Are Transcendental Arguments a type of Wager?


Having discussed the fate of transcendental reasoning in the analytic tradition, Reynolds and Chase (in Postanalytic and Metacontinental: Crossing the Divide) turn to the continental side, wherein transcendental reasoning is “perhaps even permanently contested terrain…but not controversial enough to induce general abstinence.” The authors suggest:

…the implicit rationale seems to be a bit like Pascal’s Wager–believing in the efficacy of transcendental arguments, if they work, may result in tremendous results (a Copernican revolution); if they do not, some important concepts will have nonetheless been created.  Better that, on this view, than disbelieving and being the under-laborer of science (37).

At the end of the article, Reynolds and Chase claim:

The analytic community has, by and large, decided not to trust such arguments; the continental community. by and large, has put a  significant degree of faith in them. As William James made clear in a more general epistemic context, the precise trade-off between the goal of avoiding false beliefs and the goal of seeking true beliefs can differ from agent to agent, and that is the situation we have here between the traditions.  The analytic decision is arguably reasonable given the difficulties there are in finding a constructive role that transcendental reasoning can play within the norms of the analytic community. The reasonableness of the continental decision requires consideration of the value of engaging in this Wager while also critically reflecting, and the value of the perspective that dual combination affords (48).

The authors conclude with a comment about rapprochement between the two traditions:  transcendental reasoning  will only serve to deepen the divide,  not bridge it.  I think this may just be the understatement of the year (or something like that). Nonetheless, is it that analytic community doesn’t “trust” transcendental arguments whereas those starry eyed Continentalists go by some sort of feeling of absolute dependence with regards to transcendental arguments?  Weird.  I suppose if transcendental arguments/philosophy are to be regarded as an attempt to maintain and/or achieve the goal of philosophy as radical inquiry, by which I mean freedom from prejudices and other types of presuppositions, this means  that not only does philosophy have to offer a transcendental grounding of science (a la Kant), but moreover, philosophy must become aware of and justify its own presuppositions.  This is to say, well, philosophy has to explain itself, it needs to be self-justifying.  While say, Kant can offer an account of the conditions of possible experience and of possible objects of experience, as some versions of the story go, he can’t (or does not) provide  an account of his ability to do so.  Perhaps this is what Reynolds and Chase are claiming with regards to transcendental arguments and faith:  Kant–for one example– doesn’t  explain how transcendental knowledge itself is possible, let alone justify it. Let’s just bracket whether or not this is accurate for now, but I know this has been a large debate in the literature (revolving around synthetic/analytic justification of TA vs “genetics”).  Nonetheless, in the section “The Discipline of Pure Reason” in the CPR Kant writes:

In transcendental knowledge, so long as we are concerned only with concepts of the understanding, our guide is the possibility of experience. Such proof does not show that the given concept (for instance, of that which happens) leads directly to another concept (that of a cause): for such a transition would be a saltus which could not be justified. The proof proceeds by showing that experience itself, and therefore the object of experience, would be impossible without a connection of this kind. Accordingly, the proof must also at the same time show the possibility of arriving synthetically a priori at some knowledge of things which was not contained in the concepts of them. (A783=B811)

I think it’s clear that for Kant, the justification of any type of  transcendental proposition indicates experience wouldn’t  be possible unless the proposition was true.  If memory serves, this is exactly what Kant does in the Transcendental Deduction.  So, I’m just not quite sure if the characterization of transcendental arguments is a sort of wager at all, but I’ll have to think some more on it (hoping Mikhail weighs in).

4 thoughts on “Are Transcendental Arguments a type of Wager?

  1. “Nonetheless, is it that analytic community doesn’t “trust” transcendental arguments whereas those starry eyed Continentalists go by some sort of feeling of absolute dependence with regards to transcendental arguments?”

    I don’t think that’s a charitable interpretation of Chase and Reynolds dichotomy. Two important considerations tell against your reading: first, the authors are very clear that the term “transcendental argument” is itself equivocal, so that’s it’s not even certain that both traditions are discussing the same thing; second, they also make a great effort to show how a large part of the degree of trust/distrust that each tradition places upon “transcendental arguments” is tied to background commitments on what counts as a viable philosophy. In particular, they emphasize (correctly, in my view) the role that logical positivism and scientific naturalism has played in the analytical tradition’s rejection of such kinds of arguments, which gives an interesting nuance to that rejection (it makes clear why the English tradition, starting with Austin and Strawson, and eventually finding its way to McDowell and Evans, is exempt from such suspicions). They also give a very detailed (and, in my view, sympathetic) interpretation of the kind of transcendental argumentation that goes around in Continental circles, so it’s not like they’re portraying the analytics as austere and reasonable, and the continentals as dreamy and unreasonable.

    Leaving that aside, however, I have some problems with your more positive proposal, namely the idea that transcendental arguments are able to ground science/experience/etc. My problem is that it’s not particularly clear how the “grounding” service is to be done. Let us grant that one has indeed identified a necessary condition, say p, of science/experience/etc. How does this explain how science/experience/etc. are possible? At best, it shows that if science/experience/etc. are to be possible, then p. But this relation itself is left completely mysterious, not to mention that we are left in the dark about the means by which science/experience/etc. are possible. Further, it’s not even clear that it is possible to identify necessary conditions for science/experience/etc. as wholes. Maybe we can identify necessary conditions for a particular way of doing science/having an experience/etc., but why should we think that there are necessary conditions for doing science/having an experience/etc. in general? And, again, how could such general conditions be informative about the specific ways of doing/enjoying these things?

    The complains against transcendental arguments in the previous paragraph are not mine, by the way. They have been leveled by Quassim Cassam in his excellent book, The Possibility of Knowledge. If you have any interest on this question, I really recommend that you read at least the first two chapters of that book; it was that read that put the nail in the coffin for that kind of transcendental argument, at least for me.

  2. Hi, Daniel. Thanks for the response. I’ll have to have a look at the Cassam text you mention. The faith/trust dichotomy still seems silly to me, as does the notion that trans. args are somehow akin to a wager. I was being a little sarcastic, by the way, in the passage you cite above.

    • I noted the sarcasm, I just thought it was misplaced.

      I think you’re putting too much weight on their choice of words, “trust/faith”. I do not think they have built in this choice such a rigid dichotomy (in fact, I got the impression that they’re using the words as almost synonymous). As for the Wager, I don’t see the problem with it. Can you explain it?

      Incidentally, I have the Cassam book in a .pdf format. I can e-mail it to you if you so desire.

  3. I wouldn’t take Kant to be a gambling man. You would need grand metaphysical gestures for that. Though I doubt any of the usual suspects have ever seen the inside of a bookmakers let alone know the location of every one in a 10 mile radius. Unlike Latour.

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