Immanuel Kant

‘There are few philosophical texts so confusing and so perplexing as Kant’s works.’ So opens T. K. Seung in his preface to Kant: A Guide for the Perplexed, before going on to lament that ‘it is the fate of his readers to get lost in his text before they can get perplexed with his ideas’. Unfortunately there is a great tendency for people to get ‘perplexed with his ideas’ even in the commentaries—the ’99 edition of the Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Kant is free of any philosophical content, the editors judging (plausibly) that the average layman will be perplexed by any presentation of his philosophy. And the reason isn’t hard to find. As Seung says in the opening paragraph, ‘In Kant’s view, we can elevate our existence beyond the brute animal condition by transforming the a posteriori elements into rational experience through the a priori elements. He calls these a priori elements the transcendental conditions because they enable us to transcend the empirical condition. Hence his philosophy is called transcendental philosophy […].’

The ‘a posteriori elements of human experience’ are empirical and shared with animals while the ‘a priori elements’ are the special endowment of human beings. Right here I think we have a problem as the ‘a priori elements’ have never been observed apart from the ‘a posteriori elements’ and it is difficult to know what to make of them, as is evidenced by Kant’s preposterous and bloated prose, the perplexed non-Kant-specialists, the content-free Concise Routledge article.

David Stove has many amusing things to say on this subject and I can’t resist quoting a typical assault, at length.

There is nothing at all puzzling about the question ‘is p possible?’ and ‘is p possible given q?’ These are straightforward questions of logic, about the modal status of p or about the relation between p and q. We may not be able to answer the question easily, or at all, in a given case, but we have no difficulty whatever in understanding what they mean. In fact questions of this sort are so lamentably lacking in depth that even ‘pre-Critical’ philosophers could and did understand them. But it is otherwise with the ‘Kantian questions’, ‘How is p possible given q?’ Some people simply adore these questions: Nozick is so much an enthusiast for them that he would have philosophers ask (near enough) no other kind. But such questions have one disadvantage: it is not at all clear what they mean. When a philosopher asks, not ‘Is p possible given q?’, but ‘How is p possible given q?’, what does he mean?

In some cases we know what he means only too well, and to our shame. He means: Well, of course, p is not possible given q, but you surely don’t expect me to give up either p or q on that account! Far from that, I am going to keep on insinuating, in public, that p is possible given q, by publishing countless pages about what I call the problem of reconciling p with q. [pp. 49-50, …]

This form of industrial pollution, by which real inconsistencies are turned into imaginary problems, is not only ancient but economically important. It accounts, I would say, for as much as 5 per cent of the GPIP, or Gross Published Intellectual Product, of the human race so far. Hume complained of it. ‘Nothing can be more absurd,’ he wrote, ‘than this custom of calling a difficulty what pretends to be a demonstration, and endeavouring by that means to elude its force and evidence.’ Still at the time, the industry had hardly begun. Hume died before the Romantics discovered that problems are positively a good thing: so much more fun than solutions. What is not unrelated, he died before Immanuel Kant released on a grateful world a flood of ‘how-is-so-and-so-possible’ questions which left philosophy on the continent of Europe permanently waterlogged. Lucky David Hume!

Kant is always saying, with evident pride, that no one before him had ever so much as asked the questions which he asks. This is true, though whether it is a proper object of pride is another question. But that question, too, history has answered in Kant’s favour. His ‘how-possible’ questions have been object of universal admiration. Literally no one, as far as I know, has ever protested that these questions are unintelligible. Yet I find them so. When a philosopher asks ‘Is p possible?’, or ‘Is p possible given q?’, then (as I have said) I have no difficulty in understanding the questions, and neither does anybody else. The ones that beat me are when a philosopher asks ‘How is p possible?’ or ‘How is p possible given q?’ It is worse still when Kant asks, as he constantly does ask, ‘how-is-so-and-so-possible’ questions, in which the ‘so-and-so’ is not a proposition but a substantive noun. ‘How is space possible?’, ‘How is cognition possible?’ – he just cannot stop asking these things. [pp. 50-51, …]

Kant had the ‘how-is-so-and-so-possible’ construction absolutely on the brain. It was his way of expressing, day in and day out, that ‘wonder’ in which philosophy really does begin: namely pretending to wonder – that is, asking what appear to be questions but are not so. And the beauty of the Kantian tactic is that it is always available: you can ask ‘How is p possible?’ whatever p may be, and whatever the context. In this way you not only never have to stop talking, but can always be sure of sounding like an uncommonly deep thinker. [p. 50]

— David Stove, The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies

If we carry on into Seung’s Perplexed preface where he discusses the second Critique (on ethics) we find some quite remarkable assertions.

When he explains the application of his fundamental law, he relies not on the formal criterion of self-consistency but on the substantive one and reinstates his ethical Platonism. The rational autonomy of ethical formalism is like a king without a kingdom because it is vacuous. Kant saves it from its vacuity by giving it the entire natural order of archetypes for its kingdom. But this manoeuvre has been executed so ingeniously and so surreptitiously that it has never been detected to the best of my knowledge. It was Kant’s secret restoration of normative Platonism that nullified his open Copernican revolution in ethics. [pp. xiii-xiv]

For those that haven’t much of an idea of what is going on here: don’t worry! You are not alone. Suffice it to say that Kant’s ‘Copernican revolution in ethics’ was not intended to be a humble little proposal, but if Professor Seung is correct, Kant quietly abandoned the idea in his second critique but it has taken the academy over 200 years to notice.

It is a commonplace that Kant exposed the deficiencies of ‘the two mighty traditions’ of the dogmatic rationalism of Descartes (through Leibniz and Wolff) and the sceptical empiricism of Hume and ‘then to have shown how his own Critical or transcendental philosophy offers a superior alternative’ (Gardiner [1999], p. 2); he certainly trumped both in embracing epistemological scepticism and then dogmatically declaring the absolute existence of self and objects. This was a mighty alluring move as we can see as one of Kant’s sceptics wrestles with Hume’s Self-scepticism.

As regards our present problem, all psychological knowledge can be stated without introducing the ‘Self’. Further, the ‘Self’, as defined can be nothing but a bundle of perceptions, not a new simple ‘thing’. In this I think any thoroughgoing empiricist must agree with Hume.

It does not follow that there is no simple Self; it only follows that we cannot know whether there is or not, and that the Self, except as a ‘bundle’ of perceptions, cannot enter into any part of our knowledge.

— Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Ch. 17, ‘Hume’

So we see Russell embracing Kant’s reply to Hume despite concluding with an expression of dissent from the view that Kant had refuted Hume’s scepticism. Kant’s means of meeting Hume’s scepticism about our ability to find any unitary self and external objects was to agree: mere ‘objects of perception’ are perceived, behind which are the real objects-in-themselves, these things-in-themselves not depending upon anything else for their existence. But why stop there! Once shown the way, the Romantics were able to put Kant’s licence to ignore reality to excellent use (‘we create our own reality’).

One of the strong points of Kant’s system is that it is of such profundity that it is remarkably flexible, Niels Bohr, for example, making excellent use of it in explaining the strange results of the atomic experiments despite the fact that Kant had been convinced that Newton stumbled on Hard Truth and integrated classical (Newtonian) physics into his system (but as the neo-Kantians will tell you this isn’t an essential part of his system). Rather than undermining our rational faculties with Pyrrhonic scepticism as Hume did, Kant simply overwhelmed them (thus neutralising Hume’s scepticism) and with great flattery appealed to common sense and told us what we wanted to hear, respecting the absolute state (with his duty-based ethics) and the absolute self (by emphasising autonomy and de-emphasising the examination of motives).


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