Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 2)

More time than I would’ve liked has passed between part 1 and 2 of this series. I’ve been in Berlin since the beginning of July improving my German and will be here until the end of August. My intensive language course has left little time for comprehensive exam preparation, let alone blog posts! Still, I’ve managed to find some time to crank out some reflections here. In this post, I begin to move into a discussion of theology by first considering Ernst Troelthsch’s mentor Albrecht Ritschl. Ritschl provides the second stream which flows into the river of Troeltsch’s thought and is important to consider so that we can see what Troeltsch is doing in his project (which will be the third post, contrary to what the first post says.)

In the first part of these posts, I laid out Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of history which includes the justification for a viable human science on the basis of historical individuals and value relations. I also pointed out the obvious ways in which this methodology went very bad very quickly and remained so until the latter half of the 20th century when critical discourses were finally able to diagnose the various problems that underlay methodology in the social sciences. I’m especially interested in how theology fits into this story, particularly in whether theology is interested in the general or the individual (as Rickert understands those terms) or if instead it can somehow take an interest in both that doesn’t fall into the traps that Rickert’s philosophy does. Aside from what, from the perspective of critical discourse, is the impossibility of value neutrality and indeed the necessity of examining value neutral discourses to expose their underlying colonial, patriarchal, etc. commitments, Rickert’s insistence on the objectivity of values (i.e. value neutrality) seems to expose him to the precise criticism which he levels against positivism in the first part of The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science.

Remember that objectivity in the strict Kantian sense does not mean and should not be equated with knowing things as they are in themselves, i.e. knowing reality as it actually is. What Rickert is insisting on instead is to regard values as objects–but this is tricky. Values, we’ll remember from the last post, though they are abstracted from empirically reality, have no empirical reality when taken as the objective ground of historical study–they are wholly ideal. His insistence on this point is a little confusing since it seems like the point he is wanting to make is that these values are basically additional categories of perception, both empirically real and transcendentally ideal. Thinking back to Kant, we’ll remember that in order for perception to even be possible, these categories are required–they’re what make it possible for us to talk about empirical reality at all. But they themselves are not observable within empirical reality (e.g. Hume’s famous refutation of the observation of a necessary cause and effect.) The problem is that value is not a demonstrable condition of perception, and Rickert is aware of this. Values, then, essentially become general categories of value. This is the best Rickert can do. Like universal laws of science, these objective values which are meant to ground historical study are universal, general categories of value that must hold some sort of validity for empirical reality for every human being across time and space. His explanation of objective values, then, seems to slip general categorization back into historical study through a back door. If we were to really dig into an analysis of how these values operate, we would see that they’re not quite the same as the sorts of universal laws of human history and behavior that positivists in the late 19th century were trying to abstract from historical study. Still, we cannot deny that in order for Rickert’s system to work, he [thinks he] needs an objective ground; otherwise, historical study is arbitrary. The problem, of course, is not that Rickert insisted on the wrong ground but that he argued for an objective ground in the first place.

That’s a well worn path, and I don’t mean to rehash something that now comes so naturally and is so obvious to cultural theory and critical discourse to the point of seeming banal, essentially behaving as a first principle of sorts. However, the way that Troeltsch comes to wrestle with mediating between the poles of what he calls “absolutism” and relativism–and in 1902–with regard to theology is, to my mind, rather revolutionary. However, we first have to get a handle on the other, theological side of things, though with regard to both the social sciences and theology, Troeltsch is wrestling with absolutism, ethical neutrality, etc. Troeltsch was perhaps the final prominent member of the Ritschlian School and arguably Albrecht Ritschl’s sharpest critic. This garnered a lot of attention for Troeltsch from younger theologians and students, notably Paul Tillich, who were seeking out alternatives to the classical liberal theology that Ritschl’s work embodies. (My own thoughts on Troeltsch’s membership in classical liberalism will have to wait for another post. In short, I don’t think he belongs there.)

