Friday, March 23, 2012

Elements of Transcendentalism, First Part: On the perils of hubris

The subject of tonight's blog post is hubris.

Specifically, when I set out on this little episode, the idea was to try to read around 60 pages a week.  Given the faster reading skills I was finally forced to develop during graduate school, this didn't seem such a daunting task.  

Alas, a bout of a bad cold, combined with the distractions of a North Carolina spring, doing most of my reading on the bus and then forgetting the book at work for a week, and the general density of Kant have all made this a much harder task than I'd anticipated, and I didn't anticipate it being easy.

But to go a bit further into the subject of hubris -- the whole motivation for this was my intellectual curiosity carrying me into areas where my formal education has treaded only lightly, and Ginger was kind enough to try to go down this road with me a ways.  Frankly, I'm sick of trying to fill in my gaps of knowledge with Wikipedia articles, so trying to work through some critical source texts seemed like a good idea.

The problem with this, of course, as previously addressed, is that Kant isn't starting on virgin soil.  Much of what I'm getting from him in his focus on analytic versus synthetic judgements and a priori knowledge vs. a posteriori knowledge appears to be Kant joining a conversation in the middle, largely, as I understand it, in response to David Hume.  And here I am back with Wikipedia trying to figure out what's going on.

So to go away from context and back to text for the moment, my understanding is that the transcendental aesthetic is broken down something like this: the aesthetic has to do with what we perceive sensually, that which we can observe.  This notion of transcendentalism keeps throwing me off, because my main understanding of the word is as used by Thoreau and Emerson, and outside of that I'm not familiar with any common use of the word.  Even the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines transcendentalism as "an American literary, political, and philosophical movement of the early nineteenth century, centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson."  So what the heck is Kant talking about?  My best shot at getting it is that the transcendental aspect of aesthetics has to do with the part of sensuous experience which is available to cognition, or maybe to be more precise, that which can be synthetic.  To Kant, this apparently is limited to space and time, although I don't really follow him there.  

Which gets back, once more, to the point about hubris.  The notion is that I can just pick up Kant, read his primary work, and from that extract Kant's contemporary relevance.  This aspect of the transcendental aesthetic, as one of what Kant refers to as elements of transcendentalism, doesn't appear to have gained as much traction as other aspects of what Kant is talking about.  I think what this means is that I'm going to need to do is read this thing, then read a number of secondary sources about it, so this project grows a bit.

And now my bus stop is coming up....

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Introduction, IV-VII

I realize that we're only in the introduction, and that the real arguments are yet to come, but there's a jump here I'm going to have to work through carefully, because it's not coming immediately.  And hey, why not in this space?

We started out so promisingly, "That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt." (Introduction I) Yes, I'm totally with you there, Immanuel.

But then, here we are at the end of the introduction, with "The most important consideration in the arrangement of such a science is that no concepts should be admitted which contain anything empirical, and that the a priori knowledge shall be perfectly pure."  (Introduction VII, incorrectly marked II in my edition, I think)  But if all knowledge begins from experience, how can there exist any knowledge that does not contain anything empirical?

I'm getting the impression that the point of the introduction is to complete the walk between these two points, and I'm struggling with that.  In the early introduction, Kant declares that knowledge must begin with experience, but not necessarily arise from experience.  I'm not getting this distinction (maybe this is clearer in the German), so let's start at the other end and walk backwards.

Kant wants to talk about "pure reason" (obviously), so do I think such a thing exists?  I want to demand that any form of reason inherently derives from the physiological constraints of the human brain in considering acquired experiences.  And Kant covers it there in the introduction.  Kant points us at mathematics as a science of pure reason, and dismisses critics who say that pure reason can't exist by pointing to mathematics, and saying, if you say this can't exist, then you're saying mathematics doesn't exist, and plainly it does.

My first instinct is to counter and demand that mathematics derives from the observed properties of objects abstracted in the mind and then contested with each other based on their own rules, and that any application to the empirical -- that is to say, any grounding mathematics has in objective reality -- is in its ability to imperfectly but practically model the behavior of reality.  But then, as I write this out, I realize that this conception of how mathematics works derives from my previous understanding of the school of philosophy that begins with none other than Kant.

So, here's where we are, I think.  Kant wants to describe "pure reason."  Inasmuch as I don't think that truly exists, I can't deny that there is very clearly, a la mathematics, something that we experience as pure reason, and that this demands an analysis.  Or, perhaps, as Kant puts it, transcendental philosophy.  And yes, it certainly merits critique.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

fleshing out that also with...

Hi, I'm Ginger, and I'm a lapsed librarian.  I have an academic background in political philosophy and information organization.  I've done some coursework in math structures and philosophy of mathematics, which probably gives me just enough rope on those topics to hang myself.

And while I told Michael in conversation that I hadn't read much secondary material, I realized as I started reading the Critique of Pure Reason that there was one significant secondary source that will probably be shaping my reading - "Doubt: A History" by Jennifer Michael Hecht is a book I've read several times, and I feel that it's strongly influencing my reading, especially in my general sense of context for the work.

My copy of the Critique of Pure Reason is from 1952, published by Encyclopedia Britannica as part of the University of Chicago great books series.  The translation is by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Also also with Ginger Weil

I'm pleased to post that Ginger Weil, my friend and classmate from Carleton College, will be joint blogging here with me, when the spirit moves her.

Introduction, Parts I-III

Running behind, unsurprisingly.  Here's a response I drafted Saturday to parts I-III.

