Blogging through Critique of Pure Reason part 3: Transcendental Synthesis

Series Index

  1. Introductions and the Introduction
  2. Transcendental Aesthetic and Introduction to Transcendental Logic
  3. Transcendental Synthesis

When Critique of Pure Reason (hereafter CPR–Todd had a good idea with that one) starts laying out how the mind stand capable, prior to any sensory experience, of having complex thoughts, the job of the Kant-editor gets tricky.  Unlike most of the book, in which the 1787 edition might be more expansive than the 1781 but more or less keeps the first edition as an outline, this particular section of CPR, in the Penguin edition at least, actually splits the page because the actual content of the sections differs.  I’m not nearly enough of a Kant scholar to do studies of influences and such on the changes, but the content of the sections is interesting enough that I do want to treat both, so that’s what I’m going to do.

As with previous posts, page numbers will be in terms of the A manuscript (1781) and the B manuscript (1787).

Before the Split: Why Transcendental Synthesis?

To start off, Kant establishes that he’s not as dense as we might suspect: most of us learn to count when someone in our lives, a parent or a sibling or some other good soul, places apples or rocks or some other object–something that we can see and thus not a priori–in front of us and counts “one, two, three,” and so on.  He wants to distinguish, though, between the history of acquiring the concept of number and the capacities to think that must be in place, whether we have the philosophical training to name them or not, for that encounter actually to happen (A 85, B 118).  Thus Kant distinguishes between empirical intuition, in which the mind’s capacity to know encounters objects that the mind knows, and the a priori or transcendental intuition, which gives form to the manifold thing.

Manifold is one of those words that I learned first as part of a car (the intake manifold, to be precise), so I had to look this one up in a Kant dictionary (yes, they do publish those).  “Manifold” names the process by which a singular subject experiences a plurality of representations and then makes sense of them.  Time and space, the intuitions that Todd outlined in the previous post, are the tools by which the mind does so.  So every time we see objects arranged so that these objects are higher than those, and every time we watch events transpire so that these moments happen after those, our own intuitions of space and time are arranging the manifold in certain ways so that the world, as experienced, always conforms to the ways that our minds process things.

But to step beyond simple space and time to more complex relationships like cause and effect, something beyond intuition must be in place.  Intuitions, in Kant’s system, simply make experiences possible.  On the other hand, concepts order experience in ways that are impossible to derive simply from objects encountered in terms of space and time (A 91, B 124).  For example, an intuition of time can arrange representations so that my neighbor’s striking a match, the placement of the burning match underneath kindling, and the ignition of a more significant fire happen in sequence, but there’s nothing inherent in the match that establishes a necessary causal relationship between it and the fire.

That term “necessary” is a sticking point for Kant: he grants David Hume’s point that, as sensing creatures, we can establish customs of mind that expect certain things to follow others, but as a man of science, he also wants to establish a stronger notion of cause and effect, a way of talking about things such that the lit match ignites the kindling not as a matter of probability  but by necessity, so that our response to a fire that does not light is not something along the lines of “Well, that might happen next time or it might not” but “When that did not ignite, some other cause must be operative.”  For us moderns, such a concern for scientific efficient cause is at the core, intellectually, of too much merely to leave it as a matter of non-necessary randomness, so Kant turns to a priori combination in order to explain how cause and effect can go beyond mere custom and become a necessary feature of knowledge.

Before I go into Penguin’s split-screen section, I should note that Kant does make an important distinction at this point between a thing’s existing and a thing’s objective nature.  Contrary to what many of us learned in the nineties, when Kant uses the term “objective” he’s talking about a thing’s relationship to the subject, not the thing in its own terms (A 94, B 125).  Thus the phrase “objective truth,” as Kant will use it, always assumes a relationship with a knower, while a “thing in itself” (I can’t think of a more precise way to phrase that one) does not stand susceptible to claims of truth or non-truth because, once somebody perceives an object and asserts something of it, so that truth becomes possible, the knowing subject is already involved.  Thus to know something objectively really does mean to know it as the object of perception and thought, and once somebody tries to articulate what it would mean to know something without one’s knowledge getting involved, the logic really does have some appeal to it.  Once more I hear Hegel in one ear and Heidegger in the other as I read these sections, and ultimately I think their philosophies are more adequate to the reality at hand because they pay more attention to the self’s place as part of the world.  But on its own terms I can’t deny that there’s a systematic appeal to Kant’s division of things.  No matter, though: on to the split screen!

 Take the A Text: Imagination and Knowledge

In 1781 CPR focused the section on the mind’s capacity to combine representation on those capacities of mind necessary to have an experience in the first place.  The three elements of knowledge, that state of being that remembers relationships between representations, are apprehension, reproduction, and recognition (A 97).  As the mind takes in the manifold of representation, intuitions of time and space allow the thinking-self to apprehend objects as objects.  Then, within the mind because objects themselves do not contain “cause” or other such things, the mind reproduces the represented events, combining them with the mind’s own powers to connect things as causes and effects.  Finally, the mind recognizes in the perceived object the combinations that occurred in the mind itself.  (As I write these things, Bert Dreyfus’s lectures on Heidegger are decidedly replaying in my head, which makes it hard to hear Kant on his own terms.)  Thus every empirical experience that is possible for a human mind is always already linked to the contours of empirical imagination, our capacity to combine things in terms of cause and effect, relative location, and other such complex relationships (A 100).

