Jmb lectures on Kant’s Critique of Judgment

Download 153.62 Kb.
Date conversion28.08.2017
Size153.62 Kb.

JMB Lectures on Kant’s Critique of Judgment 09.05.07


[class begins with logistical details and notes on translation]


The title of the Third Critique in German is Kritik der Urteilskraft which is to say that it is a critique of “judgment-power”. Urteil is the work for “judgment” and Kraft is the work for “power” or “force”.
And if you are Hölderlin-ian—Hölderlin just goes crazy with the word Urteil—you would break down “Urteil” into Ur
meaning “original” and Teil meaning “separation”. That very idea is the foundation of Hölderlin’s thought and that is the last we will say about Hölderlin.


So we will refer to the text as the Critique of Judgment (CJ) but technically the title is the “Critique of Judgment-Power”.


[a few remarks on the commentaries]
This class will focus on “Part I” of the CJ, the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment” [rather than on “Part II” “Critique of Teleological Judgment,” see Outline below]
The writing of the CJ unlike the Critique of Pure Reason (CPR) is not really mysterious. Rather what is mysterious here is what Kant is saying. Therefore it is really helpful to engage with two or three different critical commentaries to get some sense of the debates.

[more remarks on commentaries]


[More clerical comments.]
In order to make sense of the CJ it really is necessary to have thought through Kant’s other critical ideas, in particular the first and second critiques—the Critique of Pure Reason (CPR) and the Critique of Practical Reason (CpR).
[remarks on catching-up on Kant]


Tonight we will spend a good section of time going through the first two critiques.
And the next time class meets we will dive in to the deep, deep end of the text, namely the “First Introduction” (FI), which was unpublished in Kant’s lifetime.
Although the FI comes as an appendix in the Pluhar for JMB it raises all sorts of essential problems about the nature of reflective judgment. For JMB the whole text turns on the idea of reflective judgment.


[Few more comments on secondary literature]


[More clerical comments. JMB mentions his own published works on the CJ, The Fate of Art, and Against Voluptuous Bodies, as well as a forthcoming interview in “The Brooklyn Rail” []


By now everybody knows that the very first thing that philosophy does in order to become philosophy—in order to figure out what philosophy is all about—is to throw out the poets from the Republic.

Philosophy is defined, we could even say that philosophy is constituted by its repudiation of art. Its emptying art of any potential significance, its silencing of art, and then in a second gesture—that is once philosophy has emptied art of any potential content, so we know that Plato says that what artists do is make copies of copies of copies, so they are ephemeral, mere appearances, they are illusions, they have nothing useful to teach us about the world. And worst of all they stir up irrational emotions.

So after Plato has said that art is both empty and a bad thing—and you wouldn’t think it would be both—he then in a second gesture appropriates to philosophy itself, the remnant.
That is, of course there is lots of aesthetics in Plato. Beauty is nothing else but the introduction to the good.


So what Plato does is make this empty remnant of this dangerous thing called art, and make it fully rational and safe.
Nietzsche calls this second gesture “aesthetic Socratism”. The philosopher having so identified reason with beauty that nothing could be beautiful that is not rational.
These two gestures which Danto calls “ephemeralization”—make art useless—and “take over”—to claim that it is all there in philosophy anyways. Beauty is no good, and whatever is good about it is in philosophy so you don’t have to worry about it.


That double-gesture is definitive what philosophy often takes itself to be. And it is because of this that the original debate about art and aesthetics in its relation to philosophy took place over the question of tragedy.

To put the point another way: philosophy becomes philosophy precisely by its defeating art, beauty, aesthetics. By showing the world that although philosophy is not itself science—that is, useful knowledge—still, thank god, it is not art.
Everybody has got to be better than somebody. Philosophy is not as good as science, but at least it is better than art. Art is the guy that philosophy points to in order to reassure itself of its own worthwhileness and validity.


In this respect, and this we can take to be worrying and serious, the dignity of philosophy—and this is definitive of analytic philosophy—the dignity of philosophy is predicated on the dismissal, silencing, and repudiation of art.

Philosophy is defined, like we are, by exclusion. Art is the thing it has to exclude.


But this has consequences for the very nature of philosophy itself. Since once the whole domain of the arts is deleted, then the bones of reality that philosophy is left to pick over are just that—dead remnants.
We can take that idea—that the remnants are dead—to be literal. Philosophy has only ever talked about dead things.


Try to think about things that are important, indeed central human activities that philosophy rarely if ever talks about: sex, food, piss, children, women, play, birth…


How do we want to generalize what it is that philosophy ignores?

Philosophers rationalize the notion of pleasure into a notion of happiness which is a rational notion of pleasure.


The most obvious things about this list is that they have two characteristics:

  1. they define our interest in the world. We are attached to the world, interested in the world, because we are interested in our next meal, how we are going to survive, our children.

They define us in terms of our interest in the world via the needs we have to have a life and how we are going to reproduce that life. So we might say money is important here but we could also call it “labor”. That is one of the things that philosophers don’t talk about.

And this becomes fascinating because philosophy tears out from human life everything that makes it interesting and then says, ‘let’s let the guy who is not interested in life at all—let’s call him the ‘philosopher king’—and let him rule. And why should we let him rule? Because he has no interest. Because he is not bound by those things, taken this way and that, he is then able to rule wholly in accordance with ideas.


Arthur Danto in his essay on the Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art—so a little bit of that argument that philosophy begins by disenfranchising, silencing, emptying art.
Danto says ‘one of the reasons Plato thought that philosophers should be kings was that they concerned only and ultimately with pure forms could not coherently have any interests in the world of appearance, hence not be motivated by what normally move men and women—money, power, sex, love—and so could achieve disinterested decisions’.
Notice how quickly we say today a little sex exposed and resign from the senate.



