Monday, July 26, 2010

On Philosophy at Second Hand, with Specific Reference to Kant

This is the first post in what I hope is at least a two-part series, discussing the benefits of reading the great philosophers directly rather than at second-hand.

Arthur Schopenhauer, in the Preface to the Second Edition of The World As Will and Representation, In Two Volumes: Vol. I, has this to say about reading the great philosophers:

In consequence of his originality, it is true of him in the highest degree, as indeed of all genuine philosophers, that only from their own works does one come to know them, not from the accounts of others. For the thoughts of those extraordinary minds cannot stand filtration through an ordinary head.

The reason for this is not necessarily that the philosopher's thought is too sophisticated for the ordinary head to conceive. Just the opposite is more likely the problem: It is just in his simplicity that the great philosopher is most likely to be missed: For philosophy is about "first ideas" or the bedrock of our rational approach to the world. What distinguishes the great philosopher is his ability to reveal and analyze the first ideas. But just because they are first they are very easy to miss, because we naturally look past them. We habitually look past them.

And we do so for very good reasons. We don't need to think about first ideas to get on with the ordinary business of life. We take them for granted and deal only with the secondary questions that confront us: Can I afford a new house, what school my kids should attend, how to fix a car, etc. Our lives would grind to a halt if we constantly had "first questions" in mind - which is the basis for the perennial indictment of the philosopher that he is "useless", and why Aristotle described philosophy as the most noble but least necessary of endeavors. We operate more efficiently the more we can take these basic questions for granted, and so we develop habits of mind that put, and keep, these ideas in the realm of assumed background and, perhaps, even actively discourage the mind from uncovering them.

The great philosopher, then, is doing something that, in a sense, does not come naturally and even "goes against the grain." He uncovers the background that the mind wishes would stay there so it can get on with the "real" business of thought. So when we read a philosopher, the drift of our mind is to find a place for his thought within the categories with which our mind is already comfortable (I discuss this phenomenon in relation to materialists and St. Thomas in this post.) Of course, it may be that the philosopher's primary goal is to challenge those very categories.

So when we read a great philosopher at second hand, there is a danger that what we will read is the philosopher's thought as recast into the comfortable categories of the interpreter.  This happens with Kant when he is introduced in the following common way: We human beings have (at least) five senses. We know and encounter the world through them. But we see that other animals have different ways of appreciating the world through their senses, and even have different senses altogether. Bats, for example, detect objects through echo location. Some species of fish (sharks, I believe) sense the electromagnetic field of their prey. What must the world look like to a shark? Can we even conceive of what the experience of a shark is like? (See the famous paper of Thomas Nagel on this topic, although he focusses on bats and not sharks.) We come to see that the world is not given to us directly in its own terms, but comes to us recast in the terms dictated by our cognitive apparatus. Thus arises the Kantian distinction between phenomena and noumena, or "things as they appear to us" and "things as they are in themselves."

Now this is very close to what Kant is getting at (in my opinion, of course - I am well aware that my mind is subject to the same propensity to think in familiar channels as everyone else, so if anyone really wants exposure to Kant, he should be read directly rather than through me. Put your irony back in its holster). But "close" can be disastrous when interpreting philosophers, precisely because "close" may miss just the jump out of familiar channels that makes the philosopher significant. Absent this jump, everything that follows takes on a different meaning and you will end up in a very different place than the philosopher intended; just as Routes 1 and 93 start in very close parallel out of Boston, but if you travel on Rt. 1 rather than the intended 93, you will end up very far from where you hoped.

The introduction to Kant given above is vulnerable to a straightforward objection. If we know things only as they appear to us, rather than things as they are in themselves, then the question of what it is like to be a shark or a bat changes meaning; in fact it loses meaning. "Shark" and "bat" are just constructions our cognitive apparatus puts on experience; asking "what it is like to be a shark" is then just asking what it is like to be this particular kind of cognitive construction. The object of the question has changed; it is no longer some thing-in-itself outside ourselves (about which we can know nothing at all on the Kantian view), and instead has become a subjective question concerning the nature of inner experience. And it makes no sense to ask "What is it like to be a cognitive construction", because cognitive constructions have no inner lives; they are aspects of our inner lives. It is like asking what it is like to be the color red or to be a dream.

