Blogging through Critique of Pure Reason part 9: Transcendental Doctrine of Method

Series Index

Criique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant (Hackett edition)

Here we are, at the last post of this Kantian read-through.  Our hope is that, if you do set out to read through Critique of Pure Reason some day, or if you know someone who does, you can refer that person to our blog posts (there’s a handy index above) and perhaps engage the text alongside our questions.  As with before, we’ll give page numbers according to the A (1781) and the B (1787) editions.

Observation, Mathematics, and Philosophy

Kant begins this last division of the Critique with one of his rare images:

We found, to be sure, that although we had in mind to build a tower that was to reach to heaven, yet our supply of materials sufficed only for a dwelling just spacious enough for the tasks that we perform on the level of experience, and just high enough for us to survey these tasks. (A 707, B 735)

On the tail end of things here, that’s as nice a summary of Kant’s project as I could hope to find: the aim here is neither to deny reason any kind of goodness or helpfulness nor to speculate about the wild and boundless potential of reason but instead to articulate precisely what reason can and cannot do and to appreciate reason for what it does well rather than lamenting what it cannot.  In order to do that limiting work, philosophy disciplines reason when it reaches beyond its true capacity to know and strays into the realm of illusion (A 712, B 740).

Since philosophy is that discipline of reason that keeps it to its proper limits, Kant here turns to the particulars of philosophy, what distinguishes it from other intellectual pursuits.  Mathematics, for instance, is a dogmatic practice where philosophy is a critical science.  Philosophy starts with given concepts and reasons from them, where the central project of mathematics is the non-empirical construction of concepts (A 713, B 741).  Mathematics stands as one of two uses of reason: the a priori construction of concepts, which is mathematical cognition; and engagement with material content, which is a posteriori, empirical cognition (A 723, B 751).  The former does the purely conceptual work of establishing what kinds of appearances are possible; and the latter deals with the experiences that come to the mind.  Where philosophy fits in this schema is as a referee of sorts once more, keeping mathematics within its limits, making sure that mathematical cognition is dealing with concepts and never with appearances (A 726, B 754).

These limits come to be important when reason attempts to define concepts.  Kant notes that reason can only define concepts; empirical appearances can be unfolded as they happen but not defined a priori (A 729, B 757).  Mathematics, as anyone who remembers high school geometry will recognize, begins with axiomatic definitions (we called them postulates when I was in high school geometry) and works from there to proofs of more composite and complex concepts.  Philosophy, as a mode of cognition neither mathematical nor empirical, does not begin with definitions but, through the process of transcendental critique, might itself strive towards definitions but never starts with them (A 730, B 758).  Philosophy, because it begins with concepts already in place, does not have axioms the way that mathematics, whose business is constructing concepts (A 732, B 760).  Instead, philosophy begins not with axioms but with experience, proceeding from there towards systems that differ from mathematical systems but remain, like mathematics, unified as one universal mode of cognition (A 738, B 766).

This section of the Critique really started to bring things to light as I read: seeing that, for Kant, not all non-empirical conceptual work is the same helps me to see that his philosophy really does make the most sense as a critical endeavor, setting not only empirical observation and philosophical reason in their places but naming the particular modes of cognition that all practices, including mathematics, claim as proper and keeping each mode of cognition from shading into others.  And to be honest, in the circles that I travel, especially online, I do wonder sometimes whether some more attention to what a given mode of cognition properly does well and where it’s out of its proper element might do some good.  If anything, the New Atheist phenomenon gains its rhetorical punch when its writers import methodological limits of laboratory investigation over into questions of metaphysics, which have to be in place before any kind of laboratory investigation can take place.  And the overreaches of economics and sociology seem, now that I’ve been reading Kant, at least related to treating human beings, who are responsible and free agents, as the movements of inanimate forces rather than the acts of human beings.  And the strange moves of Christian apologists… well, that’s where Kant goes next, so I should too.