Plato cleverly situations works of art outside the range of interests as well, since who could feel exultant at what merely appeared to be gold, at making copies of copies of copies. How could anyone be interested in art at all?
So Plato empties art of the possibility that we could be interested in it.
(continuing Danto?) ‘Since to be human is to largely have interests, art stands outside the human world pretty much as reality stands outside the apparent order in Plato’s system. So thought they approach the issue from opposite directions, the implication in both is that art is a kind of ontological vacation place from our concerns as human and in respect to which accordingly makes nothing happen.’
Art makes nothing happen.


In putting up a list of things that philosophers don’t talk about, the suggestion was this: there are two broad topics, namely life and the reproduction of life on the one hand, and on the other hand art—and philosophy seems to be about the eschewal of both.

It is worth recalling that the CJ has two parts: a part about art and a part about life.
So that somewhere and somehow in a way that we are in the business of think to figure out—what philosophy has been trying to figure out since the CJ—w are trying to think about the connection between art and life in the broad sense that we have talked about it here.


But it is at least worth mentioning that it is not accidental that the CJ has two parts and that those two parts are somehow related. Kant in fumbling but intuitive way knew that these two phenomena were hooked up with one another and there are clear reasons how, in his case at least.

And in thinking about their togetherness, we are also thinking about what philosophy has always left out. And therefore since we get the sense that the CJ is an anxious text that is based on the intuition that we can’t leave this stuff behind, not completely, we have to engage it, we have to place it.
And we want to try to argue that what makes the CJ the text it is is that acknowledgement of life and art, whatever that acknowledgement means, is systematically fraught.


To say that the relationship between life and art is systematically fraught means to say in ways we will have to elaborate, that you can read the CJ in two absolutely contrary ways—and indeed you must read it in these two contrary ways.

On the one hand Kant is a Platonist and his strategy is a strategy of ephemeralization and take-over. So he does a version of the Plato dismissal.

On the other hand, there are ways of reading the CJ that make it a critique of that exclusion, that makes the CJ exactly about the necessity, unavoidability, and un-appropriability of these phenomena of life and whatever it is that makes life and aesthetics important.


To put it another way, we can think of the CJ as the pivotal moment in which as a crossroads philosophy decides what it is going to be when it grows up. And one story, the Platonic story, leads directly to analytic philosophy. And the other story, the story that reads the CJ as an immanent critique of that form of reductionism generates all of the fundamental gestures of continental philosophy, it sets the trajectory up.

It is not just that it is there but in engaging with the text you are faced with this terrible decision about how to read it in relationship to the rest of Kant, and we will come to how important this is, and how you do so will determine literally what road you will take.


For the moment we should look at the list above as what philosophy needs to engage with or alternatively doesn’t need to engage with. You may say that maybe philosophy ought to do something else when it grows up. Maybe philosophy should be an under-laborer to science. That is what analytic philosophy has been takes for granted, and so did Kant—that the great achievements of modernity are Newtonian (and then Einsteinian) physics on the one hand and Darwinian evolutionary biology on the other. And if we are going to figure out the world we just need to try to understand what it means work within those horizons.

That is one way of thinking about philosophy—but we are holding out for the time being that there will be an other way.


Just to make it obvious that we really can think of Kant as doing the ephemeralization and take over gesture, Kant says that works of art are purposive but without an external purpose.

That is they have an internal complexion, they are internally ordered in a certain way, but they are not for anything. They don’t tell you what to do, they don’t give you any knowledge, they are perfectly useless.
That is hardly a way of applauding art—in that sense they are empty of truth and morality.


Secondly, Kant says that art gives us disinterested pleasure. So one kind of pleasure is low-down and another is high-up.

So Danto fascinatingly construes disinterested pleasure by saying that it offers tepid gratification. And even better he calls it “narcoleptic” pleasure.


And so on the one side the ephemeralization and take over side is where Kant is going to say that the work art is the symbol of the morally good. That is a perfect take over.

Conversely, for whole lots of philosophy, the whole idea of aesthetic pleasure and thinking about purposive wholes yields a wholly different way of thinking about philosophy. For Schelling and for Nietzsche it points to the problem of life and the centrality of life. For Hegel it opens up the question of history. For Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Lyotard, and Deleuze, they find in the aesthetic suppressed forms of modes of interaction with the world. That is, there are ways of engaging with objections that are not scientific modes or rational modes. And that is what the reflective judgment stuff is going to be about when taken up in the next class.


So Kant can be read as truly hyper-conservative or as an unwilling radical. It is not an accident that Lyotard—and there is no crazier, neo-Trotsky, radical—is a Kantian and he defines himself as third critique Kantian.

That is, there are whole ways of doing philosophy that define themselves as coming right out of the third critique and approaching everything from its vantage point.


And to read Kant in this way is the read the CJ not as a supplement to the first two critiques but as implying an implicit criticism of them.

So one story says that the CJ completes Kant’s system, fills it out, brings in all the missing pieces, and harmonizes everything. The other reading says that the third critique explodes the first two critiques and leaves them in tatters.


Even more bizarre than you find in Lyotard and continental philosophy in general are the appropriations of art and the aesthetic by Marxists.

Marx himself, Lukács, Adorno, Benjamin, Terry Eagelton, Frederic Jameson. This is truly bizarre and perverse. Here is the moment, it is 1930, the revolution in Russia has turned really bad and the revolution has been defeated all across Europe. The proletariat is in disarray, fascism is on the rise, and what do we hear as a clarion call? Let’s think about art! (Workers of the world, think about art!). This is it? This is the response to the failure of the revolution?
It is sometimes said that Marxism lives on as aesthetics—how weird is that?
And then there are all the discussions of modernism by the likes of Greenberg and TJ Clark as if modernism alone was the avatar of a future revolution—which is also Jay’s position.


But on the face of it we should feel the absurdity of this heritage, otherwise we are not going to feel the stakes of the text.

All these discussions mentioned go through the CJ. The CJ is really the founding text of modern aesthetics. There is no modern philosophy of art and aesthetics without the CJ—it is the ur-text, and everything else is really just a footnote to it. All sorts of things supplement it indeed, but they are all variations on Kantian themes.

