Braver Reading Group: Chapter 2 – Kant’s Revolution.


[Please note that all the posts related to Braver Reading Group are gathered here.]

When I sat down to write this post, I reread Chapter Two and sort of launched into it, but by the time I was done, the post was way too long and I decided to divide it in two: main summary/engagement here and a digression post on the issue of using “imposition” while describing Kant.

Chapter 2 deals with Kant, or more precisely, with Kant’s main contribution to the discussion of realism/anti-realism. I think it is fair to point out from the very beginning that Braver is committed to the history of issues/specific topics in his discussion of certain figures, and each chapter does not attempt to quickly introduce a thinker, just an issue or an angle of approach. This way I hope we can avoid potential criticisms such as “Why doesn’t he talk about X or Y in Kant?” – well, not to avoid it completely, because in some cases such question are legitimate, but only if the question addresses a specific gap in terms of already discussed issues of realism, that is, because it is in fact a gap. In other words, Braver attempts to present what he calls “Kantian paradigm” in a way that, of course, references a specific author – Kant, in this case – but concentrates on the issues/topics/themes. I have to say that I like this approach very much (showing my cards out of the gate and without pretentions of neutrality).

Now, I’m not going to summarize the chapter on Kant in great detail, this is what reading is for, right? Although, of course, “book report” writing and my philosophical bread and butter. I would like to list some of the essential elements of Braver’s discussion.

1. Kant’s Revolution and Active Knower Thesis (A5).

Before I proceed with my discussion of Braver, I would like to do a quick plug-in for a rather interesting discussion of “revolution” found in works of Artemy Magun (who presently teaches at European University in Saint-Petersburg). His recent book on “negative revolution” (in Russian) deals with the same issues that his PhD dissertation (in English) available through your friendly library database (“The Concept and the Experience of Revolution” – University of Michigan, 2003). Magun also has several essays in English and French (if you search the same databases) on the concept of “revolution” and has a very interesting use of Kant’s discussion of “revolution” both in terms of an overthrow of the legitimate government and in terms of Kant’s own use of “Copernican Revolution” as a sort of reversibility and so on.

Braver launches into Kant without much hesistation and certainly assuming that most readers are familiar with Kant’s argument. What is Kant’s main contribution to the issue of realism/anti-realism (the main angle for the chapter and the book)? It is of course the assertion that, if I may put it simply, a) mind is active in perpection/organization of experience and b) it is a good thing too. According to Braver’s quick history of the issue, it is not a new thought to suggest that mind is playing a role in cognition, in getting to know the world, and knowledge formation, if you will. What is new is the suggestion that it is in fact a good thing – while before Kant, we are told that mind interferes, pollutes, hinders our perception and thus produces all sorts of untruths (among many possible examples, think of that awkward Fourth Medition from Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy – I call it “awkward” because there Descartes, having demonstrated the existence of God and how now whatever we perceive “clearly and distinctly” is true, has to show how we can be mistaken about our perceptions, and you know the rest).

All realism, for Kant, is based on obscure dogma [34]. Once we question the assumption about the connection between thought and being, we see that realism has no argument for such connection and thus asserts it dogmatically:

All realist philosophies require unjustified assumption even to get started, a genuinely scandalous situation for the discipline that prides itself on rooting out all assumptions. Philosophy must start over with a new understanding of the relationship between subject and world or thought and being that actually establishes the connection rather than simply assuming it. A revolution is needed. [34]

This revolution is, of course, Kant’s famous reversal of the problem: while we always assumed that knowledge is produced when our perceptions correspond to things we perceive (“our knowledge must conform to objects”), Kant wonders if some of the philosophical problems can be solved if we assume the opposite, that is, that knowledge is a result of our perceptions being organized according to the a priori (before experience) principles that mind already contains (“objects must conform to our knowledge”). It is essential to remember, I think, that Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” is a term that has been interpreted in a variety of ways, and although Braver does not get into this discussion, we need to point out that it is a phrase that Kant uses to characterize the fundamental initial move of his philosophical project, not the whole project itself, i.e. it’s important not to take this imagery too far and suggest all sort of silly interpretations (like “Kant’s Copernican Revolution is actually a desperate attempt to re-center the recently de-centered universe, this time around the stable center of the subject, rather than the object” and such – much has been written about it).