One of the difficulties in undertaking a commentary on Troeltsch’s departure from Ritschl and its philosophical underpinnings is that both Ritschl and Troeltsch are usually considered, in part, neo-Kantian theologians, Ritschl influenced primary by Hermann Loetze and Troeltsch by Rickert/Weber. Ritschl founded what is typically referred to as the “History of Religions” school of theology.  He was trained under the historicist biblical scholar and theologian F.C. Baur in the mid-19th century. This was a period of great transition and turmoil for theology, philosophy, and the study of history.Ritschl The Geisteswissenschaften were already emerging (well before Rickert came on the scene), and the question of the nature of history as a proper object of study was experiencing both reactions against and defenses of the dominant Hegelian idealist paradigm of history. Most important for the fields of study within Christianity was the question of historical context: Could theology be understood as a properly scientific discipline if its scholars presupposed Christianity to be the absolute religion? Baur’s response was a decisive “No.” However, his students, most notably the biblical scholar David Friedrich Strauss and Ritschl polemicized against this view, Strauss appearing to be the more orthodoxly Hegelian of the two. Ritschl insisted that the question of presuppositions was the wrong one to ask. Christianity is one of a number of major world religions, and, so Ritschl argued, it is only from the context of the history of religions as seen from the point of view of Christianity that the latter could be truly understood in its religious form, thus attempting to eliminate or at least delimit the problems Baur identified with assuming Christianity as the absolute religion.

As mentioned, Ritschl was also heavily influenced by the then burgeoning neo-Kantian philosophy, particularly that of Hermann Lotze. A full exploration of this influence is beyond the scope of this already lengthy post, but a few points are of interest: 1) Lotze affirms Kant’s view that the ethical will is the will of God. 2) However, Lotze departs from Kant in positing religion as a three-part relationship, I-God-Man. 3) He further departs from Kant in positing the Kingdom of God not as a kingdom of future ends toward which we infinitely approximate but as an actuality in the present. Finally, Lotze argues that doctrine and dogma can never be transmitted in an account of their actual truth. Instead, their transmission contains an “intuitive seeming” which makes intelligible what is ultimately inexpressible and maintains a true relation to the actual.

The primary effect of this influence is Ritschl’s rejection of an absolutely transcendent will in favor of a more contextualized understanding of the human person and agency. Ritschl, however, still maintained Idealist tendencies, particularly on the concept of the absolute in theology. For Ritschl, theology requires an organizing principle, and, according to Ritschl, the organizing principle of all Christian thought is the Kingdom of God, a view he began to develop as early as 1858. In his magnum opus, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (1874), Ritschl writes, “The Kingdom of God is the summum bonum which God realises in men; and at the same time it is their common task, for it is only through the rendering of obedience on man’s part that God’s sovereignty possesses continuous existence.” This definition reflects the mid-19th century tension between historically bound human beings and transcendent theological principles. The Kingdom is a good that is imparted to humans by God, something they receive passively; however, it can only be realized in the moral striving of human beings toward it as their goal. It is thus dependent upon human will, which Ritschl does not view as itself transcendent the way Kant did. Christianity solves this apparent problem by means of a transcendent connection of the two ideas in the logic of grace. Therefore, the divine act of the gift is what ultimately constitutes the ground of the highest good. Human beings only contribute insofar as their moral striving is done out of faith in Christ. In other words, membership in the Kingdom of God is the condition for any human contribution toward it’s reality in the present or future. Johannes Zachhuber writes, “In this dual sense, the Kingdom of God correlates with human activity in the spirit of justice: it is its ground, purpose, and means. Its function as telos corresponds to the divine end in itself, which is dogmatically expressed in the idea of the Son as the ‘necessary and eternal object of God’s love: The Kingdom of God is therefore the ethical exposition of divine love as an end in itself.’”

Of particular importance for our purposes here is the absolute character of the Kingdom of God. Ritschl makes it clear that this is in no way to be identified as an earthly kingdom, i.e. as a State. Its operations in how it understands wrongdoing (sin), punishment (separation from God), and justification (removal of separation) completely transcend any worldly handling of these terms. This extends to all other religions as well. In other words, in asserting the Kingdom of God as the organizing principle for all Christian thought, Ritschl is also asserting the absoluteness of Christianity over all other religions. All human development is striving toward the ideal of the Kingdom of God. The Hegelian influence on this point is obvious. From this perspective, however, it is difficult to see how Ritschl can reconcile this understanding of the absoluteness of Christianity with his assertion that Christianity must be understood in the context of the history of religions more generally. This was not a problem for Hegel, who paid no attention to the world religions and was arguably only concerned with Western Europe. But for Ritschl, it imparts a nagging relativism which he does not seem to take seriously enough. Indeed, this is the primary criticism which his student Ernst Troeltsch leveled against him, to which we turn in the next post.

