Braver Reading Group: Digression on “Imposition”


Disgression: On the Issue of Imposition.

My main problem with the language of imposition is that it presents Kant’s insight into the workings of perception, understanding and reason as a simple reversal of passive mind model – before Kant: mind is passive, after Kant: mind is active. Braver seems to be falling into this trap, but in fact he does not as his careful discussion of that Kant means by “active mind” reveals.  I still wonder if for the sake of clarity/subtlety, we should adopt a distintion not between R5 Passive Knower and A5 Active Knower, but between R5 Negative Activity (because mind is active, but it’s a bad thing before Kant) and A5 Positive Activity (because mind is active, but it’s a good thing). In any case, let me say a bit about my issue with “imposition,” which is not an issue with Braver only, but with a large chuck of discussion of this aspect of Kant. I admit that I might be in the minority here, as my debates about this same topic with Levi showed in the past.

It seems to me that Kant rejects both models of mind – passive and active – if passive mind is empiricism and active mind is rationalism. His own project, I think it is fair to say, is of an active-passive mind in that mind does have necessary forms that make knowledge possible (truth possible), but it is useless without the matter of perception. In fact, one might argue that without the matter of perception, as Braver points out as well (using an image of the world being a mirror for mind and such), there are no identifiable forms of intution (space/time) or categories.

In this case, is it absolutely wrong to talk about mind imposing forms on matter? Of course not, but it’s the details that get us in all sorts of trouble. For example, I have in the past objected to a phrase such as “mind imposes space/time on reality” not because it is absolutely incorrect to put it this way, but because we lose the difference between “space/time” as forms of intuition and, say, causality as a category – does mind “impose” causality of two events that I am observing the same way that it “imposes” space/time that allow me to differentiate between the two discussed events? The answer is “no” as far as I am concerned and I’d be willing to argue my point til I’m blue in the face (and I have done so in the past). Why? Because “space/time” are forms of intuition, we cannot think without them, we cannot perceive without them and so on, while the language of “imposition” implies active intentional work of the mind, work that I am aware of in the same what that I am aware of connecting two events in some causal fashion (as in extreme case of, say, paranoia when I see two unrelated – for most people – events as causing each other and so on, sane people will tell me I am paranoid, but the concept of causality is a form/category I use anyway, it does not concern itself with my content which can be, say, a strange man outside of my windon and my computer working slower than usual and so on).

Allow me an example of Kant’s own very careful way of talking about the matter – this is from §18 of Prolegomena (I’m dealing a bit more with §19 in my main post on Chapter Two):

We must therefore first of all note: that, although all judgments of experience are empirical, i.e., have their basis in the immediate perception of the senses, nonetheless the reverse is not the case, that therefore all empirical judgments are judgments of experience; rather, beyond the empirical and in general beyond what is given is sensory intuition, special concepts must be added, which have their origin completely a priori in the pure understanding, under which every perception can first be subsumed and then, by means of the same concepts transformed into experience.

Notice the use of words like “subsumption” and “transformation” – perceptions are subsumed [subsumieren] under concepts, mind does not impose concepts/forms onto perceptions thus molding them here into a beer, there into a magazine. Kant does use the language of imposition, but as far as I can tell, it’s almost always willful imposition, active action of person imposing rules etc etc. I would be glad is I was corrected here, if you have a good example of Kant actually using “imposition” type of language as that might help me put this matter to rest.

Part of the problem is, I think, apart from other issues is that although Kant really doesn’t use the language of “imposition” in this context, it’s pretty much how Guyer/Wood, among many many others, phrase it in their Introdution to the first critique in Cambridge edition (page 21 or 54, for example), so it might be just a peculiar English idiom at work here. In any case, excuse the digression, it is primarly caused by page 37 of Braver that uses the word “imposition” in a way that makes me a bit uncomfortable. Again I think Braver avoids most of the problems that I would yell at him about (were we on yelling-at-each-other terms) in the following discussion of R1-R3.

