Kant’s Objectivity

Kant’s system of philosophy is rigorous and demanding on the reader. Every sentence needs a pencil, note sheet, and complete, undivided attention. He will create concepts (or in his own words, render them more clear) and by doing this, he is creating a small working dictionary that the reader must know; all because in the next paragraph and likely the entire work, he is philosophizing with those concepts. If an individual is not paying attention or is skipping a part that defines the concepts, the entire section is inevitably void. Context may be of some help, but since he is redefining these concepts, everyday usage seems to be nuanced by Kant’s meaning. As an example, the concept of ‘sensibility’ is used primarily in common language as the use of senses or the appeal of the common sense to the senses. Kant desires a more primordial definition of sensibility, the use of sense, as the capacity to obtain representations through the way in which we are affected by objects. There is a potentiality element, rather than actuality – it is also making more aware of the relationship between subject and object. In Gilles Deleuze’s words, “A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window.”[1]

In one of the last sections of the Critique of Pure Reason, the Architectonic, Kant distinguishes between two kinds of knowledge; cognitio ex datis (knowledge from data) and cognitio ex principiis (knowledge from principles). The former is historical knowledge; the latter is rational. These two types of knowledge are the forms rather than the matter of knowledge, if all matter has been abstracted (just as if all matter has been abstracted from an argument, and what is left is the logical form). To give an example to differentiate the two, Kant says that an individual might know the entirety of Wolff’s philosophy; the explanations, the proofs, the form, the examples, etc. This is mere historical data, though. The individual’s judgments are simply given to him, there is no more in it than just that. In other words, there is no thinking involved, only memorization. Rational knowledge is objective when it has been derived from principles. Knowledge from reason is either through concepts or the construction of concepts.

Knowledge, as we saw, can be objectively philosophical, and yet subjectively historical, as is the case with most apprentices, and with all who never look beyond their school and remain apprentices all their lives.[2]

Of all sciences of reason (a priori), therefore, mathematics alone can be learnt, but philosophy never (except historically); with regard to reason we can at most learn to philosophize.[3]

These quotes raise some alarm – even if they are out of context. If a system of philosophy by a given philosopher is inherently subjective, how can we achieve objectivity? If we are to follow Kant’s reasoning, that individuals know the explanations and proofs of his own philosophical system, are we not merely learning his system historically, without any reference to the ‘how’ of philosophizing? How is it that we can bypass that criticism and discern that Kant’s system is actually the one that defines and lays out pure reason, whilst the others are simple historical data? Kantian proofs are difficult to understand and possibly even more difficult to attempt to refute; but is the strength of a proof the reason for a conviction? Kant himself says earlier in the work that even if someone were to come later and lay out proofs for the absolute necessity of a higher being, he would read it with care to help his own system, but it would never alter the course of the work he has already done in a negative way (in this sense it sounds a bit Hegelian dialectical – there is no refuting in a sense – only a surpassing).

Reason, to Kant, has no direct relation to experience – that is the function of the understanding. Sensibility is to the understanding as the understanding is it reason. Reason will render the unity of all possible empirical acts of the understanding systematic, just as the understanding connects the manifold of appearances through concepts and brings them under empirical laws. Systematically, reason is the faculty of inferring, of judging mediately, subsuming the condition of a possible judgment under the condition of a given judgment i.e. a syllogism. On the one hand there is a universal judgment, the next there is a particular, and those two synthesize in order to form a conclusion that is not in direct experience. This all being said, in relation to the whole, Kant holds reason as the medium of philosophy, elucidating concepts with the synthesis of the understanding with no direct relation to experience.

All men are tall.

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates is tall.

Even though ‘Socrates is tall’ can be learned from experience, that is not the point. It is purely synthetic in this sense, because if the first two premises are known, the third can be known without experience through logic – the entire Critique is aimed at attempting to prove synthetic a priori propositions. ‘Tallness’ is expanding the notion of Socrates – not simply analytically identifying.

A great strength in life is relaying what an individual does not understand, but giving a good account of it. It might be that at this time I do not understand this section of Kant; it might be that he is incomprehensible, but due credit is deserved for this outstanding mind, so I will not resort to that. How can a system be subjectively historical, and yet objectively philosophical, without falling into the error of creating a subjective system? In a way, I believe Kant is attempting to achieve objectivity in his philosophy by giving a philosophy of mind that is parallel for everyone; the only problem with that is that with different subjects (and sometimes the same), that is what all philosophers are trying to achieve – a sort of permanence, unwavering.

This is not to say that philosophy is not useful or not worth studying; if I believed it to be so, I would not be writing this. Philosophy is still, as Kant defines it, “the science of the relation of all knowledge to the essential ends of human reason.”[4] The human mind is fragile and at times, weak. Humans cannot lay their history before them, see anything unbiased for what it is, delve into their unconscious, or come up with a consistent nature of the mind. That being said, specific areas of study need a maximum effort. Without philosophy and its reasoning capabilities, science would be ‘the blind leading the blind.’ There would be no question of the essential ends, no putting of knowledge in a perspective. Only an endless chain of means. Philosophy strives for permanence, a journey that is admirable to all disciplines.

[1] Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

[2] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 656

[3] Ibid. 656

[4] Ibid. 657

One thought on “Kant’s Objectivity

  1. Very interesting post.

    “All men are tall.
    Socrates is a man.
    Therefore, Socrates is tall.”

    If all men are tall.
    And if Socrates is a man.
    Then Socrates is tall.


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