 

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The Origins of Critique IV: Objective Judgment

We now turn to the final part of our task which is to explicate the idea of objective judgment for Kant in order to show that the knowledge that results from an objective judgment cannot be knowledge of an object as it is in itself and further explicate the central role of the person in the production of knowledge. Within what we have covered already, we have touched quite heavily upon the arguments that Kant sets forth in his objectivity thesis; namely, that the appearances of objects are correlated to objects outside of intuition, but these objects, “can serve only as a correlate of the unity of apperception for the unity of the manifold in sensible intuition, by means of which the understanding unifies that in the concept of an object.”[1] We shall now examine the steps in Kant’s argument for this thesis, so we may see the function of the thing-in-itself in relation to objective judgment.

Kant begins from what he calls the transcendental unity of apperception—the ‘I’ that thinks.  He writes, “The I think must be able to accompany all my representation; for otherwise something would be represented in me that could not be thought at all, which is as much as to say that the representation would either be impossible or else at least would be nothing for me” (B132).[2] The manifold of intuition (prior to any proposed application of the categories) must have a relation to the I think. This is a pure self-consciousness. It cannot be given in experience, nor is it an a priori intuition. It is rather “an act of spontaneity, i.e., it cannot be regarded as belonging to sensibility” (B132), and it must be regarded as a unity so that we may say the representations that correspond to it belong to only that I think.[3] That is to say, the manifold of the intuition must be synthesized in one consciousness that I call “my representations.” The categories which Kant proved in the Metaphysical Deduction are the rules by which this synthesis takes place. It follows, then, that “The synthetic unity of consciousness is therefore an objective condition of all cognition, not merely something I myself need in order to cognize an object but rather something under which every intuition must stand in order to become an object for me, since in any other way, and without this synthesis, the manifold would not be united in one consciousness” (B138).[4] The categories are, therefore, objectively valid, meaning they apply to objects, and they allow us to make objective judgments, which give us knowledge about objects.

Kant makes his “object argument” in the third part of the A Deduction (A104-105) in order to show what an objective judgment is and how they are possible. He begins by reminding us that when we say our representations are appearances in objects, we mean that our appearances “must not be regarded in themselves, in the same way, as objects (outside the power of representation)” which raises the following question: “What does one mean, then, if one speaks of an object corresponding to and therefore also distinct from cognition?”[5] One might think that we simply have nothing to say at all about the object as distinct from cognition, and indeed, we cannot say anything about it; however, we do know that there is necessity in the relationship between our representation and the object outside of our cognition. Kant writes, “[I]nsofar as they are to relate to an object our cognitions must also necessarily agree with each other in relation to it, i.e., they must have that unity that constitutes the concept of an object.”[6] Kant has already established that our intuitions are necessarily intuitions of objects as they appear to us and that the categories apply to objects because we have a transcendental unity of our apperception, which is only possibly through the application of the categories to the manifold. But this has only demonstrated that the manifold of our intuition is a unity in our self-consciousness.

What Kant is adding in the object argument is our ability to make objective judgments about the objects found in our representations. We must remember, Kant writes in the third step of this argument, “that since we have to do only with the manifold of our representations, and that X which corresponds to them (the object), because it should be something distinct from all of our representations, is nothing for us, the unity that the object makes necessary can be nothing other than the formal unity of the consciousness in the synthesis of the manifold of the representations.”[7] We might worry, therefore, that even though there is a correlation between representation and object (outside of representation), we might only be able to have subjective judgments about those representations since they are not the objects as they are. These would be judgments of perception only.[8] However, we must also remember that the categories are rules that apply to objects, and, therefore, the above worry is “impossible if the intuition could not have been produced through a function of synthesis in accordance with a rule that makes the reproduction of the manifold necessary a priori and a concept in which this manifold is united possible.”[9] In other words, the synthesis of the manifold into the unity of transcendental apperception is not possible without the categorical rules by which this synthesis takes place. The categories are universal, necessary, and known a priori. Therefore, if we think objects according to the categories, we have the means by which we can have objective judgments about objects of appearance that produce objective knowledge that is also universal and necessary.[10]

