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.

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