Monday, August 31, 2020

Twelve rounds with Kant (part 1)

Twenty-six years later, I finally know what book Hobbes is reading from.

Today I'd like to ruminate on the work of Immanuel Kant because, hell, it's not like I ever wanted readers anyway.

I began reading the Critique of Pure Reason (1781–1787) in April. What prompted me to take the plunge was something I puzzled over back in March: if mathematical entities have no real existence, and if numbers and geometrical forms are merely abstractions whose referents are those ineffable elements of reality that are present in all conceivable experience, what precisely are those elements? I understood that Kant was very much concerned with this sort of thing, and decided I ought to consult an expert who'd given the problem much more thought than I, and who was reportedly very systematic in his approach to it.

Well, I finished reading the Critique back in July. Or, I should rather say I arrived at its end—I'm not nearly at the point where I can shelve it just yet. It is without a doubt the most difficult book I've ever read, and as I review what I believe I've gleaned from it, I find myself consulting the index and flipping back through its pages seeking clarity on some obscure point or abstruse principle. I've read both the B and A versions of the Transcendental Deduction more than once, and I'll admit that I haven't yet fully assimilated Kant's reasoning. I wondered if perhaps fluency in German is required to parse his thinking, even in translation, but Ruven (librarian, wearer of florid shirts, native son of Deutschland) suggests that's not the case:
It so happens that a friend of mine here has a degree in German studies and philosophy and received very good grades, and I remember him saying some years ago that he'd very much like to travel back in time to witness Kant writing. Specifically, to stand behind him with a baseball bat as he wrote, make him read each finished sentence to an uneducated worker, and give him a good swing every time that worker didn't immediately understand it.
So it's not just me. But I don't think I'll be consoled until I get my goddamned head around this goddamned book. (I expect a long wait.)

I stand in awe of the Critique of Pure Reason. There are few books I can call "monumental" without knowingly indulging in hyperbole, and the Critique is the newest addition to that very short list. It's a wonder of the world. Though many of its structural details remain obscure to me, the moments when I seem to apprehend the outline of Kant's edifice in the fullness of its height and breadth are staggering. When I try to imagine the effort of constructing it, I honestly feel a little sick to my stomach. This isn't to say he has me so wholly convinced in his scheme as to start calling myself a Kantian, but I'm very much compelled to take him seriously.

But let's ease into this thing with a little background and some human-interest fluff.

Kant's preternatural thoroughness and commitment to following an idea toward its conclusion are absolutely astonishing, yes—but I'm no less impressed by his intellectual honesty, as evinced by his acknowledging his debt to the Scottish skeptic David Hume. Had Kant approached and heard out Hume in bad faith, he probably would have joined the ranks of the Scot's other denouncers, and may have sacrificed his opportunity to leave his own indelible mark upon Western thought.


Kant was a student of the rationalistic (or "dogmatic," as he says) philosophers of the European Enlightenment—philosophers with whom Hume had a bone to pick. Hume felt that thinkers like Leibniz took far too many liberties in developing elaborate systems of metaphysics and making such outrageous claims as proving beyond a doubt the existence of God and of the immortal soul. Perhaps even by the middle of the eighteenth century, the Scholastics and Aristotle were not yet so discredited as to inspire caution against presuming too much of human reason. Even in the wake of the scientific revolution, any number of philosophers continued to operate under the assumption that if such-and-such metaphysical proposition seems reasonable (provided the reasoner starts from first principles and can confidently say he knows what he's doing), then that proposition is pretty much good as true.

This was a bubble Hume intended to pop.

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Hume advises readers to toss books containing metaphysical speculation without empirical data into the fireplace, accuses John Locke of "ambiguity and circumlocution," questions the existence of free will and the validity of the law of induction, and famously tests the law of cause and effect and finds it wanting:
This connexion [cause and effect], therefore, which we feel in the mind, this customary transition of the imagination from from one object to its usual attendant, is the sentiment or impression from which we form the idea of power or necessary connection. Nothing farther is the case. Contemplate the subject on all sides; you will never find any other origin of that idea. This is the sole difference between one instance, from which we can never receive the idea of connexion, and a number of similar instances, by which it is suggested. The first time a man saw the communication of motion by impulse, as by the shock of two billiard-balls, he could not pronounce that the one event was connected: but only that it was conjoined with the other. After he has observed several instances of this nature, he then pronounces them to be connected. What alteration has happened to give rise to this new idea of connexion? Nothing but that he now feels these events to be connected in his imagination, and can readily foretell the existence of one from the appearance of another. 
His point is that there's no logical foundation for causal connection. All we can say for certain is that when event A occurs, event B typically follows; reading more into this than the mere observable fact of a temporal coincidence comes from mental habituation, a conviction based on something very much like faith—but not reason.

