Kant: Finding a Way In

OK. This is rough, and I’ll be revising it. But I just prepared this for a friend, and I thought I would share it.

for Brooke

Reading Kant is notoriously difficult. One reason for this difficulty is that he didn’t have a word processor. LOL. He almost, at one point, lost his professorship because for a period of eleven years, he barely published anything. At the beginning of this period, he wrote to a friend that he was about to give birth to a “Critique of Pure Reason,” by which he meant an examination of thinking that is pure in the sense of not being dependent upon perception (sensation). But it wasn’t until eleven years later that his Critique of Pure Reason, or CPR, (Kritik der reinen Vernunft) appeared. During this whole time, Kant took daily walks that were so regular that the citizens of Königsberg (now Russian Kaliningrad), where he lived and taught, set their watches by him. And he thought. And thought. And thought. And many of these thoughts he committed to paper. Then, when it looked as though he might lose his professorship because of his lack of productivity, he gathered his notes and threw them together quickly and without sufficient editing into a vast work. Then, a few years later, he revised this, again using various notes thrown together with minimal editing. As a result, the text, in its A and B versions, is repetitive, and terms are often used sloppily and in different senses. Those who are used to 20th– and 21st-century clarity of exposition will be frustrated. His first of his three Critiques, by far his most influential and important work, has a grand, impressive overall architecture, but when you get into the sections, they are often a repetitive, confusing and, on occasion, confused, pastiche of stuff thrown under headings because they sort of fit there. Kant was a great genius, but we all need editors.

However, that’s not the biggest problem with reading Kant. The biggest problem is that he uses terms in German (and in their corresponding translations into English) in ways that we no longer do. We’ve already seen one example of this: pure, in Kant’s title, does not mean “unsullied” (the usual meaning we give to this word). It means “not having to do with sense perceptions.” (Use of pure in the combined sense of “uncorrupted/unsullied by sensual matters” is an example of the infection of our language and other European languages by the Christian church’s antipathy for Earthly experience, its Contemptus Mundi, and its unfortunate cleaving of the universe into a “higher” spiritual world and a “lower” physical one). So, in Kant, one encounters a LOT of terms that are baffling. What does he mean by “pure” reason? Well, he means “those aspects of our thinking that don’t derive from, have their origins in, sense perceptions.” Such terms pile up, undefined or poorly defined and used in special senses, and readers are left utterly confused. So, I wrote this brief essay as an aid to those beginning their study of Kant, as a means for heading off at the start those confusions about terminology.

Here are two more examples of Kant’s confusing terminology. After his Prefaces (for the A and B versions) and Introductions (again for the A and B versions), Kant begins the CPR proper with something he calls The Transcendental Aesthetic. When we use the term transcendental, we usually have in mind something that goes beyond our ordinary sensory experience. So, for example, the American Transcendentalists–people like Channing and Emerson–thought that we could sense, in nature, an underlying and unifying spirit, the Oversoul. However, in encountering Kant, we should reserve the term transcendent, instead, for THAT meaning–“having to do with underlying, ultimate realities”–for by transcendental, Kant means something completely different. Kant, in fact, calls his philosophical system “Transcendental philosophy.” So, what does he mean by that? Well, some philosophers before Kant (Locke and Hume, most famously) thought that we got ALL our knowledge of the world from sense perception. Kant disagreed. He believed that while we cannot know the world as it is in itself (the noumenon) but only as it is perceived by us (phenomena), we depend upon certain features of our own minds, in addition to sense perceptions, in order to make sense of anything. Kant uses the term transcendental deduction to refer to his method, which is the procedure of figuring out what must be the case with regard to how our minds are structured, about how they work, in order for us to make sense of things in the ways that we actually (and necessarily) do. Let’s make sure we understand how Kant’s transcendental deductions work:

  1. We consider functions of the mind–things that our minds can do.
  2. We distinguish in the contents of our thinking that which comes to us via our sense perceptions from that which doesn’t exist in external phenomena but that are brought to, i.e., imposed upon, the understanding of phenomena by the mind itself. (Kant came to this way of thinking on his encounter with Hume, who had notoriously claimed that we could not prove the existence of causation, of cause and effect, but only what we actually encounter, which is events preceding or following other events. It was this in Hume, Kant wrote, in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics that “awakened” him:

    “I freely admit that it was the remembrance of David Hume which, many years ago, first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a completely different direction.”