Kant’s theoretical reversal, again, is done in order to see if this new assumption can help us with some eternal philosophical issues (the same way Copernicus’ calculations were not making sense until he assumed that sun is in the center and earth goes around, then orbits made sense), and it helps us

a) change our usual conception of what knowledge is, and

b) change our usual conception of what role the subject plays (and what this subject is).

This is where we get Kant’s A5 Active Knower thesis (opposite of R5 Passive Knower of realism) – mind actively organizes experience [36]. The rest of the chapter deals with the discussion of how A5 influences our undestanding of realist thesis R1-R3, which results in a formulation of R6 Realism of the Self. Before I proceed with Braver’s discussion of R1-R3 and a formulation of R6, I would like to pick a bone with his use of “imposition” to describe Kant’s revolutionary stand on the matter of thought-being interaction. In short, I think that to talk of “mind imposing form on matter of perception” is an overly simplistic way of reading Kant’s “revolution” and I think Braver actually avoid falling into what I would consider a trap of a kind of interpretation that makes Kant into someone like Berkeley (echoing, of course, early reactions to the first Critique and Kant’s subsequent attempts to distance himself from such readings, think of the section called “Refutation of Idealism” added to the second edition of the first Critique and so on).

[See Digression on Imposition]

2.  Adventures of R: From R1 to R3, Including the Exciting Introduction of R6.

If Kant is a founder of anti-realism, then what exactly is going to happen to our friends/theses R1-R3?

a) R1 Independence. Here we get the discussion of Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena: noumena are mind-independent, phenomena are not [38]. Using Braver’s own metaphor, we can ask here: who is wearing the pants in the relationship between noumena and phenomena? In one sense, we are told, phenomena wear the pants, because it is what it is for us and we can know nothing else, period. Phenomenal level is the level of reality and noumenal level is posited mainly for logical reasons (something has to appear for an appearance to be such, this logical necessity, it seems is often confused with real necessity and thus, say, Fichte’s argument that Kant applies category of causality to something that is outside of phenomenal reality, gets a foothold, but this is a different story – Braver shortly touches on this issue on page 42).

On the other hand, it is fair to say that it indeed noumena wear the pants (secret and extremely fashionable pants perhaps, although we will never know), because we can conceive of an outside observer who sees the world differently (God and his awesome “intellectual intuition” device, for example), i.e. sees it as it is in itself, not as it appears to us, and therefore deals with “full” reality as it is, not just its inferior phenomenal reflection. Interestingly enough, I think it’s worth pointing out that any attempt to get out of our own skin and see the world as it is outside of our limitations is potentially a quasi-theological move as this realist ideal is, after Putnam, a striving for a “God’s Eye point of view” – I call it “quasi-theological” because I don’t think anyone would openly admit to it these days which, however, does not mean that there isn’t a kind of religious passion for the real as it is in itself, unpolluted (“pure” and “unscathed”) by human weakness and human perspective. Clearly, as Braver points out, Kant wouldn’t be very happy with such a view. For him, noumena are not just unfortunately unavailable reality and our inability to get to them is not a birth-defect, if you will. Noumena are therefore wearing pants in this relationship with phenomena in a kind of old-fashioned abusive way – they have all the power of “real existence” and phenomena are happy to eat some crumbs that fall from the table of the great (and undoubtedly delicious) feast of noumenal richness.

