Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Understanding 'Contexts' Better through Kant

   In much contemporary metaphysics, and in both of the so-called Analytic or Continental schools of thought, the concept of contexts are important. Some prime examples of contexts are how or when a word is used, the use or equipment-character of objects and the way of being a subject. What do these have in common as contexts (what is the context of contexts)? We certainly do not mean something that is a part of the word, object or subject, rather something that this word, object or subject is found in, and must already be in. I hope to be able to clarify what a context is by looking to the thought of Kant, and hopefully get a new context for thinking through Kant as well.
   This essay is not only to further consider how well we understand 'contexts' or Kant's thought, but also as an argument for an approach to philology. Many readers who are interested in a specific topic in metaphysics may feel that they only have a limited number of authors to turn to. 'Context' is not a term used in Kant or central in the literature on him, so he would be less likely to be considered. However, I would like us to consider if the field of metaphysics may not admit of a very wide variety of topics, or at least topics which are not all fundamentally integrated; we should consider, as philologists, if all attempts at metaphysics may be attempts at elucidating the same ground. If we accept this, then we should be far more liberal in who we read for what reasons when it comes to metaphysics. I hope the value of this approach will be seen from a cursory glance through Kant's three Critiques where it concerns contexts.

An Overview of Contexts in Kant
Critique of Pure Reason
   A good starting point for context in Kant is with appearances. Appearances are always of something in space and time. Space and time are not properties of appearances, rather they are the form of appearances, or what allows appearances to show themselves in various ways. This should not lead us to think of space and time as being containers of appearances. While being the field in which there are appearances, this field itself is ideal; it is not a thing, but the rules of the ability-to-arrange things as appearances.
   The field of appearance in Kant is very narrow compared to that of experience. Experience is not simply appearances, but relations of appearances; experience is the context of objects and occurrences. There are no events in an appearance or intuition, rather events are relations of appearances. The principles, or form of, the objects of experience are what Kant calls pure concepts of the understanding, or categories for short. However, experience doesn't just have relations between objects, but also a unity all unto itself. Within this overall unity of consciousness, we can think of a unitary subject, even thought such a subject is never known, and never appears. This means that the context of experience is more inclusive than simply the subject or a field of objects. Experience is the context of both the subject and objects.
   Besides objects and thought of a subject, experience always contains thought of three different relationships: first, a relation to the subject; second, a relationship between objects; third, a relation between everything taken together. Each of these relations is a schema for a particular manner of knowing; each manner of knowing is able to be formulated syllogistically.
   The relation to the subject is formulated by the categorical syllogism, and represents simply knowing something; the relation between objects is formulated by the hypothetical syllogism, which represents knowing the orderliness of objects; the relation between everything together is formulated by the disjunctive syllogism, and represents consistency in knowledge for the subject. Each of these describes a context in which situates a type of knowledge, and this means that experience is also the context of knowledge. Now these different relations in experience, while being the contexts of particular knowledge, also allow for a different and broader kind of context.
   The various relations exhibited in experience are not themselves given as objects, but as ways in which something is known. Each type of syllogism can be extended indefinitely, filling in more and more of the same sort of relation; when taken to their respective extremes in thought, these relations serve as plans for total systems of knowledge organized by a principle. Kant called the principles by which we organize these bodies of knowledge 'regulative principles'. With these regulative principles we find a context that is different in kind from those we have already discussed (appearance and experience), since these principles do not refer to objects, but to a heuristic through which a subject is directed to bring about more and more systematic unity in their knowledge; knowledge that is organized by a principle which directs the organization is called scientific, and so science is the introduction of this new context in which the subject plays an active role.
   When there is a principle which determines the actions of a subject, it is called practical in a general sense. When this determination is of a means to an end it is technically practical; if the determination of the subject is by a law of freedom, then it is morally practical. The regulative principles are technically practical. The change from theoretical contexts of appearance, experience and knowledge in the practical contexts of science (as an activity), technique and morality form the beginning of a very helpful distinction that we can import into the discussion of contexts. However, for now we can continue elucidating different contexts we find in Kant.
   The three different plans for sciences provided by regulative principles are those of knowing every thing (categorical), knowing the rules that govern the relations between every thing (hypothetical), and the unity of all the things to each other, there use and suitability (disjunctive). With these plans at hand, the subject can practice its talents for furthering the ends of its own reason compels it to in the field of experience; the subject can also use these as models for building more specialized sciences, such as, biology, chemistry, &c. With morality, however, we depart from determining the field of experience or furthering our knowledge of it directly. Before discussing morality directly, it first makes sense to discuss the context of life.