    Kant’s insight was that if causation doesn’t exist outside the mind, in phenomena, it must be imposed upon phenomena by the mind, for humans see causation everywhere, and this was Kant’s first “transcendental deduction.”)
  3. By this means, via transcendental deduction, Kant argues, we can figure out the structures imposed upon sensory experience by the mind. In short, we have asked, “How must the mind be structured to function if it imposes on sensory experiences the characteristics that it does?”

Side note: many years after Kant, the GREAT American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce introduced the term abduction to describe such “what must be the case if” thinking. Deduction is when we decide what must be the case given x. So, from the premises that Socrates is a man and All men are mortal, we can deduce—it must be the case—that Socrates is mortal. Induction is when we generalize based on specific instances. This swan is white, that swan is white; therefore, we generalize to the proposition that all swans are white (which turns out to be false; induction is the primary means by which we understand the world, but it is notoriously fallible in this way). An example of abductive reasoning would be this: Hmm. It’s wet outside. Therefore, it must have rained. The term abduction wasn’t available to Kant. It hadn’t been invented yet, so he calls his procedure a Transcendental Deduction. It’s actually an abduction. It’s figuring out WHAT MUST BE THE CASE with regard to our minds given that we are able to do this and that with them.

Now, when we use the term aesthetic, we mean “having to be with beauty.” However, that’s not how Kant uses it in the CPR. He means, instead, “having to do with our senses.” This older use of the term aesthetic survives in our term anesthetized, which means, “not capable of sense perception because of sedation.” So, to recap, a transcendental aesthetic is, for Kant, a study of what must be the case with regard to our minds for them to make sense of sense perceptions. And in the Transcendental Aesthetic section of CPR, Kant argues that time and space do not exist in things outside ourselves—in sense perceptions themselves—but are IMPOSED UPON the blooming variety of perceptions (the manifold) BY THE MIND. Imagine that you had red glasses placed on you at birth and never saw the world except through these. You would not see things “as they are,’ whatever that means. You would see red things. The world would seem red to you. Similarly, Kant argues, the mind imposes upon whatever is actually the case, which is unknowable, these aspects or features that are not to be found in the perceptions themselves but, rather, in how the mind is structured to make sense of things—in space and in time. Now, initially, this conclusion of Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic might sound a little crazy to you. Surely, space and time are absolute aspects of the world out there. But in the modern era, Einsteinian Relativity has shown us that time as we perceive it is an illusion. In fact, all times exist at all times. We only cognize time as passing, the past as gone, the future as not yet existing, and the present as the only reality because of how our minds are structured. At any moment, we happen to be limited to that moment in our perceptions, but just as Chicago doesn’t stop existing when we travel to Boston, so yesterday doesn’t stop existing when we travel to today. So, in light of what Einstein taught us, Kant’s notion, that space and time are IMPOSED UPON REALITY BY THE MIND, that these are matters of our own limited perspectives, doesn’t sound so crazy after all, does it? After Kant, anything but Perspectivism with regard to Metaphysics (the study of what is) became, clearly, obviously, impossible.

So, we have seen that one difficulty in reading Kant is that certain key terms that he uses, such as Pure, Transcendental, Aesthetic, and Deduction, mean different things now, to us, than they did as he used them. Another example is Kant’s use of the term judgment. To us, a judgment is an evaluation. We judge the quality of a particular bedsheet based on its thread count, its material, its softness, its durability, and so on. For Kant (and for many other philosophers), judgment is a much broader term. A judgment is any act of thinking, or reasoning, about objects. At one point in the CPR, Kant presents (extremely proudly) what he considers an exhaustive Table of Judgments, or types of reasoning, which he divides into four species, as follows:

Table of Judgments

 Quantity (e.g., number)
Universal (All x is A; Example: All grass is green.) Particular (Some x is A; Example: Some grass is green.) Singular (This a is A; Example: This grass is green.)
Quality (i.e., extension) Affirmative (For all x, it is the case that the x is A.) Negative (No x’s are A.) Infinite (For all x, it is not they case that x is A.) Relation (i.e., class membership) Categorical (x belongs to the category A.) Hypothetical (If x is A, then x is B.) Disjunctive (x is A or B.)
 Modality (i.e., possibility or necessity) Problematic (It is possible that an x is A.) Assertoric (It is the case that x is A.) Apodictic (x must be A.) 

