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.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Idealism and normativity workshop

The German Idealism and Normativity workshop at University College Dublin was very interesting and enjoyable. On Wednesday there were two talks: one by Paul Franks which concerned Fichte's response to Jacobi's worries about nihilism. Jacobi criticised holistic systems like that of Kant for their commitment to the claim that objects only possess relational properties. This approach seemed to raise the threat of nihilism for Jacobi since he thought that all objects required both relational and intrinsic properties. Fichte then takes up this challenge, according to Franks, by trying to make room for individuality that arises as a result of a summons (Aufforderung).

The other talk was by Frederick Beiser who presented a very nice story of two German philosophers that have by now been virtually forgotten in the English-speaking world. These are Windelband and Rickert. Both of these post-Kantians struggled seriously with the attempt of making room for normativity and integrating the realms of fact and value. However, both ultimately failed - Windelband recanted his earlier criticisms of Hegel, while Rickert simply asserted the unanswerability and unexplicability of the relation between fact and value. Beiser takes this to be an instructive story that highlights some of the difficulties that normative approaches face and which have so far not been addressed by many contemporary interpreters. What was particularly interesting was his claim that the fact/value problem equally applies to one-world and two-world interpretations. Also of interest was his characterisation of Rickert as a proponent of the epistemological or methodological reading that has most of the strengths of Allison's approach without being subject to the weaknesses.

On Thursday, I only managed to attend the first three talks as I had to get a flight to go to London for the Transcendental Idealism workshop. In the morning there was an interesting exchange which Gerhard Seel nicely characterised as 'les querelles allemandes'. Marcus Willaschek gave the first paper, entitled 'Kant on Right Without Ethics' in which he argued for the revisionist interpretation of the relation between the doctrine of ethics and the doctrine of right (this view is also espoused by, amongst others, Wood, Pogge and Ripstein). He argued that it was not possible to derive right from morality and that Kant had changed his views on this issue by the time of writing the Metaphysics of Morals, even though the architectonic still remained unchanged and even though the implications of the new approach were not fully worked out. That is, while Kant held until the early 1790s that the doctrine of right followed from the doctrine of ethics and was justified by the categorical imperative, he later believed that such a derivation was not possible and that these two doctrines were independent of each other. The discussion after the talk turned largely on the question whether this implies that the doctrine of right would have to be dropped as a result of lacking a foundation or whether an independent justification could be found, thereby undermining the unity of the Kantian system.

Gerhard Seel's paper was a response to the challenge raised by Willaschek. He claimed that the doctrine of right could be justified by appealing to the categorical imperative and that this was the only possible justification. His proposed solution did however come at quite a high price, namely the rejection of all imperfect duties. These two talks nicely showed how difficult the relation between the doctrine of right and the doctrine of virtue really is and that any solution will have to pay a high price, either in the form of undermining the unity and architectonic of the Kantian system or by rejecting certain Kantian doctrines.

After the lunch break Robert Stern gave a paper about realism and constructivism in Kant's and Hegel's ethical thought. The background of the paper was the recent dispute between McDowell and Pippin regarding the question as to whether or not one should give a realist interpretation of Hegel, McDowell arguing that this should be done while Pippin claimed that self-legislation was fundamental to Hegel's ethical thought and implied a constructivist reading. Stern sided with McDowell, providing a defence of the realist position as well as criticisms of the constructivist approach. The main problem with the realist position was seen to lie in its apparent inability to make sense of the obligatoriness of morality, something that according to the Kantian requires the self-imposition of moral commands. Stern attempted to meet this objection by claiming that obligatoriness is not essential as can be seen from the case of the holy will for whom the moral law is descriptive and not prescriptive. Stern's critique of the constructivist position was based on the claim that such an approach would ultimately collapse into realism if it is to avoid the problem of an unconstrained and arbitrary voluntarism.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

German and Transcendental Idealism

Next week is set to be rather frantic. On Saturday I will be heading to Ireland, where the PutnamFest will take place, followed by a workshop on German Idealism and Normativity. The latter will feature: Georg Mohr, Marcus Willachek, Frederick Beiser, Paul Franks, Robert Stern and Gerhard Seel. This will directly be followed by a workshop on Transcendental Idealism taking place in London. This workshop is organised by the Transcendental Philosophy and Naturalism project at Essex. The speakers are: Karl Ameriks, Johannes Haag, Kris McDaniel, Adrian Moore and Tobias Rosefeldt.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

NDPR: The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy

A review of The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy (ed. P. Guyer) is now available online at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

Keep Kant in Gothic

I just found out that the people at de Gruyter are planning to publish the new Akademie-Ausgabe editions of the three Critiques in Roman font, rather than the original Gothic, and that they want to use italics. Their reasoning is that Gothic is unfamiliar and alien to Anglo-American readers.

