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A philosophickal excursion

A correspondent wrote to ask whether I could explain concisely Kant’s influence on European thought. The short answer, of course, was “no.” Still, it’s good mental exercise to give a 25-words-or-less response to an impossibly complicated question that demands more knowledge than you’ll ever have. If nothing else, it helps clarify and order your thought. And besides, I’ve been complaining a lot about Descartes lately so why not vary things? So here, more or less, is my reply:

  • Kant says you can’t know things in themselves, so the objects of our knowledge—that is to say, the world of our experience—are largely constructed by the human mind. Kant of course thought that happened through the application of particular specifiable categories of thought (like time, space and causality) to sense experience. We receive an unorganized manifold of sensory experience and the categories of our minds organize it and turn it into objects in space and time.
  • Since for Kant the categories of thought are the same and apply the same way for everyone it follows that the world and our knowledge of it remain objective in the sense that they’re the same for all rational human beings. But one could also claim contra Kant that the categories of thought aren’t fixed once for all but depend on time or place or choice. So Kantianism sets the stage for radical historicism, social constructivism, cultural relativism and the view that since we choose our scheme of categories it’s really human choice—in effect, will and power—that constructs reality.
  • Since all that’s given us is sense experience and the categories of our own thought, nothing transcending us and our thoughts and experience can tell us anything or be relevant to what we know or do. That state of affairs does away with God as a knowable reality and with substantive revelation, although the concept of God can remain as a regulatory concept that stands for the ideal completion of our system of knowlege and morality. So instead of the ens realissimum God becomes the conception that guides our striving by holding up an image of completion as a goal. He’s thus a human construction for the purposes of human life. Hence liberal religion.
  • Morality based on substantive understandings of what’s good that aren’t simply a matter of subjective taste becomes impossible, since all we have is sense, which is whatever it is but points nowhere, and the formal categories of our own thought. The only possible basis of morality then becomes the categorical imperative, the principle of acting in accordance with the formal concept of lawfulness, meaning that we should act on principles we are able coherently to will to apply universally. In effect, “don’t cheat” becomes the principle of all morality.
  • There are problems with that view: it’s hard to apply, and it’s not clear that it gives unequivocal results. It seems clear that the categorical imperative in general says “don’t lie,” because if people always felt free to lie then lying would lose most of its point. But does it say “don’t tell little white lies in social settings”? Kant would say yes, he’s an absolutist on lying and many other things, but it’s not obvious to me he’s right. Also, it’s hard to see why on his understanding of morality anyone would act morally. Where does motive come in when for Kant all our desires are non-moral and morality is just a matter of formal definition?
  • So it seems that by being hyper-rationalistic Kantian morality pushes us toward either dogmatism or toward skepticism, and in any case away from common sense and tradition and so perhaps toward the possibility of ideological rationalizations for outrageous behavior. As to dogmatism, it seems that one effect of Kant’s view has been the tendency to extract more and more of morality from content-free concepts like freedom and equality, to insist on applying those concepts universally, and to sacrifice substantive goods to them.

In general it seems what Kant did was follow Descartes in exploring the skeptical and even solipsist argument that we only know the contents of our own minds. Descartes tried to answer the argument by proving the existence of God and then arguing that since God’s a nice guy He wouldn’t let us be totally deceived about the external world. Kant isn’t convinced by those arguments so he accepts that we just know our experience but says that’s enough because our experience has the necessary coherence and stability to stand on its own without reference to anything outside it. It seems that doesn’t work either, so now we have postmodern irony—a condition in which people try to get by without even believing their own beliefs. Maybe we need to start over again.



I just have some asides.

1. It’s hard to understand Kant, and his project, without awareness of the English empiricists, especially Hume, who basically did away with mind altogether. In a sense, Kant was attempting to rescue mind from philosophical extinction, and ground its status in rationality.

