Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

Kant Didn’t
by Peter Cresswell

Just to remind readers about the point of this debate - as John Herman Randall says in Aristotle -“That we can know things as they are, that knowledge is possible, is the fact that Aristotle is trying to explain, and not, like Kant and his followers, trying to deny and explain away.” Randall and all the commentators I have seen agree that Kant divorces knowledge from reality. Fred Seddon says otherwise. It’s a pretty fundamental disagreement.

Now Fred hasn’t said, as far as I can see, that his own interpretation of Kant is a new one or is in any way unique to him, in which case we’re entitled to rely on the standard interpretations of Kant.  What he has said is that Objectivists to a man have got Kant wrong (except that is, for him, and the late George Walsh), and that Immanuel Kant in all his guises was in fact a ‘proto-Objectivist.’ Fred’s evidence for this claim? Exactly zero.

My problem is this: The interpretation of Kant given by Objectivists does not differ markedly from the interpretation given by other mainstream commentators; what differs is that Objectivists evaluate Kant’s work rather differently. Where others have praised the split between knowledge and reality that Kant sets up, Objectivism condemns it. Is it just this evaluation that Fred objects to? Or is it that he disagrees with the standard interpretations? Well, as he won’t tell us directly it seems we have to work his ‘ideas’ out for ourselves. Tiresome, as I’ve said.

Fred has disagreed with Rand’s summation of Kant’s thought. He’s disagreed with Younkin’s exposition of it. He’s disagreed with Stephen Hicks’s presentation of it. He’s disagreed with Tibor Machan’s arguments on this – but ended up admitting that Kant’s so-called ‘Pure Reason’ is what we Objectivists call a floating abstraction, i.e., a special kind of rationalistic nonsense. (I agree – Kant’s so-called Pure Reason is, as Objectivists have evaluated, pure poison.)

Further, since I understand what I wrote in the article to which Fred was replying to have been a fair summary of what is the standard view of Kant (in fact it was prepared using one such standard summary given by one Bryan Magee), and Fred vehemently disagrees that it does represent Kant’s view, then I have to conclude either that Fred does disagree with the standard interpretation and has instead his own unique view (but just won’t tell us what it is), or that he is unable to make a point. As Fred is an academic, of course, either is possible. What’s wrong with clearly and accurately stating: “Here is my position on this point, and here’s why!” Apparently that’s too much to ask from a tenured philosophy professor? Having been exposed to a few tenured professors, I’m beginning to think it’s habitual.

Fred will say, no doubt, that the reason we can’t understand Kant and he can (and that Rand, and Hicks and Kelly and Peikoff and Hegel and Schopenhauer et al at al et al couldn’t ‘properly’ understand Kant) is that Kant is “subtle.” And complex. And hard. In fact, he’s already said that. I say that’s bullshit. Like the Bible, one can apparently take Kant to have said anything you want him to say. But if something someone says can be taken anyway you like, then in reality nothing is really being said at all. And maybe that’s Fred’s actual position? Who would know?

However, I’m assuming that Kant had something to say, that he actually had positions, and that for the most part his contemporaries and near-contemporaries could at least pretty much understand what it was he was trying to say. Indeed, for the most part his contemporaries and near-contemporaries held that he was, and that they could.

From my own reading I understand there was an essentially common view of what Kant argued that was held by (amongst others) Hegel, Schopenhauer, Feurbach, Jacobi, Schelling, Hegel, Fichte, Nietzsche and the like. All, as far as I’ve seen, had similar views of what Kant was saying, although they didn’t always agree with his points and headed off down the different paths through gates which Kant had opened. But is it that unusual to expect that these gentlemen who shared a language with Kant and were imbued with similar learning and a similar outlook might perhaps understand Kant better than our Mr Seddon?

