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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 2. A Short Critique of Kant’s Unreason

Chapter 3. Theory of knowledge

From the start, Kant wrongly defined the components of human knowledge as “representations”. This seemed obvious to him, considering the philosophies of Locke and Hume that preceded his, with their belief in sensory “impressions” and derivative “ideas”, which might or might not have been caused by and in principle correspond to (i.e. re-present, present again) material objects external to the subject. For Locke, the answer to that question had been yes, whereas for Hume it had been no. Kant was trying to revive Locke’s yes after Hume’s no, by building a more complicated system of justification.

Kant considered representations as of two kinds: intuitions[1] and concepts; the former are “immediate” representations and the latter “mediate”. Representations could be “pure”, i.e. entirely a priori, pre-empirical in origin; or “empirical”, i.e. a posteriori, dependent on experience. Pure intuitions are those that give all other perceptions their forms. These are the “forms of sensibility”, namely intuitions of space and of time, which turn our disorderly sensations into actual perceptions. Pure concepts are those that similarly give their basic forms to conceptual knowledge. They are the “forms of understanding”, namely the twelve “categories” listed by Kant on the basis of Aristotelian logic.

All this of course must not be taken on faith by us, but must be regarded as an inductive hypothesis, a mere theory proposed by Kant. But to his mind, it was the only conceivable way human knowledge could be saved from the logical doubt Hume had instilled. Kant’s reasoning was that, since knowledge could not be securely based on empirical grounds alone, it was necessary to ground it in some sort of constitutional necessity. Instead of the traditional view that space and time and categories like substance and causation are abstractions from experience, he proposed a theory of structural conditioning. This was not an appeal to innate basic ideas, note well, but rather a sort of cognitive determinism.

Following Aristotelian and earlier philosophy, Kant distinguished between matter (here, I suggest, meaning phenomenal content as it appears to us, whether judged material or mental) and form (meaning the abstract aspects of knowledge, the ordering of appearances by reason). The former is known (directly or indirectly) through sensation, the latter by logic. The study of the sensory aspects of knowledge Kant called “Aesthetic”[2], and that of the logical aspects is called “Logic”.

Kant qualified his theories in those fields as “Transcendental”, ostensibly because he believed in pure/a-priori intuitions and concepts, as already mentioned. However, his use of this qualification was also intended to suggest his theories were justifiable as it were ‘from above’ or ‘from the outside’, and therefore were superior to anyone else’s and beyond anyone else’s capacity to criticize.

Kant’s vision of knowledge has some credibility, because it of course contains many truths. The trouble is that it also contains many misconceptions and wrong emphases, which lead to great difficulties and inconsistencies. In some respects, Kant’s understanding of human knowledge was true to tradition; but in many issues, though he often took up traditional terminology, his interpretations were quite bizarre. Novelty is of course no sin, but in some cases it is based on foolishness.

In truth, knowledge is not only based on experience, but also on logic or reason. If knowledge was limited to experience, that is all it would contain. We do need some additional ingredient to turn experience into conceptual discourse; and that is not some presumed processing by machine-like faculties, but simply the volitional application by the subject of all the laws of logic (whether these are realized ad hoc through personal insight, or known through wide-ranging in-depth theoretical study[3]).

To be an empiricist is good, if we understand by that that all knowledge must be anchored in experience. But to be an empiricist only (as Hume had the ambition to be) is bad, because that posture ignores the rational element that turns experience into conceptual knowledge. Indeed, to be an empiricist only is impossible – it is only made to seem possible by concealing one’s debt to rationality.

Rationality is needed even to argue for a philosophy of pure empiricism, which means that such a philosophy is inherently not purely empirical. One must admit some rationalism, to be able to at all discourse, and to take the influence of logic into account. Inversely, to be a rationalist only is also bad and impossible, as this implies ignoring experience or hiding one’s debt to it. Without experience one would have no content to reason about.

Thus, empiricism and rationalism should not be pitted against each other, but allied and harmonized. Kant understood this need and built his system with it in mind. His intentions were laudable. The trouble is that he denied the joint input of experience and reason in some items of knowledge. Only the so-called empirical intuitions and concepts were each part empirical and part rational. The so-called pure intuitions (of space and time) and pure concepts (of the twelve categories) were all to be purely ‘rational’, devoid of any dependence on experience. They were forms of sensibility and understanding known prior to any content, by virtue of our possessing cognitive faculties.[4]

These basic intuitions and concepts were not form drawn out from content, abstracts isolated from experience, as Aristotle had suggested. Instead, according to Kant’s “Copernican revolution”, they gave form to content; they independently shaped experience in humanly sensible and comprehensible ways (with no obvious guarantee of accuracy). In my view, Kant’s theory was not without intelligence – humans do add something to experience, and we should be well aware of it; but he misconceived precisely how this might occur, since his theory gave rise to possible and actual difficulties and contradictions[5].