21 thoughts on “Braver Reading Group: Digression on “Imposition”

  1. No offense, old friend, but I think you are fighting an uphill battle here – every other introductory text on Kant uses this word (“mind imposes” and so on), I get your point about subtlety, but you can’t go against a whole industry and a long long tradition of use the imagery of “imposition” no matter how often you draw attention to the fact that Kant is more complex in his descriptions than a rather crude “imposition” and so on.

    I’m sure you’re just missing something here, I’m sure there’s a vigilante out there that can cite a dozen of Kantian texts with the language of “imposition” – you just wait.

  2. This is really thought provoking.

    One of the problems with the imposition talk is that we can’t help but to think of this in causal terms, but then what sense does it make to say causality itself is imposed?

    I like the way you frame the issue in terms of the empiricism/rationalism dichotomy; maybe that’s the key to thinking one’s way out of the problems.

    I’ll save any more on this for my actual post either tomorrow or the next day.

  3. Lou/Jon,

    Thanks for at least implicitly pointing out that I might not be crazy.

    I’d like to keep this issue as a secondary and I hope it won’t take more attention that the actual discussion of Lee’s book.

  4. I don’t think Kant uses the language of imposition in the first Critique but the third Critique is full of it – it has little to do with your problem here, but if you look through English translation of the third, it’s there pretty often, and mostly designating a kind of forceful imposition that has nothing to do with mind and so on.

    Hope this helps.

  5. While it may be part of the word “imposition’s” connotation to be actively and consciously done, I think readers are generally able to resist that misinterpretation. One of the best metaphors is Kant’s own of the pink sunglasses–the wearer “imposes” pinkness on the objects seen (qua seen) but not through any particular act, other than looking. I call the process autonomic to compare it with bodily processes like digestion or heartbeat–in some sense it is us who “do” these things, but not through acts of will. Am I right in seeing your point here as semantic, ie, as about an unfortunate choice of term?

    Could you say a little more about the difference between what we do with forms of the intuition & concepts of the understanding? I have always seen them as parallel and have generally dismissed the _Prolegomena_’s distinction between judgments of perception and experience as a mistake. I see the mind as organizing (perhaps a better term than imposing) a group of qualities & fusing them into a single object–substance. Where Locke attributed a thing’s unity to reality–the substance underneath the qualities, upholding them and keeping them together–Kant attributes the unification to us. As you say in your other post, the raw data for this comes from the outside–the car’s blueness, etc. (tho even here it’s a matter of how our eyes & brain physiology interpret the light waves). But the structuring of the set of properties into a thing is done by the mind, as I understand it. This seems quite similar to what the intuition does.

    • While it may be part of the word “imposition’s” connotation to be actively and consciously done, I think readers are generally able to resist that misinterpretation… Am I right in seeing your point here as semantic, ie, as about an unfortunate choice of term?

      I am sure that a conscientious reader will do just that, thus I was trying to frame my objection not as a rejection of the language of “imposition” as such, but a larger question of the engagement with the issue of what exactly is going on in Kant, that is, what is it that we are describing in terms of “imposition” and why does Kant never really uses such language in the first Critique. So vis-a-vis semantics, it’s yes and no for me, I think in terms of your book (chapter two) it is indeed mostly a matter of semantics (as I say in the main post on the chapter, you are, as far as I understand it, quite aware of the possible pitfall of overly active mind and so on – I think the language of “organization” or “ordering” works much better for me), but my digression is raising a sort of tangential question of whether we might probe this very popular language of “imposition” and see what exactly is going on there.

      As for forms of intuition vs categories, I hope that, without spoiling anything (which is sort of a constant temptation of running ahead in the book), we can think of the difference (again, solely for the purpose of thinking about the issues, not in terms of exegetical correctness which we can do as well if it comes to that) between, for example, thinking about causality and thinking about time: one is a category, the other is a form of intuition (and there are, of course, only two of these – space and time). The problem, as I see it, is that forms of intuition and categories are not on the same transcendental level (all of this is my words, I aim to summarize quickly, don’t cite me on this) – space/time are conditions of possibility of any experience, but in a sense, if we use your image of a factory, they are the factory walls and not the actual organizing/ordering machines that do stuff – you need space/time to perceive sequence to infer causality and so on. A more sophisticated formulation might have to wait until I get home and comfortably insert myself into my “Kantian chair” (which includes the judgments of perception and experience business, the follow-up discussion, not the chair which unfortunately does not even come equipped with a decent comfortable back).

