Sunday, February 26, 2012

My Trouble with Kant

Kant is the greatest modern philosopher because he perceived the far consequences of the premises of modern thought earlier than others, and to an extent that many today still do not appreciate. He is the indispensable philosopher to understand the meaning of philosophy since it began to take its cue from Descartes and Hume.

But that doesn't mean that we must believe that Kant was right. The conclusions follow only if both the logic and the premises are true; Kant is correct in his logic but his premises are not true. In other words,  if Kant is wrong, he was wrong right at the beginning. And his beginning was the assumptions constitutive of modern thought.

It is difficult for us raised in the modern world to get the distance necessary to be genuinely critical of modern thought. The assumptions of modern thought have become the very air we breathe; for us they are simply taken for granted. This is why Kierkegaard is so indispensable. Kierkegaard understood that modern thought must be attacked at its root; and since it is modern first principles that are the problem, those principles must be addressed front and center. Kierkegaard has a wonderful way of getting behind the defenses of his reader and bringing him to a reconsideration of first principles, before the reader knows what is happening and can set up psychological self-defenses:

If it were true - as conceited shrewdness, proud of not being deceived, thinks - that one should believe nothing which he cannot see by means of his physical eyes, then first and foremost one ought to give up believing in love. If one did this and did it out of fear of being deceived, would not one then be deceived? Indeed, one can be deceived in many ways; one can be deceived in believing what is untrue, but on the other hand, one is also deceived in not believing what is true; one can be deceived by appearances, but one can also be deceived by the superficiality of shrewdness, by the flattering conceit which is absolutely certain that it cannot be deceived. Which deception is more dangerous? Whose recovery is more doubtful, that of him who does not see or of him who sees and still does not see? Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake? (From the start of Ch.1 of Works of Love, Harper Torchbooks, 1962).

This passage always comes to mind when I think what is wrong with Kant. For a fundamental modern principle is that doubt is self-justifying: If something can be doubted, then it should be doubted. Kant's transcendental aesthetic gets rolling when he points out that time and space are not something we encounter in experience, but are the conditions of experience itself. So we can only safely conclude that space and time are parameters of our consciousness, not necessarily of reality itself. From this start Kant brilliantly, thoroughly and ruthlessly draws out the logical consequences in his "transcendental philosophy."

But looking at the transcendental aesthetic with Kierkegaard in mind, and granting Kant's point about the conditions of experience, we can still ask Kierkegaard's question about deception: Time and space may be conditions of our experience, but they may nonetheless also be conditions of reality itself. We can go wrong thinking time and space are qualifications of reality if they are only qualifications of our consciousness, but we can also go wrong thinking time and space are not qualifications of reality if in fact they really are. Deception is possible either way. The modern philosopher is simply wrong in thinking his self-justifying doubt is a bulletproof way to avoid deception. And if we do not accept the modern premise that doubt is self-justifying, then we may ask: Why should we grant Kant's conclusions from the transcendental aesthetic? What reason do we have for doubting the reality of time and space beyond the bare possibility of deception?

There doesn't seem to be any such reason, and I suspect there can't possibly be one. Any reason would have to be an argument from experience, which would necessarily take experience for granted, and the argument concerns the conditions of experience itself.

To be continued in a forthcoming post.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Very good thought. It pertains to why religion is often taken to be lame, as in "only stupid people are religious". Nonsense. You need to look deeper to see that it is even more intelligent than atheism.

Just as you are saying - we need to look deeper to see that just because something might deceive us does not mean that it is deceiving us.