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.

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Kant and Non-Materialistic Naturalism

Kant is, interestingly enough, concerned to uphold naturalism without materialism. While this seems odd at first blush, his reasons for doing so are fairly interesting and constitute a universally acknowledged important (though to what degree it’s successful is somewhat more in doubt) project. Let’s bracket to the side the fact that Kant has only a small number of not-so-good arguments for his position as well as some serious questions of coherence and see just what happens when we dig through his thought.

In more contemporary terms, metaphysical naturalism generally cashes out to a kind of materialism or physicalism – the only things that there are are material things (or, if we want to Quine things up, whatever we’re committed to by our best theories). It is, at its broadest, non-supernaturalism. The physical, causal order is all there is, in one way or another.

Kant was a naturalist in a slightly different sense: he took everything to be governed by mechanical laws but wanted to resist and undermine the assumption of materialism, which is more or less one of the driving reasons behind his transcendental idealism, which may be best understood as contrasting with its opposite, transcendental realism.

As I see Kant, he means two things by ‘transcendental realism’ (TR). (1) The epistemological thesis that we are fully aware of of the limitations of our own mind and can thus know the things in themselves, and (2) the metaphysical thesis that things exist in time and space apart from human cognition.This is a problem because the mathematical and mechanical laws of nature, on this scheme, govern literally every thing, including the things in themselves – and from this, Kant takes it, follows materialism.

Kant’s idealism needs little introduction, but setting it against TR, we can see that the basic gist is that (1) we aren’t fully aware of the limitations of our mind and can’t know the things in themselves and (2) the objects of our experience, things in time and space, exist as a result of our cognition and conceptual activity.

What this doctrine secures is this: a naturalism without materialism. How? By restricting the mathematical and mechanical laws of nature to the objects of our experience, Kant has protected the things in themselves from being naturalized or material-ized.

Put another way: if we can experience or know the things in themselves, then the universal laws of nature apply to them, because they apply to everything. By restricting our knowledge and experience from the things in themselves, Kant has both secured his naturalism (because the laws of nature apply to everything we experience) and attacked materialism (by showing that the universal laws of nature do not apply to everything).

If Kant is right then, naturalism is correct in the sense that universal laws govern everything we experience – but by restricting this to the appearances, he can both avoid and attack materialism, since the laws apply only to our experience and not to the things in themselves. Thus, while everything we expereince is ‘natural’, not everything is in nature.

Rational Reality and Inherent Intelligbility

One of the great contributions Kant made to philosophy was the place he afforded the human mind: no longer was the knowing agent seen as the merely passive recipient of sense-data from which he inferred and deduced – the knowing agent was, from Kant onwards, the creator of the world of his experience. With Kant, we see the idea that through the concepts, the mind structures the phenomenal world. We, as it were, make the world out of the raw data of experience (this is taking the basic two-worlds interpretation of Kant – there is some dispute over whether this is how he actually saw his philosophy). We can never know the thing in itself because we have no experience of the thing in itself. Our experience is with the phenomenal world of appearances.

Hegel took this further. For Hegel, the mind doesn’t simply structure the the raw data of experience – thought constitutes nature itself. Roughly, Hegel holds that there the concepts of Kant don’t merely exist in the mind but have mind-independent existence. Reality is knowable in every way because reality is itself Thought. So, for example, a knowable thing, more or less, equals all the thoughts we can have about it. The real, for Hegel, is the rational, and vice versa – for something to be is for it to be known, and this is the identity of knowing and being. The common element with Hegel and Kant is that both more or less proceed from the individual, the ‘I’, to the world.

T.F. Torrance, in ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’ (primarily pages 108-116), takes a decidedly different route. He takes reality to be not rational but intelligible inherently – and he locates our ability to know it not in the active power of the individual mind but in our shared communication and experience of reality.