So to understand the stakes here is really to engage with the CJ.

And the reason for that is because the CJ is where philosophy confronts its own constitutive exclusions. The stakes are to either ephemeralize and take over or to ruin philosophy’s self-congratulatory, self-understanding from within.


And it is quite natural that Kant should so torn about this since his philosophy begins with the problem which we can take to be definitive of the modern situation of the disenchantment of nature.

That is, the moment of Newtonian physics as harmonizing celestial and terrestrial mechanics and providing a universal account of how everything is related to everything else.


This problem of the disenchantment of nature, all the stories about Kant missing his walk when he read Rousseau’s Emile—one of the only two texts on education and children (well, three, counting Dewey).


So the human motivation behind Kant’s system, and the best argument on this in Richard Velkely’s Freedom and the End of Reason—as Velkley rightly argues, the motivation behind the entirely of Kant’s system was his concern for the meaning of freedom and morality against the background of the undeniable universality and validity of Newtonian science.

That is, Kant takes it for granted that Newton has got it right. But what Kant was the first philosopher to recognize is that we simply accept the claims of Newtonian science at face value, then we cannot even make sense of the idea of science. Because we cannot think about what it means for something to be ‘true’. That is, the one thing that science cannot explain is science itself.

So science always has this terrible remnant, and the remnant is itself, as an account of the world.
In a entirely perfect Newtonian universe, there would be no room for truth or reason or science, it would all just be determinism all the way down.


And some contemporary philosophers bite the bullet on this. They accept this is the way the world is and we call this project ‘naturalized epistemology’. That is, you try to provide some sort of evolutionary account of the nature of knowledge.
For Jay the most heart-warming version of this is Charles Sanders Pierce who says that nature grows knowers in order to know itself. Well that is endearing but silly.
But we can say that naturalized epistemology is pushed into that form of silliness—that is, all the accounts whether it is Pierce who is heartwarming or whether it is Quine who is as dry as dust, they all are version of Pierce. And Quine’s first essay was a review of Pierce’s writings.


So epistemology naturalized tries to give a naturalized account of science. But it can’t do so without fudging on what is meant on reason or rationality and the like.
So in the first instance (if naturalized epistemology has got it right) we don’t even have to worry about making sense of freedom and morality because Newtonian theory can make sense of Newtonian theory itself.


So when Kant says in the CPR that he had to ‘limit knowledge in order to make room for faith’ the faith that he was concerned with was the faith in freedom and reason in the first instance.

This has nothing to do with God, he was simply interested whether we could make sense of ourselves as rational and moral creatures.


Hence the initial gesture of Kant’s entire philosophical project is a critique of instrumental reason—by that we mean instrumental is that form of reason that is restricted to means-end reason.

Kant is saying that if that is all there is, then there is no reason at all. All you have are forms of calculation.


And interestingly the issues that are central to the third critique were initially part of Kant’s plan for the first critique.

Kant wrote to his student Marcuse Hertz in 1772 that he was preparing a book to be called “The Limits of Sensibility and Reason” and that it would consist in two parts. First a general phenomenology and the nature and method of metaphysics. And second—which has two parts—the first of which is the universal principles of feeling, taste, sensuous desire and second the first principles of morality.
So originally Kant had intended to write a book that covers everything that is now covered in the CPR, everything that is now in the CpR, and something that is even wider than what is now in the CJ—namely, the universal principles of feeling, taste, and sensuous desire…as if there can be a set of rules on how to make love.


Here is another way of thinking about Kant’s general strategy. Instead of saying that Kant is offering a critique of instrumental reason, we could say that Kant’s strategy is a critique of metaphysics. (note2)

And when we think of it that way, we can think of what Kant is up to is providing a modern version of the so-called transcendental ideas of the scholastic tradition, that is, the ideas of truth and goodness and beauty. And these are for the scholastics the ultimate categories that are literally unified in God, depending on whether you are a Thomist or an anti-Thomist.

What Kant does is dedicate one of each of his three critiques to picking up one of these transcendental ideas.

CPR—the questions of knowledge and science

CpR—the questions of morality and goodness

CJ—the questions of beauty


What makes Kant modern in all of this is that first there is no unity of the three critiques. They talk to one another but reason is essentially fragmented and not one and it cannot be totalized.

So the goal of the three critiques is to talk about truth, rightness, and beauty, from a wholly human perspective. That is to say, Kant did not ask the question how can human knowing approach divine knowing? How can we know how things are in the world absolutely?
He thought these are bad questions. He equally thought that it was a bad question to ask how humans can approach saintliness or mimic divine goodness or embody divine commands. He thought that we had no knowledge of any divinities or anything outside of ourselves that could be called divine commands.
Rather he asked a series of very different questions. That is, what is it for human beings, i.e. beings that are both rational and sensible, to have access to a world existing independently of them. Where such access and such knowing makes no reference whatsoever to God’s perspective.
So when Kant says that we know appearances only and not things in themselves he is saying that we know things only from human perspective and how they are appear from a divine perspective we do not know and we cannot even speculate about, it is empty and meaningless, and therefore we will never know how things are in themselves.

That is, the way God created the world is a closed book forever and totally. That is why we can say that this is a critique of metaphysics because the totality of the world disappears. We cannot know the world as a whole precisely because to know the world as a whole you would have to have a standpoint outside of it. You would have to jump out of your skin.

So if you are going to see it from a human perspective you are always going to see it from within, and that is definitive and constitutive of human knowing, and not a deficiency. For every other philosopher before Kant it was a deficiency. It was a privation.
For Kant not only was it not a deficiency or a privation, it was the meaning of it to see it from a human perspective.


{Leibniz?] agrees that we cannot know the whole but thinks of this as a failure. There are lots of philosophers who agree that we cannot have knowledge of the whole—think of Hume—but he still thinks that this is what it would be to really know things. So Hume thinks that we have second-best knowledge.
But for Kant this is not a failure of any kind. But the fact that we are limited is constitutive.


