Blogging through Critique of Pure Reason part 5: Noumena, Phenomena, and Transcendental Dialectic

Series Index

About the time Todd’s travel schedule allowed him to dig back into this series, my own summer travels picked up, and you know what that means: we just Kant get these done as quickly as we’d like.

Yes, I had to make that joke.

As with previous posts, I’ll be using the Penguin edition of Critique of Pure Reasonbut all references to the text of Critique of Pure Reason (CPR hereafter) will refer to the 1781 text (A) and the 1787 text (B) where applicable.

Wrapping up Transcendental Logic

Kant begins this section dispensing with one of the central doubts of Descartes and later of Berkeley, namely that there might or might not be an external world, but the only certainly available is that the mind exists.  Paying attention to the way the self actually works, Kant notes that the self only knows the self in terms of thoughts, and the way thoughts work, a person will have a thought now that she didn’t have just a moment ago, and that assumes the passage of time.  Since time is itself a phenomenon of the world, not of the self, the world must exist in order for the self to know the self at all (B 275-76).  CPR doesn’t leave the matter simply to logic, though: turning to the ways in which we know that time passes, he notes that temporal awareness, which is logically prior to self-awareness, itself relies on objective changes in the world around us (B 277-78).

The relationships between objective world and reasoning self are always dialectical, though: the concepts of actual happenings, potential happenings, and necessary happenings are functions of reason, not things that one can receive as sensory experience (A 233-34, B 286).  To use the classic high-school-science-class example, the potential energy that a heavy object on a high shelf represents is something that reason can anticipate and even calculate, but nothing about the object on the shelf transmits that potential energy directly to the senses.  Likewise the difference between a cat potentially entering the room and a cat actually being in the room is a function of reason.  After all, when one observes the cat in the room, there’s no way to measure any capacity the room had before the cat came into the room (such a counter-factual room is also a function of reason); one must posit concepts about rooms and the passage of time and the relationships between states-of-room and states-of-cat.  Such a distinction doesn’t make the category “potential room” unreasonable; it makes it reasonable categorically.

But the categories “potential” and “actual” are not themselves knowledge but just the shape that knowledge could possibly take (B 288).  As before, the potential of a room to involve a cat does not “belong” to the room itself but decidedly stands as a combination of one of reason’s capacities (to distinguish between potential and actuality) and the senses’ capacities (to see a cat or to see a room without a cat).

Ultimately, for Kant, the importance of these distinctions between potential-for-knowledge, objects-of-knowledge, and combinations-that-constitute-knowledge are that they make possible true self-knowledge, the distinction between the products of experience and the framework that makes experience possible (B 293-94).

Because all knowledge is objective, which is to say that it involves a thinking self apprehending the appearances of non-self entities by means of senses and categories, two ranges of philosophical terms become, by definition, inaccessible, even as they retain names for the sake of drawing that boundary.  On one hand, the categories do not exist, strictly, though non-existence is a logical determination, not something apprehensible as an experience (A 243-44, B 301-302).  On the other, as soon as we distinguish logically between the appearance of the object and the thing-in-itself, logically we open up a certain space that lies beyond the limits of experience, which Kant calls the noumenal (B 306-307).  Such a beyond-experience does not have any positive content of its own and thus is not susceptible to experience; it only “takes up space” in the sense that the distinction makes it necessary (B 307).  As you can see, Kant’s project requires a fair bit of precision in language (though you can’t see the seven versions of that last two sentences I went through to avoid lexical landmines).

Thus CPR’s big vocabulary terms are not merely two–noumena and phenomena–but three, namely category, noumena, and phenomena.  Only phenomena really appear as experiences to us, but the logic of the system requires that categories precede the experience in order to make form possible and that noumena precede the experience in order to give the form something with which to engage.

Amphiboly–Is That Like a Switch-Hitter?

I learned a new word going through this section of CPR: amphiboly.  Ambphibolies happen when, in the course of talking about this or that, ambiguities in the grammar–whether questions of modifier-placement or of singular and plural pronouns–threaten conceptual errors.  So think of the text of the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Among the many things people dispute about that brief text, an amphiboly makes it hard to tell whether “a well regulated militia” and “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” are two items, neither of which Congress shall infringe, or whether the second phrase stands in apposition to the first, merely renaming the militia which is the real object of the law.

