Monday, October 1, 2012

Kant and Common Sense

   Kant is considered one of the most difficult reads in the history of Philosophy, and so this usually fixes him in peoples minds as opposed to common sense. However, I mean to explain why Kant may yet be among the greatest advocates of common sense of all time.
   Imagine two men speaking on the street, a speculative philosopher, and Kant. A layman walks by overhearing some conversation just as the discussion has turned to some metaphysical doctrine (such as the doctrine of determinism). In overhearing the discussion, the layman may roll his eyes, and indignantly break in saying something like the following: "Excuse me for interrupting, but while you are both here bickering about everything being determined, the rest of us are out here acting. You are making fools of yourselves and should try to be more practical!"
   To this accusation, the speculative metaphysician may reply with some holier than thou rigmarole about the importance of Truth, or simply feel ashamed or at a loss for words. However, Kant would sympathize with the layman, and might say: "Exactly! These metaphysical discussions should be guided by the practical, and ultimately are if we understand them properly. That's why it's so important that we show the limits of the speculative outlook in these considerations. Even the speculative only serves the practical in life."
   In a certain sense, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason constitutes the most articulate eye-roll at speculative metaphysics that one can imagine (while Plato's may be the most pleasing eye-roll). This image of the eye-roll conveys a lot that isn't intended, however, since Kant doesn't take speculative reason to be totally bankrupt - at least as long as it is properly understood; the eye-roll is properly directed at the dogmatist (or for Plato the sophist).
   At first there is something humorous in Kant's agreement with the layman, since Kant's own complicated works aren't full of readily understandable notions. But we can we see the compatibility of Kant's very technical works with his affirmation of common sense with only some little consideration, and recognize that it isn't simply being very plain that makes one agree with common sense. (In fact, it is a harmful prejudice that being simple is necessary in order to agree with common sense.)
   Kant remarks of his Critique of Pure Reason that it is not meant for popular consumption. Rather, it is a medicine for those who have been stricken with enthusiasm in their metaphysical inquiries and have sought to extend their knowledge far beyond its proper limits. Those who are sick with this disease have been, contrary to their intention, abusing reason in setting themselves the task of answer questions which can only be assailed by each man's practical outlook.
   Kant sees many dangers resulting from speculative reason's attempt to usurp practical interests. It isn't that he thinks the subtle argumentation of dogmatists will directly cause confusion in society, since these arguments are ignored by the common man. However, so far as the erudite have an indirect influence on the culture through their disciplines (in Kant's day these were medicine, law and theology), there is a risk that the practical instinct could be misled as more and more begin to defer to others. There is also an opportunity for a positive influence on society (see Kant's Conflict of the Faculties for these considerations).
   (During Kant's life time, education was not as accessible. Today a lot more people have an opportunity to be exposed to dogmatisms while, it seems, just as few people are willing to think for themselves. In light of this, it may be more important to reevaluate just how many people the Critical project could benefit, and if it needs a new exposition in order to suit this need.)
   To understand why technical language alone isn't enough to separate subtle inquiry from common understanding, we should consider more closely what it means for the speculative to usurp the practical. Speculative Metaphysics attempts to settle, once and for all, problems which not only are insoluble, but really first become concerns for us in questions of how we should act. Right away, a speculative solution to this question is shown to usurp the question of how we should act, and take it out of the hands of individuals; instead it will be a handful of speculative philosophers who determine how people should conduct themselves, and on the false pretense (that may yet go unchallenged if these men have much prestige) that answers can be given in these matters. We can see, then, that technical terminology can be a friend to common sense, especially when it is trying to keep it out of bondage.
   Now, we shouldn't all at once think that the actions of the speculative philosophers are malicious, or intend to damage humanity. However, we should see if the actions of these philosophers is due to genuine, practical motives which have led to attempts at answers through methods that have not been considered as concerns their effectiveness. This is exactly what Kant's Critique of Pure Reason sets out to ask, and so far as we can see the merit of such an inquiry - whether we agree with Kant's results or not - we recognize that it is in our interests to know if we are properly serving our ends. If we agree with Kant's conclusions, then we will also find ourselves agreeing with the layman's reaction to sophists of all generations: they just aren't practical.
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