So the Kantian gesture is that the limits of reason are equally the conditions of possibility—that is the Kantian mantra. What limits you is not an absolute limitation, it is a condition of possibility.
And rather than therefore working against those limits, Kant tries to expose them as the very meaning of what it is to know it all.


Analogously with the question of morality. Kant says that what it is for human beings to act well, what then is the meaning of acting and doing for beings who can reflectively determine their own conduct.

So he imagines right at the beginning of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (GMS), he asks ‘what would happen if Jesus came down and said ‘hey I’m here and I’ll tell you what to do? Kant’s point is that no matter what Jesus says in order to determine whether or not it is moral we would ask whether or not it corresponds to the categorical imperative.’

That is, the intelligibility of Christ would only be whether or not his actions corresponded to our ideas, to give up that standpoint, this notion of the moral law that constitutes what right acting is which is internal to our reason, and nothing else has authority for us. There is no authority for us except the authority of finite reason.
So maybe there is something called saintliness, but we will never know.


So what Kant does, and this is why we can call his project a “critique of metaphysics” is that he thinks that those old questions—what is truth or goodness really?—are ill-formed. And they are ill-formed because they are the denial of the human perspective. And the human perspective is constitutive of the possibility of knowing or action.


To state Kant’s position this way is to say that it is defined as a general strategy known as the “Copernican Turn”.



[Logistical Details]


What we are going to do now is describe each of Kant’s three critiques as themselves making the Copernican Turn (CT). So the CT Kant describes in the Preface to the B edition to the CPR, Bxvi, Kant says:

“Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure.”

“Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects…”

Epistemologists would say that our representations must conform to the objects—that is the correspondence theory of truth—and something is true if and only if it corresponds to the object. So the sentence ‘The cat is on the mat’ is true if and only if the cat really is on the mat.

But this is metaphysics because it is realist. And what we mean by realist is that it assumes that what makes a sentence or a judgment or a statement true is some actual fact of the matter. That is, some states of affairs in the world are ‘truth makers’. And that idea of ‘truth maker’ is what we are defining as both realism and metaphysics, because it assumes that there are these ultimate objects of knowledge and it assumes that knowledge is constituted by that. And the problem of epistemology, the problem of all epistemologists including present day epistemologists except for one or two who are Kantians is to figure how we know whether our statements correspond to objects since our relationship to objects is given by our statements about them


So Kant says:

“Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that the objects must conform to our knowledge.”

“…by establishing something in regard to them a priori…”

We can know something a priori if and only if we can know it independently of any particular experience.


A priori is different than analyticity which is a feature of statements while a priori is a feature of our knowledge, and it is how we have that knowledge—whether it is dependent or independent of experience.
So a priori is what can be known without looking at the world. Analyticity is defined by containment—the predicate is contained within the subject.
We do know analytic statements independent of the world but they are tedious. Kant is going to ask whether there is any a priori knowledge that is not analytic—that is, synthetic. That is, can we have knowledge of the world independently of any experience of the world? That is the question of the CPR.
Kant wants to know if there is any non-trivial knowledge that we can have of the world independently of our particular experiences of the world—not of course independently of being alive, having knowledge.


The attempt to know how things are independently of experience, a priori, Plato does it how? Memory. So for Plato we just remember the ideas.

Leibniz, who is moving because he is such a lunatic—he thinks that we can get it from an adequate notion of analyticity itself. If you understand what analyticity is and what sufficient reason is, then for Leibniz you can work out how the world must be.
Kant says that none of these attempts to know about the world a priori have succeeded. They all, he says have “ended in failure.”


And then we get the Copernican Turn.

“We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that the objects must conform to our knowledge.”

That is to say, it is not a question of whether our sentences agree with the world, rather it is a question of whether the world agrees with our way of knowing.
But how is Kant going to do that?


The CT is just a wonderful and startling thing. This is what we meant earlier by thinking from the human perspective. So when Kant says that he is no longer going to try to know how things are in themselves, that has all failed, so we must ask whether it is the case that by adopting the human perspective we can demonstrate that the world conforms to us and must conform to us—and furthermore to do that in a way that is not skeptical.
And we will return to this question of skepticism.


Broadly the thought is that each of the critiques means to steer a course between empiricism and rationalism, between skeptical subjective idealism on the one hand and realism on the other.

So Kant thought roughly that either you are a kind of Leibnizian who believes that you really know how things are in the world just by thinking about it, or you are Humean who says, nah, we don’t know how things are in the world but we do know what our experiences are like and we are just limited to that.


Again, the strategy is to claim that there is not one unitary account of how things are, but finally, and to put it in an intentionally Nietzschean way, there are three different perspectival takes on the world. There are three irreducible perspectives that we must have on the world and that these perspectives, that although they are perspectives, they are not subjective in the negative sense.

On the contrary, and this is what Nietzsche never really understood, for Kant these three perspectives are both irreducible to one another—you can’t reduce morality to knowledge or judgments of beauty to morality, which is essentially what the Liebnizians like Baumgarten does, they all reduce beauty finally to knowledge or morality, perfection.

For Kant, there is no one perspective. And each perspective can be shown to be necessary. That is, we cannot have anything like what we think of as our experience of the world without these three perspectives.


Hence our idea of something being “transcendental” in Kant’s sense—“transcendental” is a word that confuses people because it is the opposite of “transcendent”.

Something is “transcendent” if it is beyond experience. Kant is not interested in transcendent things. He is in interested in transcendental stuff. By the phrase “transcendental” Kant means that something will count as a transcendental bit of knowledge if it is a necessary condition for the possibility of experience.


So our transcendental knowledge, our knowledge of how things must be, is going to be defined by what things we must presuppose for the possibility of experience.

So the notion of “possibility of experience” is Kant’s new Archimedean point. Asking the question, ‘what are the necessary conditions for the possibility of experience’ is the new question that Kant introduced into philosophy when he introduced the CT.