The new editions of the Critiques will be closer to the originals, reversing many misguided emendations and additions made by previous editors. It is a shame that this positive trend towards greater scholarly accuracy and faithfulness to the original text should be compromised by a sacrifice of the original aesthetics.

Moreover, and most importantly, Kant himself maintained in the Conflict of the Faculties that German texts should not be typeset in Roman font and that the use of italics should be avoided.

If you think that authenticity should be preserved and that Kant's wishes should be respected, then please send e-mails to Dr. Tanja Gloyna ( of the Berliner Akademie to express your disapproval.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The noumena/phenomena distinction

Transcendental idealism, whether it is an epistemological thesis or not, has obviously many epistemological implications, such as the need for epistemic humility resulting from the ignorance of things in themselves. However, whether the distinction between noumena and phenomena is merely an epistemological or methodological distinction or a more substantive metaphysical doctrine is a much-debated issue. The debate regarding the noumena/phenomena relation is often phrased in terms of the number of worlds that result from particular theories, so that epistemological interpretations are seen as `one-world' views, whereas metaphysical interpretations are considered to be `two-world' views. This classification is rather inadequate and it is better to differentiate theories on the basis of whether or not they are epistemological or metaphysical in nature, since this distinction is more fundamental. A fully adequate classification, however, must classify interpretations along both dimensions since they run orthogonal to each other.

The distinction between noumena and phenomena can either be seen as a metaphysical or as an epistemological distinction. According to metaphysical interpretations, the distinction between noumena and phenomena is a distinction that derives from the objects. It is not based on the way we consider or conceive of the objects. Instead, there is some metaphysical distinction or difference that pertains to the objects and which lies at the basis of the noumena/phenomena distinction. Proponents of the epistemological or methodological interpretation claim that the distinction is a distinction between ways of considering the same objects. They claim that we view it from different viewpoints, that in thinking about them we occupy different standpoints, namely the transcendental and empirical standpoints. When we consider things as they are in themselves we are abstracting from the conditions of our sensibility. Thus, the terms `noumena' and `phenomena' refer to different entities or metaphysical features of entities, if one takes the former approach, while they refer to different ways of conceiving, considering or knowing entities, according to the latter approach.

Interpretations of transcendental idealism are usually distinguished by assessing the number of worlds that they imply. This criterion is slightly problematic in that it might be better to talk about domains of discourse, rather than about `worlds'. This is because there are positions, such as the `virtual object' view espoused by van Cleve, that do not really classify as two-worlds views even though there are two separate domains. In the case of van Cleve's interpretation there is only one world, but there are two ontological domains or domains of discourse. There are two sets of entities, but only one set consists of real existents, whereas the other's members are virtual objects. As long as we have a very weak understanding of worlds, i.e. no substantial ontological reading of worlds, these will amount to the same. (Though the terminology of `worlds' is slightly misleading, it has become so entrenched in the literature that I will stick to it, with the proviso that one should keep in mind that a weak reading of worlds is used that does not have any serious ontological import.)

The metaphysical/epistemological and the one-world/two-worlds distinctions constitute two orthogonal distinctions that can be combined, giving us four possible groups of interpretations of the distinction between noumena and phenomena. Metaphysical interpretations can be classified as one-world or two-world theories and the same applies to epistemological approaches. These four options are illustrated in the diagram below:

Metaphysical interpretations can be either one-world theories or two-world theories. Usually, they imply the existence of two-worlds, but there are also some well-known metaphysical one-world approaches. The most straightforward metaphysical view is that noumena and phenomena are different objects. They are ontologically distinct entities. This option then, of course, brings with it the well-known two-worlds view. Within this broad category of metaphysical two-worlds views, there is a vast range of more particular views that differ in the account they give of the nature of noumenal objects and phenomenal objects, as well as the relation that exists between them.