Here’s where we are now: objective judgments that produce universal knowledge about objects cannot be equivalent to knowledge of the thing-in-itself, but they are related. The conditions of possible experience that make the manifold of our intuition possible also produce a necessary methodological distinction between intuition and objects as they are outside it. But this methodological distinction also produces a necessary correlation between object outside of intuition and the appearance of the object within it since the distinction is merely two ways of considering the same object. But the manifold of intuition alone is not enough to make coherent judgments—it is a chaos of sense impressions.

We know, however, that the manifold is transcendentally unified in our self-consciousness; it is our manifold. What gives the objects of the manifold unity is the synthesis of them according to the rules of the a priori universal categories. Therefore, when we examine these objects of intuition, which are correlated to how the objects really are outside of it, according to the categories of the understanding, we can make objective judgments which produce knowledge about the objects of intuition, but not about the objects as they really are. The worry that what Kant gives us in his explanation of objective judgments is knowledge about things in themselves cannot be the case since Kant demonstrates quite clearly that objective judgments are confined to the conditions of possible experience which cannot apply to things in themselves but because the manifold of our intuition is unified by a priori categories, both transcendentally ideal and empirically real, we can make universal judgments about objects that are necessarily correlated with things in themselves but cannot apply to them.

What this study has hopefully done is given us an important starting point for the constitution of the person in critical discourse. I would encourage readers not to get too caught up on words like “correlation,” “necessity,” and “universal” right now. The important take aways from this study:

1) Intuition belongs to a subject.

2) “Objectivity” is not removed from subjective intuition but is rather an integral part of it.

3) Correlation here is not 1:1 between objects of intuition and objects as they really are.

The demand of these conclusions for contemporary critical discourse is that we employ more care when we talk about the problems that terms like “objectivity” and “correlation” pose. As I mentioned in the first post, continuing through the history of critical discourse, we’ll see how the role of the subject in the production of knowledge and the articulation of the limits of knowledge becomes reconfigured and contested such that, eventually, words like “correlation,” “necessity,” and “universal” become immensely problematic. For right now, I hope readers will find it useful to think through these issues with figures like Kant (and later, Schelling, Schleiermacher, Husserl, and others) in order to arrive at a more robust understanding of one’s own place in the larger tradition of critical discourse.


[1] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 347-8.

[2] Kant, 246, his emphasis.

[3] Kant, 246-7.

[4].Kant, 249, his emphasis.

[5] Kant, 231.

[6] Kant, 231.

[7] Kant, 231.

[8] Hume thought that outside of mathematical knowledge, these were the only sorts of judgments we could make, i.e. “The sun is out, and the ground is warm.” There is no necessary connection between these events, only a series of perceptions.

[9] Kant, 231.

[10] In contrast to the example in the previous note regarding judgments of perception, an objective judgment is one of experience. That is, given the categories of the understanding, one could examine a series of perceptions (“The sun is out, and the ground is warm”) and produce a necessary connection between them, i.e. “The sun caused the ground to be warm.” This is an objective judgment that produces necessarily true knowledge about the objects in question.

The Origins of Critique III: The Function of the Noumenal

I established in the last two posts (here and here) that how the thing-in-itself operates within Kant’s system is rather difficult to pin down; in addition to this, what the phrase means is also quite ambiguous since Kant uses a number of different locutions to seemingly refer to the same thing.[1] Furthermore, Kant discusses the subject at both the beginning and the end of the first division, and it is not clear that he is referring to the same thing in both places. That said, I want to emphasize again that this reading of the thing-in-itself is set forth and utilized in order to best show the distinction between knowledge of things-in-themselves and knowledge that comes from objective judgments, which we’ll get to in the next (and final) post on reason in Kant.