Torrance proceeds along this line: reality has intelligibility built in, as it were, into it, and we can know it because of the structures, reasons and necessities of things – these structures and reasons signify what they are, and as we allow our minds to fall under the power of these structures, we think in accordance with their natures. This, for Torrance, is truly scientific thinking – thinking after the nature or in accordance with the nature of a thing, and allowing our concepts and thoughts about it to be shaped by it as it discloses itself to us in our critical questioning.

Torrance takes a interesting line with just how we come to know the being of things, as he puts it – this is primarily through language (he quotes Heidegger’s famous saying about language being the house of being). Our experience of reality, of the intelligible structures of things, is the starting point for Torrance’s epistemology – from there, it is our sharing and our communication of that experience which he terms ‘objective’. He arrives at this because he thinks of this communication as part of our interpersonal and social existence – this is something Wittgenstein would have approved of. Our communication, our use of signs to communicate our experience of reality, is anchored in a ‘web of meaning’ – our use of signs, which is our use of language, is how being shows itself to us and thus how our web of meaning touches on reality.

This is ‘objective’ because, for Torrance, our very inter-personal relations within which our communication and sharing take place have an open-ended and transcendent structure built in to them – our shared experience points to something which is common to all people and so objective. Indeed, our personhood, for Torrance, has this open-endedness to it, because as he thinks of it, a person is only a person through relation to other persons – transcendence and objectivity is then built in to persons by virtue of the essential relational and communicative aspect of personhood.

Torrance’s approach can be roughly summarized as follows: against more modern conceptions of reality and personhood which arrive at reality through the I’, Torrance grounds the inherent intelligibility and objectivity of reality in our experience and in our social/communicative existences as relational beings. Our social existence thus serves itself as a sign which points to a transcendent and objective reality which is not of our making.

The Aesthetics of Kant and Hegel

If I had to sum up the differences between the aesthetics of Kant and Hegel, I’d put it this way: Kant is concerned with a metaphysical aesthetic in the abstract, while Hegel is concerned with art in the concrete. It’s rather difficult to trace their aesthetic ideas without conducting a full-blown study of their metaphysical systems, but I’m going to attempt to do just that – and I’m going to assume a working knowledge of both of their systems so as not to be to long-winded.

Hegel sees art and the beauty of art as another way that the Idea manifests itself in the world (keeping in mind that nature as such for Hegel is an external manifestation of the Idea). Broadly, Hegelian aesthetics emphasize aspects of art that are common coin in continental philosophy: the historicicism of art, that is, the context, history and meaning of art as an expression of the ideas of a culture or historical period. This is a significant difference from Kantian aesthetics, which are concerned with a much more universal aesthetic. Art is also seen by Hegel as being the reflection of the mind on truth.

Hegel takes a fairly typical idealist line with regard to the individual arts (Kant takes roughly the same line): the more ‘material’ an art is, the further away from the Ideal it is, and vice versa. So with that and mind, we can map out how Hegel thinks of individual arts roughly thus:

IDEAL

Poetry – No external embodiments – moves directly into the realm of ideas

Music – no spatial form – music can ‘reinterpret’ or ‘recollect’ different themes on each hearing

Painting – concerned with appearance as such and minimal material-ity

Sculpture – determined by content and concerned with showing bodily form (bodily form is a manifestation of the Spirit)

Architecture – an attempt to master a medium

MATERIAL

A common theme in Hegelian metaphysics finds its way into his aesthetics, and that is the rising to self-consciousness of the mind, seen in his explanation of epic, lyric and dramatic poetry, the last of which being where the characters themselves become poets through their speeches and soliloquies (think here of Shakespearean drama) and rise to self-consciousness.

Kant takes a decidedly different route and develops an aesthetic characterized primarily by his idea of disinterestedness, or the contemplation of art and the beautiful for its own sake. It’s fair to say that this has been the dominant trajectory of aesthetics since Kant.