The transcendental conditions are given (or available, discovered) in our reflection upon (particular) experience(s). That is we come to knowledge of them because they are in experience, we are using them all the time.

Everyone here is a transcendental idealist whether you know it yet or not. We just have to discover what have already assumed and how we have assumed it.


So looking at the hand-out “How to become a transcendental Idealist” (note3)

Start  Transcendental Realism Transcendental Idealism

Space and its contents are real Things in themselves can’t be

but never directly known. A known—we can make no

position you can attribute to Descartes judgments such as ‘Things in

Newton, Locke, and many others themselves are really _____”

It has the corollary which Kant thinks has the corollary

Empirical Idealism  the remedy is  Empirical Realism
Experience consists of ideas and Experience consists of ideas,

some tour de force is needed to appearances: but these are real.

show that “knowledge” of bodies (No doubt some are illusory—

isn’t a mere illusion but we discover this by

e.g. God’s veracity incoherence. The distinction

occasionalism veridical/illusory is a

causal theory of perception among appearances: no doubt

a hard one. But not a

But these moves don’t work— distinction between

One is landed in: appearances and reality)

Skeptical idealism

our experience may

Dogmatic idealism or must be illusory


And the best way to think about this is to start with the position of transcendental realism. And the thesis of transcendental realism is that space and its content are real—let’s say that they are absolutely real, we could even say that they are ‘things in themselves’. They are the world as God created it, just as Newton defines it in the Optics—‘God created the world of little mass-y things that are indestructible…’
Unlike the Principia the Optics are the readable bit of Newton.
And roughly Kant thought that every single modern philosopher and every single modern scientist up to was a transcendental realist. That is, they all assumed that space and its contents were real, but never directly known—and the reason why never directly known is that we always have sensory experience. So I don’t immediately know how things in the world, I know it by being affected light and that whole story about we have to open our eyes, we have to touch things, we have to know things through experience.
So for the transcendental realist we are never in direct contact with the world, we never immediately experience things, everything is always mediated by sensory experience.


Transcendental Realism has a corollary that Kant calls “Empirical Idealism”.
Empirical Idealism, the best way to think about it, is where you are, what your knowledge of the world is like, at the end of the “Second Meditation”. That is, you have doubted the existence of the world, you have doubted your body, the evil demon has scared you to death, but you have this struggle and think “cogito ergo sum” so you know you exist and then you say what else do I know, and you begin in your head to think about how things are.

But now the question—and this is how it comes up in Descartes—in the “Third Meditation”—Descartes wonders I know that I think that 2 + 2 = 4, but can I know of things in the world that if there are 2 groups of 2 of them that there are four of them in the world. That is, how can I get from my knowledge of 2 + 2 = 4 that I have in my head to my knowledge that it is true of the world.

And Descartes has an answer—God. After he has gotten rid of God, he is going to bring God back in, and not only is he going to bring God back in, but he has to be an epistemically beneficent God. Only a philosopher would think that what we need most of all is an epistemically beneficent God.
And of course this is the problem of the Cartesian circle, that in order to prove hat your ideas about the world match the world, you have to assume your own perspective over and over again.
So what you get is all these stories about God’s veracity or occasionalism or causal theories of perception—all of these are trying to bridge the gap between our experience of the world and the world itself. And Kant says that they all fail. They all end up as a form of ‘we know what we experience, but we don’t know what is really there.’


The remedy, Kant says, is the CT. We have to rethink about all of this in a different way. And he is going to start with what he calls “empirical realism”—and he says experience consists of ideas and appearances and then he says something surprising—but these are real.
That is, I have n experience of a lectern, and what I experience is not in my head, it is real. Of course sometimes there are illusions, but he is assuming that by and large these things are not illusory but rather they are just—and here is the crux—things are just as they appear to be in ordinary experience.
That is, what empirical realism says is that our general way of experiencing the world, that is, as objects outside of our own minds, in space, existing independently of us, that experience is accurate.


But it is accurate on one condition only, namely, that in experiencing things like that, we are experiencing them only from our unique, human perspective.

So that whether these things, the lectern that appears brown is really, really brown, Kant says, that is just a bad question. All we have is just our experience. So what we know are appearances only and not things in themselves. But appearances now mean things in space that are causally connected with one another, that are substances, that have mass and weight and even gravity—everything, it is all there, but it is only from a human perspective.


So what he is denying is epistemology. The question of epistemology—how do I know how things are is jus a bad question—all we have to go on is experience. Well how does he do that? And here is Kant genius.

His genius is dependent on three initial moves.

First, every philosopher prior to Kant, with the possible exception of Thomas Aquinas, had a conception of knowledge which involved mental perception. That is, the idea that we perceive with the mind’s eye. So Hume and Locke—Descartes says that he is immediately aware of ideas in my own mind, and I have to make my immediate clear and distinct perception of one idea connect to my immediate and distinct perceptions of related ideas as if there was just one single perception.

So the model of knowing for all previous philosophers was direct perception. As if the way things seem when we look at things with our physical eye is the way things are through our mental eye.


Kant says that this idea of mental perception is a fiction. He says rather that all knowledge is judgment. That is his first and most radical move. All knowledge is judgment—why is this radical?

To say that knowledge is a matter of judgment is to say that what knowledge is is a relationship between a subject and an object. So a judgment just is already a relationship between my judging faculty and the object of that judgment. So there is no question of how subjects are related to objects. Our primary datum is that there are judgments and judgments are already the relationship between a knowing subject and an independently existing object.

So judgments are, to use a technical word for Kant, “syntheses”—they are ways of ordering and connecting up our sensory manifold.


