Thoughts on a ‘Transcendental Realism’

As I was running out to the pet store last night to grab an e-collar for my cat, the thought occurred to me that it might be fruitful to see if the transcendental aspect of Kant’s metaphysic could be married with realism. What follows are various other thoughts that occurred to me on this subject.

What would a transcendental realism be concerned with? Well, as I’m thinking of it, it would be a metaphysic concerned primarily concerned with the following: what are the conditions that make empirical study of the world possible? So in this sense, it’s more of a metaphysic of science. How is science possible? That’s a key question.

To polish the question a bit more: how must the world be in order for science to have proceeded as it has? Two things that come to mind are the issues of causality and universals – laws of nature would probably fit in here under both of those. So what would TR (tentatively) say here?

Well, causality, of one form or another, seems to be necessary for any empirical science to get off the ground. But causality is a metaphysical, and not empirical, category (here we can follow Hume’s insight without committing ourselves to his conclusions). We can’t study causality under a microscope. But if causality is a real feature (albeit a metaphysical feature) of the world, the question we need to ask is how exactly is causality ‘mediated’ through experience (here I wonder if modalities have a role to play)? Here’s a possible answer (not THE answer, but merely a way in which the question might be answered on this view):

Causality is a real feature of the world with both objective (transcendental) and subjective aspects – so it’s a bottom up/top down feature. Causal structures are mediated through and reflected by the empirical world and empirical study. This allows for for the conditions of study, science, etc. This view effectively thinks backwards from the given of our experience, but an argument seems to be needed that I don’t have at the moment.

So I suppose a map of this view would look something like this:

Reality———->causal structures———->experience of reality———->causal concepts———->allow empirical science

I’m not hugely satisfied with this yet, but the raw material for a decent metaphysic is here, at least.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on a ‘Transcendental Realism’

  1. deathtoallpoets December 17, 2014 / 11:48 pm

    Are you just thinking of external conditions? How about the internal faculties for us to render true belief, and even more strongly, knowledge of these truths? Just a thought.


    • whitefrozen December 18, 2014 / 11:43 am

      Well, without playing to the internal/external dichtotomy too much, since this is a realism, it’s more concerned with how the world is, or has to be, as opposed to how the mind must be, which would be an idealism. My overall thought on this topic, following closely Torrance and Polanyi, more or less avoids the internal/external question.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. SamL December 22, 2014 / 1:28 pm

    I definitely think a transcendental enquiry into the conditions of science is likely to be fruitful. To my mind Kant’s notion of transcendental deduction is one of his deepest contributions, and even if it doesn’t quite demarcate the job of philosophy perfectly it does at least provide a good indication of the sort of thing it should be concerned with. I’ve recently been digging into Donald Davidson’s philosophy of language, which can be thought of as a transcendental project (where Kant was concerned with the conditions of the possibility of experience, Davidson was concerned with the conditions of the possibility of communication). It also occurs to me that many of Thomas Nagel’s anti-materialist arguments in Mind and Cosmos take a transcendental form.

    On science, I’d be a little hesitant to identify causality as a necessary condition, since it seems to me that there are coherent interpretations of what’s going on when we do science that don’t appeal to the all-important necessity relations that characterise causality. For example, we might be tempted to separate two distinct layers of scientific activity: description and explanation. Typically we’d want to link causation to explanation, since they’re deeply entwined concepts. We explain the movement of the snooker balls by appeal to the causal laws governing their interactions — this is in many respects a natural way to think about things, and so perhaps lends some support to the contention that scientific activity must presuppose causal notions. But I think the causal notions are optional here. What the science actually gives us (in the case of the snooker balls) are set of equations which describe how certain systems evolve over time. These ‘state transition rules’ can be thought of as representing, or being underpinned by, causal laws, but they could equally be thought of as statistical generalisations which (because non-necessitating) are non-causal — explanation just turns out to be a more general kind of description. I think it’s very likely that we do in fact presuppose causal notions all over the place in science, but to show that these are condition of its possibility would require more than it: it would require that it be inconceivable that science could be done without them.

    (rushed and garbled!)



    • whitefrozen December 22, 2014 / 4:25 pm

      Hm. Can a system evolve over time in a way that doesn’t presuppose causality? If a system evolves, or changes or whatnot, then it seems that such a change would involve causality of *some* kind. So while the ‘transition rules’ themselves aren’t causal, they might be a reflection of a specific state of empirical reality. Just spitballing there.


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