If the distinction between noumena and phenomena is a metaphysical distinction, then this implies that noumena and phenomena must be distinct, but it does not mean that we have distinct objects and distinct worlds occupied by these different objects. Noumena and phenomena can be distinct aspects or parts of the same object. For example, Warren and Langton argue that there is one object, but that noumena are collections of intrinsic properties of objects, whereas phenomena are collections of the relational properties of the same objects. On this view, phenomena and noumena are not distinct objects, but rather refer to bundles or sets of properties. We can talk about the `phenomenal object', as long as this `object' is not understood as a mereological unity, as an object in the full-blown sense. Only noumenal objects are objects in the full-blown sense and this explains their ontological priority. So, we have a clear metaphysical distinction between two kinds of properties.

There are several other candidate distinctions that can be appealed to in order to arrive at metaphysical one-world views. Possible options include views according to which Kant was concerned with different essences, or that the distinction between noumena and phenomena is simply the distinction between substrata and their properties. A further one-world possibility is to treat it as a distinction between different mereological parts of objects (whereby the notion of parthood has to be understood in a non-spatial way, i.e. no reference to overlap etc.).

Epistemological interpretations can also be combined with one-world and two-world ontologies. That is, the distinction between noumena and phenomena is a distinction between ways of considering or conceiving of entities and this understanding can be combined with a belief in the existence of different ontological domains. After all, it is an epistemological or methodological issue and as such should not decide the metaphysical question how many worlds there are. Usually, epistemological interpretations are part of one-world theories since the main motivation for accepting an epistemological understanding of the noumena/phenomena distinction is to avoid the `crazy' metaphysics of transcendental idealism. While they are mostly one world views, it is clearly possible to combine them with two-worlds, for example in order to account for Kant's metaphysical claims that are based on ethical considerations regarding freedom, God and immortality. In this case the two worlds will not be described as the noumenal world and the phenomenal world since the terms `noumenal' and `phenomenal' describe the ways a world can be considered. Instead, the worlds can be described as the transcendental world and the transcendent world, whereby the later one includes God and similar objects that are beyond the bounds of experience. The former world is a world of things that can be regarded as phenomena or as noumena, as they appear to us or as they are in themselves, whereas the the later world is a world in which there are things that do not appear to us and can only be considered as they are in themselves. Thus, the epistemological interpretation implies that there is one world of entities that can be considered as phenomena and as noumena, but this does not imply that there cannot be other worlds inhabited by objects that can only be considered as noumena. While this latter option does not have much appeal since epistemological readings are used to dispose of `outrageous' metaphysical claims, it seems nonetheless to be a coherent option.

Thus it seems that there are two different dimensions along which interpretations of the noumena/phenomena distinction can vary. The number of worlds criterion runs orthogonal to the criterion regarding the nature of the noumena/phenomena distinction. There are disputes along both dimensions. However, the dispute regarding the nature of the distinction appears to be more fundamental. There is much more similarity within metaphysical approaches, on the one hand, and epistemological approaches, on the other, than within one-world interpretations or two-world interpretations.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Handexemplar Critik der practischen Vernunft

Kant's own copy of the Critique of Practical Reason, including his annotations, has been digitalised and is available online.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

An amusing Reflexion

"Myinda, das Blindekuhspiel, ist lustiger als die Schlägerey mit verbundenen Augen andabatarum." (R6350)

Some upcoming Kant events

For those who will be in London next week it might be worthwhile noting the following events. On Monday Beatrice Longuenesse will be speaking to the Aristotelian Society about 'Kant on the identity of persons'. (the paper is available online) On Thursday Christine Korsgaard is talking about 'Natural motives and the motive of duty: Hume and Kant on our duties to others'. Unfortunately, I am rather busy at the moment and won't be able to make it down to London.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Philosophie Transcendentale ou Systeme d'Emmanuel Kant

Today I stumbled across a very nice exposition of the Kantian system. The book is entitled "Philosophie Transcendentale ou Systeme d'Emmanuel Kant", written by L. F. Schön in 1831. It contains a nice description of the historical background and then outlines Kant's views of the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgement. The book can be downloaded in pdf format from google books.