Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kant's metaphysics: the end of the road?

To: Jurgen L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant's metaphysics: the end of the road?
Date: 14 March 2003 12:24

Dear Jurgen,

Thank you for your e-mail, with the second, shorter version of your essay for the Associate Award on Kant, 'Kant's Metaphysics: End of the Road or Unfulfilled Future?' - Will you be doing the same with your Fichte essay?

I found myself quarrelling with this essay. With a philosopher as difficult as Kant, I suppose that this is almost inevitable. Long ago, at Oxford, I had a term's supervision from P.F. Strawson (which was later judged insufficient to bar him from later being one of my examiners for my doctoral viva) where we met every other week to disagree about Kant. Strawson had the habit (extremely frustrating to an ambitious graduate student) of laying down the law: 'No, you're wrong about this. Go away and think about it some more.'

Well, I'm not going to do that!

But.. First, Are Kant's results 'obviously' the opposite to what he strove to achieve? Some would read Kant (taking him at his word) as seeking to lay down the limits of reason to 'make room for faith'. The noumenal world (which critics like Strawson would wish to dispense with altogether) is recognized as the ultimate reality, indeed a precondition of their being anything at all (as Schopenhauer later held). That is a metaphysical 'result' of the first order.

Or, if you prefer the Tractarian connection to the Schopenhaurian, there is the bold claim 'In this enquiry... I venture to assert...'. All metaphysical problems are solved. It may not be in the way we hoped (proof of god etc.) but still a result of the first magnitude - were it to be achieved.

Either way, then, the reader would view this prologue as tendentious. Having said that, you have a point - the major theme of this essay - and this is the place to introduce it.

A minor issue. You quote Adorno describing Kant's project to 'round objectivity in the subject as an objective reality'. To me, that reeks to much of the Cartesian cogito. The question is how reality must be *if* knowledge is possible, not how reality must be given that I exist as an objective reality. Adorno's reading appears inescapably 'idealistic', in a bad sense (cf. the Paralogisms).

Less picky. In the section, in response to the question of how we determine compulsory features of perception', you say, 'Perceptions must reflect reality; and this cannot be a simple one-to-one relation. The mind is a faculty, whereas percepts are objects of sentition with, to some extent, inscrutable features. Accordingly the impress of data must necessarily undergo transformation, to become representations in the mind.' But this doesn't yet give us what we need. For the possibility that has to be ruled out is the subjective idealist notion of the mind as a faculty of recognition which applies concepts to intuitions spread out in time. Hence, the Refutation of Idealism. Without the dimension of space, the crucial condition for such a faculty is missing. That is very far from obvious (and has generated libraries of textual exegesis). But without that transcendental move, nothing happens. The aeroplane does not get off the ground.

If you are going into this much detail, you can't 'exempt myself from going through the details' (next para). It all happens here, and the reader wants to know how!

You talk of 'bandwidths of our sensory modalities'. I am not aware of Kant even raising the issue of different sensory modalities, in the sense of sight, hearing, touch, smell, although this becomes an issue (I seem to recall) in Hegel. Kant does speculate that there might be beings somewhere in the universe with different 'forms of intuition' to our own, but here he is collapsing all human modes of perception on the subject-object model of vision, and saying that there could be something completely different to 'all that'. Once again, the 'object-enabling' structure of experience is spatio-temporal. But why is space the pivot point?

(Turning the page, the quote that includes 'To scale this last elevation' does not have a citation.)

(Section V, first paragraph should be 'they facilitate the collection...')

Now the main issue. I was struck by your assertion, 'Imagination may strike Kant's readers as a highly precarious membrane to hold up such weighty freight as metaphysical judgements.' It occurred to me that there is a remarkable similarity with what Wittgenstein says in the Tractatus about 'pictures'. It looks as though Kant is saying that human imagination, the capacity to construct spatial pictures, is tied a priori to the necessity that experience should have spatio-temporal form. When I judge that I see a red car opposite, all kinds of conditional statements are implied about what I would perceive if the car were to change its location, how I would track it through space and time, and so on.

Newtonian mechanics involves a seamless correspondence between the possibilities of objects in space with the possibilities of representations of objects in spatial imagination. It is almost too good to be true. Of course, there is more to say: for example, why impenetrability is important, why Newtonian physics is true and Cartesian physics false. But just like Descartes, Kant believed that the basic propositions of physics can be proved a priori.

So, for Wittgenstein, we are only dealing with an analogy (the general form of a proposition is *logical* form). Whereas for Kant it is much more than a mere analogy.

This suggests to me that the revolution in physics which started in the nineteenth century, when the mechanical world view began to break down does put a crushing end to Kant's project. That is not to say that there might not be a similar project based on more sophisticated transcendental arguments. But that would not be Kant.

(Pause for light relief: When I turned the page and saw your list, 'Continuum hypothesis, Feigenbaum number...' I immediately thought of the scene early on in 'The Graduate': 'I have just one word to say to you...PLASTICS!!' I fear that the reaction from many readers will be the same as Dustin Hoffman's in the movie.)

If only we could have a Kant of quantum mechanics and string theory, and all the rest. The generally held view (amongst physicists) is that, once we leave Newtonian mechanics behind the human imagination is left gasping. So one gets by saying things like, 'Particle X does this, this and this...and forget about trying to picture how it does these seemingly impossible things.' What resources has metaphysics to offer? That's a good question.

All the best,

Geoffrey