Because all of our experiences rely on those a priori categories (A 101), things as they exist outside of our knowledge must remain simple variables, not subject to explanation (A 104).  The thing itself is not nothing, but it must remain, by definition, nothing-to-us (A 105).  Thus Kant’s notion of knowledge remains complex: our knowledge is always of objects, not of things.  Thus scientific knowledge (which for Kant is ultimately what’s important) is always objective knowledge, truth that conforms to our minds and which might or might not conform to the things themselves (A 109).  By extension, “nature” is a network of relationships established not by anything inherent in things but always by our own mind’s tendencies to bring all perceptions, disparate as they might be, into some sort of unity (A 114).  At this turn in Kant’s earlier version of CPR, I was astonished at just how much of T.S. Kuhn’s work CPR anticipates: just as Kuhn does, Kant assumes that all of our knowledge relates to real things but that what we know about real things always stands as a function of the conceptual frameworks with which we perceive and ask questions about things.  Kuhn obviously adds a historicist dimension to the project, but the link between empirical observation and intellectual theory is already there in the eighteenth century.  (I beg pardon of those of you out there who had already read Kant; you likely already knew all of this.)

Thus for representations to become knowledge, to take form as relationships of objective realities that allow for further research, the subject is necessary to the complex interactions that make knowledge (A 124).  As Nietzsche would later lampoon in “On Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense,” Kant’s theory of scientific knowledge is precisely that the human mind places orders of cause and effect and of relative motion in nature, then the mind discovers precisely that kind of order “out there” among the objects of our knowledge (A 125).  Human understanding, ultimately, is the “lawgiver of nature” (A 126).  But Kant’s project does not seem, like Nietzsche’s, to be an unveiling of lies so much as an exploration of what we actually mean when we tell the truth: we can share a quest for objective truth, but that truth remains objective, governed by the ways that the mind receives the manifold and renders objects from it.  Thus postmodern critiques of Kant stand suspicious of his philosophy not because it claims to have unmediated knowledge of things (it doesn’t) but because it assumes a universal rather than a historical system of categories for apprehending the same.

Time to Make B Sides: Concepts and Self-Knowledge

Six years later Kant’s focus shifts dramatically in this section, and his vocabulary shifts from imaginative to subjective, presumably to establish some distance between imagination (apprehending non-present objects) and combination (which for Kant always occurs inside the subject but might involve objects that are immediately present).  Thus in his later version of the combination chapter, Kant asserts that combination, relationships of cause and effect and relative size and otherwise, always happen first in the subject before becoming characteristic of the object (B 130).  In order to take manifold representations and make them unified thought, Kant claims, some unity called the subject must be involved (B 134).

Thus the statement “I feel the object’s weight” make sense in ways that the statement “The thing is heavy” does not (B 142).  The way that one pairs the grammatical subject with the verb in Kant’s philosophy matters greatly: whatever one says about objects, to review, one says about objects-in-relationship, so objective knowledge is also always subjective knowledge, given that there’s a knowing subject apprehending and representing and recognizing the known object.

CPR’s B-text addresses a line of inquiry in 1787 upon which it remained silent in 1781, namely the nature of the knowing subject.  The first foray into the matter has to do with the categories, and it’s not much of a foray: the categories of cause and effect and of hypothetical and disjunctive syllogism are there, and one could conceive of logics that start other places, but why we have this logic and not that must remain for us a mystery (B 145).  Beyond that, though, Kant distinguishes between productive and reproductive imagination, or the difference between combining things as a function of remembering (reproductive) and combining things that are possible but not remembered (productive–B 152).  The productive imagination thus can think things that are not present to the sensing subject or even which have not yet existed yet stand in relationships conceivable by the categories (B 154).

That’s where Kant finally comes to the question of self-knowledge, and even if he’s not satisfying he’s consistent: the self, because it’s not a matter of empirical knowledge, can only be known by means of productive imagination, and whatever knowledge we have of ourselves is, like all other knowledge, subject to the contours of the categories (B 157-58).  Once again, because I’m approaching Kant as a post-Kantian reader, I want to know why the knower in this strange diagram seems yet to be exempt from the objective character of everything else, but as I said before, even if I’m not satisfied, I have to tip my hat to CPR’s consistency: whatever the subject encounters, the subject encounters it as object, not as any other sort of thing.

The final upshot of the 1787 version of CPR is not unlike the 1781, even if the emphasis is different: what becomes objective must start as subjective, and anything that we discover in the world must first have its formal relationships in the discovering subject (B 162-63).  The further into the book we get (and we’re not even a quarter through yet, by my page count), the more I realize that I’m reading this book decidedly as a post-Kantian, someone whose philosophical background is heavy in Hegel and Marx and Nietzsche and Wittgenstein and all sorts of folks who were contending with this giant of philosophy.  That’s not fatal to my appreciation, to be sure, but I also can’t pretend that my reaction to CPR is anything like an eighteenth-century reader’s.

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