Eckart Förster’s Essay on Kant, “Transition” and Opus Postumum


As some might have already noticed and I was pretty slow to discover this, some edited volumed available for preview on Google Books sometimes have full essays avaiable for your scholarly interest. May I wholeheartedly recommend this essay by Eckart Förster, “Fichte, Beck and Schelling in Kant’s Opus Postumum” which begins with a nice summary of Kant’s view of science and, specifically, physics? Förster’s contribution to the study of Opus Postumum is well known, of course, and I think in light of the recent discussions of science, realism, so-called correlationism and such, it is important to understand what Kant actually wrote, as opposed to various crude misinterpretations of his philosophy. Kant, as is also well known, began his philosophical career as a philosopher of nature (a philosopher of science would be a good modern designation) and, as Förster, shows in his Introduction to the English edition of Opus Postumum and various essays on the subject, ended his philosophical career working on a manuscript that would complete his system. 

I think Förster’s opening citation from the second preface to the first Critique is essential, as far as I am concerned, in any discussion of the workings of science – because I’m lazy, here’s a text from Norman Kemp Smith’s translation available online:

Natural science was very much longer in entering upon the highway of science. It is, indeed, only about a century and a half since Bacon, by his ingenious proposals, partly initiated this discovery, partly inspired fresh vigour in those who were already on the way to it. In this case also the discovery can be explained as being the sudden outcome of an intellectual revolution. In my present remarks I am referring to natural science only in so far as it is founded on empirical principles.

When Galileo caused balls, the weights of which he had himself previously determined, to roll down an inclined plane; when Torricelli made the air carry a weight which he had calculated beforehand to be equal to that of a definite column of water; or in more recent times, when Stahl changed metal into lime, and lime back into metal, by withdrawing something and then restoring it, a light broke upon all students of nature. They learned that reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own, and that it must not allow itself to be kept, as it were, in nature’s leading-strings, but must itself show the way with principles of judgment based upon fixed laws, constraining nature to give answer to questions of reason’s own determining. Accidental observations, made in obedience to no previously thought-out plan, can never be made to yield a necessary law, which alone reason is concerned to discover.

This is what I always thought to be understood, but I might have been mistaken here – science is not a pile of empirical data, even if this data comes from the most sophisticated equipment, but a theory that allows us to make sense of data…

6 thoughts on “Eckart Förster’s Essay on Kant, “Transition” and Opus Postumum

  1. A couple of points here. First, I think there’s a question of how to read a philosophers work chronologically. As I’ve argued over at Larval Subjects, I think Kant’s Third Critique required, had Kant lived, significant revisions of all of his earlier work because of his discovery of reflective judgments that largely undermine, in my view, the need for the categories of the first critique. Second, there’s the whole question of how one should approach a notebook in evaluating the work of a philosopher. This, for example, is, I think, a major problem with Heidegger’s books– brilliant as they are –on Nietzsche. Is it legitimate to give an unfinished work, not presented to the public, such disproportionate weight in our understanding of a philosopher? I don’t know. In my own reading of Kant’s Opus many years ago, I found much to quicken the blood. There, if memory serves me right, Kant seems to move away from his First Critique understanding of the phenomena/in-itself dyad, arguing instead that phenomena are aspects of the in-itself revealing a nature that is as it is independent of humans. That Kant is a Kant I could probably get on board with to some degree, but that is not the received or dominant Kant. Here I think we have the whole question of which Kant we’re talking about, which is also a question of textual chronology. If we side with this later Kant of the notebooks, we’re also talking, I think, about a Kant at odds with his earlier critical break. Scholarly honesty requires us to be clear on this point and not to suggest that this Kant is already operative in the “Critical Kant”, but that his position has changed and developed.

  2. One further point: Who has argued, realist or anti-realist, that science is simply a pile of empirical data? I know of no one who holds this position. Data is generated as a part of theories. Theories tell scientists what to look for, what experiments to conduct, what technology to invent to conduct their experiments to measure the world, and data has the power to modify and overturn these theories. The relation is dialectical as far as I’m concerned. I think the realist position is that occasionally our theories manage to reveal a bit about the world as it is in itself.

  3. One point – Opus Postumum is not a notebook, it’s a manuscript of several hundred pages on which Kant worked for more than a decade – and as Forster clearly states, the manuscript is virtually complete, it only needed final editing. Plus, Kant repeatedly asserted that this very manuscript was going to be his most important work, clearly to regard it as a simple notebook is risk appearing ignorant of the matter at hand. You are confusing Opus Postumum with Nachlass…

    Speaking of crude piles of data is a metaphor, Levi, and an apt one, I think, because you yourself often act as if some sort information that you provide (say from neurology) constitutes an argument, so you will forgive my hyperbole, I hope.

    So where do neurological theories come from? The mind?

  4. Fair point about the Opus.

    Again, with regard to the point of empirical data, I see no framework within which this is an apt metaphor of how science proceeds or what it’s doing. Sure, I’m more than happy to concede that theories are products of mind. I just differ from the correlationist thesis that this entails that we only ever know phenomena. I’m not sure why this point is so difficult to grasp or get, even if you ultimately disagree with it.

  5. I think it’s difficult for me to grasp because every time I try to slow you down and show that mind is as active in science (in terms of theory) as it is in the wildest philosophical (or artistic) speculations – it’s just a matter of degree, not kind – you are refusing to think about it and throw “correlationism” in my face. Theory is theory: according to your objections, thoughtful objections, I think, for example, neurology can have a theory of mind, but mind in this case, simple put, is directly involved in producing its own theory and producing the science of neurology – science, writes Kant, using the example of Galileo’s ball, comes with theory, not just data – so in this case, as you put it, mind discovers that it is “conditioned” and in this discovery it also realizes that it “conditions” – I don’t see how this is a contradiction – and please don’t make me go and cut-and-paste all the places where you do object to such situation of “conditioning-conditioned” (of course, if I get all that strange terminology)…

    Tell me this: was there gravity before Newton?

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