Grounds with no Foundation: or, a Brief Look at Whether or Not Fichte and Kant Were Foundationalists and What Relevance that Might Have for Us Today

Foundationalism has had a really rough time in the last few centuries. Starting with Thomas Reid‘s attacks on ‘the way of ideas’, finding perhaps their most sophisticated articulations in Sellars and his attack on the ‘myth of the given’ (both Reid and Sellars are concerned with the foundations of empirical knowledge here) and continuing with Rorty and his attack on the ‘mirror of nature’, powerful arguments have been leveled at what has been, according to the received wisdom, the reigning theory of knowledge for most of history. Alvin Plantinga has rather famously given classical foundationalism a final kick. Now, a perusal of these links will show that foundationalism is indeed a many splendored thing: there are epistemic and metaphysical articulations to be found, ranging from Descartes to the British empiricists to Russell, but the overall moral is this: the idea that knowledge requires foundations (of any of the kinds listed above) in order to be rational is at the very least open to serious doubt. Now, the fact that foundationalism is in doubt doesn’t negate the idea that knowledge may have foundations more generally. Plantinga is a good case study here, since while he objects to classical foundationalism he is still a sort-of, or a modest, foundationalist. It may be more helpful to put it this way: while the requirement for foundations for knowledge to be rational may be called into question, the question of grounds for knowledge is still alive and well. Continue reading

Notes on Kant and Aquinas Against Anselm

“Thus when I think a thing, through whichever and however many predicates I like (even in its thoroughgoing determination), not the least bit gets added to the thing when I posit in addition that this thing is. For otherwise what would exist would not be the same as what I had thought in my concept, but more than that, and I could not say that the very object of my concept exists” (Critique of Pure Reason, A600/B628).   
It is important to note the context of Kants rejection of existence as a predicate, which is his criticism of the ontological argument. Kant, as he says above, took Anselm to be arguing that predicating the concept ‘being’ of anything added something to the concept of a thing. This is not entirely correct, however, when we look at Anselm, who says that something which exists only in the understanding is not as great as something which exists in reality. Thus, a god which actually exists is greater than one which exists merely in the understanding.
So having noted that Kant is not a terrific reader of Anselm, is he in fact wrong? Lots of folks have argued that being is not a predicate or a property of individuals. Russell is probably the most well known – he argued that existence or being is a second-order concept. So, to say that X doesn’t exist is just to say that the property of being X is not instantiated. This makes more sense if you look at his debate with Meinong, which really turns out to be a debate over whether existence is equivocal or univocal. Meinong held to the former, Russell the latter (Frege as well). Russell took it to be the case that everything exists, while Meinong too it to be the case that not everything that exists exists. If existence is a predicate, then the problem of negative existentials really looms large, which is probably the main reason Russell held to his view. That is, if existence is a predicate, it becomes quite easy to argue from, say the existence of donkeys to the existence of, say, Eeyore (there’s actually issues here, but bracket those for the moment).

The fundamental disagreement between Aquinas and Anselm, IMO, occurs in the SCG, where Aquinas says that

‘No difficulty, consequently, befalls anyone who posits that God does not exist. For that something greater can be thought than anything given in reality or in the intellect is a difficulty only to him who admits that there is something than which a greater cannot be thought in reality.’

Obviously, this is in direct conflict with Anselm’s invocation of the Fool, but to me it also shows that the Ontological Argument is more logical than metaphysical. Anselm is basically interpreting negative existentials as being both about something ‘in the understanding’ that does not exist in reality: Anselm is trying to derive a logical contradiction or absurdity here. In other words, Anselm is trying to show that ‘There is no God’ or ‘God doesn’t exist’ is a contradiction. But this is easily avoided if we employ something like Russell theory of definite descriptions: we can say that ‘God’ = ‘something than which nothing greater can be conceived’. The fool can be taken to be saying that ‘there is nothing which fits the description ‘‘something than which nothing greater can be conceived’. To avoid the contradiction, all we have to do is translate that to ‘For any given thing, in the understanding or in reality, a greater than it can be conceived’, and, since Anselm’s argument doesn’t require the Fool to know that his statement is true but only to state it without contradiction, we have avoided Anselm’s contradiction. Aquinas’s quote above is basically the same as what I just laid out.

