Why Kant is wrong…

[The following is something I’ve been tinkering with for a little while as I continue to delve into critical realism. It’s rough, I know, so I am just looking for constructive criticisms/suggestions or questions for developing it.]

Four reasons I think Kant is wrong about categories and noumena.

1. Humans spontaneously and naturally develop their cognitive apparatus by means of a dynamic, receptive, tentative interaction with the world, not simply by “making sense of” experience in a fluid, automatic, top-down way. This exploration into reality is fraught with confusion, errors, bumps, backtracking, and the help of other explorers.

A. If it is argued that this exploratory phase is just the person learning the topology of his own inner categorical structure (like a new pilot learning the control panel inside an the cockpit), this only begs the question: Is the categorical structure of human nature itself imposed by the human? Is human perception formally self-constitutive?

i. If it is, then there is really no natural topology to discover “within”.

ii. If it is not, then the topology of subjective cognition can only depend on something outside or apart from the self, namely, the topology of the actual world.

a. Cf. Hugo Meynell, The Intelligible Universe.


2. Our experience of the world, especially in the physics of the 20th century, has forced us to transcend, and in many cases even “violate”, our intuitive grasp of reality along the lines of Kantian categories. The counter-intuitiveness of the ways of the world indicates that we impose just as much order on them as they do upon us.

A. This is especially evident in the defeat of Kant’s beliefs that, because man has five senses, there are only five proper forms of exact science, and that Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics, because they were categorically “lucid”, were inviolable, even necessary, descriptions of the universe.

i. Cf. Stanley Jaki on Kant in numerous places.

3. The concept of a pure subjective awareness—the synthetic unity of apperception—is refuted by the radically social character of human thought, speech, and action. Only by being in an I-Thou world can we gain true subjectivity; and only by building from the dyadic encounter of I-Thou can we, in turn, attain the triadic utility of language. There is no pure, floating ego-consciousness that gazes upon the problematic spaces of the world (which includes Others) and instills order in it from above.

A. Cf. Walker Percy on the Delta Factor, L. Vygotsky, D. Melser, et al.

i. “Is the phenomenologist’s stronghold of the absolute priority of the individual consciousness so invulnerable after all? … If my every act of consciousness…is a through-and-through social participation, then it is a contradiction in terms to speak of an aboriginal ego-consciousness. There may be such a thing as an isolated ego-consciousness, but far from being the apodictic take-off point of a presuppositionless science, it would seem to correspond to Buber’s term of deterioration, the decay of the I-Thou relation into the objectivization of the I-It. It would appear that the transcendental phenomenologist is seizing upon a social emergent, consciousness, abstracting it from its social matrix, and erecting a philosophy upon this pseudo-private derivative. But the organism does not so begin. The I think is only made possible by a prior mutuality: we name. … The decisive stroke against the myth of the autonomous Kantian subject is the intersubjective constitution of consciousness. … The whole objectivizing act of the mind is to render all things darstellbar, not “proper” but presentable, that is, formulable. … The one thing in the world which by its very nature is not susceptible to a stable symbolic transformation is myself!”

(Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975, p. 275, 283])

4. A point closely connected with 3. is that positing the transcendental ego qua an anthropocentric frame of reference as the fundamental frame of reference for all known reality, seems fundamentally incompatible with the aim of exact science to find invariances across all frames of reference, including those non-anthropocentric and anthropically imperceptible frames of reference.

A. “[W]hen modern theology ties itself to a fixed point in man’s self-understanding so that man uses in his thought of God a system of reference which he determines or merely postulates for himself, this can only appear unintelligible and indeed quite arbitrary to modern science which must operate with constants irrespective of the observer or the choice of any particular frame of reference.”

(T. F. Torrance, Space, Time & Incarnation (Oxford, 1969, p. 47)

13 Responses

  1. Dude, you’re preachin’ to the choir!

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.😉

  2. My mom was in my old church’s choir my entire life, so the idea of the pastor preaching to her, and to the choir, has always held a special place in my heart.😉

  3. Some quick thoughts –
    1) So why not put Kant on wheels? (As Peter Lipton described the views of Thomas Kuhn). Our preconceptions/categories etc. become less static; they adapt to knew challenges, observations and problems. How does that bring us any closer to realism? (The refernce is from an awful paper -http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/dept/lipton_science_and_religion.pdf)
    2) Are you saying in point three that human experience cannot exist outside a social context? That an experience of “pure subjective awareness” is impossible?
    3) Is it uncontroversial that Scientists are seeking “invariances across all frames of reference?” They may be seeking something more practical and achievable.