Disinterestedness is when we contemplate the beautiful in its perceptual form (Kant doesn’t see colour, smell and other sensations as being aesthetic because of their sensuous nature) in a non-practical, non-practical way. It is an end in itself, not something we use to attain an end. No concept attaches to matters of aesthetic judgements, which can be classified into to groups: judgements of pure taste, which is a judgement of beauty, and judgements of the agreeable, which is a judgement for oneself.

Kant holds that the beautiful is universally valid – for something to be beautiful is for something to be beautiful for all people. For me to say that ‘X is beautiful’ is then to, in a way, demand that other people see it as beautiful. It is to make a judgement for all people. This is the ‘aesthetic ought’, but differs from the more well-known ‘practical ought’ in that, since it is a matter of aesthetics, no concept attaches to it, and hence there is no way to resolve any kind of aesthetic disagreement which inevitably arises when someone makes a judgement of pure taste.

If there is no way to settle aesthetic disagreements, and one can’t simply be forced into agreement regarding a judgement of pure taste, then it seems that the idea of a universally valid idea of beauty is pretty empty. Kant makes a trademark move, however, and argues that the possibility of universal validity is a transcendental condition for beauty – it’s what must be possible for there to be beauty.

Kant called the principle that determines what is pleasing about perceptual form subjective finality, and it occurs when a form is pleasing for its own sake. When this happens, the imagination, which provides raw data for the understanding to synthesize with its categories, is united in a free interaction.

A few differences between Kant and Hegel:

– Kant’s aesthetic is purely subjective, and is concerned with the aesthetic as such in the abstract, as well as universal notions of art and aesthetics (as is typical for Kant).

– Hegel is concerned with particular expressions of art in all their historical/contextual concretness, because for Hegel art becomes actual in the particular. Hegel is thus much less concerned with an abstract metaphysic of beauty, because he sees the particular and concrete beauty of art as a manifestation of the Idea. A rough map:

Individual———-> self-consciousness———-> Idea

– Both, however, see the most ideal in the least material

– Hegel sees the rise to self-consciousness as an end, of sorts, for art

– Kant sees that the aesthetic has no end and is an end in itself – if it has an end, it’s not purely aesthetic. His aesthetic is much more ‘static’ and much more metaphysical.

– Hegel’s aesthetic possesses an historical dynamic, since he sees art as one more step to the Idea realizing itself in history.

A question for further reflection: would Kant or Hegel see photography as art? A tentative step towards and answer could be that Hegel might be see it as art, despite the materiality of its medium, since a photograph can really show the historical context for when it was taken. Kant may be in a better position to say if photography is aesthetic because of his fundamental subjectivism.

Stanley Jaki on Kant and the Ontological Argument

‘Kant’s criticism of it [the ontological argument] shows him both a poorly informed and a poorly reasoning philosopher. If not from Scotus ( a paradigm of obscurantism in Kant’s time), at least from Leibniz he might easily have learned that the weakness of the ontological argument , in which he saw the basis of the cosmological, is not in its major premise – if God (perfect being) is possible, he exists – but in its minor – but God is possible. The latter can be securely asserted only if the existence of God has already been established a posteriori. Kant’s two objections to the ontological argument show him a poor reasoner. They are based on his failure to perceive the conceptual difference between infinite and finite being. Concerning the latter, be it Kant’s hundred thalers or the perfect island of Gaunilo (Anslem’s first critic), the existence of a thing is wholly extrinsic to the concept of it, but not in the case of an infinite, that is, infinitely perfect being.