Well, how do we connect up our sensory manifold, how do we synthesize? Kant’s second thought, which is not so original but is nonetheless important is that there really is a limited inventory of forms of judgment.
So for example there is the most basic one “S is P”—the chair is brown, that is a judgment.
Another judgment form is “if-then” the conditional form. If I throw the chalk in the air, then it will fall. If-then, by the way, is probably the most fundamental and subtle and complicated human act of judgment because it involves contrary-to-fact conditionals. That means, that in order to make an if-then judgment you would have to know what would happen if so and so. So of course I see the bear and I run away—that is the fact. But I have the knowledge that if I had not run away and tickled the bear under his arm, I would have been eaten. This is extraordinary because in order to know a truth about the world I have to know a state of affairs about the world that never happened but would have happened if I had done that. So to think causally is to be able to use contrary-to-fact conditionals which is to be able to say what would happen ‘if’.


Kant thought then is that the human mind, and there are a series of these and these are the forms of judgment, and they conclude both conclude both forms of judgments themselves and between series of judgments. “If-then” is really about a relationship between two judgments.




Kant’s thought is that the human mind, as a human mind, is equipped with a limited set of judgment forms. The way of expressing this is to say that the human mind is possessed and equipped with a primitive transcendental grammar. The only way we know how to talk about the world is in thinking in terms of this primitive series of grammatical forms.
Kant thought that there were very limited number of these. Wittgenstein thinks that there are tons of them, but has the same thought—that these forms are the conditions of human thinking.
So we have a primitive transcendental grammar or transcendental syntax.


Kant’s third thought is that Hume was right about causality, right about substance, right about the subject.

That is, Hume says that when I look at the world, and I see the eraser bounce off the lectern I do not see the lectern making the eraser jump, what I see is simply the eraser touching the lectern and then the eraser in a different position. Which is to say that I never see a causal relationship. All I see is a sequence of events. So if I look in the world, there is no such thing as causality, there are just regularities.

Now Kant then makes his great assumption, and the easiest way into it is what he calls his “metaphysical deduction” (note4) and the metaphysical deduction occurs at B105 where he says:

“The same function which gives unity to the various representations in a judgment also gives unity to the mere synthesis of various representations in an intuition; and this unity, in its most general expression, we entitle the pure concept of the understanding. The same understanding, through the same operations by which in concepts, by means of analytical unity, it produced the logical form of a judgment, also introduces a transcendental content into its representations, by means of the synthetic unity of the manifold in intuition in general. On this account we are entitled to call these representations pure concepts of the understanding, and to regard them as applying a priori to objects—a conclusion which general logic is not in a position to establish.”

“The same function which gives unity to the various representations in a judgment…”

So let’s call “S is P” a function, a function is just a form, and he says the job of this is to put together intuitions or sensations in a judgment—it is an act of synthesis: I take my awareness of the lectern and my awareness of its color. And the point here is that in order to know anything about it, I have to put those two things together. We just don’t have experiences, we have to do something with those. The judgment form “S is P” is how I turn my experience into knowledge. So I say ‘the lectern is brown’. So by taking my sensations, by articulating them in accordance with a judgmental form, I suddenly render them a way of talking about the world—and does so in a way that other can share in (debate).

So that is what we do necessarily with our sensations. It is the only thing we can do with them to make use of them. We have to do something with them. We have to synthesize them. (That is what judging is.)


“The same function which gives unity…”

The other thing—“S is P” gives a unity to our experience. It gives a unity—after all, sensation is, to use James’ phrase, a blooming buzzing confusion. There is just all this stuff. And if I didn’t have ways of doing things with what comes to me I would just be psychotic.
Psychosis is simply the inability to do stuff with experiential (input ?).
So my mind has what unity it does by gathering up the sensory (import?) by gathering up and making a judgment. It is a mode of articulating and totalizing our sensory states


Now he says about this:

“…this unity, in its most general expression, we entitle the pure concept of the understanding.”

So this is what the understanding does. It makes judgments, it totalizes experience, it gathers it, unifies it, and turns it into knowledge.


Now, and this is the extra, surprising, Copernican move:

“The same understanding, through the same operations by which in concepts, by means of analytical unity, it produced the logical form of a judgment…”
This is just a form, it is empty without the stuff of the world.
The same understanding, through the same operations by which in concepts, by means of analytical unity, it produced the logical form of a judgment, also introduces a transcendental content into its representations, by means of the synthetic unity of the manifold in intuition in general. On this account we are entitled to call these representations pure concepts of the understanding, and to regard them as applying a priori to objects—a conclusion which general logic is not in a position to establish.”


But what does this all mean? So “S is P”—that is just grammar, that is just a way of talking or thinking or representing. That’s not the way the world is, the world doesn’t have subjects or predicates in it. The world has…the subject is the subject of a sentence and predicates are ways of talking about subjects. But what does the world have? Substance.

What we have is substances with properties. So Kant is saying that we can only make use of the subject predicate form if we treat the world as having substances which are, let’s call it, the material structure or the material projection of the grammatical subject, and properties which is the material projection of the predicate of a sentence.


Another version of this is that we can only think about the world in the way we do think if the world is structure to allow us like that. So the thought is that not only must there be a transcendental grammar, but there must be a transcendental semantics. That is, there must be ways in which the world is amenable to us talking about it in certain ways.

If a then b. If-then is a judgment form. If we want to talk about the world, what do we talk about that would correspond to the if-then? Cause-effect.
You can only make use of the if-then form of judgment if there are causes and effects in the world, and conversely—and the conversely here is absolutely important—there is no way you can make sense of the idea of causality unless you posses the if-then form of judgment. That the meaning of thinking about the world as causally structured is given by the way we are able to use the if-then structure.


So Kant says that if we are stuck with our grammatical forms then equally we are stuck with the material projection of those judgment forms, and we are going to call those the “Categories”. And that is the CT.

We are saying that we can only think about the world in the way that we do think about it. We are human beings, we talk, ‘the table is brown.’ But that has massive metaphysical implications, namely, the only way we can think about the world is as a world composed of substances with properties.
Therefore we are a priori committed just because of our judgments forms to thinking, indeed to knowing, that what knowledge involves is thinking about objects as substances with properties that are causally bound up with one another.


