The Origins of Critique I: What is Critical Discourse?

Lucas started us off with a very nice articulation of a contemporary problem in critical discourse; namely, that certain contemporary critical discourses often tend to take for granted a particular conception of the person that is left unarticulated. In part, this series will be attempting a critical construction of personhood (i.e. out of the resources of critical discourse) in order to work toward a constructive project that can situate a robust articulation of personhood within contemporary critical discourses.

A parallel problem that is of interest to me is the way in which constructive theologians (especially aspiring theology students) engaged with contemporary critical discourse tend to gloss the early history of critical discourse in a dismissive way. Put bluntly, the words “Enlightenment” and “modern” become negative descriptors without a very good understanding of those primary texts (in my view.) And to be clear, I’ve done a lot of work in contemporary critical theory and am currently working on figures that are sort of between the “modern” and the “postmodern.”

This post (which is in four parts) will begin the task of understanding the central role of personhood in the history of critique and hopefully a recovery of some fruitful insights from this one particular figure to start. And if we’re going to begin a long series of posts on critique, we have to begin with Immanuel Kant.

In these first four posts, I want to lay out my reading of Kant’s project with the aim of explaining both what is “critical” about it and how his understanding of the person is absolutely central to the critical endeavor. In this post, I want to articulate a particular understanding of the relationship between phenomenal and noumenal (objects of perception and objects in themselves) as Kant understood it in his pre-critical period as a way of getting at the aims of critique which he turns to later. In the second post, I want to advocate for a “two aspect” understanding of that relationship as it is articulated in The Critique of Pure Reason rather than the more traditional “two worlds” understanding in order to describe the limits of knowledge. The third post will explain how knowledge is produced for Kant in terms of this two-aspect theory. In the final post, I want to explain the difference between objects in themselves and “objectivity” for Kant as a way of getting at how Kant understands rationality. These steps move us closer to constructing Kant’s view of the person from his critical perspective, which includes how reason works, along with ethics and religion (to be covered in future posts.) It should be noted that these posts are not going to explicate the most central argument of the Critique (the transcendental deduction of the categories,) so if you are curious to know how Kant makes his case for the existence of categories in the first place, read The Critique of Pure Reason! (or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the Critique.)

For this series, I’m going to be referring to the Cambridge edition of The Critique of Pure Reason and drawing heavily from Henry Allison’s Kant’s Transcendental Idealism as well as some other essays of Allison’s. The edition of the Inaugural Dissertation that I’m referring to in this post is the 1894 translation, which I’ve been told should not be used. I didn’t have time to track down a better edition, so it’ll have to suffice here.

Let’s summarize Kant’s situation briefly before getting into the analysis as a way of hopefully not getting too bogged down in the details that will follow. We can do this by way of stating right now what it is that’s critical about Kant’s project. Namely, Kant is suspicious of the human subject’s ability to have real knowledge apart from sense experience–using “pure reason” a la Descartes to arrive at knowledge, including knowledge of things like God and the soul. Following Hume, Kant first came to think that it might perhaps be the case that the only real knowledge the human subject can have are a priori analytic propositions (definitional propositions.) But if that were actually the case, then no new knowledge could be generated, since such propositions are tautologies. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a way of mediating these two concerns by critically analyzing the limits of human reason and showing both that there are limits to human reason and that sense experience can give us real, a priori knowledge. This is critique put most simply in Kant: Theorizing the role of the subject in the production of knowledge which necessitates certain limits to the knowledge produced. The history of critique that proceeds, in my view, is then the contestation and reformulation of this role and these limits.

We’re going to start by understanding Kant’s move to critical discourse. Let’s jump in.