But that ain’t what I come here to talk about.

CPR will spend a fair span of pages dealing with amphibolies in particular realms of inquiry, but first Kant criticizes some of his predecessors’ attempts to theorize reflection, the process of thinking about one’s own thoughts (B 316, A 260).  In their rush to provide unified theories of reality, Kant argues, both the empiricist Locke and the rationalist Leibniz missed the mark.  Where Locke reduces concepts to mere traces of experienced-and-remembered sense impressions (B 327, A 271), Leibniz neglects the sensible, flattening all things into concepts (B 333, A 277).  Kant’s claim to a better philosophy lies in the fact that he not only keeps the two separate but renders the separation inviolable so that reason cannot engage in any careless incursions into the territory of the senses, and sensory experience does not lend any form to the a priori reasoning capacities, and none of the above claims true knowledge of things-in-themselves.  Reason remains un-influenced by history and culture precisely because it’s there, purely as form, before any sensory experience offers content to be shaped by the universal categories of human reason.

Man, that was hard to write.  Those who have known me a while should appreciate just how postmodern (and how Aristotelian) I’m discovering I still am.  Of course sensory experience lends form to the way we categorize the world–otherwise a physician wouldn’t see anything in an x-ray beyond what I do.  Disciplined participation in human practices has as one of its internal goals the transformation of our categories–that’s the point of the Tao De Ching as well as Christian conversion, and if I’m not mistaken, at least part of the project of cultural anthropology is to document all the ways in which logic (even if it’s not systematized in treatises) develops differently in different goegraphic and historical moments.

But I should get back to Kant.

An object in the world (and remember that, for Kant, both objects and world are functions of the mind) is purely an array of relationships; to be an object means to be an object of some mind’s perception or many minds’ perceptions, and to be in the world simply means to be located in the continuous network of relationships into which the mind arranges all perceptions (B 341-42, A 285).  A noumenon, then, is simply a non-objective thing (B 342, A 286).  But there’s where the amphiboly comes in: if we say that an object is a thing-in-relationship, then our grammar leads us to think that there must be a larger set of “things” which involves objects but also includes noumena, those things-which-are-not-objects.  CPR argues that such a grammatical necessity (and he doesn’t deny the grammar) is an amphiboly, a trick of grammar that leads us to posit concepts that don’t have any proper place in a critical examination of reason.

Thus the concept of amphiboly is going to drive much of the analysis in this section of the book.  Kant is interested in distinguishing between logical organon, a critical limitation of what reason actually does, and amphiboly, errors that arise when one assumes that grammar actually reflects a valid conceptual structure.  Thus the noumenon, arguably one of Kant’s most famous words, does not name a concept at all but a territory which is by definition non-categorical and non-sensible (B 345, A 288-89), and the word does not name a thing so much as it limits the range of things that reason can truly name.

Transcendental Illusion

Kant sets out in the next chapter to delineate some of the illusions that arise because of logic.  He starts out noting carefully that an appearance is not an illusion (B 349, A 293).  After all, appearances, as sensible experiences, are objectively true, whereas illusions have to do not with sensory experience at all but with logical amphiboly.  The job of dialectic, then, is not so much to generate knowledge–that’s the job of sensory observation–but to guard against logical illusions that arise when we take all of our own words as true (B 354, A 297-98).  To reiterate the book’s larger, self-stated project, a critique of pure reason has as its main task to pare away those illusions of logic that most readily lead to error so that reason can leave knowledge-generation to the senses and understanding and do its own true, ethical work.