2. Kant’s project to ground ethics in rationality failed. This is what is usually meant when people say something like “the failure of the Enlightenment project.” A detailed description of the failure, and the descent of ethics and moral discourse into emotivism, is provided in MacIntyre’s “After Virtue.” (Note: an attempt to ground ethics in rationality has already surrendered transcendence; it’s out the window from the outset.)

3. Kant’s fundamental metaphysical mistake—that we cannot know a “thing in itself”—is not universally held. Aristotle, for example, disagrees. David Stove, the now deceased Australian philosopher, held a contest for the “worst philosophical argument ever made,” and awarded the prize to the proposition the we can’t know a thing in itself.

4. Many people, including some philosophers (and certainly many postmodernists) construct a dichotomy (false in my view): either Kant was right and ethics is rational, or there is no basis for ethics at all (other than preference). This false dichotomy relies on premises that ensue from Kant’s earlier metaphysical mistake that we can’t know a thing in itself, and therefore we must rely on the rational processes of our minds to construct an ethic. This is nonsense. I don’t need a rational analysis to know that murder is wrong, and, in fact, rational analysis may lead to the opposite conclusion (as it did for the Soviets).

I have one more speculation, and wonder if you agree.

Kant established the modern philosophical tradition of reducing philosophy to an exercise in “thinking about thinking,” as opposed to thinking about the world, or thinking about our place in the world, or thinking about the (proper) relations in the world and between ourselves and the world. This turn away from the world, and our place in the world, seems inevitable once one posits that we can’t know things in themselves. If we can’t know things in themselves, then the only thing left to talk about is the machinery (i.e., our minds) that constructs the world (then we can argue about whose a priori irrational construction is “most rational!”—this is the ridiculous status and condition of modern moral discourse).

In other words, our minds become the center of all philosophical inquiry, and the world (including ourselves) is just a reflection of that mind.

If one adopts this analysis, does it not seem self-defeating? Would not our analysis and description of our minds and our thinking merely be a reflection (and perhaps a deceptive reflection at that) of the pre-existing structure of our minds? In other words, in describing the “rational” processes and products of the human mind, are we not merely describing a reflection as opposed to something objective or substantive? Our philosophy itself, and its methods, must then be acknowledged as merely reflections—unreliable, contingent, basically worthless (the Rorty position). So, in the end, we are caught in an endless hall of mirrors, describing reflections of reflections of ourselves. We not only can’t know anything about the world, we can’t know anything about our minds either.

Descartes escaped this cul-de-sac by positing God. But if one jettisons the agency of God, as in Kant’s analysis, I see nothing but a dead end. Kant’s wholesale reliance on rationality—as an independent ground, disembodied, disconnected from a world that we cannot know in itself—in the end undermines rationality. And when this was acknowledged, then people began to say, either in glee or in despair, “the Enlightenment project has failed.”

Nietzsche took this for granted, that the Enlightenment project had failed; thus, he wasted no time on it and moved directly to the only competing foundation for western European society: Christianity. If he could undermine Christianity, then western European civilization would be gutted of its two pillars: a rational philosophy and basis for ethics (the failure of which he assumed) and its traditional foundation in the Christian tradition.

Once the twin pillars of western European civilization have been demolished, the door is open to postmodern intellectual anarchy, on the one hand, and on the other to dogmatism of various flavors: Fascism, Communism, Utopian Liberalism. Fascism has been discredited. Communism collapsed from within, although I hesitate to say that it’s been completely discredited within intellectual circles. That leaves Utopian Liberalism (which continues to invoke “rationality” as one of its virtues).

Given that human beings trend away from anarchy as a general principle, one would expect a trend towards dogmatisms of various stripes (all the while condemning Christianity as a “mindless dogmatism”).

It does seem that if we can’t know a thing but only our own understanding of the thing, then we can’t even know the latter but only our own understanding of our own understanding of the thing. And so on. That way of course lies madness. Unless we abandon the whole line of thought and assume that we can know things themselves we’ll fall into irrational dogmatism enforced by some sort of bullying, because we can’t do without stable beliefs of some sort.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.