At the end of the Transcendental Analytic, Kant returns to the thing-in-itself, summarizing how the deduction and application of the categories give us what he calls phenomena and noumena.[1] However, these terms are not unique to the Critique of Pure Reason, and it will be helpful to reflect briefly on how they are employed in Kant’s pre-critical period in order to show in the next post how the modification of these terms in the Critique over against their use in the Dissertation on the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World (1770) casts some doubt upon the two world view[2] of phenomena and noumena. Kant employs these terms as early as the Dissertation to draw a metaphysical distinction between objects of sensibility and objects of rationality where “Sensibility is the receptivity of a subject by which it is affected by objects in experience; rationality is the activity of the subject by which it creates representations not given to the senses.”[3] We see then that prior to the Critique, Kant is working with two ontologically distinct objects when employing these terms.

We should be careful with how Kant is employing the term “worlds” here. Simply put, a world is that which is made of parts but is not a part of something else. Worlds are defined by Matter, Form, and Universality, the first being the substances that make up the world, the middle term being the coordination of the former, and the final term being the absolute totality of all the parts. However, these latter two present a challenge. With regard to the form of the world as such, one part cannot be subordinated to another; the world is a whole made of reciprocal parts, and is thus immutable. However, we cannot grasp the world as this whole; instead, we do represent substances in subordinate relationship, which we perceive as cause and effect. Thus, it must be that the world does undergo changes in state among all of its parts, but the world as such remains the same; “for it does not suffice to the identity of the whole that all the parts be identical, the identity of characteristic composition is required also.”[4]  Kant contends that there must be some principle that makes this subordination possible despite the fact that the world taken as a whole only contains parts in coordinated relationship,[5] but he does not want to join his contemporaries in saying that space and time are this principle. Rather, Kant believes that space and time are what tell us that there must be a principle, but they do not tell us what that is.  With regard to the universality or allness of the world, Kant points out that we can certainly conceive of a relative allness; e.g. all the parts of the Eiffel Tower. However, given that the subordinate parts of the world are in infinite change, we cannot actually grasp the allness of the world as such.[6] What this points to, Kant says, is that this is not so much a problem with the intellectual impossibility of the cognizing of infinity but with the very conditions of our sense experience. That is, we cannot cognize the totality of the world as “world” is defined because the conditions of sensible intuition do not allow us to.

What the world amounts to here runs parallel with what Kant refers to as thing-in-itself in the Critique, especially because he identifies the primary reason regarding our inability to cognize it as it is by definition as the conditions of our sensible experience. The crucial difference in this pre-critical text is that Kant thinks that our intellectual ability (our rationality) can grant us access to things in themselves. Jumping ahead for a moment to my fourth part of this look at Kant where we’ll examine the relationship between objective judgments and knowledge of things in themselves, we see here that Kant does want to say that they are the same at this point. We have objective knowledge about an object when we can know it as it really is; however this knowledge is not of objects of sensation but of a different class. This knowledge is purely rational, not given in sense experience at all. Thus, what concerns Kant most in this text is how to parse out the ontological difference between sensation and intelligence and distinguish their respective roles in knowledge.[7]

In working out this problem, Kant clearly establishes two metaphysical ontologies of objects: sensible and intelligible. However, when we come to the Critique, we see that the distinction Kant has set up between these two sets of objects quickly disappears, alerting us to the fact that his distinction between phenomena and noumena here is not quite along the same lines as it is in the Critique. Kant’s view of the phenomenal world remains largely in tact; sensibility gives us appearances of objects, not objects in themselves. He writes, “It is plain that what is sensuously thought is the representation of things as they appear, while the intellectual presentations are the representations of things as they are.”[8] It is also correct to say that what Kant means by noumenal in the Dissertation is somewhat larger in scope than what he has in mind in the Critique. Namely, Kant does have in mind objects of pure rationality (e.g. God, the immortal soul, etc.), which still fall under the noumenal category in the Critique; however, Kant also posits mechanisms of real use and logical use of the intellect which work together to give us concepts themselves and their relations. In the intellectual, Kant has conflated what he will later separate as the transcendentally real (objects of pure rationality) and the transcendentally ideal (concepts and categories.)

