Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Kant and Positivism

Bourgeois philosophy similarly fails to synthesize and grasp the totality and to get at the concrete, historical conditions of possibility of our existence. This is seen most perspicaciously where bourgeois philosophy is at its most radical and “critical”: in the thought of Kant. While the skeptic accepts the rationalist standard of knowledge (representation of mind-independent reality) but denies its possibility, Kant denies the rationalist standard of knowledge, limiting philosophical reflection to knowledge of the conditions of the possibility of experience. In this turn toward the transcendental (subjective, a priori) conditions of the possibility of knowledge lies Kant’s radicalism. And yet Kant’s philosophical enterprise exemplifies the antinomies of bourgeois thought because it stands in the same relationship to reality as do the special sciences.

In his “Copernican” turn, Kant displaces the conditions of knowledge from nature or from God on to the knowing subject. So instead of talking about substances represented, we're going to talk about representations and the (universal, necessary, and subjective) conditions of representation. Instead of talking about categories as predicates of objects, we're going to talk about categories as (universal and necessary) forms of the thinking of objects. Instead of talking about God as the maker of the underlying order of the universe, we're going to talk about the subject (universally and necessarily) ordering the manifold of perception. All these processes of representing, categorizing, synthesizing, etc., are universal and necessary (and hence a priori) conditions of the possibility of having experience of objects. This is precisely what Kant means when he uses the term “transcendental”.

Now in making this shift, Kant is arguing that the subject of knowledge (considered formalistically, that is, from a universal, abstract perspective) brings to the knowing situation specific forms of knowledge that serve a foundational role for the knowing situation. Therefore, those forms of knowledge are conditions of the possibility of knowledge. For Kant, these are space, time, and the categories. What the object is outside of its subjection to these forms of knowledge, we cannot know for certain, since the application of those forms is the sine qua non of something being an object of knowledge in the first place. So Kant doesn't deny that ultimate reality outside of these forms exists; he just denies that such an object is accessible to the kind of knowledge that we finite knowers have.

Given this shift, it is easy to see why the upshot of Kant's Copernican turn is the denial of our ability to know things as they are in themselves. We can never know the material, causal substratum of our concepts—the content of our categories and empirical concepts—since that's a mere "X" lying outside our forms of knowledge. And we can never know "totality", the ultimate object of philosophical knowledge, because the application of our categories is always restricted to mere appearances. We have to "bracket in" both of them.

In restricting knowledge to appearances, to what appears within the horizon of human cognition, Kant suppresses totality. This is the subject of the Antinomies of Pure Reason: every attempt by reason to ascend from a mere synthesis of appearance according to the understanding to a final synthesis of all conditions of the understanding by reason has to result in dialectical illusion. Furthermore, Kant brackets in the material (or immaterial) substratum of thought—the ultimate source of the content of our categories and empirical concepts—and he makes the categories into brute products of our unintelligible spontaneity. So you get a double-bracketing of totality and self. This corresponds to the third moment of the positivism effect, or the idea that the underlying, concrete reality lies methodologically and in principle beyond our grasp.

Since what we know we only know by virtue of applying our categories to the knowing situation, what something is before it enters into this knowing situation must be a mere "X", an indeterminate, value-neutral "given". This corresponds to the first moment of the positivism effect, according to which the data of the social sciences are "natural", value-neutral givens.

Finally, since according to Kant we are barred from knowing the subject of knowledge (the spontaneous self), the ultimate object of knowledge (totality), and the material basis of knowledge (the thing in itself), knowledge can perfect itself only through methodological refinement. This barring of knowledge from self-consciousness corresponds to the second moment of the positivism effect.

The opposite of Kant’s position would be to argue that objects cannot remain inviolate in their givenness. That is, concepts can't be empty universals under which we subsume irrational particulars. That's the first moment of the positivism effect. But to reverse this means that the phenomena themselves, the "data" of our experience, can't be value-neutral, "natural", mere givens. The reality we confront as standing over and against us has to include some determinacy of its own outside whatever our formalistic methodology tells us about it, and there must be some way for us to disclose that determinacy as well, for it to enter into our experience. This means that our concepts must be able to penetrate into the objects themselves with no irrational remainder. In other words, the content of the experience must also be determinable through and through.

Furthermore, this material basis cannot enter experience by means of a contemplative, knowing relationship without falling back on a representational, subjective point of view. The radicalism of Kant’s position lies in his account of agency: we know by virtue of our activity (acts of synthesis and the like). Yet Kant attempts to understand this agency through a representational framework. That is what ultimately makes his position bourgeois and contemplative. So by saying that in knowing we're active, Kant says we're embodied agents in the world, but then he withdraws that when he tries to make it function within a representational framework. If we can only know what we have made, if this is some version of maker's knowledge, then we need a more serious understanding of human beings as makers or determiners of the world. We need that framework of radical activity but now liberated from the contemplative stance, from a representational framework. That's what's at stake in the idea that the unity of the world is not the unity of judgment (since judgment is a way of representing) but is rather a unity of action and deed. It is at this point that Kantian critical philosophy meets dialectics as exemplified in Hegel’s account of Lordship and Bondage.


eve_prime said...

Here's a part I don't get: ...there must be some way for us to disclose that determinacy as well, for it to enter into our experience. This means that our concepts must be able to penetrate into the objects themselves with no irrational remainder.

I don't understand why we can't have experience without concepts. That is, we have experience that neatly fits into concepts and categories and "makes sense," and then we have experience that does not, that has an "irrational remainder." We can then go through some effort to make sense of it (expanding our categories or concepts, sometimes), or we can dismiss it as "bad data," some sort of perceptual fluke, or we can live with it in a sense of unease or anxiety or (if it's nice) wonder.

augenblick said...

I guess the simplest way to see it is that if my experience is going to have any determinacy, it has to be an experience of objects with properties. (If I were having experience of just "this thing here" or something like it, that wouldn't be enough for a determinate experience.) But properties aren't proper names. They're not unique individuals. If they were, each perceptual moment would be radically different from the other, and I'd never have an experience of properties (since properties, by their very nature, are general and belong to many things). So in order for experience to have any determinacy, it has to have generality, but mere sensation by itself isn't enough for generality (since sensation on its own is always changing, annihilating itself, etc.). So experience (at least at the level of perception) already has to have this general, conceptual content built into it.

Acumensch said...

It seems to me that this is part of a much larger work. There are so many ideas in this post that don't don't get explained, like the 2nd moment in positivism. I saw no defense of the representationalist-functionalist account of knowledge you're applying to Kant, although I know these exist. Patricia Kitcher, for example.

The point about on bourgeois thinking seems undefended. To do this I suppose you would have to explain why what Kant is doing distracts the working classes, or serves to some ideological 'ruling class' end. It would be interesting to see something like that.

I like your blog. I was going to write a response to this, but it seems you're working on something bigger, and this was a little excerpt.