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.