Apologetics, Skepticism, and the Robust Limits of Reason

Reason’s dogmatic abuses happen when one realm of cognition attempts to colonize other realms of cognition.  Polemic abuses, as Kant schematizes things, happen when reason attempts to prove things that are by reason’s nature not susceptible to proof.  The chief example that Kant musters is the duel between those who attempt to prove that God exists and those who attempt to prove that God does not exist (A 742, B 770).  Kant’s solution to the anxiety that atheist thinkers will disprove God is to insist once more on pure reason’s limits and note that pure reason, because it can only establish the conditions under which certain kinds of thought are possible, does not stand threatened by antithetical claims about the place of God in transcendental structures and thus never really comes into danger of refutation (A 744, B 772).  To put that in slightly more human terms, reason itself can say with confidence that something like God is necessary in order for moral thought to make sense but has no capacity to say that the necessary God does not exist, so the comfort here is that the certainty that God does not exist lies beyond the actual capacities of reason.  Thus the properly disciplined, reasoning mind can watch the contest between the apologists and the atheists “from the secure seat of critique” (A 747, B 775), unperturbed by the possibilities that proving or disproving God might bring about.  Thus critical thought, in Kant’s mold, stands to save the apologist and the atheist alike from the hypocrisy of too-easy certainty (A 748, B 776), leaving both sorts of contender able to embrace the humility and the candor that comes with knowing the real limits of reason.  So, turning for a moment to questions of pedagogy, Kant suggests that a proper education might guard the young from atheism for a season but, sooner rather than later, can simply teach the young the critique of pure reason and make the little boogers effectively immune to atheism (A 754, B782).

Kant insists, though, that this refusal to speculate on the existence of God is not mere skepticism but lies beyond dogma and skepticism alike in the realm of critique (A 761, B 789).  Skepticism can serve as a way-point on the way from dogmatism to a properly critical mode of thought (A 763, B 791) but cannot serve as an adequately stable ending-point for the real discipline of inquiry, largely because cognition cannot continue without structures like causation in place any more than reason can deny the antinomies inherent in claiming causation.  Instead, cause must stand neither as a feature of things in themselves nor merely custom (pace Hume) but as a structure of a priori cognitive possibility, objective rather than subjective but inherent to mind rather than inherent to thing (A 766, B 794).

To have a hypothesis about the world in the first place, certain conditions must be in place (A 770, B 798).  Transcendental reasoning helps the mind to see that, although the positive existence of soul or world or God–such would be matters of experience, and all three lie beyond the scope of experience–must remain beyond reason’s reach, yet reason must assume all three of those in order to conceive of responsibility or causation or moral ideals (A 771, B 799).  The things of reason, as a priori, must be matters of certainty, whereas the things of experience and the understanding of experience are matters of probability and thus outside the proper realm of pure reason (A 775, B 803).  So again, Kant’s consistent project is to point up claims on the part of pragmatic understanding that stray into the domain of concepts or conceptual constructs that attempt to speak authoritatively about matters of experience.  Both kinds of cognition are valid, as Kant lays them out, and the project of the Critique is to categorize them such that they remain within their proper bounds and thus say only what they’re genuinely and validly capable of saying.

Proceeding in this way, reason is both elevated, because it’s doing something real, without falling victim to illusion, and humbled because it must not venture into the territory where illusions happen (A 795, B 823).  While the freedom of the will and the immortality of the soul and the existence of God remain the ultimate aims of speculative reason (A 798, B 826), reason does not provide real knowledge of any of those three but keeps them as conditions that make practical reasoning possible (A 800, B 828).  So once again Kant posits the distinction between reasoning about what is, which objectively considers everything in terms of cause and effect, and what ought to be, which treats practical matters in terms of free will (A 802, B 830).  Because Kant’s system distinguishes strictly between the two kinds of reasoning,

 How Then Shall We Live?

In the closing run of Critique of Pure Reason Kant begins to set up the project that will occupy his Critique of Practical Reason, namely what reason can tell us about what kind of life to live under the aspect of free will, responsibility, and the ideal of God.  As he’s already established, reason cannot yield real knowledge of God or the soul (A 805, B 833), practical reason in its two aspects do promise real, rational powers, namely moral reason, which tells us what kind of life to live so that we’re worthy of happiness; and pragmatic reason, which tells us how to attain that happiness (A 806, B 834).