Reason, as CPR defines reason, is “the faculty of principles” (B 356, A 299), the ability of the mind to simplify the objects of the senses and the judgments of the understanding by articulating them in terms of universal statements and then bringing those statements into relationship with each other in the form of valid syllogisms (B 357-358, A 300-302).  I’m not sure whether Kant invents or inherits the threefold division of syllogisms into categorical, hypothetical, and disjunctive (I’d be glad for a reader to inform me), but this is the section in which he first names those kinds of syllogisms for the reader (B 361, A 304).  But once again Kant takes special care to separate out elements of cognition, noting that reason only lends universal form to thought; the process of deciding whether a line of syllogistic reasoning validly encompasses a particular phenomenon is the work of judgment, not of reason (B 364, A 307).  Thus pure reason, as CPR divides things, only names those a priori concepts that the mind brings to bear on objects of understanding (B 366-67, A 310), not the sensory or judging processes.

Kant makes a rare foray into application at this point, noting that Plato shows an early sign of this distinction, refusing to let examples serve as principles in the Republic (B 370-372, A 314-15).  Instead, the faculty of reason, dealing as it does only with universal realities, always pulls towards eternal things against what the senses see and the understanding judges upon.  Thus CPR insists that the aims of good government should not simply replicate what has been seen but to strive for the greatest possible freedom, conceived precisely by the reason as universal (B 372-73, A 316), and with regards to political order, “experience is, alas! but the mother of illusion; and it is altogether reprehensible either to derive or to limit the laws of what we ought to do from what is done (B 375, A 318-19, emphasis original).  Here the Kant of the famous sapere aude essay is back, and the connection with his critique is fairly clear: if indeed experience, understood correctly, happens entirely distinct from reason, then any conservatism in human government by definition stands as unreasonable, deriving notions of what might be good now from what has been good for other moments.  Instead Kant calls for a sort of Platonic radicalism, deriving concepts of freedom and justice from reason alone, never experience, and judging between possibilities not in terms of memory but only in terms of ideas.

Kant returns to the syllogistic categories (which, now that I’m reviewing and not reading for the first time, he seems to assume rather than to invent) to demonstrate that the syllogisms hold in common an unconditioned nature: each represents a kind of relationship without putting any phenomena in relationship (B 379, A 323).  Thus ideas are absolute in character, unlimited by the content of any particular experience and thus applicable to an infinite range of possible thoughts.  To use Kant’s words, transcendental ideas “consider all empirical knowledge as determined by an absolute totality of conditions” (B 384, A 327).  So once again CPR keeps things on the level of the objective: syllogisms do not know themselves but experience, and a priori, as pure reason, they do not know any particular experience but stand capable of encompassing all possible experiences.

Here Kant nods to the next division of what will become his three-part critique: where pure reason, with the power of universal, absolute ideas, deals only in unconditioned rules, practical reason brings those rules to bear on the acts of free, rational beings (B 385, A 328).  Thus what is absolutely rule-bound can relate to what is free, though once again the barriers between the concepts, the phenomena, and the noumena remain inviolable.  Even so, Kant does provide a handy guide to the elements of a syllogism:

Reason, if considered as a faculty of a certain logical form of knowledge, is the faculty of inferring, that is of judging mediately (by subsuming the condition of a possible judgement under the condition of a given judgement).  The given judgement is the universal rule (major premise, maior).  Subsuming the condition of another possible judgement under the condition of the rule is the minor premise.  The actual judgement, which contains the assertion of the rule in the subsumed case, is the conclusion (conclusio). (B 386-87, A 330)

Okay, so it’s a handy guide in Kant-prose.  To translate a bit, since a rule is by definition universal, encompassing all possible experiences, the act of articulating a syllogism applies that universal rule to this particular experience.

Heading into the next book of the Transcendental Dialectic (and Todd’s next post), CPR previews three realms of inquiry whose amphibolies Kant will dissect:

All pure concepts in general aim at a synthetic unity of representations, while concepts of pure reason (transcendental ideas) aim at unconditioned synthetic unity of all conditions in general.  All transcendental ideas, therefore, can be arranged in three classes: the first containing the absolute (unconditioned) unity of the thinking subject; the second the absolute unity of the series of conditions of appearance; the third of the absolute unity of the condition of all objects in general. (B 391, A 334)

For those still getting used to Kant-prose, the next span of CPR will deal with psychology (the thinking subject), cosmology (the conditions of experience), and theology (all objects in general).  Kant’s project will be to expose and to warn the reader away from the amphibolies lurking in each, and you just Kant beat that.

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