Quora answer: What are the most interesting ideas in Kant’s book The Critique of Pure Reason?

Feb 16 2014





I have been listening to the Bernstein Tapes (bernsteintapes.com) which are lectures on Critique of Pure Reason after previously listening to his Hegelian lectures. His Hegelian lectures allowed me my first real access to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind/Ghost/Spirit for the first time. I have spent a lifetime stating and failing to finish that book. Bernstein says it is the most complex book in Western philosophy, and I just could not get through it myself on my own, even though I managed to do so with many other long complicated and abstruse philosophical classics previously. I figured if Bernstein could finally give me access to Hegel in a way that made sense to me, then he might also have some things to say about Kant that would help me understand Critique of Pure Reason. To me one of the most interesting parts of Western Philosophy is Heidegger’s attempt to appropriate Kant, to his philosophy. It is interesting that the key word for Heidegger is Ereignis which has one meaning that is Appropriation, because Heidegger is famous for appropriating other philosophers to his own thought, like Aristotle, the Pre-socratics, Husserl’s later work (where appropriation here is tantamount to stealing). So listening to these lectures on Kant gave me a new appreciation for his thought. I kept worrying that my understanding of Kant would be wrong, but in the end it was merely greatly enhanced. I had a good idea of the Architectonic of Kant’s philosophy, but I did not really understand how important the arguments were in the book until I listened to these lectures. And without command of the arguments then one’s understanding remains very superficial, whereas from reading other commentaries I had the idea that the arguments were not really very important. That is because most authors attribute to Kant what Bernstein calls a progressive reading, i.e. assuming that Kant is claiming more than he has a right to claim, and then blaming him for not succeeding, and then subsituting their own thought for that of Kant. So Kant just is a jumping off point for their own ideas, which normally are pretty strange, and there are few attempts to try a minimal reading that tries to stay close to what Kant himself really meant, assuming that he was not claiming more than he could deliver. Bernstein calls this the regressive reading.

My own approach to philosophy is to try to understand what the philosopher himself had in mind before placing my own projections on their philosophy. I think this is a minimal threshold of intellectual honesty. And then one should always differentiate ones own thought from those of the philosopher one is basing what one is saying upon. I like to try to use other philosophies as a whole without appropriating them to my own philosophy. Because my greatest interest is in the differences between philosophers rather than subsuming them to my philosophy, or one philosophers ideas to another. Of course, this is very hard because it is almost impossible not to misunderstand the precursors. We have this map of misreading as Bloom says. For instance how Marx misread Hegel for instance, perfect example of a dumbed down reading of Hegel which some people really want.

So from Bernstein’s presentation I learned that the arguments themselves have substance. When commentators over claim what Kant is trying to achieve, and then point out how he fails, then one tends to discount the arguments, and concentrate on the architecture of his thought, because that is not affected by the discounted arguments. But Bernstein concentrates on the arguments and brings out their substance and shows how they are still relevant in light of his regressive reading.

So from Bersteins view point the major idea in Kant is that the only way to be a Transcendental Realist is via Transcendental Idealism, and thus realism is dependent on idealism. And that is why our tradition turned toward idealism and away from either rationalism or empiricism. This essentially makes Kant primarily into a precursor to Husserl’s phenomenology. This for me was very good because what I have been saying for years is that Kantian transcendentalism is the basis for understanding Husserlian Phenomenology. However, this devalues the idea of transcendentals being headlands above the world as Nietzsche calls them. To the regressive reading Kant is critiquing these headlands and pulling the carpet out from under them rather than establishing them as the progressive reading would have us believe.

To me this is a very important issue. In Badiou for instance we see the use of Cohen’s approach to set theory that establishes the independence of the continuum hypothesis. Basically Badiou says that Set theory is metaphysics of Being, to which he adds the Event and Multiple to complete it and give a full fledged ontological meaning to set theory. But what I learned from Badiou’s use of Cohen is that if you have a transcendental, i.e. an invisible assumed ground over a domain of a certain size, and you expand the territory it covers, if it does not create a difference in the larger scoped territory, then it is essentially irrelevant and does not have to be taken into account in our metaphysics.

Now if we take this insight back to Kant, we see that Kant has three transcendentals The Subject, The Object, and God. God maintains the coherence between the transcendental subject and the noumena, i.e. the transcendental object. This is an invisible scaffolding around our worldview. The Copernican turn from dogmatism is to offer a critique of the necessary preconditions for possible experience. As I listened to this phrase over and over in Bernstein I thought about the Unnecessary Impossibility as its opposite. The transcendental subject as the source of Apriori Synthesis (space, time, categories, schemas) and the Noumena, what is there beyond the appearances are the Unnecessary Impossibilities. They are impossibilities because we cannot know them. And they are unnecessary because no matter how we expand the scope of our inquiry the scaffolding does not make any difference in experience that makes a difference (Bateson). Implicit in Kant’s argument is the opposite of necessary conditions of possibility, which is the unnecessary and insufficient reasons of impossibility of experience of the T. Subject or the T. Object, or God that which retains the coherence between these inaccessible invisibles which are beyond all experience. I have not heard of any commentator who points out this duality between necessary possibilities and unnecessary impossibilities. And this kind of reminds me of Zizek and his argument that Kant glossed the possibility of Ethical Evil, in other words he suppressed that possibility, thinking it impossible. This makes us think that this limit the unnecessary and insufficient impossible is really the core of Kant’s thinking that is unthought. We normally say that what is impossible is the same as the negation of necessity. However, like a priori synthesis there must open up a gap between necessity and its opposite impossibility. Necessity is aligned with Actuality, and Possibility aligned with the Arbitrary. But in order for something to cross over from possibility to actuality there needs to be another moment of potential. For something to be denied the ability to cross over from necessary to the arbitrary there must be the impossible as a barrier. And that means there must be a middle ground between actuality and possibility as well which we can call sufficiency.