The primary issue at hand for Kant is to explain both how objects in our sensible intuitions are only as they appear and how it is that his system is not simply a version of Berkeleian idealism in which there are no empirically real objects at all, only ideas. Kant first introduces the idea of appearances contrasted with objects as they are in the Transcendental Aesthetic.[2] Objects cannot be given to us any other way but through intuition (A19/B33), and Kant calls these given objects appearances. In the Transcendental Aesthetic, he establishes both space and time as a priori conditions of the possibility of intuition, with space as the outer sense of intuition and time the inner sense. They are the form of all intuition—they make appearances possible. Space and time are therefore not themselves appearances or empirical concepts that come from experience but the form of experience without which we could not have sensible intuitions. Most importantly for our present concern, space and time do not apply to objects in themselves. We know a priori that space and time give us the form of objects as they appear to us, since “One can never represent that there is no space, although one can very well think that there are no objects to be encountered in it [. . .] [and] In regard to appearances in general one cannot remove time, though one can very well take the appearances away from time” (A24/B38, A31/B46).[3]

In other words, we simply cannot think outside of these forms. They are for us. If space and time are the form of our intuition and we accept that there are empirically real objects that we intuit as appearances,[4] it follows that those objects exist as they do not appear to us as well. We can think them that way (or “consider” them as Allison says) because we know that our intuitions are of objects as they appear to us according to the form of space and time. In this way, thing-in-itself is a contrasting place-holder. We cannot know anything about objects as they really are because we would have to know them outside of space and time. However, this does not prevent us from saying that the same objects exist independentally of our intuitions—refuting that that would be to commit to idealism. We can thus say that the thing-in-itself as aspect is a methodology in that it is the counter to the thing as it appears to us in space and time that helps us square the existence of empirically real objects with the premise that the intuition of objects can only be appearances given that the ground of all intuition is space and time, an a priori pure intuition. In Kant’s conclusion to the Transcendental Analytic, he surveys all that he has covered and returns to the ideas of appearance and thing-in-itself. In the A edition, Kant reintroduces the phenomena/noumena terminology from the Dissertation (discussed in my first post) initially giving a summary of his claim from it. He writes:

Appearances, to the extent that as objects they are thought in accordance with the unity of the categories, are called phenomena. If, however, I suppose there to be things that are merely objects of the understanding and that, nevertheless, can be given to an intuition, although not to sensible intuition (as coram intuiti intellectuali), then such things would be called noumena (intelligibilia). [. . .] For if the senses merely represent something to us as it appears, then this something must also be in itself a thing, and an object of a non-sensible intuition, i.e., of the understanding, i.e., a cognition must be possible in which no sensibility is encountered, and which alone has absolutely objective reality, through which, namely, objects are represented to us as they are, in contrast to the empirical use of our understanding, in which things are only cognized as they appear. Thus there would be, in addition to the empirical use of the categories (which is limited to sensible conditions), a pure and yet objectively valid one, and we could not assert, what we have previously maintained, that our pure cognitions of the understanding are in general nothing more than principles of the exposition of appearances that do not go a priori beyond the formal possibility of experience, for here an entirely different field would stand open before us, as it were a world though in spirit (perhaps also even intuited), which could not less but even more nobly occupy our understanding (A248-9).[5]

His initial description of noumena found in the Dissertation cannot possibly be correct; otherwise, to paraphrase Kant here, we could not assert that the categories are rules by which we unify the manifold of sensation and do not exceed the a priori formal conditions of space and time which make sense experience possible. His previous understanding of the noumena as non-sensical intuition (i.e. what he had previously called intelligence) does not have a place in a system of transcendentally ideal, empirically real categories in which all intuition is sense experience. Kant reconfigures the terms, writing:

All our representations are in fact related to some object through the understanding, and, since appearances are nothing but representations, the understanding thus relates them to a something, as the object of sensible intuition: but this something is to that extent only the transcendental object. This signifies, however as something = X, of which we know nothing at all nor can know anything in general [. . .], but is rather something that can serve only as a correlate of the unity of apperception for the unity of the manifold in sensible intuition, by means of which the understanding unifies that in the concept of an object. This transcendental object cannot even be separated from the sensible data, for then nothing would remain through which it would be thought. It is therefore no object of cognition in itself, but only the representation of appearances under the concept of an object in general which is determinable through the manifold of those appearances. Just for this reason, then, the categories do not represent any special object given to the understanding alone, but rather serve only to determine the transcendental object [. . .] through that which is given in sensibility, in order thereby to cognize appearances empirically under concepts of objects (A250-1).[6]

We have now a reasonably clear understanding of both the definition and function of the thing-in-itself for Kant. It is a methodological concept that is the necessary result of recognizing that the objects of our intuitions are appearances which conform to the pure intuitions of space and time a priori. In my final post on reason in Kant, we’ll look at his understanding of objective judgments to see how that differs from knowledge of things-in-themselves. 