Further, the common view was shared too by later commentators - such as Wilhelm Windelband, Brand Blanshard and the commentator Rand cites, Friedrich Paulson – and by more recent luminaries such as, W.T. Jones, Sebastian Gardiner, Roger Scruton and Bryan Magee. Am I just name-dropping? No. I am not an academic, and I didn’t read these writers in order to get ‘cites’ – I read them to learn. What I’ve learnt about Kant’s ideas about knowledge from reading these gentlemen over the years was as I summarised, and was consistent across all these authors. If Fred objects to my summary, then I can only suggest that he objects to what Kant said. As does Objectivism.

Objectivist commentators from Rand to Peikoff to Kelley to Mossof all share a similar view of what was Kant was saying to these mainstream commentators. But not Fred. In fact he says all these Objectivists have got him wrong, even though their interpretation of what Kant says is the same as is the mainstream interpretation.

Now, I freely confess that I don’t read every new commentator who comes along to ‘deconstruct’ Kant’s thought and tell us what he really meant - such as Fred’s Mr Rescher for instance, or Mr Strawson - but none that that I’ve read over the years has differed considerably from either the mainstream or Objectivist interpretations, and none matches Fred’s own unique view that Kant was a ‘proto-Objectivist.’

So, with that preliminary summary out of the way, let me answer Fred’s ‘substantive’ reply to the points I made in my original article summarising Kant’s main themes.

2) Let’s begin with point two, since the initial points are simply preparatory. Fred says: “Our apparatus is our means of knowing what is “out there.” Well, yes it is, but not for Kant. He says we can have no knowledge of the noumenal realm, which is what he means by ‘out there.’ We only have knowledge of stuff ‘in here,’ which is some sort of representation of the ‘out there’ that only achieves coherence because of the ‘categories’ of our own minds. The regularity and order is ‘in here,’ not ‘out there.’

“Kant is quite clear here,” says Fred, and indeed he is. “He writes on space for example,” Fred continues, “that it is ‘only through the presentation of space …that outer experience [is] possible in the first place.’ Space is a necessary condition of outer experience and knowledge, it is not an obstacle to experience and knowledge.” Well, Kant was clear enough (for once), but Fred is being disingenuous. As Fred surely knows, Kant said that space is not a part of reality ‘out there’ but is our way of processing the stuff we get through our senses. Get that? ‘Space’ is not real – when our mind processes the stuff we experience we make it appear that things appear in space, but this is in our mind, not actually in reality.

So space is only a necessary condition of knowledge, according to Kant and Fred, because space is in our minds – not because it’s a part of reality. Amongst real people this is known as nonsense.

3) Fred, tee hee, says Kant holds that “the senses do not err,” and is once again being disingenuous. The senses do not err, Kant holds, because the way the mind processes the stuff of experience is to add stuff (like space, time, causality etc) that doesn’t appear in reality (according to Kant). In other words, the appearances that we experience (the phenomena as processed by the Categories) have “totally nothing to do with “works of art, great food, people we love, 600 children in a school gym in Breslan” because they are literally “beyond the limits of possible experience.” This, according to Fred, is proto-Objectivism. Once again, I call it nonsense.

4) While Fred’s answer does make him appear to be on drugs, I notice that he doesn’t answer the point. Kant says, as I said, that the ‘epistemological objects’ that appear to us obviously did not begin in that form - they got there by means of our sensory apparatus. We only experience them as having duration, location, extension and causation because we ourselves give them these qualities.

Now, what does this do to knowledge of the real world ‘out there’ then? Well, consider the position of Aristotle who argued that we only have real knowledge when we have it ‘down to the root,’ which is to say when we understand all four causes of a thing. But Kant says that causality is not in the thing, but in us, so how then can Kant claim knowledge of things ‘out there.’ Well, he’s consistent, he doesn’t. It’s Fred who’s trying to say that he does, and not very well.

If causality exists only in our minds - if it is our mind’s categories that give us the appearance of causality – then Hume was right and induction is out. And so is real knowledge of reality.

5) Fred doesn’t answer this point, so as it clarifies what I’ve said above I’ll repeat it.