The poor reasoner in Kant is once more revealed by his objection to the cosmological argument on the ground that it rests on the ontological. He overlooked the fact that the existence of a necessary being has been proved from the existence of things not necessary by the time the argument turns to the infinite perfection of that necessary being.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 121)

Thought Notes 9/22/2014

A significant but overlooked contributor to the topic of justification in Paul is Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose roughly forty page discussion in his book ‘Justice in Love’ is just outstanding, focusing on the traditional medieval definition of the ‘dik’ words as ‘justice’. He fleshes out the content of Gods covenant and the justice thereof to a degree not really seen in a lot of discussions on the subject. Locating the topic of justice within the broader picture of God’s covenant faithfulness is a good way to advance the debate on Paul’s thought. Here’s a great review/interaction of/with the book. To quote from the review:

‘Whereas, for Wright, what is revealed in God’s justification of the Gentiles is his “covenant faithfulness,” for Wolterstorff it is God’s “justice”: not the “mere fact” of covenant fidelity but its substantive content.’

I continue to think on the nature of civil government, war, etc within the context of Christian theology. Wolterstorff makes a great point (somewhere, not exactly sure where off the top of my head) that government is essentially a rights-respecting entity (Wolterstorff thinks of rights as inherent). This allows for the state to ‘wield the sword’, to paraphrase the book of Romans, in the service of rights-defense.

I go back and forth on how important I think secondary sources are in philosophy/theology. I like sticking to primary sources myself. I haven’t read lots of commentaries on various philosophers and their thought – and all too often it seems that reading a secondary source is required to really understand said philosopher.

Here’s a comment I wrote regarding the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. It’s kind of a quick overview.

‘Kant was a transcendental idealist. His entire project was to overcome what he saw as the weaknesses of the dominant positions in epistemology, empiricism, where all knowledge comes thru the senses, and rationalism, where all knowledge is a priori. He also developed the analytic/synthetic distinction in a posteriori/a priori knowledge, which has been further developed by Saul Kripke into the necessary a posteriori and contingent a piori, and rejected by W.V.O. Quine. Kant’s project here was to figure out what the mind must be like for us to have any experience at all – which lead to his famous idealism, where he posits causality, space and time as constructions of the mind as well as his phenomenal/noumenal distinction.

His ethic is called the categorical imperative, which can be summed up in his famous maxim about acting in such a way that can be universalized as a moral law for all people. His ethics stem from his attempt to figure out how to make sense of our moral experience – its not too far removed from his method in epistemology. We have this inescapable sense of right and wrong, of duty, the sense of ‘ought’. Thru a long process I won’t go into here, Kant postulates
both freedom and God as necessary conditions for this experience of our moral life.

The categorical imperative derives from his grounding morality in reason alone – ethical reasoning for Kant cannot be derived from empirical data. Once you do this, that is once you discount the empirical, your moral reasoning is grounded in pure reason alone and hence is universal and hence binding on everyone else. Hence why Kant was able to assert that lying, for example, is always wrong.’

A lot of discourse in the area of ethics and moral philosophy (at least since Moore, Russell, et al) seems to try and use the tools of analytic philosophy to derive ethical truths (using ‘truths’ loosely). I’m not really sure how sympathetic I am to this approach. It appears rather unwise to use analytic tools to solve existential problems, and ethics is nothing if not existential.

Interesting Criticism of Kant

Take from here:

‘In response to Kant’s view that we impose form and order and intelligibility on the content of our sense experience by drawing on the a priori forms of intelligibility that are innate in all human minds: ‘

“[H]e has no explanation at all, and can in principle have none, of the miraculous fit between the structures we have imposed on the world, apparently independently of anything in the world, and the way the world responds to our practical action on it based on the predictions thought up by our minds – successfully coping with the challenges of nature, technology, etc. Nor can he explain – in fact he never tries – how we can know other human beings as just as real as ourselves and successfully exchange information with them in interpersonal dialogue. For if it is really I that am structuring your being and the messages you seem to be sending in to me through my senses, then it follows that you are also structuring me and my messages – which cancels out into incoherence: both can’t be true at once. No, we are open to truth-grounding communication about themselves from the real active beings that surround us, across the bridge of their self-expressive, self-revealing action. That is what it means to have a mind open to being.”

[W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), pg. 12-13]’