We can and must, in my view, reaffirm that the basic intuitions (of space and time) and concepts (of the twelve categories) are both empirically and logically based, and not purely rational as Kant proposed. The missing element in Hume’s solely empiricist vision of human knowledge is the volitional logical work that orders and organizes experience – it is not some blind mechanistic imposition on experience as Kant implies. Space, time, causation and other basic concepts are not forced upon us, but are convictions acquired by personal application of logical insight to experience.

Perception and conception. Let me here propose an alternative theory as to what conceptual cognition “adds” to perceptual cognition, so that no misunderstanding arise from the above statement of mine, and so that the “grains of truth” in Kant’s theory are highlighted and at the same time the “husk of falsehood” are separated out of it.

In Plato’s Idealist philosophy, form is totally separable from content (matter or substance), ontologically and not merely epistemologically. In Aristotle’s more down to earth rebuttal, form and content are ontologically inseparable, though epistemologically distinguishable. Kant was in that respect clearly closer to Plato, though distinct in other respects. My view is closer to Aristotle’s, though not identical with it.

In my view, all perception is immediate, not just perception of space and time; and indeed, space and time are far from entirely perceptual items of human knowledge. Furthermore, all conception is mediate; and it cannot be said that any of the categories Kant lists are entirely a priori concepts. No percept or concept is entirely purely rational or a priori; all items of knowledge rely on some empirical data, some contact with some aspect of reality. Kant’s proposed divisions of knowledge can only result in divorcing the subject from the object, or human beings from reality, and thus lead to intractable paradoxes.

Rational acts, such as affirmation and negation, measurement, comparison and contrast, all do indeed depend on human intervention. Things just are (whatever they are, whatever they happen to be) – they never exist negatively or primarily in relation to others. Qualitative and quantitative similarities and dissimilarities do not exist if they are not perceived or conceived by a subject; they remain latent if they are not made objects of someone’s consciousness. Yet at the same time, they are objective and not subjective, in the sense that whether potential or actual they are still “properties of” the object.

Without some conscious subject, the potential sameness or difference of the objects would never be “brought out”. But the subject does not merely fantasize such abstract properties; it refers to observations of the objects concerned. Rational acts only actualize a potential that already potentially “belongs to” the object, they do not create something at random. More precisely, such abstract characteristics are concrete mental phenomena produced by the subject in his/her mind with reference to observations of certain objects, under various conditions of the subject (e.g. position in space and time during observation) and/or objects (e.g. placing a ruler on them, or looking at them with a clock in hand, or making other experiments with them).

So we can accurately say that abstractions relate to the object, are about the object – for the object causes them in us, and such causality by the object counts as an objective property of the object. Although such abstract properties of objects cannot become manifest if no one is conscious of them, it does not follow that they are pure figments of the imagination, for the consciousness involved is primarily beamed at the objects concerned. The potential existence of the abstracts in the subject’s mind may be regarded as part of the overall ‘nature’ of the objects. The nature of an object is not only what is inscribed in it, but its whole place in the universe, i.e. its possibilities of relation to and action on other things.

A ‘property’ need not inhere in the object; for we may also count as an object’s ‘property’ a thing (whether physical or mental) that exists in some other object (including a subject) provided that thing is somewhat caused or influenced by the first object. The term property can and must thus be understood even more broadly, with reference to anything that relates in any way to (e.g. is an effect of) the object at hand, and not just to things that seem to be residing within it[6].

Once this is understood, many of the difficulties encountered in epistemology and ontology fall away. Note this comment well, because it is of earth-shattering importance to philosophy. Whatever the objects we perceive or conceive cause or influence in us may be considered as properties of theirs. Simply because the concrete residence of the property is outside the objects concerned, does not per se make them less of a property of theirs. That the effect the objects cause is in us, the subjects, does not make the effect any the less theirs.

· In the case of perception, some concrete (phenomenal) aspects of an object are directly cognized by the subject. In the case of a physical object, the perception is (we may legitimately hypothesize) as direct as in the case of a mental object; that is to say, it does not occur through the intermediary of any sensory impressions or ideas (that is not the function of sensations and ideas): i.e. it is not perception of a mental object “caused by” or “representing” the physical object, but perception of the physical object itself, note well. It is due to this directness of perception that we can test our conceptions (and say whether or not they sufficiently “correspond to” the objects concerned).