[1] Allison, following Gerald Prauss, writes, “By far Kant’s most common locution is Ding an sich selbst” which he goes on to say is a version “of the cannonical “thing considered as itself” [Ding an sich selbst betrachtet], where the an sich selbst functions adverbially to characterize how a thing is being considered rather than the kind of thing it is or the way in which it exists.” Henry E. Allison, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004): 52.
[2] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
[3] Kant, 158, 162.
[4] We have not addressed the issue of objectivity yet, and indeed at this point in the Critique, neither has Kant. We shall reconstruct Kant’s objectivity thesis in the final post.
[5] Kant, 347, his emphasis.
[6] Kant, 347-8, his emphasis.

The Origins of Critique II: The Limits of Knowledge

We have seen that even in 1770, eleven years before the first edition of the Critique was published, Kant recognized that our sensible intuitions gave us appearances of objects but not the objects as they really are and that the status of the noumenal and its relationship to the phenomenal is quite different than what is described in the Critique and indeed in conflict with it. In altering the latter term of the phenomenal/noumenal relationship, Kant has needed to consequently reconfigure the what of the noumenal in order to explain what work it is doing in the analysis of our sensible intuitions. That is, the question of what the noumenal “is” must always be related to the question of how it operates, and, as I  discussed briefly in the last post, the two dominate views[1] on the matter are either that Kant is espousing two ontologically distinct “worlds” of objects or that objects have two aspects, in which “Kant’s transcendental distinction is between the ways in which things (empirical objects) can be ‘considered’ at the metalevel of philosophical reflection rather than between the kinds of thing that are considered in such reflection. Things can be considered either as they appear, that is, as they are in relation to the subjective conditions of human knowledge, or as they are in themselves, independently of these conditions.”[2]

The former view is perhaps the most classical interpretation of Kant and is indeed one of the sources of early criticism against him (which will be important as we go on to discuss later post-Kantian figures.) Typically, the reading is that unity of the appearances that are given to our mind as the manifold of sensible intuition is made possible through the application of the categories to the manifold, which in turn comes to us from the affection of objects on the mind. “But, so the argument goes, if the object is an appearance, interpreted here as a representation, it could scarcely produce the very sensory manifold out of which it itself was first formed. The only alternative is affection through things in themselves. But Kant explicitly denies that the object can be a thing in itself.”[3] Thus, the problem of affection is the most common objection to the transcendental distinction between phenomena and noumena as an ontological distinction. Something outside of space in time could scarcely have an effect upon things in space and time.

Henry Allison’s version of the two aspect view differs significantly from this two world view in that Allison argues the distinction should be understood methodologically rather than metaphysically. The label “two aspect” is a bit misleading in this respect as it seems to suggest just another ontological description of objects, namely, that they have both phenomenal and noumenal aspects simultaneously. Indeed, Allison acknowledges the worry that if this is what is meant by “two aspect,” then the problem of affection has not really been solved but only condensed into objects as a single class. However, this is not Allison’s claim. Rather, the claim is that by setting up his project as the identification of the “epistemic conditions” of sensible experience, Kant is claiming to have discovered the conditions for our discursive knowledge specifically—a knowledge that is limited and finite. This suggests that there is another type of knowledge which we cannot have, namely, knowledge of the thing-in-itself which is outside of the conditions of possible sense experience. Thus, Allison writes, “It is precisely because sensibility has its own a priori forms that we are forced to distinguish between things as they appear, that is, as they are sensibly represented, and the same things as they are in themselves, independently of the conditions of their sensible representation. In other words, Kant’s theory of sensibility, which is itself an essential ingredient in his account of the discursivity of human knowledge, entails that the things that we intuit are not in themselves as we intuit them.”[4] The thing-in-itself becomes a way of thinking about sensible intuition as belonging to us and conditioned by the very categories that make it possible in the first place. The thing-in-itself, in other words, is a conceptual tool that helps us understand how our sensible experience is both ours and is of objects that are real and not ideal.