Kant, however, writes Braver, proposes a new kind of relationship between noumena and phenomena that, for all intents and purposes, eliminates the pants altogether, if we push our metaphor a bit – no one wears the pants in the relationship between noumena and phenomena, because it isn’t that kind of a relationship. Braver cites Kant’s own description of noumena as “limit-concepts” [40-41] and not as certain types of objects (with their corresponding pants-wearing ability). In this sense, if there are any pants in the picture, it is the legendary pants of the great Noumenon that phenomena-mothers tell tall tales about to phenomena-children while phenomena-fathers disapprovingly furrow their brows and wish that phenomena-mothers would stop with these fairytales already and allowed phenomena-children to “grow up” and accept the brutal truth that “there’s nothing out there” and so on. Or to put in more philosophically accepted terms, “The thing-in-itself, then, would not be an ontologically distinct entity but just the phenomenon considered as it is apart from the contribution of the subject.” [41] The most important point here being, it seems, that Kant problematized any attempt to be a realist without raising an issue of epistemology that, if Braver is correct, also is an important part of his ontology (one would, in fact, need to be careful to separate the two in Kant too easily). As far as our mundane or scientific endeavors are concerned then, we are on the side of the fore-mentioned frowning father and his “grow up already” position of forgetting the noumenal and dealing with phenomenal, or real, only.

b) R2 Correspondence. It’s not difficult to see how the traditional correspondence theory of truth would be impossible if Kant is correct. The real question is than what sort of truth is possible after Kant? The issue is, shortly, that if we don’t have access to the noumenal world and its objects, we cannot ever know whether our statement corresponds to the state of affairs, therefore we cannot have truth if it is such correspondence. The problem here is not that truth might not be such correspondence (definition of truth) but that we cannot ever know whether such correspondence can be confirmed (criterion of truth). So the issue is really about whether truth is something “out there” as a correspondence between blue car and my perception of it as a blue car, or if truth is something epistemic, that is, something that allows me to discern such correspondence and thus make a true statement about the car. Now I know that this is proverbial bread and butter, not wait, I used this expression already so, let us say, it is a proverbial beer and peanuts of analytic tradition, so I am going to just leave it at this as I think it correctly summarizes Braver’s description of the problem vis-à-vis Kant. For Kant, traditional correspondence is out of the window, and if there’s any talk of correspondence left, it is “the conformity of objects to our forms of intuition and concepts of understanding, [which is] unprecedented sense of the term since for the first time objects are required to correspond to human faculties rather than the other way around.” [46]

c) R3 Uniqueness. So we have now A1 Mind-Dependence Thesis (vs. R1) and A2 (Rejection of Correspondence Truth), so what are we to do with R3 Uniqueness? Braver argues that Kant intends to keep it around, primarily because the very point of critical philosophy was to ground our scientific pursuits and therefore to prove that despite the distinction between noumena and phenomena, as far as we are concerned, there’s only one reality that is “stable, rule-governed” and is shared by everyone [47]. Although Braver does not spend as much time on this point as he does, for example, on R1-A1 discussion, it is extremely important, I think, and this is where I think the language of “imposition” is making me nervous again (“making me nervous” not as a person with philosophical views not liking a particular approach as in “Well, it makes sense, buddy, but I don’t have to like it!” but “making me nervous” as in “I’m not sure I agree that this is how Kant puts it”) – in order to guarantee R3, Kant has to argue that all knowing subjects impose the same forms on objects:

The fundamental change the Copernican Revolution makes to this picture is that the entities do not possess this quality on their own, but rather have it imposed upon them by the knowing subject. [47]

And, if I may quickly borrow a citation from a different section,

Here’s Kant’s key move in devising as alternative: if (A1) phenomenal reality does not possess an inherent order itself, but instead (A5) receives it from the subject’s activity, then in order to preserve (R3) the universality, singularity, and determinacy of this order, that is, in order to make it permanent and intersubjectively reliable, Kant must require the organizing faculties of all subjects to remain the same at all times. [49]

Now there are plenty of red flags for me in the above quotes, but I would like to simply make two point here in order to save the discussion for later.