· In the case of conception, however, cognition is indirect. That is, what we cognize is a concrete mental phenomenon (called an abstraction) that is produced by some concrete physical and/or mental phenomena under perceptual scrutiny. Because the concrete mental phenomenon so produced is causally related to the concrete physical and/or mental phenomena under consideration, it is regarded as an external property of theirs. Such a property outside an object in another object (here, a subject’s mind, in the case of physical percepts, or another part of the same mind, in the case of mental ones) is called ‘abstract’ to distinguish it from the ‘concrete’ properties perceived in it.

The ‘property’ under consideration here is abstract, because it consists of a causal relation (a causation or influence), plus a term, viz. the objects perceived (the cause or influence), and is not to be confused with the other term, viz. the mental phenomenon that it concretely consists of (the concrete effect of the objects in the mind of the subject). Thus, we say somewhat conventionally that what is cognized in conception is not (entirely and exclusively) phenomenal, yet it is related to perceptual aspects of the objects concerned, it is something to do with or about them that is known indirectly.

Note well that though an abstract property does not strictly exist out there in the objects concerned, it is still (if well formed in accordance with logic) an objective fact in that the concrete effect the objects cause in any subject’s mind indeed do exist there and do “belong” jointly to the objects and the subject. Note too that though the abstract resides in the subject’s mind, it is not subjective; it is not something injected into or projected onto the objects by the subject (or the consciousness emanating from the subject), or something existing in the subject’s mind in detachment from the objects (though it may be the latter, if logic has not been applied correctly).

In other words, if and so long as our knowledge is based on observation of the objects concerned, and is processed by inductive and deductive logic to the best of our ability, we can confidently rely on it. Though this knowledge is in us, it can under these reasonable conditions be considered a property of theirs. In this sense, the knowledge, though it is in us, and processed by us, is quite objective.

Only by such harmonious blending of reason and experience can we hope to avoid transcendentalism or idealism. Kant’s attempt to reconcile reason and experience did not sufficiently stress the mutual dependencies of reason and experience; he kept the two much too far apart. An abstraction is neither phenomenal nor noumenal. It is not exactly perceptible, yet it is not out of this world. It cannot be reduced only to percepts, but it cannot be altogether divorced from percepts. And so on – this is the more subtle line of thought needed.

[1] Nowadays, the word insight might be preferred in this context to that of intuition, which has a much more subjective feel to it. I use the term intuition preferably only in the context of self-knowledge. However, some people still do use the term in a Kantian sense.

[2] The modern sense of that term is of course, the study of (the impressions and concepts of) beauty or ugliness.

[3] Which theory is of course based on many people’s personal logical insights, let us not forget. There is no theory with “transcendental” validity, above human effort, experience and judgment. Not even logic makes such claims for itself.

[4] Strictly speaking, we should not accept the label of ‘rationality’ with reference to Kant’s a-priori forms. Reason presupposes and implies volition, and Kant’s a-priori forms are mechanical impositions on us. The two concepts are really antithetical.

[5] Notably, the question: how would Kant obtain knowledge of his system of knowledge if his mind was really functioning the way his system claims? How would he overview space and time or causation and other categories, if he could not refer to them beyond his mind? He denies humans access to ultimate reality, yet claims for himself just such access in the very act of doing so. It is such failures of reflexive thinking that makes Kant’s philosophy incredible.

[6] In my book Future Logic, chapter 45, I demonstrate that the Russell paradox is due to overly hasty “permutation”. Since permutation sometimes leads to paradox, it cannot always be performed. From this we can infer that a property of something does not necessarily reside in that thing. In some cases, then, the relation between two things should rather be viewed as an abstract bridge between them, i.e. as something existing outside the both of them. An important other example of impermutable proposition is the form “X is potentially Y” (regarding this, see chapter 67 of the same work). Regarding the form “X has Y”, which we usually associate with property, note that it does not always imply that Y resides in X. In some cases, e.g. in the case of “some roses have pink color”, the predicate (pinkness) is thought to be part of the object (these roses). But in other cases, we do not intend such an implication; e.g. “John has a wife” does not mean the wife is in John, but signifies a complex and largely abstract and even conventional relation between two separate entities. It follows from this that the form “X is Y” is also twofold in meaning, note well. Thus, “some roses are pink” suggests to us that the predicate pink is in the roses, but “John is married” does not mean that the quality of being married resides in John.

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