Wednesday, September 01, 2004
Three cheers for empiricism
I don't necessarily regret this state of affairs,*** but one unfortunate consequence is that naive graduate students develop the idea that it would be intellectually irresponsible of them not to closely read the Critique while in graduate school.
But I digress.
Right at the beginning of the Transcendental Aesthetic Kant writes the following:
Whatever in an appearance corresponds to sensation I call its matter; but whatever in appearance brings about the fact that the manifold of the appearance can be ordered in certain relations I call the form of appearance. Now, that in which alone sensations can be ordered and put into a certain form cannot itself be sensation again. Therefore, although the matter of all appearance is given to us only a posteriori, the form of all appearance must altogether lie ready for the sensations a priori in the mind; and hence that form must be capable of being examined apart from all sensation.I'm not sure I can translate this into anything approaching English without burying myself in a heap of equivocations, but what Kant means to establish here is that there is something, form, which is both an essential component of our presentations of the world and that this thing is, in some important sense, prior to all other content of those presentations--in particular, it's prior to any part of the content that is given by the world itself.
As near as I can tell this notion, that presentations have a form which is prior to their content, underlies the whole argument of the Aesthetic. It's only because there is this thing, prior to experience, which makes knowledge possible that it is possible for Kant to derive knowledge without reference to experience.*# And it's only because the form must (supposedly) be there that the procedure of Kant's metaphysical and transcendental meanderings makes any sense at all.
But why should we buy it? I can see at least two difficult to swallow assumptions.
In the first place, why should we think that we can distinguish form and content in our presentations?# I won't go all Sense and Sensibilia on Kant's ass here, but I just don't get it. Right now I'm sitting at a table in a coffee shop and if I take the time to look up I can see various things - tables, chairs, customers, a mural by someone who hasn't quite figured out perspective, track lighting, and so on. If I close my eyes and try really hard I can keep a mental presentation of what I was seeing. What I can't do is subtract all of the content from that presentation and have form left. I don't even know what it would mean to do that. So it looks to me like Kant is putting a whole lot of weight on a distinction that's incomprehensible on its face.#*
But even if I were to grant that presentations can be separated into form and content, what reason is there to think that form is prior to experience? All Kant says is that since they can't be the same, and since sensations can't be interpreted in the absense of form, then form must be ontologically prior.#** But it seems to me that you can run the exact same argument the other way and conclude that sensations must be prior. Maybe this is really just the last objection put a different way. We can't cognize either form or sensations in the absence of the other. So what sense does it make to say that one is prior?
The only way to make sense out of it, it seems to me, is to acknowledge that Kant has an axe to grind here. Kant's project is to develop a better way of talking about pure cognition. That is, he wants to be more responsible about the kinds of knowledge claims that can be made prior to experience. But he is, at base, committed to the idea that a priori knowledge is possible.
Sure, sure, he wraps it up in the argument that cognition is only possible if a priori knowledge is possible. I freakin' know. What I'm saying is that he chooses an account of cognition that's favorable to this result, an account which trades on any number of mysterious distinctions, not the least of which is the form/content distinction displayed in the quoted paragraph.
Update: I've added a footnote.#***, *#
* The thing that makes the secret so small, of course, is that in any scheme of things you care to pick academic philosophy matters hardly at all.
** Or, if they belong to that small minority that actually does read Kant then what they do is involve you in a mind-numbingly boring discussion focused on textual interpretation. Ugh. What you won't get, except maybe on those rare occasions where everyone involved is sloppy drunk, is attention to the question of whether this web Kant is spinning has the strength to support anything at all.
*** My own theory of the origins of analytic philosophy, by the way, is that wide acceptance of the program was born not so much out of respect for Frege and Russell as out of a realization that if you focused on the problems posed by them then you could pretty much ignore Kant, Hegel, and the whole tradition of German obfuscation philosophy that they exemplify.
*# No, that sentence doesn't make much sense to me either. Here's another try. Kant wants to say that there is some set of truths that can be known through pure cognition. These truths are prior to all experience. If, as Kant thinks, all presentations have a form, but our access to form were derived from experience, then we couldn't have presentations prior to experience. But if we couldn't have presentations prior to experience, then we couldn't have knowledge prior to experience. See? Well I tried.
# I'm open, by the way, to the possibility that our brains have evolved in such a way that we can't help but organize perceptions into particular categories. So, for example, we may not be capable of organizing perceptions except in terms of space and time. But if that's true then it's a falsifiable (and contingent) empirical fact that we discover through diligent investigation of the world. It's not some necessary fact about the possibility of pure cognition. Nor, by the way, would the truth of this empirical premise imply that we could, in fact, distinguish form and content.
#* Probably somebody somewhere has written a very tiresome book explaining why Kant thinks that this is a meaningful distinction. My office mate spent a half hour yesterday insisting to me that I can't think of any part of the world without thinking of the whole world, and I just can't see that either. Kantians.
#** Note that I'm not objecting that we couldn't have the idea of form unless we had first had some presentation with empirical content. I'm not saying you couldn't make such an objection, but I buy Russell's defense of a priori knowledge on this point (that, you know, you wouldn't have the idea of mathematics unless you had encountered countable things, but that encountering more countable things doesn't give you more evidence for mathematics).
#*** The closest I can come to making sense of this form/content distinction is the distinction between theory and data. Data are not simply given, but can only be interpreted in the context of a theory. So there's a sense in which data cannot be prior to theory. But that doesn't mean that you can say anything sensible about a theory independently of the data it interprets. The theory/data distinction is, I think, moderately clear but it isn't the sort of distinction that one uses to motivate claims of ontological priority. Or, at any rate, I don't think it should be used that way.
*# I should add that it's pretty obvious that Kant is deliberately invoking Aristotle's form/matter distinction. But Aristotle wasn't talking about presentations, he was talking about substances. If we take the parallel seriously then it's hard to escape the conclusion that Kant's position is that the impingements of sensation don't make any significant contribution to knowledge -- even empirical knowledge. That may well be his position (it's certainly the position of some Kantians I know) but if it is then, well, it's not a position I'm inclined to take seriously. So I'd rather believe that the reference to Aristotle is mostly a rhetorical flourish.