The Emergence of the Freedom of the Subject in a World of Objects

Roger Scruton, in his Gifford Lectures entitled The Face of God, argues that human beings cannot be understood properly if they are not conceived as subjects in a world of objects. What I want to do here is to argue along those same lines, but flesh out what exactly is entailed in subjecthood. Subjecthood, I maintain, consists primarily in rational freedom. This defintion brings together the classical definition of person as an individual substance of a rational nature together with the more modern definition of a person wherein the fundamental human property consists in the freedom of self-determination. Continue reading

The Slavery of Kant’s Maxim

Kant’s Maxim is well known in philosophy – perhaps one of the most well known maxims in philosophy, in fact. Roger Scruton calls the moral philosophy within which the maxim fits ‘one of the most beautiful creations the human mind has ever devised’, (‘Modern Philosophy’, p. 286). And yet, despite the liberating intentions of the maxim, a strong case can be made for the idea that the maxim is a slave-master more than a liberator.

The maxim itself is a short one: ‘Act only on that maxim which you can will as a law for all rational beings.’ Our actions refer to reason alone, discounting any and all empirical considerations. This is how Kant derives the universal validity of his maxim such that by doing what reason demands of us we are doing something that is binding on all rational beings.

‘The demand of reason is a demand that I respect reason – that I allow reason the final say in my decisions. This means respecting reason not only in myself, but also in others. All rational beings have a claim to my respect, and this too is a fundamental axiom of morality. I cannot override another’s reason, as though it counted for nothing. I must try to persuade him, to secure his rational consent for those projects in which we are engaged together.’ (‘Modern Philosophy’, p. 285)

Kant’s moral philosophy presupposes freedom in order to make sense of our fundamental moral intuitions, the most important of which is the idea that something ought to be done – call this ‘duty’. Contained within the idea of duty is the idea of being able to fulfill it. Etienne Gilson notes how this leads to positing some difficult ideas in Kant’s moral theory:

‘Now, to be able to determine oneself according to a certain law is to be free. Consequently, freedom must be presupposed as a property of the will of all rational beings. Moreover, since man is not free as a member of the world of sense, it is to be supposed that man, as a moral agent, is a member of another world, purely intelligible, where no sensible motives can interfere with the exigencies of morality. We are thereby confronted with the necessity of accepting, as inseparably connected with practical reason, certain theoretical positions wholly “withdrawn from any possible insight of speculative reason.” The will to act from pure respect for duty postulates the possibility of a perfect moral order; if that order is impossible in this life, it has to be possible in another; hence the soul is immortal. Again, such a perfect moral life, undisturbed by the ceaseless strife between reason and sensibility, must needs possess happiness – happiness, not as the end of morality, but flowing from it. And what is moral law as cause of eternal happiness if not God? Thus God is posited by practical reason, which means that reason has to posit His existence, although speculative, or theoretical reason can know nothing about it.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, pp. 188-189)

The difficulties that arise as a result of these postulations are well-known, but the most obvious is that when taken to their conclusion, Kant ends up with a picture of man torn between living in the order of nature and in the order of morality, since both orders are, as Gilson notes, bound to the same man.

The most severe difficulty, though, is that in trying to preserve a freedom for man to act rationally, Kant ends up a victim of dogmatic (in the worst sense) theology, forced by his own morality to postulate things for which there can be no reason other than necessity to believe in.

‘Failing a rational justification of morality, and granting that morality is inseparable from human life, there is nothing else to do but take morality as a self-justifying fact. But when morality does not flow from what we know, it becomes free to prescribe for us what we ought to believe…having refused to hold metaphysical conclusions on metaphysical grounds, Kant had been necessarily dragged from metaphysics, to ethics, and from ethics to theology.’ (‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, pp. 187-191)

Thus, by attempting to derive a universal morality grounded in pure reason alone acted on in freedom, Kant, by way of his maxim, is the victim of dogmatism. Such is the slavery of Kant’s maxim.

