Kant and Reason


The eighteenth century British philosopher, David Hume, suggested that we believe that there is a connection between cause and effect. For example. fire causes flame and results in an effect of smoke. Were it not for this belief system, we would be surprised every time we lit a match, saw fire, and witnessed the fire burn an object. Kant replaced Hume’s charge that cause and effect were mere metaphysical constructs with the idea of the a priori: mental structures possessed by human beings that allowed people to logically order empirical experiences in a rational fashion. We understand that “smoke” means “fire” not because one observes the effect of a lit match upon a dry leaf, but because one carries a preconceived concept of cause and effect in the mind a priori or before the fact. Thus Kant replaced Descartes’s blind faith that God would not delude him with human reason and the powers of rational thinking and removed God from the philosophical equation. In his critique of Western philosophy, Kant realized that much of the writings of his predecessors had rested upon this ultimate appeal to God–metaphysics–placing philosophy in the precarious position of having its efficacy based solely upon a belief in God.

The preconceived concept or preexisting idea is the a priori, or a structure in the mind that organizes the perceptions of experiences into an order that allows us to make sense of the world. The procedure of critique is nothing less than a Copernican Revolution, a call to reason rather than to faith, a demand for self-knowledge rather than for dogma, an ability to deduce according to the laws of logic, rather than upon the grounds of experience alone. As discussed in the preceding post, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) was concerned with epistemology, establishing the grounds of knowledge, and with refuting untenable metaphysics. God does not give us the world that we see and experience. We understand and organize the world through reason. Knowledge is a cooperative affair—the mind organizes sense data actively and imposes reality upon the world, this inversion is Kant’s Copernican Revolution: the mind precedes the data it perceives. We, as humans, blinded by our necessary and a priori cognitive operations, can never hope to “see” “reality” or the “thing-in-itself.” We construct reality with our minds, which are organized at the most basic and abstract level to structure the most basic experiences, our perceptions of time and space.

There are two kinds of judgment: a priori and a posteriori. The a priori judgment is pure and transcendent and self-evident. The judgment is absolutely valid and strictly necessary. This judgment is independent of experience and is expressed in a statement in which the subject is defined by its predicate: ”The rose is a flower,” which is an analytic statement. For Kant, the real problem for philosophy is a posteriori statements that were synthetic, that is, statements in which the predicate is not contained in the subject. Cause and effect would come under the concept of a synthetic statement: there was no necessary connection between cause and effect. Kant had to make an argument for cause and effect being a synthetic a priori judgment, that is a judgment that is absolute and necessary without being self-evident. Kant argued that the mind imposes patterns and that the patterns themselves are necessary for judgment. Because the patterns are necessary, they are also transcendental. This Aesthetic is immediate and non-discursive and sensuous, but it can be ordered and constructed by the mind. For example, the mind has an intuition, immediate and sensuous, an apprehension of space that is sensuous or aesthetic.

This intuition must be, must exist, a priori to account for our knowledge of objects. Thus Space is an a priori representation that underlies all outer intuitions and validates all claims of geometry, which is a science of space. “Space” is the way the mind organizes experience. “Space does not represent any property of things in themselves; it is, therefore, solely from the human standpoint…” and is inner and outer. Time, like space, is another “pure form of intuition” and is the temporal ordering of experience into before and after and simultaneous. But time is only “inner space” and is part of a spatiotemporal ordering of contents: a synthetic ordering due to the active mind’s cognition of physical objects. This is what Kant called transcendental logic, the “putting together” (synthetic) of perceptions. This synthetic operation makes experiences of objects possible.

In a typically Enlightenment fashion, Kant conceptually “built” an architectonic structure that would contain philosophy within a model. Based upon reason, knowledge comes from thinking, which comes from judging. All effective knowledge is the result of experiences of concrete sense data ordered by conceptual thinking. According to Kant, “…thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind…” Kant was the first philosopher to distinguish between precepts and concepts, after the Cartesian duality of mind and body had proved to be untenable. Kant then set out to establish categories of judgments, based upon Aristotelian logic. Each form of judgment is an a priori conceptual category and the categories correspond to types of judgments. Kant calls his arrangements the metaphysical deduction of the categories: each judgment presupposes one or another twelve synthetical (putting things together) categories or operations (such as cause and effect). There are three sets of four, the headings of quantity, quality, relation, and modality. Relation as a concept, for example, makes it possible for us to understand that every effect experienced has a cause, that cause and effect are “related.” As discussed in a previous post, cause and effect or relation exist a priori.

Andrew Stephenson’s Diagram of the Critique of Pure Reason

The categories are transcendental because they are rules. These “rules” are not empirically observable but are necessary, because they make synthesis possible. In other words, successive messages of data must be organized or held together into an experience or a unity of consciousness, which is the unity of self. Experience is a combination of the self that experiences objects as a result of a priori acts of synthesis. The human experience of objects consists of unified representations, producing objects of representation. All knowledge demands a concept and the form of the concept must be universal and must serve as a rule. Self and object are reciprocal. Kant asked, “What conditions make experiences possible?” and stated that experience is a combination of a priori concepts and empirical concepts. The necessary conditions for “experience” is the object—sense experiences, put together into unity—and self—a collection of desires, memories, expectations, feelings, attitudes that unifies the data. The self is also an object. The putting together is a transcendental synthesis: objects-for-a-self. The object is a synthesis of data of outer sense/space and the self is the synthesis of inner sense/space. But how do we apprehend and organize? The key is the human imagination. The imagination is the active component for judgment–we perceive and then we organize and then we conclude and act, based upon the powers of the imaginative faculties. The imagination gathers the diversity of information and presents it or displays it so that it matches a concept. The concept is that which has been abstracted or has become abstract like a category. The concept is made possible by a corresponding a priori intuition and we can now reach an a priori synthetic judgment by combining a concept, the abstract with an intuition or the particulars from which the concept was abstracted.

Thus, for Kant, empiricism is rehabilitated, cause and effect becomes a rule, and the function of concepts is to order the manifold of sense into meaningful and stable patterns. The organization principle must be time: the effect follows the cause in time. The key to knowledge is order and rule that makes experience possible. Order, in other words, must be presupposed (a priori) to make experience possible. The world as experienced reflects patterns or categories. Two important categories are substance and causality for human experience would not be human experience without an order that is indifferent. We never experience these substances or the necessary connections; we experience only succession (synthesis). Kant attributed our understanding of objects to a priori concepts through which our minds order experience with a notion of permanence and regular sequence. His conclusions are an advance on the fallback position of Descartes that is that God “implanted” helpful innate ideas that give us reality.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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