What Kant says is that in the representation of the world as we experience it we ‘see’ material objects in space and time exerting more or less causal influence upon each other, and for which we might feel more or less love or desire etc. But this, as Kant says, has totally nothing to do with real objects themselves, it is just a picture of reality as our mind chooses to paint it. However, in that other part of reality that Kantians can’t ever experience or know anything about (remember the other part?) Kant however knows (since all these things are just our own categories of perception anyway): a) that causality does not obtain; b) that there are no material objects; c) that there is no space; and d) there is no time. Any attempt to say anything determinate about this other realm, Kant claims, is doomed to failure – except to say that there is another realm. And some other stuff. In short, concludes Kant, there are no categories of the human mind available to even imagine this realm, and no words to describe it – so don’t try.

Nonsense. Arrant nonsense.

6) Kant is “subtle” says Fred. Ho hum. Kant says (as Fred says he says): “1. We can have no theoretical knowledge of the noumena. 2. We can have practical knowledge of the noumena. 3. Items that we think in the noumena do serve the purposes of science in the following way — they provide us with a basic presupposition of rational inquiry, to wit: that we can systematize our knowledge into an integral whole. This is not something we discover through experience but rather a presupposition of that very experience. 4. And the concepts we use have a heuristic function rather than a constitutive one.”

In other words, Kant says we can somehow have ‘practical knowledge’ of something, without having actual knowledge of it. This stuff of which we have ‘practical knowledge’ serves us as a sort of useful fiction, allowing us to posture and pontificate about things we really know nothing about. Like for example, models showing global warming, which give us ‘practical knowledge’ of the situation (without ever purporting to give real knowledge) and which incidentally help politicians throttle industry. This is called giving our concepts a ‘heuristic function’ – which means making of reason a floating abstraction of no use in obtaining knowledge of reality as she really is, but useful nonetheless as a guide to acting when we know nothing much. Which is just more nonsense. Subtle nonsense.

Footnote 5) Kant: “[Faith/belief] is the holding-to-be-true out of a ground that is objectively insufficient but subjectively sufficient.” Fred, you don’t give us the translation information, but is this what Kant says ‘Glauben’ means? (In which case why didn’t you raise it as part of your philological exegis on what he meant by ‘Glauben’? Perhaps because it doesn’t help you?) This would place ‘Glauben’ in a position between mere opinion in which neither condition is sufficient, and knowledge in which both conditions are met. And if so if Kant’s critical philosophy is attempting to limit knowledge in favour of ‘subjectively sufficient’ belief then he is doing essentially what Objectivists have claimed him all along to be doing. In which case, where’s your beef?

(Interestingly, a use of ‘Glauben’ in German roughly contemporaraneous with its use by Kant appears in Wagner’s ‘Parsifal.’ At the conclusion of the opera’s First Act, in which a poor fool has just watched a religious Eucharist performed, the chorus sings “Selig im Glauben, Selig in Liebe.” This is appears in older translations usually as “Blessed believing, Blessed in loving,” and in most newer ones I’ve seen as “Blessed in faith …”)


So, to conclude, we began all this with a disagreement over whether or not Kant divorces knowledge from reality. I and other Objectivists said that he does, and Fred has claimed that he doesn’t. And we’ve seen that, for Kant, knowledge  is not knowledge of something ‘out there’ but only of something inside our heads; we’ve seen that reason for Kant is simply a floating abstraction allowing us to construct more or less ‘useful fictions’ to allow us to function in such a situation – we’ve seen in short that for Kant, knowledge is not only not down to the root as it is for Aristotle, but it is not even of anything that is in reality.

But this should be no surprise, since this is what after all Kant said his system would be doing. Let me leave this discussion with the words of Kant himself ringing in your Objectivist ears:
“Hitherto,” he boasts in the introduction to his Critique, “it has been assumed that knowledge must conform to objects, but since this assumption has conspicuously failed to yield any metaphysical knowledge [says he], we must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge…”

Rather than deconstruct the Kant, I suggest we take him at his word – as most commentators apart from Mr Seddon have done in the two centuries since. Kant’s critique does suppose that objects conform to our knowledge, and in doing so it severs knowledge from reality as Objectivists accurately accuse him of doing.
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