      In sum, I’ve always read Kant as separating his discussion of space/time in Trans. Aesthetics and accompanying arguments and Deductions of categories as a sign that two sets of forms should not be confused, I think that what you describe in chapter Three (on Hegel) and a couple of places in chapter Two might be of great help here as one might very well wonder how Kant’s “timeless” and “unchanging” set of formal conditions that does what it does (and voila, there’s a blue car) allows for any sort of development, much less history.

    • Another quick observation, I wonder how would Kant answer a question such as this: “Am I in time or is time in me?” I don’t think I do justice to your discussion of “transcendental subject’ in my main post (maybe we can talk more about it this week), but it seems that it’s there that one would find an answer, and I think that the proper answer would be “Neither” – just a thought…

  6. “In sum, I’ve always read Kant as separating his discussion of space/time in Trans. Aesthetics and accompanying arguments and Deductions of categories as a sign that two sets of forms should not be confused”

    While the forms of intuition and the categories certainly shouldn’t be confounded, isn’t one of the aims of the Deduction to show that “the same function which gives unity to the various representations in a judgement also gives unity to the mere synthesis of various representations in an intuition; and this unity, in its most general expression, we entitle the pure concept of the understanding” (A79/B104-5)? That is, the unity of an intuition is always already a categorially-structured unity; it always has objective purport, and that comes about by having the shape of a possible judgement. (The endorsing of which judgement is, I take it, what Kant meant to get at with his unfortunate Prolegomena distinction between “judgements of perception” and “judgements of experience” — only the latter are judgements proper, in that only they make the content judged out to be objective.)

    McDowell’s reading of the Deduction makes one of its chief aims the elimination of the seeming possibility that we might be put into a relation to an object through mere intuition (by satisfying the conditions of the Tr. Aesthetic), without the categories. There’s only one way to get at anything, and that’s through the activity of the spontaneity and receptivity, concepts and intuitions, together. (McDowell’s main article on this is “Hegel’s Idealism as a Radicalization of Kant”; “Towards a Heterodox reading of Lordship and Bondage” expands on the relationship between the Kantian apperceptive ‘I’/empirical ego and Hegel’s master/slave.)

    • I don’t think we are disagreeing here, Daniel, my main point was about the idea of “imposition” being perhaps too strong for what Kant consistently describes in terms of “subsumption” – I think there’s no need to go into the various distinctions here as it would take us away from Braver’s point. I’m not sure why Kant’s discussion in Prolegomena that I cited is “unfortunate” as it seems reasonable enough, especially with examples of subjective judgments and objective judgments – again, in the general flow of this discussion, I think it makes little sense to get into textual details (we could, for example, take a closer look at schematism and such, say A139/B178)

      • I think Kant’s Prolegomana distinction is “unfortunate” because, as Pippin said in a Kant class I took last winter, it’s embarrassingly bad phenomenology. Kant makes it seem there as if I go “Hmmm, it seems this way to me — Yes, yes, it is this way!” in the normal course of things, which just isn’t right. It’s noteworthy that Kant doesn’t use this distinction in the B-edition of the KRV, or in any work other than the Prolegomena. Which seems to imply that he noticed that it’s not quite the right way to put his views.

        I agree that there’s no real point to quibbling about fine details of terminology here. Though I do think that “imposition” is reasonable as a gloss, given that Kant is prone to talking of this stuff as being the active work of spontaneity (on what must be a purely passive matter). Which spoils the whole brew. (Again, see McDowell on receptivity and spontaneity on this point.) But certainly Kant has subtler things to say about the matter, too. Which are probably the bits that’re more important to appreciate.

