Maimon Reading Group: Chapter 9 – Truth, Subjective, Objective, Logical, Metaphysical

Another fairly brief chapter but again very rich. Maimon’s aim is to distinguish and clarify various ways in which the word ‘truth’ can be used (the chapter’s title lists these) as well as to reflect on the objectivity of the forms of thought delineated in the Essay, all the time continuing certain broadly Kantian observations whilst entertaining certain criticisms of the Kantian project.

The chapter opens by defining truth not as a property of thoughts but of signs (Zeichen) and expressions (Ausdrücke) in relation to thoughts. Thus the expression ‘a right angled triangle’ is a true concept because through it a triangle can be thought as determinable and being-right-angled can be thought as a determination and the two then ‘taken together’ (zusammengenommen – see Chapter 7), the necessary connection of subject and predicate becoming visible. A false concept is one which “is taken to refer to something (a thought unity) that it cannot refer to” (80). A third possibility exists, of a concept which is neither true nor false, e.g. ‘a black triangle’ where thinking black does not lead automatically to the thought of a triangle; the one can be thought without the other and in fact nothing (or very little) is thought in such an expression.

Maimon continues, “there are no true and false concepts with respect to thought considered in itself; rather something is a concept or it is not” (80), before proceeding to question the distinction between “truth in speech” and “truth in thought”. For him truth applies only to the latter; it is about content rather than medium. Better, truth is a relation of concept to its expression; the expression must match the thought. At the same time, there is no truth in thought without signs or expression –  truth will out, as they say; it must be expressed to count as such. There’s something interestingly communicative about this and it obviously sets Maimon apart from any tradition privileging inner revelation, any philosophy which sees expression as contaminating or degrading truth. Yet as a truth theory it is very thin – it doesn’t tell us what truth consists in beyond bare coincidence of thought and expression.

Which is why he moves on to the more substantial idea of logical truth, which seeks to connect the two through stronger threads, namely “laws of the understanding” (81). But here Maimon interestingly holds on to the idea that truth is not what results from the application of these laws but rather remains procedural, it is the operation (Gang) of thinking in conformity with law. Logical truth consists above all in adherence to the law of non-contradiction (“the highest criterion of truth”). Its limitation is that it pertains only to determined objects whereas, for instance, metaphysical truth applies “to the form of difference as well as of categorical, hypothetical and disjunctive propositions” (82) and everything subsumed under them, i.e. determinable not determined objects.

Finally, truths may be subjective when recognised by a particular thinking being and objective when recognised as having universal validity and necessity (83). A distinction which sets up the following interesting twist.

Maimon suggests that even objective truths (for Kant necessary and universally valid) can be seen as, in a sense, subjective, if we relativise the question of who is the being that thinks them.

For example, in so far as our sensible intuitions agree with certain forms, they are merely subjective because there can always be thinking beings that have completely different forms of intuitions from those we have. Consequently these forms themselves have merely subjective reality even though they are in us a priori. And it is the same with the forms of our thought because there can always (problematically) be thinking beings, that connect appearances (if they have them) and make them into objects of the understanding, but use completely different forms to do so (83).

What follows is equally fascinating. Maimon imagines giving a mathematical proof to an interlocutor who turns out to be unconvinced that its validity stretches any further than his own and Maimon’s agreement on it. Perhaps other thinking beings, his interlocutor suggests, operate with different forms of thought and would see it differently, even deny it. Maimon does not rule out this possibility, and clearly has a certain respect for his opponent’s point of view. But on the other hand if the interlocutor “were to claim that the form of his thought were different from mine, I would certainly have nothing more to do with him” (83, my emphasis). I suspect this may be Maimonian humour (and a Hegelian cannot but read this as a comedy of misrecognition), but there is also perhaps a more serious point behind it. Maimon seems adroitly to be offering space to the speculative critic of Kantianism while reassuring the Kantian reader (or Kant himself?) of the universal validity of the forms of thought. He reinscribes the boundaries of the critical philosophy but not without also pointing out the attractive landscape beyond those boundaries.

But as Maimon quickly points out, the ground beyond these walls is terra infirma, since the interlocutor cannot carry his doubts about validity very far without contradiction. If he accepts the commonality of the human form of thought but nevertheless seeks exceptions by pointing to thinking beings other than ourselves he has to acknowledge the commonality of the designation ‘thinking beings’, recognise an identity even in the differentiation (as per Chapter 8). Even if what is common to human thinking beings and, say, nonhuman thinking beings consists only in some capacity to unify a manifold this would still indicate that what any thinking being recognizes as true is ‘objective truth’ (83).

The alert reader won’t have failed to notice that the relativising manoeuvre of Maimon’s interlocutor has a certain Aktualität. What is of interest in Maimon’s anticipation of a certain current philosophical fashion is the ‘problematic’ status he assigns to it: contradiction haunts the search for the exception to the idealist explanation of forms of thought because it often relies implicitly on what is common (gemeinschaftlich) between norm and exception; the forms of thought set out by Kant and rehearsed here are in most cases preconditions for the very dissent shown towards the forms’ validity. Maimon’s attitude towards his philosophical interlocutor here – “I would certainly have nothing more to do with him” – is admittedly not very respectful to the venerable philosophical tradition of dialogue (and arguably detracts from the communicability of truth outlined earlier) but one can perhaps sympathise with his frustration when sometimes there is no convincing a philosophical opponent, especially one who freely contradicts himself in his zeal to relativise the human. Maimon generously credits his opponent with worthwhile interests, but indicates that these may be a diversion from more important philosophical questions he wishes to concern himself and us with in this work.

2 thoughts on “Maimon Reading Group: Chapter 9 – Truth, Subjective, Objective, Logical, Metaphysical

  1. Pingback: Maimon Reading Group (Summer 2010) « Perverse Egalitarianism

  2. This is very interesting, not least with regard to SR/OOP as you suggest, subtly. I’m going to take some time writing something on this over at LR, as agreed. Could be Autumn by the time I’m done, as have hols coming up. Will mail Mikhail when it’s ready. Thanks for the concise summary.

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