can’t be an empirical concept that I derive from my experience, we are told, for space has to already be the ground in order for these experiences to appear to me as having spatial relations. Though one can represent empty space in their head, one cannot represent no-space. If space wasn’t a priori necessary, and the form of outer experience inherent to my faculties, then geometry could not maintain its apodictic certainty, its universality. Space is pure, a single space, and when divided it is known that parts of a whole are what is being referred to. When you speak of a certain space you are limiting a section of the whole for practical purposes. And space is infinite, because it is a function of my cognition and not a real existing relation.

Time: The pure form of inner sense. Time is the property of my mind which gives my representations simultaneity and succession.  It can’t be an empirical concept that I derive from my experience, we are told, for time is the way in which I give order to the representations I have in my head but not in any way something existing outside of myself that I am merely perceiving. Appearances as they are can only be possible is time is their universal condition. If time wasn’t a priori necessary then we could not have apodictic certainty about simultaneity and succession. Time is “a pure form of sensible intuition.” Like space, I can limit time in order to think and speak but I understand that it is all a part of one whole time. And like space and for the same reason, time is infinite.

After all of the speeches I had to endure about reason leaving its proper bounds and how the assertions of this transcendental philosophy must be certain in order for it to be a science, how they cannot merely present a plausible account, I am forced to contend with this as the opening and the foundation of all to follow. For me, the apodictic certainty of geometry and succession (which are a part of one of Kant’s main goals, which is to salvage causality from Hume and establish it as something more than just a heuristic) is not so important as it is to Kant. When Hume says that we cannot apprehend causality and that thinking causality is a mere habit of the mind, this does not bother me. This is because I have been, in some ways, brought up in the occasionalist school of al-Ashari as expounded upon by Imam al-Ghazali and for me what Kant needs to have apodictic certainty I am used to thinking of as the habits of God. To my mind, Kant is desperately trying to rescue a foundation for the sciences and objectivity from the uncertain rifts opened by the thought of his time. Some of these assertions given as reasons have something of the appearance of him saying “It has to be true so that the whole system can work!!”

And that’s where I also find myself in relation to his claims of space and time necessarily being only functions of my faculties, have no reality beyond my perception. It is not that I cannot conceive of this being true, it is not that I don’t find it to be a somewhat plausible account, it is that Kant seems to fail at making these claims have the kind of force he tells me is so necessary in order to establish this as a science. In my reading of this section I noticed these things and they bothered me, but I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt because I was nervous that perhaps I wasn’t fully grasping his argument. It came as something of a vindication when I read the following in the translator’s notes:

(The objection that time cannot be denied to be real just because it is a necessary property of our representations, since our representations themselves are real, has continued to be pressed against Kant; see, for instance, P.F. Strawson, The Bounds of Sense [London: Methuen, 1966], pp. 39 and 54.)

Lambert, Mendelssohn, and Sulzer all carried the very same objections and it is unclear if anyone has ever fully dealt with them. I have The Bounds of Sense laying around and hopefully I can incorporate some of its insights here later.

I think it is as Deleuze has stated it to be, if we want to keep going we must take Kant’s dare. But we should never forget that this is what we are doing in order to proceed. As with many philosophers, you are required to take some proposition as being totally true which is really only partially demonstrated, and if you will give them this they will build everything on top of it. But Kant is one of the greatest philosophers and so we continue, for we must.


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