Now if we take this conceptual structure as given as the background set of modalities that allow Kant to talk about the necessity that grounds the possibility of experience, then we can discuss the unnecessary lacks grounding for the impossible. In other words the impossible is unmotivated. It is truly spontaneous and the limit of spontaneity from which experience arises. We can read Kant as a meditation on modality, where he wishes to get from the necessary grounds of actual experience by means of positing the transcendentals as the impossible but sufficient lack of grounds for the unknowability of invisibles beyond experience. The spark that jumps this abyss is the intuition of a priori synthesis which gives us the potential for framing experience based on what is absolutely prior to it, in a logical sense.

Kant is always searching for the third moment that can link unreconcilable opposites. So for example he posits a priori synthesis in order to get beyond a priori analysis of reason, and the a posteriori synthesis and analysis within experience. Pure concept is connected to percepts by way of a third moment that connects them the projection of a priori synthesis that we intuit via the imagination. Heidegger seizes on his change in the status of the imagination between the first and second editions of the critique to interpret Kant as a pre-Heideggarian. Heidegger sees the more basic form of the imagination as equivalent to his idea of Dasein as the ability to project Being. Subsumed faculty of the imagination placed under another faculty is imagination tamed, and a step back from the abyss suggested by the free ranging imagination as an independent faculty.

So from all this I opine that the most basic and interesting concept in Kant is the one he does not articulate which is the unnecessary and arbitrary impossibility of the inexperience-able (i.e. the transcendentals) that gives rise to the potentiality to cross over into the necessary conditions for the possibility of experience. This intermediate realm of potentiality allows the sufficient conditions for the actualization of experience.

As we know from Kubler’s Shape of Time actuality is a great mystery which is rooted in potentiality and sufficiency as a middle ground between impossibility and arbitrary on the one hand and necessity and possibility on the other.


Kubler is the only one I know that has tried to delve into this area of how things become actual, i.e. cross over from possibility to actuality in any serious or deep way from the point of view of an Art Historian, i.e. one who is concerned with the shapes that well up from oblivion based on their first coming into Being as artifacts of a civilization, and then the subsequent loss of this civilization. He uses the metaphor of a light house, whose strobe lights up the darkness momentarily, so that we get a glimpse of what was lost in oblivion, through the relics that were preserved. We embed our experience of time within the things we shape, and we uncover the times of others so different from our own and glimpse other kinds of time when we dig up the artifacts from lost civilizations. Compressing our comprehension of time into shapes is a way to give others access to our own views of time from very different civilizations that have other embodied concepts of time that they embed into their artifacts.


But even as Bernstein in his critique of Kant, for not recognizing that there were many kinds of time, and Kubler who sees various civilizations experience of time embedded in their physical artifacts that we use to draw them back from the abyss of oblivion, there is little exploration of the exact mechanism by which things move over from possibility to actuality. I formulated an answer to this question as an addendum to my dissertation which is unpublished based on the work of Ian Thompson (http://www.ianthompson.org/philosophy_papers.htm) and the theory of dispositions. Design occurs in Hyper Being of possibilities, but for things to come into existence we need Wild Being of propensities. And the key concept that allows us to move between the extremes of Actuality and Possibility, or Arbitrary and Necessary is the ideas of Potential and Sufficiency. But this is based on understanding the Ultra Being of Unnecessary Impossibility as a limit. Kant skirts around this Impossible possibility and unnecessary adjunct (i.e. supplement) to his philosophy the same way he skirts around the idea of ethical evil as Zizek accuses him of doing. But it is from this hidden singularity in his thought that Hegel sees the French Revolution springing, the Irrational from the heart of critical reason. It is not a necessary condition for destructive chaos being unleashed by the French Revolution throwing off the oppression of sovereignty which ultimately only led back to Napoleonic sovereignty, i.e. from one nihilistic extreme to its opposite, and then back to the first, only with an intensification of nihilism. Hegel saw the advent of Napoleon as the dawning of a new age win which Absolute Spirit was embodied, but little did he imagine the death march of the troops into Russia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleon)


[Note: E. Tufte’s lecture on this map accessed through Intelligence^2 is brilliant.]

The terrible defeat by nature of the army of Napoleon, his first exile, his escape and defeat at Waterloo, and then second exile show how irrepressible Absolute Spirit can be when embodied in a single man who is the motive force behind historical changes. His reassertion of Sovereignty shaped his times. In him Hegel saw Absolute Reason working itself out in History re-establishing the state which represented Absolute Spirit as embodied by Absolute Monarchy. And this is the fundamental shift after Kant to the recognition that the intersubjective cohort was a horizon on which the individuals humanity was achieved. Absolute Spirit can be seen as an embodiment of that unnecessary Impossibility as Absolute.

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