1) I realize that this might be just a matter of phrasing, but it seems strange to suggest that “the knowing subject” somehow imposes a quality on entities (whatever that quality is). It makes it sounds as though Kant actually says that “we find in objects whatever we put into them” when in fact that is not the same as what Kant actually wants to say which is, and Braver already cited this passage, “we can know a priori of things only what we ourselves put into them” – a big difference, I think. I might be off here, but when I see a blue car, for example, I do not impose the color blue on the car when I see it: a) I don’t have a choice but to see a blue car, because the car is blue, b) I only provide a capacity to see color as a formal requirement for my seeing of the blue car (arguably, the highlight of my day), and c) I only “impose” on the blue car (or rather on my experience of seeing the blue car) a small number of forms (“categories) and not a potentially infinite number of features that this car possesses. In short, I don’t have as much (or any, if you think about it) control as the language of active knowing (or “imposition”) suggests. Braver’s discussion of “transcendental subject” gets to these issues later.

Let me give you Kant’s own example, again Braver cites this passage but manages to omit the best part (actually presenting the passage in a way that a hostile reader might take as an example of intentional misreading). Let’s do Braver first and then Kant in full (for contrast):

Braver [50]: “Objective validity and necessary universality (for everybody) are equivalent terms, and though we do not know the object in itself, yet when we consider a judgment universal, and hence necessary, we thereby understand it to have objective validity… What experience teaches me under certain circumstances, it must always teach me and everybody.”

It makes it sound, especially with an addition of the phrase after the ellipsis, that somehow objective validity, which is also necessary universality, is

a) somehow comes out of my experience/judgment that I then necessarily posit as everyone else’s (what experience gives me, it must give everyone else) and

b) that validity is some sort of “intersubjective agreement” which is what Braver claims right after the citation.

Now this might be ultimately a minor point, but I don’t think I can agree that Kant indeed suggests that somehow objective validity is a matter of humans perceiving objects the same way and then a kind of generalization and mutual agreement. From what I remember of Kant,  necessity and universality never come from empirical – in fact, he writes as much if we give a full citation:

Kant (in Prolegomena §19, a slightly different translation but still): “Consequently, objective validity and necessary universal validity (for everyone) are interchangeable concepts, and although we do not know the object in itself, nonetheless, if we regard a judgment as universally valid and hence necessary, objective validity is understood to be included. Through this judgment we cognize the object (even if it should remain otherwise unknown as it may be in itself) by means of the universally valid and necessary connection of the given perceptions; and since this is the case for all objects of the senses, judgments of experience will not derive their objective validity from the immediate cognition of the object (for this is impossible), but merely from the condition for the universal validity of empirical judgments, which, as has been said, never rests on empirical, or indeed sensory conditions in general, but on a pure concept of understanding.

More interestingly than the above fuller quotation is Kant’s own examples a few lines down:

Let us provide examples: that the room is warm, the sugar is sweet, the wormwood repugnant are merely subjectively valid judgments. I do not at all require that I should find it so at every time, or that everyone else should find it just as I do; they express only a relation of two sensations to the same object, namely myself, and this only in my present state of perception, and are therefore not expected to be valid for the object: these I call judgments of perception. The case is completely different with judgments of experience. What experience teaches me under certain circumstances, it must teach me at every time and teach everyone else as well, and its validity is not limited to the subject or its state at that time.

Again, I think it’s not a matter of intentional distortion here, but it seems from the larger context that Kant is not suggesting anything like “intersubjective agreement” when it comes to validity. I wonder if we should here distinguish between Minimal R3 Uniqueness (Kant’s version when only a very minimal number of formal structures are shared by all human subjects and therefore guarantee that we all order and then perceive the same reality, or at least must be, enter a long conversation about normativity here) and Maximal R3 Uniqueness (which is what Braver wants Kant to say vis-à-vis our minds “imposing” uniformity and sameness on our perceptions and thus giving us all a stable, same, safe world, at least this is what it reads like)? In any case, I do not want, again, to make this about small textual interpretations, as long as we can all agree that this issue might be more complex than simple R3 Uniqueness as concisely presented by Braver.