Now of course putting the point this way is very dogmatic. And Kant has a very elaborate argument called the transcendental deduction of the categories to show why we must do this. And then he gives very specific arguments for each individual categories.

So, for just one example, let’s take cause and effect. How can we show that we need the category of cause-and-effect? Kant does it by thinking about a simple contrast. The perception of a house and the perception of a boat moving downstream.


Well think about the perception of a house. I look at a house and I see the roof, I the upstairs windows, I see the downstairs windows. The most obvious thing to be said about my perception of the house is that I see each bit of it successively. I see first a then b, then c, then d.
Well how about the boat moving downstream? First I see it in one place, and then the next, and then the next. Well this is very strange. In one case I am looking at an object (that is stationary) and in the other case I am looking at a boat changing locations—and yet in both cases the initial datum is structurally the same, namely it is composed of subjective succession.


So Kant now has the thought that all of our knowledge occurs one thing after the other: subjective succession. However—and this is a big however—some subjective successions are really objective. One thing really is happening one thing after another—i.e. the boat moving downstream—and yet some subjective successions are not successions at all but different perceptions of an unchanging object, and the subjective succession is the result of me seeing it in various ways.


So Kant makes now two hypothesis which are:

  1. For those things that are truly subjective successions of unchanging objects, the order is reversible. That is, I could have seen it in the opposite direction. It doesn’t matter, in fact I could do it in any possible direction.

  1. In the case of objective succession, what makes it objective is that the state changes of the object occur according to a rule—namely a rule of cause and effect. If the boat is upstream, and the stream is flowing and there is a wind, etc., then it will appear downstream. And it is knowing the rule that allows me to regard what I see as an event and not as an object.


So it is a necessary condition for the possibility of experience that I have the law of cause and effect. Hence the law of cause and effect is a necessary condition for the possibility of experience, therefore you know a priori, before you have actually experienced any particular objects, that any objects that you do see are going to be governed by the law of cause and effect, otherwise there cannot be an event.
What we mean by an ‘event’ is simply an occurrence that occurs in accordance with a rule.


So to wrap of the CPR just a little bit, Kant had argued in the begging of the CPR in the transcendental aesthetic, he had already shown that it is a necessary condition for judging that something is outside of my mind, that it be in space.

Now this sounds trivial, but it is not trivial. Because the notion of ‘outside my mind’ and the notion of ‘in space’ are not analytically linked to one another. And that is because there are ways of thinking about something being outside my mind that doesn’t involve it being in space.
Leibniz (and maybe Berkeley) thought that something being outside my mind doesn’t mean that it is in space. For Leibniz space and time are just appearances, they are not real. The only things that are really real are just the monads.


And so Kant has to show why it is that Leibniz can’t be right. That in order for me to think about something as outside my mind, he says, it must be somewhere that I am not. And that therefore what it means for any object to be outside of any other object is for it to be in a spatial relationship to that object. Therefore the very notion of space is a necessary condition for the possibility of experience.

Now the crux of this—what is shocking about this—is that Kant is defining space functionally. That is, what space is what provides the condition for objects’ individuation. And the notion of space is understood by Kant with respect to that transcendental function—that is, showing how objects can be individuated one from another. And this means, for complicated reasons, denying the identity of indiscernibles. (note6)


Hence space is, as Kant puts it, a large metaphysical un-thing, Unding. He asks, what would space be if it was simply metaphysically real. It was just be a big not-a-thing.

That is just too weird. So it can’t be that. And it can’ t be, as Newton thought, God’s sensorium. Space and time for Newton are sensorium dei. We won’t go into that.
Rather we understand space functionally as a necessary condition for the possibility of experience.


So in sum, Kant devised a theory for the fundamental principles of the form of our own experience and judgments about it. And what he claims is that the structure of experience reflects the structure of our minds.

In the arguments we have just been going through what we have seen is the unearthing the deep structures of human thinking about the world—how it orders and thinks about the world.

So what we have a priori is a concept of an object. We know that for anything to be an object—and we know this a priori—it must be somewhere, some-when, it must be a substance possessing properties, it must be causally related to every other substance existing in space—all objects reciprocally determine another—and all state changes of those objects are determined by laws of cause and effect.

So we know the structure of the world, and that is what Kant says that we have, and this is not the God’s-eye point of view, this is the deep structures of the human intellect that give us these structures.


So what we end up with is a fully Newtonian universe, but not as what is metaphysically real, but simply as a function of how we must think about things as knowable.


Question: (about things in themselves)

We don’t have them, we use them only as a marker, it is a reminder, we know appearances only, not things in themselves. It is simply a reminder that we do not know things from a God’s eye perspective.

And one way to think about this is Jonathan Lear’s suggestion in a great essay on Wittgenstein called “The Disappearing We” that the only difference between Wittgenstein and Kant is that Kant says that the I think must accompany all of our representations and Wittgenstein says that the We think must accompany all of our representations. And then Lear makes the next step. He says, we think that 2 + 2 = 4, and what is it that the ‘we think’ adds here—well, it kind of reminds us that per impossible, that God might not think like that. But once we know that, we can just skip it and say 2 + 2 = 4—so we can just eventually drop the things in themselves—which is roughly what Hegel tries to do to Kant. Hegel says, you don’t have to do that, that is just anxiety. And yet the anxiety is very deep because Kant is in the midst of a project. He was making the CT—he was in the midst of establishing this. And he could not have done it except by drawing these distinctions in relation to Hume and Leibniz and Descartes. And the only way Hegel that Hegel can be a smart-ass is by coming after Kant.



(The difference between appearances and things in themselves) seems to add an unnecessary layer of difficulty at this juncture. So we are just using this as the most elegant and simple interpretation of Kant—which may or may not be accurate. But we can do the perspectival account because it is sufficient to set up the problem of the CJ.
So we are doing a metaphysically thin reading of Kant as a way of motivating a thick reading of the CJ.



