Blogging Through Critique of Pure Reason, part 2: Transcendental Aesthetic and Introduction to Transcendental Logic

Series Index

  1. Introductions and the Introduction
  2. Transcendental Aesthetic and Introduction to Transcendental LogicImmanuel-Kant

Before I launch into my first contribution to our joint project on Kant, a personal note. I read substantial excerpts of Kant’s first Critique as a freshman at Whitman College in our Core course, Origins of Modernism, so it is good to go back and try, with Nathan’s help, to tackle the whole kielbasa. I recall thinking, in that first foray into Kant, or any philosophy for that matter, that this stuff was incredibly complex – and my impressions upon diving in headlong this time are no different. πŸ™‚

As I look back at my first reading of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (hereafter CPR), and compare it to the impressions I have of it now, reading more slowly and completely, I have come to appreciate far more than I did as a soon-to-be 18 year old college freshman how thorough – mindbogglingly thorough – Kant is in the way he has built the discussion he carries on with his audience (and his adversaries) in the CPR. While I understood, in summary, that Kant’s principal bugaboo that he is addressing in the CPR is the empiricism of David Hume, wherein it is claimed that knowledge is accessed only through sensory experience, I must say that my 17 year old self would never have thought it necessary to go into such excruciating detail as he does. My 45 year old self, on the other hand, β€œgets it” a bit better.

In the CPR – particularly in the opening sections – Kant gives significant place to the role of information gained through our senses. It would be impossible of course, as creatures of many senses to dismiss it – but then proceeds in the work to build a model of knowledge that incorporates both sensory data and, importantly for Kant, pure intuition that is divorced from sensory data. Both, he claims in no uncertain terms, are necessary and form the basis for understanding. In this particular work, then, Kant is building up a critique – a description, discussion, and analysis – of the pure forms of reason.

As any good philosopher does, Kant spends a great deal of the opening sections of this work defining his terms – and it is a fairly complex task to wade through many of the fine distinctions Kant makes. It can be daunting to try to keep the categories and fine divisions in mind – so as you (this is a note to myself as much as to you, dear readers) wade through this profoundly detailed tome, keep a notebook ready (and be preapred to buy a second). My endeavor in sharing my thoughts with you is not to exhaust the subject – or both Nathan and I will find ourselves writing far more than the several hundred pages of Kant’s work. I believe I share with Nathan the aim of simply giving highlights – impressions significant for us – while trying to present the broad sweep of Kant’s argument. I have no illusions about being able to do more than make a good effort at this goal – and invite your critiques, your own impressions, and reflections on both our words and those, more importantly, of the philosopher. With this, let us begin in earnest.

Kant spends most of CPR (A19/B33 – A705-B733) in a discussion of, in his words, the Transcendental Doctrine of Elements – which further is divided in to two arenas: the Transcendental Aesthetic and Transcendental Logic. Of these two divisions of the Elements, the Logic takes the lion’s share – the discussion of the Aesthetic ends at A49/B73. Largely, in these sections, what Kant is doing is laying the groundwork for the discussion of a priori sensibility and intuition. The adjective transcendental is used as a marker for the pure forms (I’m struck by the connection to Platonic ideals in all of this) of thought – those forms separated from the direct sensory experience.

It’s a commonplace to recognize that our sensory apparatus gives to our minds only the appearance of objects. I don’t think too many people would dispute with me when I claim that we have never in fact, with our eyes, directly seen any object at all. We see light that either emanates from the objects, if they are glowing, or reflects from them, if they are opaque, or is transmitted through them, revealing features inside the objects. However, the only connection between us and those objects is the light itself – not the object itself. We have no means of direct experience – only the appearance those objects have given our eyesight. The appearance of those objects is different than that which is received by the mind of a bumblebee, which sees in a different wavelength range of the electromagnetic spectrum – and certainly different than that of a person who is incapable of sight at all.

The appearances, though, are – as Kant firmly argues in the section entitled β€œGeneral Comments on Transcendental Aesthetic, A42/B59 – B73” (for instance, at B63) – all that we are able to obtain concerning objects. As he argues, β€œAll we know is the way in which we perceive [objects]”. (A42/B59) It would be inaccurate to argue that we simply – as some argue – are provided with a β€œconfused presentation of things” (B61). Rather, we deal only in the realm of appearances – and not with the transcendental object which, Kant argues, β€œremains unknown to us.” (A46) Kant, and others after him, have argued that this idea – that we know only appearances and not objects-in-themselves – is the kernel of Kant’s own Copernican Revolution in epistemology. (B xvi) Kant in this view is presaging the view of one of the architects of modern physics, Werner Heisenberg, who famously said, β€œWhat we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” (W. Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy)

One of the things that is really important to note in this, however, is that this inability to consider β€œthe thing itself” does not cause Kant to throw up his arms and give up the struggle for knowledge about them, far from it. He won’t go with Bishop Berkeley down the road of mystical idealism as a result of this and disavow the existence of material substance. His approach is rather different – affirming the existence of objects, but simultaneously appreciating the distinction between objects-in-themselves and objects-as-experienced.

Connected with this distinction is one of the more intriguing topics that Kant digs into in the first section of CPR – namely the nature of space and time. (B37-73). Naturally as a physicist, his dealing with these subjects piques my interest. Kant is wading into the midst of an argument between Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz about the nature of space and time. While Kant was influenced by Newton’s ideas, he neither takes Newton’s view of the absolute physical reality of space and time, nor will he take the side of Leibniz, who argued that space and time were simply relative quantities that are measurable between two objects or two events. Kant’s vision of space and time very much steers a middle course between his two predecessors.