According to Kant, the mind imposes, automatically, upon sense perceptions its structuring of perceptions in space and in time. It also automatically imposes upon its judgments about sense perceptions (see the table of types of judgments), concepts based on those judgments that are automatically performed by the mind in response to sense perceptions. By the way, Kant confusingly refers to sense perceptions as experienced by us as intuitions, whereas we use the term with a completely different meaning, to refer to hunches—to that which we think we know without being fully sure of the reasons why we suspect it to be the case. So, for us, an intuition might be, I don’t trust that guy; I think he might be a snake, whereas for Kant, an intuition is simply an experienced manifold of perception.

So, the mind automatically, according to Kant, imposes upon intuitions (experiences of sense perceptions) both structuring in space and time and what he calls Categories, or concepts derived from each of these types of judgments. Corresponding one-to-one to Kant’s Table of Judgments is a Table of Categories:

Table of Categories (concepts imposed by the mind on experiences)

 Quantity Unity
 Relation Inherence and Subsistence (Substance and Accident)
Causality and Dependence (Cause and Effect)
Community (Reciprocity or Coexistence/Simultaneity)
 Modality Possibility/impossibility Existence/nonexistence Necessity/Contingency 

The Categories are mind-born, mind-imposed concepts. It is important to note that in the normal course of events, the mind imposes these concepts on sensory experience automatically. But how does this happen? How does the mind impose the Categories on Intuitions (sense perceptions)? According to Kant, it does so by following built-in rules for how the mind works that he calls Schemata, and these schemata are all rules for making judgments, using the Categories, based on time. (It seems entirely possible that Kant meant to say that there are also rules based on space but didn’t work that out before publishing the CPR.) So, according to Kant, the mind comes up with the judgment that something is impossible by applying the Category, or concept, of impossibility using a time-based schema that at no time does this thing occur. It comes up with the judgment that something is possible by applying the Category, or concept, of possibility using a time-based schema that at some time, this thing could occur. It comes up with the judgment that one thing causes another by noting that the one follows the other, necessarily, in time, and there is no time in which one occurs without the other following it. It applies the Category of Substance to that aspect of a thing that persists despite accidental changes that occur to a thing over time. It applies the Category of Community to things that occur together at one or more times. And so on for all of the Categories. The mind automatically applies time-based rules (schemata) using the concepts that Kant refers to as Categories in order to form automatic judgments that are our means for “making sense,” for thinking about experience.

Whew. So there you have it. Your basic intro to Kant. Here’s why his thought so blows my mind: He anticipated by more than a couple hundred years the cognitive revolution in psychology, which is based on the idea that the mind is not a passive receptacle but, rather, imposes structures on experience. So, for example, we now know that much of the grammar of languages is built-in—is hard-wired into human brains—and those brains interpret speech sounds BASED UPON those internal, mental structures and the processing that brains do. Not having a computer ready to hand, Kant didn’t have available to him to concept of processing as an explanation for the structures that the mind imposes. But that the mind imposes structures he grokked.

Now, here’s a nifty takeaway from all this: Kant says we cannot know reality as it is in itself (the noumenon). We can’t know TRANSCENDENT STUFF with certainty, though we can know TRANSCENDENTAL STUFF by figuring out what must be the case about the mind if we do x and y. So, here’s an application: We look upon the world, and everything seems to be caused, to be determined. But we cannot live, cannot function, without the concept of our own freedom, and we necessarily act as though we were free agents. I decide to write this essay. You decide whether to read it or not. We hold people accountable when they attempt to overthrow an election, sometimes, because we think them responsible, for they did so of their own free will. How are we to reconcile the two–our observations of determinative causation in the world and our necessary de facto belief in our own free will, which we cannot live without? Well, here’s how, from a Kantian perspective. What we perceive is ruled by the mind-imposed Category of causation. But as with the fact that all times exist at all times despite the fact that we perceive it as flowing, it must be the case that free will is the underlying reality and that the determined nature of everything is illusory. So, even though we cannot, Kant tells us, KNOW about transcendent matters, we can speculate about them, and those speculations can be more or less warranted, as is the speculation that somehow, in some way that we do not understand because we are still too ignorant or will never understand because of our lack of access to ultimate reality, we are free. I mean really free. Not free to think like Ron DeSantis, which is the kind of freedom that is prized in Flor-uh-duh these days.


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Time. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Kant: Finding a Way In

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    Very nice! I’ll add just a gloss and a link-o-rama relating to abduction, which had been noted before Peirce by Aristotle under the name apagoge

    Survey of Abduction, Deduction, Induction, Analogy, Inquiry

    Liked by 1 person

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