When we say here that things in themselves are just markers we are saying that they are just reflective functions, that they have no substantive existence, that there is no actual thing there, that there is nothing that could be known—we are just saying that it is a direct consequence of transcendental reflection, and nothing else.
It is just a reflective comment, necessary in order to distinguish between empirical realism and transcendent realism. That is why the chart is absolutely central—so (after the CT) I am an empirical realist and transcendental idealist, and not a transcendent realist.



The God’s-eye view was never real. It was always just an illusion. You have always been a human being. That is the good news.

This is the way it has always been, we just had this metaphysical hunger, and the whole second half of the CPR—the so-called “Transcendental Dialectic”—is about the nature of metaphysical hunger, and why metaphysical hunger is natural to human beings. We are the kind of beings who are always tempted to think that God did or that we could get outside of our own skins or that we could know things are they really are.

We are so built that we want to be metaphysicians. And Kant’s whole practice is a kind of transcendental asceticism, to learn this new form of modesty, and Kant describes it as modest. Kant says that he is not going to give you the whole world, but rather he is just going to give you a little safe place where you can live as a human being. (note7)
So he is trying to tailor the [aims] of philosophy to human experience.



Kant wants to get rid of the notion of subjective as something pejorative. That is why he uses the word “transcendental”—in order to get rid of subjective-objective talk, because he thinks that subjective-objective talk is wholly immersed in the illusions of transcendental realism.
So you have to give up that way of thinking. You have to be a grown up which requires you to be a transcendental idealist not a subjective idealist or objectivist.


What is Kant’s deepest strategy? He says that if you bore into the subject, and go deeper and deeper into the subject, what you find is not subjectivity but objectivity. The first person to discover this was Descartes. That was the genius of Descartes. Descartes looses the entire world and discovers at the very heart, after he has lost everything, solidity.
And Kant wants to say that Descartes’ approach of finding in the heart of the subject, not the loss of the world but the source of the world is what we have to think about.

And this is why Heidegger is a Kantian as is Merleau-Ponty because they are all trying to show that the sources of subjectivity are actually objective.

So that is why it is better to give up the language of subjective-objective because the subjectivity of the subject is objectivity—that is what transcendental thought says.



[What we mean by ‘transcendental semantics] is just that if-then and cause and effect match one another.
You can’t have a transcendental syntax if there is no semantics that goes along with it. That is why Chomsky is boring—because he thinks that there is something about syntax that can be had independently of any possible semantics. And he keeps getting into incredible trouble with everybody. That is why you get all the epicycles of Chomskianism—because he wants a pure[ly] syntactical account, but that makes no sense.



We didn’t decide to think about the world in terms of subject and predicate. No one decided to talk like that.
There is no noumena, there is no thing in itself, there is just the way we think. And the way we think has necessary structures and we saw an example without using any of that crap in the example of the house and the boat.
If you do the house and the boat stuff—for each category Kant is going to give you these elaborate arguments that push you back towards the syntax. That is, he will establish the semantics and then say, lo and behold, you can’t have that semantics unless you have the syntax that goes along with it.
So he does it in both directions. He goes from syntax to semantics, and then from semantics to syntax.



The semantics is a priori as well.
Human experience is first for us. Nature is a projection of how we think about the world.
So Kant’s metaphysics of experience, not a metaphysics of nature—nature is a shadow of the structure of experience. That is the Kantian thought. Nature is nothing but the shadow of the structuring of experience. And what else could it be?



To take an easy example, the law of non-contradiction. We didn’t decide that the law of contradiction is true. Rather we cannot even begin to do the business of thinking unless we accept the law of non-contradiction.
And Aristotle, in this regard is a perfect Kantian, describes the law of non-contradiction both formally—that is, as something about statements—and materially—namely a thing cannot be both A and –A at the same time and in the same respect.
So he absolutely provides a correlation between the law of non-contradiction—which is really a law about statements—and then says that of course it must hold about objects.
Well Kant is saying that his ‘S is P’ is kind of like a version of the law of non-contradiction. Indeed the moral law, in Kant’s moral philosophy, just is the law of non-contradiction in respect to action. That’s what Kant thinks [morality is]: just the law of consistency in action.
So that is why he calls them forms of “reason”—this is just what reason is. And we didn’t decide on this. Rather we reflectively discover that we are committed to this.



Like every revolution, there is a [given] state that you are overthrowing. And you make sense of the need and the meaning of your revolution by the terms you are [rejecting].

We’ll pick up here next week.

Outline of Critique Of Judgment:

Introduction (§§I –IX)

Part I (§§1-60) Part II (§§61-91)

Critique of Aesthetic Judgment Critique of Teleological Judgment

Division I (§§1-54) Division II (§§55-60) Division I (§§62-68) Division II (§§69-78)

Analytic of Aesthetic Judg Dialectic of Aesthetic Judg Analytic of Teleological Judg. Dialectic of Teleological Jud

Book I (§§1-22) Book II (§§23-54)

Analytic of the Beautiful Analytic of the Sublime Appendix (§§79-91)

| | Methodology of Teleological Judgment

1. Quality (§§1-5) A. Mathematically Sublime (§§25-27)

2. Quantity (§§6-9) B. Dynamically Sublime (§§28-29)

3. Relation of purposes (§§10-17)

4. Modality of liking (§§18-22)

Deduction of Pure Aesthetic Judgment


1. [in reference to Senator Larry Craig (R, ID) guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct in a Minneapolis airport bathroom stall.]

2. JMB’s dissertation director, W.H. Walsh, wrote a book entitled Kant’s Criticism of Metaphysics.

3. See also lecture #2 of the CPR lectures at, about half way through the second section “After” the break.

4. See #5 of the CPR lectures at, in particular the section “After” the break.

5. See #13 of the CPR lectures, “Second Analogy, at

6. On the identity of indiscernibles see CPR lectures #3, “Space”

7. See, for example, CPR B735 and Axx.

The database is protected by copyright © 2016
send message

    Main page