  7. You are by no means alone in your suspicion of the language of the mind imposing forms — it is certainly tendentious, despite it being widespread. There is a tradition of Kant scholars who object to this language being used to describe Kant’s position, and I think they are right to do so. For example, the final chapter of Robert Pippin’s ‘Kant’s Theory of Form’ contains a good discussion of this issue.

  8. I agree that “organization” or “ordering” are better than “imposition,” tho the very first line of the body of C1 (as I recall) uses the matter/form distinction to explain sensory data/forms & concepts, an image that strongly suggests shaping some amorphous goo.

    I also agree, Mikhail, that forms are logically prior in that concepts can only organized form-ed intuitions. But I don’t see how we can get behind or under concepts any more than forms, which is why I don’t find the _Prolegomena_ distinction plausible. It is bad phenomenology, as Daniel says (I’m so jealous–I’m a big fan of Pippin. He’s the scholar most influential on my reading of Hegel), but I don’t think that would be a fatal flaw for him. He’s not doing phenomenology and, as the point that started us off states, none of this machinery is directly accessible to our consciousness (this is why we need the ED detour through actual phenomena to discover it). I just don;t think that we have an accessible level of experience more “primordial” than conceptualized experience–the world we find is made up of things (substance) bumping into each other (causality) and so forth. Only half-sleeping states or hallucinogenics can let pure qualities wash over us, and here we are at what Kant called a “rhapsody,” not experience.

    I should add that I’ve always had tremendous difficulty penetrating the Deductions, so there may be holes in my understanding here.

    • What about all the a priori stuff? Maybe I’m misreading you here, but how does the central issue of C1 – how are synthetic a priori judgments possible? – is addressed vis-a-vis ED? I think Kant’s distinction between “judgments of perception” and “judgments of experience” is quite plausible in the context of par.19 – maybe it isn’t a very sophisticated phenomenology but a simple distinction between “the sugar is sweet” (which will never have “objective validity” but only “subjective validity”) and “the world is spaced” is quite plausible – Kant clearly states that in first case, I cannot claim universal validity because in order to do so I need “a condition that makes it universally valid” – perhaps the wording is somewhat confusing, but the argument, I think, is perfectly plausible. If every perception I have would also have to be the perception of everyone else – i.e. if we take a phrase “what experience teaches me it must teach me every time and teach everyone else as well” out of context, it makes it sound as though we are all having the same experience of the world (not just on a minimal formal level, but also literally the same experience content-wise), if this is the case, then how is error possible? Which I think was my main objection to the language of truth as “intersubjective agreement” which smells of empiricism and I’m not sure I would agree with that sort of Kantian reading.

      The first line of C1 can indeed be read as referring to “some amorphous goo” but it’s still not clear whether this “raw material of sensible sensations” is a kind of formless matter that mind imposes forms onto, since this raw material is that of sensible sensations which is not matter, but the way matter already affects me in the form of a sensation (there must be someone sensing for there to be a sensation, right?), i.e. our understanding “deals” with intuition which in turn “deals” with sensible material and gives us sensations. That is, a picture of a mind as a cookie cutter and an outside reality as a cookie dough is what encourages the language of “imposition” when even “ordering/organizing” is a bit too crude, I think. It’s probably beneficial to mention that Kant’s early critics were all over what they perceived to be a dualism of understanding and intuition (that’s why Kant’s section of schematism is still debated, because schematism was suppose to solve the problem of how a pure concept of understanding applies to appearances).

      All of this said, I just think that the notion of active mind is fine with me as long as this activity is not presented in too crude of a way as “mind imposes space/time on reality” – I argued against this once in a heated debate with another blogger and got an earful of how I just don’t get Kant and so on. It’s a very influential misrepresentation of Kant, I think, but it’s also frustrating because it allows many people to dismiss Kant without appreciating the complexity. You are not doing it, of course, I’m just talking about the general mood – google, for example, “mind imposes” and “Kant” together and you will see a billion little texts on the matter, almost none actually more sophisticated than “Kant was a German philosopher, he taught that mind imposes X on the world” – I’d like to read that Pippin discussion that Tom mentioned, but I don’t have the book handy.