Hume wasn't contending that there are no such things in the world as contingent events. His main thrust in the Enquiry is to demonstrate that human understanding is subject to limits and psychological biases. There are depths reason cannot plumb, and things we cannot know for certain.

broke: desktop folder full of memes
woke: desktop folder full of old .gifs

This characterization of cause and effect as an ad hoc description of a temporal relation, a mere idea of a "necessary connexion," apparently got stuck in Kant's craw. Of the twelve pure concepts of understanding he explicates in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant places especial emphasis on justifying the relational category of cause and effect, and he invokes Hume's name throughout the text. Reading the Critique in the Twitter epoch, one might be gobsmacked to observe that Kant doesn't do this to dunk on Hume, but to give credit where he felt it was due.

Kant wasn't alone in criticizing Hume's methods and conclusions, but most of the Scot's detractors—according to Kant in the 1783 Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (written as a digestible summary of the Critique's main ideas, presented with less technical jargon)—did so without troubling themselves to engage with what Hume was really getting at:
But fate, ever ill-disposed toward metaphysics, would have it that Hume was understood by no one. One cannot, without feeling a certain pain, behold how utterly and completely his opponents, Reid, Oswald, Beattie, and finally Priestley, missed the point of his problem, and misjudged his hints for improvement——constantly taking for granted just what he doubted, and, conversely, proving with vehemence and, more often than not, with great insolence exactly what it had never entered his mind to doubt——so that everything remained in its old condition, as if nothing had happened.

The question was not, whether the concept of cause is right, useful, and, with respect to all cognition of nature, indispensable, for this Hume had never put in doubt; it was rather whether it is thought through reason a priori, and in this way has an inner truth independent of all experience, and hence also a much more widely extended use that is not limited merely to objects of experience: regarding this Hume awaited enlightenment...
In order to do justice to the problem, however, the opponents of this celebrated man would have had to penetrate very deeply into the nature of reason so far as it is occupied solely with pure thought, something that did not suit them. They therefore found a more expedient means to be obstinate without any insight, namely, the appeal to ordinary common sense. It is in fact a great gift from heaven to possess right (or, as it has recently been called, plain) common sense. But it must be proven through deeds, by the considered and reasonable things one thinks and says, and not by appealing to it as an oracle when one knows of nothing clever to advance in one’s defense. To appeal to ordinary common sense when insight and science run short, and not before, is one of the subtle discoveries of recent times, whereby the dullest windbag can confidently take on the most profound thinker and hold his own with him. So long as a small residue of insight remains, however, one would do well to avoid resorting to this emergency help. And seen in the light of day, this appeal is nothing other than a call to the judgment of the multitude; applause at which the philosopher blushes, but at which the popular wag becomes triumphant and defiant.
Kant didn't think Hume was ultimately correct, but possessed the intellectual probity to admit that Hume's challenge against unfettered rationalism struck its target. Again, reading this during a period where a partisan on any side of any debate can be expected to assume bad faith from an opponent and engages with them in kind, I'm a little amazed to see that it was once possible to accept a salty ideological critique with gratitude instead of scorn.

Though Kant profoundly disagrees with most of what Hume had to say (especially about metaphysics), he thanks Hume for admonishing him to get his intellectual house in order and fix what needed fixing in his own way of thinking:
I freely admit that the remembrance of David Hume was the very thing that many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave a completely different direction to my researches in the field of speculative philosophy. I was very far from listening to him with respect to his conclusions, which arose solely because he did not completely set out his problem, but only touched on a part of it, which, without the whole being taken into account, can provide no enlightenment. If we begin from a well-grounded though undeveloped thought that another bequeaths us, then we can well hope, by continued reflection, to take it further than could the sagacious man whom one has to thank for the first spark of this light.

This truly (unironically) warms the cockles of my heart.

Later this week, we'll try to chew on some of the gristle of the Critique.

1 comment:

  1. We all seen more then a few bad guys in fiction that have a pure reason logic that end up making them rather big pricks. Its the reason Spock works best with Kirk and all that stuff, you need someone who can be logical about the situation while also needing someone that can not get so caught up in what's logical to try and do what's right and all that.

    Who knows, for how much we try to be logical about things maybe we all really are in the Matrix and Agent Smith just patched things so good we don't even realize it, still enough rational facts to indicate we don't really all live in dream worlds as are bodies are harvested by machines, in theory.

    I guess things can seem entirely rational and logical to some if they believe it, like how some could rationally justify that the earth was flat a thousand years ago based on there limited information, or that the Final Fantasy 7 remake is not a shameless cash grab, or other things.

    To me, being rational is about seeing things logically, but also being open minded about things. We have more then enough people who are dead set thinking there rationalizing of events in the world are iron clad and its, causing more then a few problems, rather serious problems.

    Well, if people could be civil in Kant's time maybe there is hope wonder how Kant would have responded to Twitter and Tick tock though.