In the next post, we will turn to Kant’s own account of the thing-in-itself in order to spell out the most helpful way to think about it in light of the problem of conflating knowledge of the thing-in-itself with objective judgment.


[1] It must be noted that there are also other, “third way” views, which cannot necessarily be categorized together that attempt to criticize the two aspect view as set forth by Henry Allison but not from the defense of the two world view. Rather, they espouse either a “two perspective” view (i.e. Hoke Robinson), or by attempting to minimalize the importance of the noumenal in Kant’s philosophy altogether. See: Hoke Robinson, “Two Perspectives on Kant’s Appearances and Things in Themselves,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 32, no. 3 (July 1994): 411-441; Lior Nitzan, “Thought of an Object and the Object of Thought: A Critique of Henry Allison’s ‘Two Aspect’ View,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 92, no. 2 (June 2010): 176-198.

[2] Henry Allison, “Transcendental Idealism: The ‘Two Aspect’ View,” New Essays on Kant, ed. Bernard den Ouden (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1987): 155.

[3] Hoke Robinson, “Two Perspectives,” 415.

[4] Allison, “The ‘Two Aspect’ View,” 158-9.

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.

The Unground of Our Being

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Nothing is real, if “real” is taken to mean anything beyond a momentary existence. Everything is ambiguous and transitory, unstable. People, which is to say, humans, can only perceive their perceptions. The perceiving of perceptions enables people to be affected. But even this affectedness is not a universal. The perceiver, which is to say the “I,” who is an I by the very nature of her being a perceiver, does not always allow affectedness. In order to enable affectedness, where affectedness means something like what Slavoj Žižek calls being moved to the point of the movements being traumatic (though in a good sense), one views the Other with which one is confronted as a “Thou.” Insofar as one views the Other one encounters as an “It,” she will be incapable of this engagement.

The traumatic affectedness of encountering the Other in all of her Thou-ness does not merely affect one in such a way that one is moved to a greater or lesser degree but remains stable, but moves one in such a manner that the very makeup of her world is altered. Her perceiving of her perceptions change, not because she is nearer the “actual truth” but because the mode of perceiving as well as the Others that she perceives have been fundamentally altered. There is only present, and present is never and will never be static or stable. The past is only existent insofar as it is re-membered and re-présented (that is, [ɹiˈpɹɛzɪntɪd] in IPA, or [ree-prez-int-id] in free form). There is no Kantian “thing-in-itself” that simply cannot be reached or perceived; there is only continual re-ideation of existence.

With this in mind, I think a great linguistic misappropriation has brought confusion and disorientation (vis a vis “faux-stabilized orientation,” as it were) into the “Christian” lexicon. Even this word, “Christian,” has seen stabilizing attempts. Where to travel to “God” through the “Spirit” by “Christ” should be existential and constantly moving, never ceasing to undo and re-ideate, a concerted effort has been made to capture it and ground it, keeping it from its “beyond control-ness.” These other words–“God,” “Spirit,” and “Christ”–are also taken captive by a grounding motive. “God” becomes this being, this entity, this force, moving away from the perplexing “I am who I am/will be.” “Spirit” becomes this force that can be called upon, manipulated. “Christ” becomes this entity that can be asked into one’s heart, understood by one and described.

Instead, these words should be understood as sorts of verbs, or perhaps allowed their own descriptor that is not so limiting. Their ideations are not, I think, either to be understood as grounded in any sense other than their co-temporary grounding as potential affectors and affecteds.

The world is made up of a continual bouncing between the particular “I’s” who are not allowed to remain still, ever, though they cluster together in packs and try to hold on to some groundedness. These clusters try to trap others in their faux-grounding, causing those who “are” otherwise-than-the-faux-grounding to despair in their present. The hope for the future (again, “future” is only ever a part of “present”) is a hope that, though one is trapped by those who would ground the ungrounded, a loosening of the cracks might occur that in turn might affect an irrupting of this faux-grounding, allowing “I” to be affected–traumatized, in a good sense–by the other “I’s” with whom she is confronted.