As we turn to the Critique in the next post, we have a picture of the set-up, so to speak, of Kant’s pre-critical return to metaphysics, which he eventually modifies and refines in order to separate out metaphysics from real knowledge. Understanding his move away from what he has outlined in the Dissertation will be helpful when we attempt to explain how knowledge derived from objective judgments differs from knowledge of the thing-in-itself in the final post. As we will see, Kant’s primary move away from his position in the Dissertation is to put the transcendentally ideal categories, what was formerly the logical use of the intellect (the noumenal), back into the phenomenal to show how these categories constitute the conditions of possible experience and are empirically real and not noumenal.[9]


[1] Throughout the post, I will occasionally use noumena as shorthand for the-thing-in-itself, but it must be noted that there is ample disagreement as to whether or not the two may be used interchangeably.

[2] Namely, that there are two distinct classes of entity: objects as they appear to us and objects as they really are.

[3] Frederick C. Beiser, “Kant’s intellectual development: 1746-1781,” The Cambridge Companion to Immanuel Kant, ed. Paul Guyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992): 47.

[4] Immanuel Kant, “Dissertation on the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World,” Kant’s Inaugural Dissertation of 1770, trans. William J. Eckoff (New York: Columbia College, 1894): 48.

[5] Kant writes, “For the nature of the world, which is the primary inner principle of whatever variable determinations may pertain to its state, never by any possibility being opposite to itself, is naturally, that is, by itself, immutable; hence there is given in any world whatever some form ascribable to its nature, constant and invariable, as the perennial principle of any contingent and transitory form pertaining to the state of the world” (Dissertation, 48).

[6] Kant writes, “For it is scarce conceivable how the inexhaustible series of the states of the universe succeeding one another eternally be reducible to a whole comprehending all changes whatsoever. Since it is necessary to very infinitude to be without end, and hence no successive series is given but what is the part of another, completeness or absolute totality is by parity of reasoning plainly excluded” (Dissertation, 49). Kant goes on to say that trying to think the infinite series as a simultaneous infinite rather than a series does not solve the problem; if we cannot think the totality infinite space measured out one unit at a time, then we cannot think it all at once.

[7] Kant writes, “Sensibility is the receptivity of a subject by which it is possible for its representative state to be affected in a certain way by the presence of some object. Intelligence, rationality, is the faculty of a subject by which it is able to represent to itself what by its quality cannot enter the senses. The object of sensibility is sensuous; what contains nothing but what is knowable by the intellect is intelligible. In the older schools the former was called phenomenon, the latter noumenon. To the extent to which knowledge is subject to the laws of sensuousness it is sensuous ; to the extent to which it is subject to the laws of intelligence it is intellectual or rational” (Dissertation, 50.)

[8] Kant, Dissertation, 51 (his emphasis).

[9] Kant does posit the logical use of the intellect as the condition of possible sense experience in the Dissertation; however the categories are transcendentally real and empirically ideal. They are not synthetic a priori in the pre-critical Kant. Furthermore, Kant thinks appearances are a combination of these conditions and the form/matter given by the object. That is, he has not fully committed yet to the idea that objects conform to our knowledge and not the reverse, establishing a sort of mediating position here.

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4 thoughts on “The Origins of Critique I: What is Critical Discourse?

  1. Excellent! Was wondering if you had thoughts on Henry E. Allison’s two-aspect theory his contention that the distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves be one epistemic consideration rather than the typical ontological supposition of two ontologically distinct sets of entities?

    Either way look forward to your further essays. You have a nice style and presentation, and have a good handle on the literature. thanks….

    • Thanks for reading! I will actually be discussing Allison’s two-aspect theory a bit in the next two posts (which will go up over the next two days.)

  2. Pingback: The Origins of Critique II: The Limits of Knowledge | fluxofthought

  3. Pingback: The Origins of Critique III: The Function of the Noumenal | fluxofthought

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