In another aborted internet discussion of philosophy once upon a time between Carleton alums, with a philosophy Ph.D. student leading a discussion of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, I wrote a response to the first chapter that effectively consisted of, "okay, I get general idea X, but that seems obvious, and all of these specifics seem wrong."  I can't even remember what it was, the leader of the discussion responded that basically I had conceded the major idea Freud was arguing for as his major premise, and the concepts I had taken issue with were effectively asides or illustrative anecdotes.  In short, as I remember him putting it, it's now Freud's world and we just live in it.

In reading Kant's introduction, I feel like I'm in much the same situation.  The thrust of the first three sections seems to be laying out a rubric for what can be considered a priori knowledge (or that which we know in advance of experience), and arguing it into a very small corner.  Perhaps I should have started with Plato instead of Kant, as it appears that Plato is the foil with which Kant is jousting here, but my issue is that Kant doesn't go far enough.  In short, he lays out certain principles such as gravity, which I would generally term scientific laws, and tries to carve out a small space for a priori knowledge along with what he terms the perfection of mathematics.  My issue is that he carves out any space for a priori knowledge at all.  I'm resisting the temptation to launch into my speculations about the epistemological origins of mathematics and its contingent nature because I've just started this project, but I'm not sure I believe that any knowledge can be considered a priori in the sense that Kant describes it.  All that said, with my minimal background in philosophy, I suspect that I'm simply going along the road that Kant mapped out, and if that thought is true, I've already given Kant the victory over his primary targets in this space.

Friday, February 24, 2012

a priori

My reading of Kant in this exercise is not exactly without foreknowledge of what's to come.  This is not just because I've made a couple of aborted forays into the text before getting distracted, but because I've covered Kant in a couple of academic courses.  More to the point, those synopses, such as from David Livingston's The Geographical Tradition, have made enough of an impact on me that I find myself basing a lot of my thinking on religion, politics, and epistemology in general centered around certain Kantian constructs.  I'm going down enough mental rabbit holes around this that I figure it's time to both ground it in a reading of the primary text, and to read the considerable philosophical work which emerged in response to Kant, which it doesn't make much sense to read if I haven't read the seminal text.

With that said, this is a summary of my understanding of the structures Kant erects in the critique, and how I tend to apply them.

The most central idea that I'm aware of from the critique is that of the division between on the one hand matter as it exists its mind-independent state, or the noumena, and on the other hand objects that exist as we perceive them or register them in our minds, or as phenomena.  I realize that quite a bit more must exist in the 500 pages of translated english* I have, even given the German disposition toward verbosity, but this is the division I've read the most about and which drives me to return to the source.  My understanding of history is that at the time of Kant's writing of the Critique, there was disagreement within the scholars of the Enlightenment on how to balance reason, in its logical progression from first principles, with empiricism, with its orderly examination of the world as we perceive it.  The Critique's historical importance largely derives from its ability to settle this debate, by illuminating that our empirical understanding of the world and our ability to rationally interpret it meet in the mind around phenomena.

At this point, it's safe to say that I'm about 98% in agreement with Kant on this score.  Or rather, I'm in agreement with what I think Kant is saying, although I'm far from certain that I have it right.  I'm aware of two primary 20th century disagreements with Kant -- one from Nietzsche, and one from Rand.  Nietzsche's frustration with Kant, as I get it, goes something like this: you've now defined the noumena as the world which we can never truly see and never truly comprehend, but then you go on to discuss what it looks like.  Make up your mind, Immanuel, either we can't directly fathom the noumena except through the phenomena, or we can.  I gather that Nietzsche incorporated this further into a narrative of Enlightenment leading us to a point of confounded philosophy, but I haven't read the text.

A much more strident criticism comes from Ayn Rand, who apparently thought Kant represented everything that was wrong with 19th century philosophy, and that his cautionary program delineating our limited access to the objective world enfeebled our ability to take the actions required of great men.  Indeed, the name of her philosophical school, Objectivism, reflects her belief that at least some men (and she did seem to believe it was mostly men) have the ability to understand the world objectively and act on that knowledge.  My only confusion here is whether to look at this as her "original sin" error from which the rest of her noxious, grandiose bile emerged, or whether this particular error emerged naturally from a patently deranged brain.  I would say that beyond this it's safe to ignore her, but unfortunately the world is currently awash in Randian nonsense, so perhaps one way to undermine that and attempt to return sense to the philosophical and political discourse is to reiterate Kant's Critique.  

* My copy is a paperback from a used bookstore published in 1966, translated by F. Max Muller, published by Doubleday under the Anchor Books imprint.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Right, then...

Hi, my name is Michael, and I'm a lapsed academic.

(Hi, Michael!)

Maybe it's too much to call me lapsed.  Maybe I'm a failed academic.  I took the master's degree out of my program in Geography, and after a year as a professional geographer, I'm back in system administration, which is fairly intellectually unstimulating, but isn't too bad and pays the bills.

The internet is a terrible place for a bored mind.  I find myself spending hours scratching philosophical itches with suspect sources like Wikipedia and whatever blogs I can find.  Great for a moment of curiosity, but not terribly good for more in-depth thinking.

With that in mind, this is an experiment, to try to work through some philosophical texts, starting with a few canonical ones, and write responses to them.   I've had a few friends tell me via social media that they might be interested in joining me, so there may be other voices chiming in.

I'm starting with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and as a way to get myself through this, am attempting approximately 15 pages a day during each of the 40 days of Lent, taking Sundays off.  (Yeah, I know it's an odd combination...)  I'll be aiming for a daily response posted here, but it might not happen each time. If this works out, I'm hoping to get to some Wittgenstein, perhaps some more Letour, but baby steps for now.

Let's see how this goes...