Space and time, Kant argues, are examples of a priori forms of our intuition. The concepts of space and time are already present with us before encountering/experiencing any objects. If we are to consider two separate objects – or to consider an object that is not me, Kant argues (B38) is to understand the existence of space. His claim is that this knowledge is not something which is simply abstracted from experience (that is – having experienced spatial relations and spatial extent of objects, we then subsequently have a model of space within our minds), rather, it is present a priori. He argues also that space is necessary as a foundational concept. While we cannot conceive of their being no space, he argues (B39), we can certainly conceive of empty space in which objects may exist. The bottom line for Kant is that space is something for which we may derive propositions – here he leans heavily on Euclid and geometric proof – purely from intuition. No objects are actually required for us to derive universal laws a priori that actually apply – a posteriori – to objects we later might experience.

He similarly treats time – again, the notion of sequentiality and simultaneity are present, he says, in our minds already. We cannot remove from our minds the concept of time (A31/B46), but because time is present a priori, we are able to experience events as sequential, or simultaneous.

From these ideas, Kant moves toward one of his key claims – that synthetic a priori judgments are possible. The idea that two events occuring at different times cannot be simultaneous – or that two objects whose positions differ cannot coincide at the same location – are examples of synthetic propositions which are – because of their universality of application and their necessity – examples of a priori judgments. (A32/B47)

Space and time, Kant concludes, are pure forms of intution. They are transcendentally ideal – they are not attached, per se, to objects themselves – rather, to their appearances, nor are they bound exclusively to sense data. This latter property, though, is why Kant argues firmly that space and time are empircally real. They are actual, really measurable characteristics of the world, about which we can make judgments and propositions. The revolution is in the fact that we can also make judgments – synthetic judgments – concerning the a priori forms of intution.

The second big chunk of my reading for this particular post concerns the beginnings of Kant’s treatment of Transcendental Logic. Just as he discusses the ideal forms of aesthetic intuition – space and time – in this section he will begin to construct a model for the science and rules of understanding. This subject requires a far more lengthy discussion – as noted above, Kant will spend well over 600 pages in the original manuscript pagination discussing the Transcendental Logic. My remarks here will, because we will spend the next several weeks discussing these ideas, be relatively brief.

Kant’s discussion of Transcendental Logic is divided into analytic and dialectic portions – and each of these are divided into two books. Again, by transcendental, Kant is distinguishing those forms of thought which are divorced from sensory data (even in the origin of concepts and intuition), and are thus, as he describes them, pure. The Transcendental Analytic Kant describes as the dissection of our a priori cognition into the various elements of our thought. When Kant uses the term dialectic, he is in many ways not merely referring to the ancient practice of resolving disagreement thorugh reasoned argument. His use of the term is designed primarily to critique (A61) sophistry. He argues that dialectical illusion – the use of logically valid argumentation devoid of concern for truth – is β€œin no way compatible with the dignity of philosophy” (A62) and its critique therefore must be part of his transcendental philosophical system. The Transcendental Analytic is taken up in pages A64/B89 – A292/B349, while the Transcendental Dialectic forms the remainder of Kant’s treatment of Transcendental Logic (A293/B350 – A704/B732).

In Chapter I of Book I of this division, Kant introduces an analytic of concepts – the system whereby understanding is dissected. Kant aims to find a priori concepts at the root of understanding. In keeping with his intent to study only the pure forms of thought, he is systematically constructing a model for making judgments – from which all particular judgments will spring. He comments that, while Aristotle constructed a similar table of categories, he did it haphazardly (B107) while Kant has carefully and systematically obtained his results. He outlines in this chapter a set of four divisions of judgment: Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Modality (A70/B95), each containing three moments (e.g. Quantity is divided into Universal, Particular, and Singular) which are then related to four divisions of pure concepts – or categories: again, concerning Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Modality (A80/B106). Each of these divisions, then, also contains three categories – for Quantity, again, the categories are Unity, Plurality, and β€œAllness”. These twelve categories – of which we will have much to say in the coming weeks – are the pure roots of conceptual understanding (B108).

Apologies for going on as long as I have – there is so much here – so much thought worthy of digging into thoroughly. I hope at least that by these words – and by our project in general, your appetite is whetted for diving in yourself to this important philosophical treatise which is a fountainhead for much further philosophical reflection (both by those in agreement and in conflict with Kant) in the West.

Until next time,


1 thought on “Blogging Through Critique of Pure Reason, part 2: Transcendental Aesthetic and Introduction to Transcendental Logic

  1. Thanks for the discussion, Todd.

    What strikes me, as I revisit this twenty years after my own first Kant-encounter, is that, the way Kant discusses the perceiving/knowing/imagining subject, one line of responses to Kant that I’ve encountered over the years do seem to hold: the “I” doesn’t seem to be part of the world that the “I” beholds or thinks about.Β  I don’t note this to dismiss Kant entirely but to say that I’m definitely aware of my own reading CPR through the lenses of Hegel and Nietzsche and Heidegger and later thinkers responding to him.

    That said, I’m glad to continue through this book precisely so that I can see some of the places where latter-day interlocutors get Kant basically right and to see places where they distort his actual argument, so onward!

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