      • My point about the use of “raw material” in the first line was similar to your point about “imposition,” namely, that it gives rise to a certain picture in Wittgenstein’s sense that leads us to think about it in certain ways, not that Kant was stating these ideas.

        Our opinions of the pleasantness of the sugar may vary, but we’re still talking about a thing–sugar–and its causal interaction with another thing–my tongue. Just for us to disagree about how good it tastes requires that we organize the experience in the same way, in terms of the same spatio-temporal relations (this sugar here & now as opposed to last Wednesday) and the same concepts–this object giving me this taste. These are formal, so that what fills them in (the quality of the taste) can vary, but the form of our experience must be the same in order to talk about the same topic, and possible disagree about it. This is the level where experience must show the same thing to everyone. Does that make sense?

  9. Hello:

    ‘James H’ provided a great comment that I would like to re-emphasize. I am also more familiar with Kant’s aesthetics than his first critique. ‘James’ makes the comment that the language of imposition is prevalent in the 3rd Critique on Aesthetics. From my reading, I agree. Kant’s entire project, at that point, is to argue how the qualities of the aesthetics, beauty and the sublime, are produced by the subject, spontaneously. The moderator earlier asked us to not divert attention from Lee’s discussion of Kant, but I have to contend that Kant’s later work, specifically this 3rd Critique, has something to say about our ‘imposition’ and experience of the world. Could the vocabulary of ‘ordering’ be applied to the 3rd Critique as well? I would disagree, which leads me to think this is more than just a semantic issue. I don’t really have anything else to add, but I just felt that this was a valuable early contribution that was not given much attention. I am curious to hear what other readers think.

    Great conversation, btw!!!
    -Andrew

  10. One final, general, question: is there any change in the type of anti-realism Kant promotes between the 1st and 3rd Critique?

    • Thanks, Andrew, I think you raise a great question here. If you care to explore this direction yourself, I would be quite interested to hear your opinion. I think the issue here, for me, not some much Braver’s book, is that I always thought that Kant is presented on the basis of C1 and even there we normally read just enough, and the rest of his corpus is sort of left out. I think together with your question and some of Daniel’s observations we might pose it this way:

      1) Is there a better view of noumena/phenomena if we look at it from Kant’s practical philosophical discussion of freedom/necessity?

      2) Is Kant’s anti-realism changing from C1 to C3 and further on? Is it fair to assume that C1 that was suppose to be Kant’s only Critique represents all of Kant?

  11. Thank you Mikhail!!! This entire thread get directly to the heart of some issues. First and foremost, after reading Braver’s section on Kant, I am still world’s away from understanding what he means by anti-realism. Even if we are suppose to have a preconceived idea of what it means, your contention with the use of ‘impose’ highlights how such a writing-strategy is confusing. I mentioned this earlier, but I believe that by Braver attempting to spell out anti-realism as it was historically constructed presents the reader with a whole host of problems in seperating and spelling-out the realism/antirealism debate. You distinction between ‘ordering’ and ‘imposing’ is on the right path in spelling out how this becomes a problem. So, thank you.

    As for Kant, while the 1st Critique is definitely at issue and canonically important, many many people give equal credence to other parts of Kant, particularly the 3rd Critique. While I by no means accuse you of ignoring the 3rd Critique, I do think that the internal changes that Kant makes to his philosophy, as it is spelled out chronologically from c1 to c3, should be an issue. I think the most precise issue is the still revolving around the question of casuality: particularly post-1st Critique, where Kant proposes spontaneous casuality, imagination.

    I really need to leave such questions to someone else, because I know I have more questions than answers. The thing I studies intensely was Kant’s “analytic of the sublime”: which is beyond the limits of comprehension, and thus a cathartic reaction of awe and fear. Kant has a great section in here about our experience of math in relation to the sublime that I think could be useful. Another section of possible importance is the section discussing ‘schema’: which is how we produce concepts, or rule, through imagination, in relation to our mental image of objects in the world. I have to evoke my Socratic intention of “knowing nothing,” but I do think these sections have some insight in how Kant thinks we internalize the world, and hope that someone with some real Kant-skillz can illuminate some of these connections.

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