Strawson on Kant’s Synthetic A Priori

‘Kant nowhere gives an even moderately satisfactory account of the dichotomy between analytic and synthetic a priori propositions; nor can any be gleaned from his casually scattered examples. Among propositions generally counted as a priori there are, of course, many distinguishable subclasses; and in the history of controversy surrounding such propositions, many philosophers have followed Kant at least to the extent of wishing to restrict the title “analytic” to the members of one or more of these subclasses. But it is very doubtful indeed whether any clearly presentable general restriction of this kind would release into a contrasted class of synthetic a priori  propositions just those types of propositions Kant’s epitomizing question was meant to be about. We can enumerate, as belonging to this intended class, truths of geometry and arithmetic and supposed a priori presuppositions of empirical science. But we can really form no general conception of the intended class except in terms of Kant’s answer to his epitomizing question. What Kant means in general by synthetic  a priori propositions is really just that class of propositions our knowledge of the necessity of which could, he supposed, be explained only by mobilizing the entire Copernican resources of the Critique, by appealing to the model of “objects conforming to our models of representation”, i.e. to our sensibility’s constitiution and understanding’s rules. Since, as I have already argued, nothing whatever really is, or could be, explained by this model – for it is incoherent – it must be concluded that Kant really has no clear and general conception of the synthetic a priori at all.’ (P.F. Strawson, ‘The Bounds of Sense’, p. 43)

T.F. Torrance on Kant and Theoretic Structures

‘There is certainly a profound element of truth here, the fact that in all our knowing there is a real interplay between what we know and out knowing of it. Man himself is a part of nature and is so intimately related to nature that he plays a formative, and nature a productive, role in scientific inquiry, discovery and interpretation. This is everywhere apparent in the magnificent achievements of empirical and theoretic science, but the way in which Kant himself combined the theoretical and empirical components of the epistemic process has grave consequences.

It is certainly to be granted that we do not apprehend things apart from a theoretic structure, but if the theoretic structure actually determines what we apprehend, then what we apprehend provides no control over our understanding. The one way out of that impasse requires a theoretic structure which, while affecting our knowledge, is derived from the intrinsic intelligibility of what we seek to know, and is open to constant revision through reference to the inner determinations of things as they come to view in the process of inquiry. But this is ruled out by the Kantian thesis that the theoretic structure is aprioristically independent of what we apprehend and that there is no possible knowledge of things in their own inner determinations or relations.

While Kant was certainly concerned to show the limits of the pure reason, his theory of knowledge served to reinforce the Enlightenment doctrine of the autonomous reason (e.g. in its Lockean and Cartesian forms alike) and even to exalt it into a position beyond what had hitherto been claimed, where through prescriptive legislation it subdued nature to the forms of its own rational necessities. As F.C.S. Northrop expressed it: ‘For neither Locke nor Hume was the human person as a knower a positively acting creating being. With Kant the position is entirely changed. Apart from the knowing person, which Kant termed “the ego”, the a priori forms of sensibility and categories of the understanding which this ego brings to the contingent data of sense, there would be no single space-time world whatever, with its public, material objects and knowers. In this fashion Kant transforms modern man’s conception of himself from a merely passive into a systematically active and creative being.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, p. 42, reformatted for ease of reading)

Kant and the Objectivity of Experience

(This is a rough gloss on Strawson’s exposition of Kant’s doctrines of unity and objectivity in ‘The Bounds of Sense’)

– Kant notes that our experience has to include the awareness of objects distinct from the state of being aware of them – call this the objective reference of experience. Put differently, experience has the objective reference of objects conceived as distinct from the particular experience (or representation) of said object.

– This is, in effect, the statement that we have to be aware of the thing-in-itself in order to have an objective reference. Our experience, if it is to have an objective reference, must be unified for it to be a representation of the objective world.

– Our empirical concepts, if they are to be employed at all, depend on this unified, coherent and connected experience.

– The issue here can be seen clearly: the objective world, the world of things-in-themselves apart from any perceptual activity or cognition of the knowing subject, must be known for our experience to have an objective reference, or for our representations to be of the real world. The things-in-themselves, however, lie outside our experience entirely – we are not aware of them. All we are aware of are appearances.

– Thus, if we are to use empirical concepts, we have to have a substitute objective reference. This substitute is, simply, the rule-governed connected-ness of our experience and our representations. Strawson notes:

‘This surrogate is precisely that rule-governed connectedness of our representations which is reflected in our employment of concepts of empirical objects conceived of as together forming a unified natural world, with its own order, distinct from, and controlling, the subjective order of perceptions. Really, nothing comes within the scope of our experience but those subjective perceptions themselves; so that all that can be really understood by empirical knowledge of objects is the existence of such rule and order among those perceptions as is involved in our being able to count them as perceptions of an objective world, having its own independent order, to which we can ascribe, as a consequence, the order of our perceptions.’ (‘The Bounds of Sense’, p. 104)

– In other words, if I’m reading Strawson/Kant right, our perceptual experiences, being rule-governed and connected, give us empirical knowledge of objects, that is, knowledge of objects of experience, which we can ‘count’ as perception of the objective world.