What, then, becomes of the initial case for the plausibility of Kantian philosophy? That case only had plausibility because we assumed, "naively" we later discover, that when we think about "bats" and "sharks", we are in contact with real things out there about which it makes sense for us to discuss their inner lives. But this is only possible if we can know something about the thing-in-itself, verboten knowledge according to Kant. So the Kantian philosophy destroys the ground of its own plausibility.

Someone to whom this objection occurs, and who is familiar with Kant only through the common introduction given above, may have nothing further to do with Kant after concluding that it is Kant, and not himself, who is being naive. And this would be a tragedy, because while there are good reasons to reject Kant's philosophy, this isn't one of them, and, even philosophers who are wrong have things to teach us, especially great philosophers like Kant. But a man is unlikely to give Kant further time if he has concluded that he was so obtuse as to not anticipate the objection given above. (In fact, it's a good clue that a critic has not really understood a great philosopher if he thinks he has a devastating, and obvious, refutation of the philosopher's basic idea. To borrow from Hume's argument against miracles: Is it more likely that the critic hasn't understood the philosopher, or that all the bright minds who have studied the philosopher over many years simply missed the obvious retort?)

Kant is not subject to the objection because he does not base the plausibility of his philosophy on meditations concerning the inner lives of other animals. He bases it on the only possible thing he can: The data of our own consciousness. In the Transcendental Aesthetic, Kant proposes to the reader that space and time are not things we empirically discover; they are in fact forms of empirical discovery. We do not first experience the tree over there and myself over here, and then discover space as the thing separating us. No, the very distinction that makes possible the experience of the tree as something distinct from myself is the distinction of space. Space is prior to the experience of trees in the sense of being constitutive of it; and the only candidate for the agent of constitution is our own consciousness. So the experience of space is really an experience of the demands of our own cognitive apparatus on reality; and everything experienced in space is an experience of whatever is out there only insofar as it has been reconstituted in terms of space through our consciousness. A similar argument is adduced for time.

Whether or not the reader finds the argument compelling (and I reiterate the point that this is my interpretation of Kant, and Kant was a much greater philosopher than I am, so it is better to read him directly for the argument), the point is that Kant has not stolen any bases by implicitly referring to a knowledge of things-in-themselves that he will later claim is impossible. This may seem an obscure point but it is what distinguishes the genuine Kantian philosophy from the bastardized, self-contradictory, pseudo-Kantian philosophy that has become part of our "default" intellectual furniture. Repeating a point I have perhaps made in too many posts, much of the contemporary philosophy of mind, I believe, takes a pseudo-Kantianism for granted. Any time you here someone talking about how the brain constructs experience or "models" the world, you are listening to someone on the Kant Express; but they very likely have not taken Kant seriously enough. 

Returning to my earlier point that our minds tend to want to run in familiar grooves, our minds have an almost overwhelming impulse to talk about things as they really are. (Of course, I think we have this impulse because we really can talk about how things really are, but that's another story.) Kant recognized this facet of our nature in saying that metaphysics, while an illusion, is an inevitable illusion. The pseudo-Kantians of today don't have Kant's discipline; they want to talk about how the mind (or rather, "the brain") is essentially a modeler of the world or a constructor of experience from sensation, and innocently suppose that they are talking directly about a real-world, thing-in-itself object called "the brain" when they do so. If we have trusted Kant enough to read him directly, then we can see the self-defeating nature of the project; it is the same self-defeating feature found in the typical introduction to Kant. 

The penalty for being a pseudo-Kantian is the same as the penalty for all philosophical confusion: A lack of self-understanding. This lack of self-understanding is why so much of the contemporary philosophy of mind has the character of a circular firing squad. ("The most striking feature is how much of mainstream philosophy of mind of the past fifty years seems obviously false." John Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, p. 3). It seems so obviously false because it is: Everyone is trying to square a circle. They are trying to show how the brain, through purely material operations, is the causal foundation of consciousness and thought. But since "the brain" is itself a construction of consciousness, the project is really about explaining consciousness in terms of itself, or rather consciousness in the terms of whatever a particular philosopher decides to take seriously about consciousness. In any case, it is circular, and no one seems like they will run out of ammunition any time soon.

Coming soon, I hope: On Philosophy at Second Hand, with Specific Reference to Plato.

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