    Graham Veale

  4. Side (but related, I think, question): Is our cognition of color a subjective conditioning of the world, or does color actually inhere in objects such that the person with normal eye/brain faculties merely receives and comprehends what is already colored?

  5. Byronicman (isn’t it byronic, don’t you think?):

    Consider an analogous question: Is our cognition of discrete shapes and measured masses/ volumes/ weights a subjective conditioning of the world, or does shape and mass actually inhere in objects we perceive?

    What makes the former (color) a so-called “secondary” property, but the latter (mass and shape) “primary”?

  6. Graham:

    1) So why not put Kant on wheels? … Our preconceptions/categories etc. become less static; they adapt to knew challenges, observations and problems. How does that bring us any closer to realism?

    It is not my concern to bring any one to realism, since we are, by nature, realists. As soon as you conceded the world actually has, and thus can exert, an objective “leverage” on our perceptual categories, you have left Kant behind. What you are talking about is critical realism, and I agree, at present, with E. Gilson that that kind of realism is self-destructive, albeit it not self-contradictory. You can’t begin a critique of the world you “immediately” grant, and then ground the immediacy of that world based on something epistemologically “prior”, such as categories.

    2) Are you saying in point three that human experience cannot exist outside a social context? That an experience of “pure subjective awareness” is impossible?

    Yes, I am saying that an “I”, as a monadic purity, is a fiction. I even think the I-Thou dynamic is incomplete without, or at least opens into, a We-matrix. Nifty… it’s kind of trinitarian!

    3) Is it uncontroversial that Scientists are seeking “invariances across all frames of reference?” They may be seeking something more practical and achievable.

    Scientists worth their salt are looking for natural truth. Not all scientists, however, are worth their salt. There is the hallowed tradition of scientia physica …and then there is Big Science. I can’t force too much a dichotomy, however, since technology and science are like conjoined twins. I’ll grant you that.

    But that has little bearing on the impact of “Invariance” vis-à-vis Kantianism. The categories may be helpful “tools” we use for practical ends––which is just what Kant made them and all objects of the antinomies (God, universe, soul) out to be, nice things to pretend are real––but admitting that fact in no way allows the Kantian to assert they are categorically (i.e., invariantly) true in the real world. If that makes it a seemingly fit basis for practical science, so much the worse for science; that would just show science has yet no coherent basis for its claim to truth. In point of fact, however, the historical impact of Kantianism on science has been doleful.

  7. Elliot,

    It seems that we can measure things like mass and shape in an objective way, in physical or mathematical terms, with such tools as are at our disposal, whereas color itself cannot be so measured and quantified. Mass and shape inhere in physical objects and are not caused by the perceiving subject, since for one thing, I have no sense for mass in more than a very fuzzy way, but even my perception of mass is not at all what ‘mass’ actually is. As for shape, I certainly can perceive shapes according to learned examples, but no one thinks that this ability is tied to any shape-specific operation of the eye/brain. There aren’t “shape-blind” people like there are colorblind people. A 3 or 4 year-old who is a bit shaky on his shape recognition might make an error and call a rectangle a square, but this situation can be easily remedied with a little practice. If you have the physical impairment of color-blindness, you’re just color-blind. There’s no way to overcome that deficiency through practice. You’re eye/brain doesn’t function properly, so you can’t cause the color in your your mental representation of a visual percept.

    In a conversation on this question in another place, I argued that when we say some X is green, we should mean that X has some property by which it appears green to a human with normal eye/brain functioning. So you get, on the one hand, some real, objective property in X (thus satisfying the intuition that there is objective reality related to our perceptions of color), but at the same time you allow the perceiver to contribute the interpretation necessary to make X really nameable as green. It seems to me that the subject is a necessary part of the causal chain of X actually being green, and that it’s just not possible to name an object as green without reference to the subjective condition.

    Anyway, this is the way it seems to me, but it’s nice to get another opinion.

  8. Byronic:

    I agree that proper functioning of senses is a necessary condition for some X being called ‘x’. That’s the line of thought I was trying to draw out with my analogous question. But all proper functioning gives us is access to the physical attributes already inherent in the object.

    By physical properties we just mean attributes of an object that any normal perceiver would perceiver under the right conditions. We can measure mass because we place an object in the right conditions relative to our sensory abilities. All attributes can be disqualified as primary if the conditions of our measuring/ perceiving them change enough.