Here is where Kant’s earlier talk of the necessity of God comes in: because moral reasoning is always universal (what’s right for one is right for any), any connection between moral reasoning and happiness must have roots in a Supreme Being, even if speculative reason cannot prove that such a being exists (A 810, B 838).  The highest good for a human being, then, derived from the necessary Supreme Being, consists of the capacity to achieve happiness, plus the worthiness to be happy in the first place (A 814, B 842).  Because our connection to the divine is not conceptual but moral, any refinements in our conceptions of deity come not from speculative reason, whose limits fall far short of knowledge of God, but from practical reason, which always takes some vision of God as the horizon of aspiration (A 818, B 846).  So theology, as Kant sees it, is a purely moral enterprise: while it yields no real knowledge of God, it can keep us from abandoning those ways of life whose orientation towards Supreme Being make them good (A 819, B 847).

For Kant, then, our knowledge of God is something like a bet (perhaps he’d read some Pascal): our pragmatic belief in God consists of the order and acts of our life and the ways that such acts and habits assume some vision of God or another (A 824, B 852).  Faith, modest objectively but firm subjectively (A 827, B 855), takes its roots in moral ways of life, not in intellectual certainty (A 829, B 857) and stands as a negation of conceptual overreach (keeping with the critical-philosophical project) and as a strong moral force.  So the life of faith, as Kant implies here, stands as something like the moments before the contest on which the better bets (you can make it a ball game or a horse race–either one will work) resolves, stretched out indefinitely; the money’s on the table, but the moment of resolution lies beyond the bounds of experience.

So with this contradiction in place, a life of the mind governed necessarily by realities that by necessity the mind can’t know, Kant describes the grand project of this Critique as architectonic: reason’s role is to unify the manifold of experience under one idea, the concept of the whole (A 832, B 860), to keep the mind from drifting exclusively into the unity of the concept or into the manifold of experience.  Reason does not accumulate more atomic bits of knowledge but systematizes what knowledge we do have, using concepts to render manifold moments as one continuous whole (A 835, B 863).  We should seek not to learn philosophy, as a body of knowledge like chemistry or history, but to learn to philosophize, to legislate for reason, allowing reason to live out a free existence within the true nature of reason (A 839, B 867).  Metaphysical philosophy as an intellectual practice generalizes (A 844, B 872), keeping the variety of experience within a singular concept despite appearances’ tendency, on their own terms, to drift into unorganized plurality.

Turning away from this book’s project and towards the next book’s, Kant notes that as long as human beings have thought, they’ve thought of the good life and the afterlife (A 852, B 880).  As I noted before, and as our upcoming series on Infinite Jest should tell you, I’m not going to be reading Critique of Practical Reason immediately, but some day that might happen, and if it does, I’ll try to blog through it here.

At the end of Critique of Pure Reason, I’m still not a Kantian, for reasons that I’ve mentioned along the way here, but I do appreciate the power of his thought and the right place he takes in the history of European philosophy.  As with many books that I call great but don’t agree with (the list is long), I come away from Kant’s first Critique with questions that I realize I need to answer: how does mind relate to world? What makes a claim about ultimate realities such as soul or world or God valid? To what extent does my sense of reasonable and unreasonable claims rely on simple custom and to what extent on logically rigorous evaluation?

As I noted, I’m still not ultimately a Kantian, largely because I read what he’s doing both through the lenses of post-Kantian criticisms of his project and because Wittgenstein and Derrida have trained me so well to see logical systems not as self-contained but always referring to points of reference beyond their own bounds.  Nonetheless, I’m glad that I’ve read this book (twice at this point, but that’s another story) and that I’ve taken the time to write down some thoughts as I went.  I hope that, if you’re reading through Kant with me some time, what I’ve done here has been some help.

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