Saturday, 6 August 2011

The History of Philosophy as Philosophy: (2). Fixing Up Kant




P. F. Strawson described his book on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, entitled The Bounds of Sense, as follows: ‘it is by no means a work of historical-philosophical scholarship. I have not been assiduous in studying the writings of Kant’s lesser predecessors, his own minor works or the very numerous commentaries which two succeeding centuries have produced.’ Here Strawson lists some criteria that a historically oriented approach today might ideally be expected to meet, but he also indicates that he is not going that route. His intent is to read and reread the Critique so as to produce ‘an uncluttered and unified interpretation’. He wants to interpret the doctrines in a way that emphasizes what can be made ‘acceptable’ while jettisoning what cannot be repaired. Acceptable by what standard? By the standards of philosophy as Strawson sees them; indeed, by standards of argument such as those exhibited in his previous book, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics, which broached many themes found in his Kant book.

Strawson says that the aim of his book is to present an interpretation of ‘the system of thought which the Critique contains’ that is ‘at least strongly supported by the text as it stands’. But he also makes clear that this interpretation will ‘show how certain great parts of the structure can be held apart from each other, while showing also how, within the system itself, they are conceived of as related’. Here, he is talking about keeping the doctrine of transcendental idealism apart from the conceptual analysis of the conditions of experience, while also explaining why Kant might have seen a need to connect them. He further indicates that he has ‘tried to give decisive reasons for rejecting some parts altogether’. Here, he means the whole of what he terms ‘transcendental psychology’, which includes Kant’s discussion of various faculties of cognition (sensibility, understanding, reason) and the central role that Kant gives to the notion of synthesis in some main arguments (in the Deduction and Analytic of Principles). What is to replace Kant’s detailed discussions of judgement as synthesis? Analysis of ‘our ordinary reports of what we see, feel, hear, etc.’ (a popular midtwentieth- century philosophical idiom). Indeed, he asserts as a philosophical axiom (as it were) that ‘no faithful reports of these experiences are in general possible which do not make use of the concepts of the objects which our experiences are experiences of ’ (a conclusion of Individuals).

Strawson suggests that Kant, in the Deduction of the categories, argued that the conditions on any possible experience (like ours) are the conditions for objective judgements (or objective descriptions) of a uniquely ordered spatio-temporal world of objects. To conceive of experience as a sequence of representations is, it turns out, to presuppose that the conditions have been met for experiencing an objectively ordered world. Strawson’s reconstruction is a generally plausible, and philosophically interesting, construal of local features of Kant’s argument. Similarly, Strawson’s discussion of the law of cause as a condition on objective experience may well reveal something about Kant’s own position. Strawson has perhaps repackaged certain Kantian insights about experience and its conceptual structure. To be sure, his book does not show that Kant understood or developed these insights in a Strawsonian manner. Still, besides being philosophically interesting in its own right, Strawson’s book offers material that might be used by someone who was trying to understand Kant—even by those trying to read him in context.

None the less, Strawson’s book would not help in reading many parts of Kant’s text, or in interpreting many of its central doctrines, for Strawson ignores or rejects these. He mentions (but provides little discussion of) Kant’s primary objective in the first Critique: to discern the limits to traditional metaphysics. Indeed, Strawson provides no general characterization of traditional metaphysics at all, but simply lists some doctrines that Kant himself names (concerning the immaterial soul, the structure and existence of the cosmos, and the existence of God). It is here especially that some attention to historical context might have helped him to see what Kant was after. Strawson instead renders Kant’s project in terms of the familiar mid-twentieth-century idiom of seeking a ‘principle of significance’ to govern ‘what we can say’. He thus ignores Kant’s own way of framing the bounds of sense: that is, through a strict limit on any use of the faculty of understanding independently of the senses, and a strict limit on treating sensory knowledge as determining the (unknown) properties of things in themselves. Rather, the bounding arises from Strawson’s conceptual analysis of ordinary perceptual reports.

Strawson virtually ignores the place of synthetic a priori judgements in Kant. Kant, of course, considered this notion to be absolutely essential to his entire project. He rightly complained of an early review of the Critique (Christian Garve’s review as revised by J. G. Feder, published anonymously in 1782) that, in ignoring the synthetic a priori, it failed to address the central topic of his work; he complained that the review ‘did not say a word about the possibility of synthetic cognition a priori, which was the real problem, on the solution of which the fate of metaphysics wholly rests, and to which my Critique . . . was entirely directed’.

Kant is not to be treated as an absolute authority, even in identifying the central point of his own work. At the same time, his assertions on this topic should be taken seriously; they should not be cast off lightly, and they should at least be explained. The most historically sensitive section of Strawson’s work, Part V on the role of the phenomenal in Kant’s conception of geometry, might well have sustained some discussion of the synthetic a priori, had Strawson looked more fully into Kant’s account of the structure of Euclid’s proofs. In section 5 (below), we will see that Kant offered an insightful analysis of the synthetic basis for geometrical proofs of Euclid’s kind.

In the end, Strawson’s book does not provide a reading of the Critique of Pure Reason as an integrated philosophical work. It offers a set of philosophical arguments that show us how to relate selected portions of Kant’s text to Strawson’s own views. This approach contrasts with contextually sensitive readings, as developed by Beck, Gerd Buchdahl, Karl Ameriks, Patricia Kitcher, and a new generation that includes Lanier Anderson, Lorne Falkenstein, and Lisa Shabel. These philosophers allow us to understand Kant on his own terms, to see how his work changed philosophy, to know where we differ from him, and to find where we might want to continue his project, suitably modified.

Source : Sorell, Tom and G. A. J. Rogers.(2005), Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

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