    The reason color seems like a much more superficial attribute, is because conditions for perceiving can change so much more easily (shifting shadows cover the object, sunset fades, different colored bulbs are nearby, etc.). But the reason a green box is actually green is based on its physical structure, and thus is as primary as the physical structure of the box in terms of mass, shape, etc. If the lights were kept steady and untinted, any normal observer would see the object as green.

    Unless you are prepared to deny that the physical basis of color does not inhere in, or even exist in, an object except when we perceive it, you can only say color does in fact inhere in a physical object. The reason you call shape ‘objective’ is because it is an attribute OF THE OBJECT. I fail to see how any less OBJECTivity can be granted to color as a physical phenomenon.

    Cases of agnosia and blindsight indicate there are cognitive handicaps for object recognition and shape assessment. All this shows is that the person’s brain is not working right given the conditions of perception. If the conditions of perception could somehow be jerry-rigged to accommodate his brain disorder, he would be seeing the object fine.

    I would say that general relativity compromises the objectivity of mass and shape just as much as optical illusions complicate sound and color. At higher speeds, objects actually do change their shape and relative masses for people in a different frame of reference. Hence the only ‘problem’ with their perception of the object, is that they are not in the right conditions for measuring it the way it was measured objectively.

  9. Elliotbee,
    I share your criticisms of critical realism – at least the version endorsed by NT Wright, which seems to assume that critical = realist. He ends up with a form of anti-realism, but this seems to have escaped him (I’m interested in how Philosophy of Science might relate to the Quest for the Historical Jesus).
    I also found your reply to Byronic helpful. I’m assuming you believe that there is an absolute frame of reference?

    GV

  10. “By physical properties we just mean attributes of an object that any normal perceiver would perceiver under the right conditions. We can measure mass because we place an object in the right conditions relative to our sensory abilities. All attributes can be disqualified as primary if the conditions of our measuring/ perceiving them change enough.”

    Ah, I see. Well it’s clear to me that my understanding of what is a primary attribute is a lot more conservative than yours, since I would have said that an attribute is primary regardless of the conditions of our subjective perception. But I’m anxious to get on the same page as the rest of the philosophical world on this point, at least in matters of definition.

    “Unless you are prepared to deny that the physical basis of color does not inhere in, or even exist in, an object except when we perceive it, you can only say color does in fact inhere in a physical object.”

    Ok, because I’m not at all prepared to deny that, and I’m not interested in denying it, but affirming it. I think my main difficulty here was in holding a false notion of what is a “secondary attribute,” if you are correct, and I’ve no reason to think that you aren’t.

    “The reason color seems like a much more superficial attribute, is because conditions for perceiving can change so much more easily (shifting shadows cover the object, sunset fades, different colored bulbs are nearby, etc.). But the reason a green box is actually green is based on its physical structure, and thus is as primary as the physical structure of the box in terms of mass, shape, etc. If the lights were kept steady and untinted, any normal observer would see the object as green.”

    Again, I see and understand. So even supposing that there were some shift in the visual perception mechanism of humans, say by some sort of evolutionary change or what have you, and suddenly ‘green’ became, well, something else to us, there would still be no need to deny the objectivity or primary-ness of color. There is, after all, the fact of the matter. The object itself hasn’t changed, I have changed.

  11. Byronic:

    Do you place a) hardness and b) shape in the same category of primary-ness? How about c) mass and d) weight?

  12. Elliot,

    Well, taking mass and weight first, it would seem that mass is primary whereas weight is secondary, since mass just tells us how much matter is in an object, regardless of gravity, whereas weight will change depending on the gravity of the environment. As far as shape and hardness, this seems slightly more challenging. Yet clearly my tendency is to say that shape is primary and hardness secondary, since hardness is a pure sensation, isn’t it, whereas shape can be defined in terms of math, with no regard to sensation. Yet, as we have noted, there is no sense saying that hardness or weight is has nothing to do with the “being of the object.”

  13. Kant agrees with 1 as he notes that the categories are an achievement, not some hard wired piece of our brains. Kant is more influenced by Hume here than people I think realize.

    2. Would only indicate that Kant was wrong materially, but would leave the substance of his view intact.

    3. Kant’s refutation of Descartes I think is in line with 3 here.

    4. Given Kant’s causal theory, there is no access to the world since no sign or experience is at the end of the day undetermined. There is no non-framed perspective accessible to us.

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