2) The second citation – from page 49 about “phenomenal reality” (above) – continues to present a problem for me, especially vis-à-vis (again) “imposition,” as it suggests that “phenomenal reality does not possess an inherent order itself,” while it is clear from other things Braver writes that “phenomenal reality” is, in fact, an (already) ordered reality to begin with. That is, to say “phenomenal reality” is to say “reality of phenomena” which is a reality of appearances that are only possible (as appearances) because of the awesome ordering capacity of human knower/organizer. In sum, phenomenal reality is order reality by definition, is it not? So to say that “phenomenal reality” is not inherently ordered is to say something nonsensical, it seems. This is, I believe, a major challenge that Braver already addressed, which is the issue of talking about reality when we have two versions – noumenal and phenomenal – where we know nothing about the first, and the second comes to us always already ordered, as we are talking about conditions of possibility of something that already is, therefore we cannot undo what the mind does in order to see how it works. This is where the neuroscientific research (or alcohol and illegal drugs, if you are more inclined that way) is making things so exciting and interesting as it allows us to study people who are, in this sense, defective and we can see all the “wiring” stick out and tell us how things do come together into a coherent experience of reality (think of Malabou’s post-traumatic subjectivity discussion in The New Wounded).

d) R6 Realism of the Self. This excellent section presents an account of Kantian “transcendental subject” and I think it speaks for itself, thus I will leave it to the readers to appreciate it. I will only list main theses here:

1) For Kant, there’s an “unchanging” and “timeless” universal grid which gives humans a uniform conceptual experience. According to Braver, this a price that Kant has to pay if he is to save R3 Uniqueness thesis, i.e. if he is to guarantee that we all structure the world the same way. I’m not sure if I would agree with Solomon (whom Braver cites) and call this position “transcendental pretense” or any sort of dogmatic assumption. I think that the issue of the “fact of reason” is more complex than that, especially since Kant isn’t the first one to suggest that, for example, logic describes the workings of human reason and therefore is prescriptive and so on. “This claim of a fixed ahistorical human nature amounts to a realism in the one specific area of the subject, a topic so important that I will single it out as the final thesis of realism, R6 Realism of the Subject.” [49]

2) Kant rules out any knowledge of noumenal self, but we learn all sorts of things about transcendental self.

3) The mind is not a mirror of the world, world is the “great mirror” in which consciousness discovers itself (Jean Hyppolite) – this strategy of “seeking our modes of thinking in experience” Braver calls the Empirical Directive. Braver proposes to use abbreviation ED for this empirical directive, I say that it might confuse some of our older readers, as it is now universally affirmed (thank you, TV) as standing for Erectoral Dysfunction.

4) Transcendental subject is not a substance, “all that we know about the transcendental subject is, is what it does.” [55]

5) Transcendental subject is the source of categories, therefore categories do not apply to it. [56]  “Kant’s transcendental subject takes the place of Descartes’ veracious God, guaranteeing that our true beliefs are actually about the world.” [57]

3. The Kantian Paradigm.

So to summarize this chapter (quickly) we can refer to what Braver labels “Kantian Paradigm”: “a single type of transcendental subject forming components of reality which are then known in the same way by everyone.” [57]  Kant retains R1 (as mind-independent noumenal reality) and R6 (realist subject) while positing A1 (mind-dependent phenomenal reality). Kant also posits R6 as “experience-organizing structures” that are “universal and unchanging in order to preserve the unique (R3) world.” [57]

Kant’s real contribution then was that he was the first thinker to offer a systematic alternative to realism.

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