Monday, April 09, 2007

Transcendental idealism

A few weeks ago I attended the Transcendental Idealism workshop in London, which was organised by the Transcendental Philosophy and Naturalism project. The workshop was truly excellent. The papers were great, the discussions fruitful and the workshop atmosphere was very congenial. There were five talks in total; one on Friday afternoon and four on Saturday. Some of the papers and abstracts are available online on the TPN webpage and there are summaries of the papers at the TPN blog.

An interesting question that came up in some of the discussions concerned the nature of transcendental idealism. While many accepted that the distinction between noumena and phenomena was a metaphysical distinction, there was some dispute as to whether or not transcendental idealism should be understood as a metaphysical or an epistemological question. McDaniel claimed that transcendental idealism is the thesis that we are ignorant of the mind-independent properties of objects. That is, he takes it to be an epistemological thesis that appeals to a metaphysical distinction about properties.

I tend to think that transcendental idealism is a metaphysical view that amounts to claiming that there is a distinction between noumena and phenomena. That is, it is a metaphysical theory that distinguishes between things that are transcendentally real and things that though empirically real are transcendentally ideal. This is particularly clear when Kant claims that it was unfortunate that he chose the term 'transcendental idealism' since it is liable to be misunderstood, and that it would have been better to label his system 'critical idealism' or 'formal idealism'. In a letter to J. S. Beck he claims that transcendental idealism amounts to the claim that the forms of intuition are ideal. This ideality of space and time seems for Kant to be definitive of transcendental idealism.

That transcendental idealism is a metaphysical view comes out particularly clearly when considering the relation between the Inaugural Dissertation and the first Critique. The metaphysical system outlined in the Inaugural Dissertation already endorses the ideality of space and time and it distinguishes between noumena and phenomena. At that time, however, Kant did not make any claims about our ignorance of noumena, but rather thought that knowledge of noumena was possible by means of the understanding.

The epistemological limitations were only introduced as a result of the discursivity thesis. Ignorance of noumena followed because Kant claimed that knowledge requires both intuitions and concepts. By means of the discursivity thesis, knowledge of noumena via the understanding was no longer possible. Sensibility and understanding must work together for knowledge, and since sensibility is limited to that which is in space and time and therewith transcendentally ideal, it follows that we can only know phenomena. That is, ignorance of noumena follows from the conjunction of transcendental idealism and the discursivity thesis.