Was Kant Necessarily Dishonest?

 Posted by on 14 October 2004 at 12:30 pm  Kant
Oct 142004

I wrote the bulk of this post a number of weeks ago, but then abandoned it as other work piled up. Instead of re-writing it to be entirely current, I decided to just clean it up a bit and post it, as I’m still quite interested in responses to my ruminations and questions. In other words, although my thoughts on this matter have progressed somewhat, I wouldn’t regard them as settled.

This semester, I’m taking a class on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason from one of my favorite professors, Bob Hanna. (I took two good semesters of philosophy of mind from him in my first year at Boulder.) In order to thoroughly learn the material of this profoundly influential work, I’ve adopted the procedure of first reading the text carefully, then later reviewing and writing some notes on it. I actually typed the whole long passage from the B Preface below into my notes, as it fairly well encapsulates Kant’s basic project in the First Critique. (I added paragraph breaks to facilitate reading for the blog.)

As you read it, remember that Kant regards Hume as having absolutely demonstrated that the concept of causation cannot be derived from experience. Moreover, after considering the “general form” of Hume’s skeptical arguments, Kant claims that the whole of metaphysics consists of concepts relevantly similar to causation, i.e. synthetic a priori concepts. (Kant recounts that bit of intellectual history in the Preface to the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, pages 257-61.)

For those unfamiliar with Kant’s terminology, “cognition” concerns any mental representation, “intuition” is sense perception, and “understanding” is reason.

Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that objects must conform to our cognition, which would agree better with the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us.

This would be just like the first thoughts of Copernicus, who, when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and left the stars at rest.

Now in metaphysics we can try in a similar way regarding the intuition of objects. If intuition has to conform to the constitution of the objects, then I do not see how we can know anything of them a priori; but if the object (as an object of the senses) conforms to the faculty of intuition, then I can very well represent this possibility to myself.

Yet because I cannot stop with these intuitions, if they are to become cognitions, but must refer to them as representations to something as their object and determine this object through them, I can assume either that the concepts through which I bring about this determination also conform to the objects, and then I am once again in the same difficulty about how I could know anything about them a priori, or else I assume that the objects, or what is the same thing, the experience in which alone they can be organized (as given objects) conforms to those concepts, in which case I immediately see an easier way out of the difficulty, since experience itself is a kind of cognition requiring the understanding, whose rule I have to presuppose in myself before any object is given to me, hence a priori, which rule is expressed in concepts a priori, to which all objects of experience must therefore necessarily conform, and with which they must agree.

As for objects insofar as they are thought merely through reason, and necessarily at that, but that (at least as reason thinks them) cannot be given in experience at all — the attempt to think them (for they must be capable of being thought) will provide a splendid touchstone of what we assume as the altered method of our way of thinking, namely that we can cognize of things a priori only what we have ourselves put into them. (CPR B xvi-xviii)

One could say a great deal about Kant’s basic project. Yet my thoughts on it of late have largely concerned the question of whether a philosopher could ever honestly reject the idea that “our cognition must conform to the objects” in favor of the view that “objects must conform to our cognition.” In other words, can we judge Kant as necessarily dishonest on the basis of his ideas alone?

In an attempt to understand the issues involved a bit more clearly, I recently re-listened to Leonard Peikoff’s two lectures on Kant from his History of Philosophy (HP) course, as well as his discussion of inherent dishonest ideas in the final lecture of Understanding Objectivism (UA). In the UA lecture, Peikoff argues that since intellectual honesty fundamentally consists of working to rationally conform one’s ideas to the facts of reality, then no outright rejection of reason and reality can be honest. Yet he denies that that implies, for example, that Plato was necessarily dishonest for downgrading the world of sensibility in favor of the world of Forms, since he was still working to conform his thoughts to a (mistaken) understanding of reality. Similarly, even skeptics like Hume were often unable to take their own ideas all that seriously, even though they could not refute their own skeptical arguments. In sharp contrast, Kant explicitly rejects the basic aim of rationally understanding reality — asserting that such is not merely impossible but also unimportant. That basic analysis makes good sense to me, yet the case for Kant’s dishonesty still seems like too much of a floating abstraction, i.e. a mere deduction from some abstract principle.

On the one hand, I have no trouble recognizing (1) the ways in which Kant’s philosophy makes mincemeat of fundamental and self-evident truths of philosophy, (2) the terrible destruction wrought upon Western civilization by Kant’s “Copernican Turn,” and (3) the fact that Kant, as a well-educated professional philosopher, ought to be held to a higher standard than ordinary folks. Moreover, I do not think that a philosopher can arrive at any conclusions whatsoever honestly; consciousness is not infinitely malleable. Yet perhaps I don’t understand all that well enough, as I cannot quite wrap my mind around the conclusion that he was necessarily dishonest on the basis of his horrid philosophy. His writings seem too civilized for that, although perhaps that is merely a clever disguise. (Notably, many of the examples from his ethics are downright revolting.) Perhaps I am seeking some sort of explanation for Kant’s destructive rejection of reality — but perhaps that is neither possible nor reasonable nor necessary. Really, I’m not sure.

Any thoughts?

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