Critique of Practical Reason
   While theoretical contexts all concern objects that can be given in some experience, and relations in experience, life is even broader. The theoretical concerns ultimately organized knowledge, while an organized life makes the best use of its knowledge for aims that it could not derive solely from nature. The context of organizing life is practical.
   The experience of ourselves under the compulsion to act or omit action in this or that circumstance is common, and comes in two flavors: we desire to attain or avoid some state, and so we will our actions in accordance with means that attain our desired end; or, we know that something is good or bad apart from actually thinking of any particular end, and will our actions to act or omit actions so as not to violate our sense of duty. The contexts that both of these determinations of the will appear are practical, but only the latter Kant calls moral (purely practical) while the former is technical.
   Moral and technical maxims of action are both presented in the context of life, but also form the basis for further contexts, just as we found when the context of appearance contributed to the context of experience. With technical aims we can appreciate the utility in things, and of ourselves, and can value these in relation to how well they achieve what is desired; this is instrumental value. for the morally practical we come to esteem ourselves and others as good or evil according to how we compare them with their duties; this is self-worth and respect.
   Our life is organized by both technical and moral maxims, and these conflict frequently. However, we find ourselves as the kind of beings that want to be happy, and also the kind of beings that want to be good. We cannot neglect one or the other of these without torment. Now, while we do not perform our duty because of some personal interest, we still naturally become interested in what is good, and our own self-worth leads us to want happiness in like measure, this provides a foundation for a further context, that of reward and punishment.
   Our worthiness to be happy, acquired by frequent action from respect towards duty, can become a sore spot for us. And organizing life to bring virtue into harmony with our own sensible nature is ultimately our highest aim and most insurmountable challenge. Such a union, can never be guaranteed in nature, though we can come closer and closer.  The goal to unite our self-worth and happiness in this world forms a principle for the context of developing the kingdom of Heaven on Earth; this ideal arrangement on Earth is just the idea of all agents acting according to the moral law and in harmony with each other.
   The kingdom of Heaven on Earth is an idea of a continually advancing humanity, but not satisfied with merely with the happiness of some ideal posterity; we also are naturally interested in our own happiness.  When we have a natural aim, such as being rewarded, where we understand both its impossibility for us, but yet how it could be fulfilled, we find ourselves with the context for faith. (Since we are simply concerned with this as it a context, we can skip the specifics of Kant's moral proof of the existence of God.)

Critique of (the Power of) Judgment
   Now, casting a glance on what we have discussed this entire time, there have been a lot of contexts that deal with the determination of things, or the determination of the subject regarding things. In Kant's Critique of Judgment, we find the contexts in which the subject is related to itself in various ways. I will discuss contexts we find here as well, but briefly so as not to add too much more to consider.
   When we experience an object, and do not know what it is, yet are interested in it, this is what Kant calls beauty. However, for Kant, beauty is not a property of the object, but rather a sign that the subject is encountering something that recommends itself to our understanding (by being interesting without any reason for our interest). In this experience we uncover the context of the discovery of the subject as an intelligence (as well as how the faculty of intuition is conceived in its relation to the understanding).
   There is nothing that we can see that constitutes nature that provides us with a determination of purposes, and yet we see purposes that things have for each other, as well as purposes that we have. For Kant, considering something in terms of purposiveness is considering it in terms of a final cause. These purposes are not constituents of objects themselves, but they do reveal the way in which we think of ourselves as beings that are suited for making use of things. This we saw in the theoretical contexts, but the emphasis was not on the subject's character so much as it was on the different ways in which we have plans for knowledge.

Benefits of Further Consideration
   I will not go go over the vast number of insights that we can gain by reflecting on this cursory overview of contexts in Kant. Perhaps I can do this at a future time if there is interest, but I feel that simply the large number of different contexts, and their interwoven character, provides enough of an argument to consider thinking through Kant in this way, but we can provide other reasons.
   Kant is clearly not the only thinker to consider to get a better sense for contexts. We could consider Wittgenstein, or even Heidegger, to get straightforward discussions of the contexts of words, or of equipment. We could even get a lot out of considering Plato's forms in terms of contexts (a project for another time). These are all considerations that need to be made and philology that we will do and have done.
   However, we can see in Kant an incredible amount of variety in different types of contexts each with a very precise character, principle, and each related to distinct features of our experience of the world. This is something that few other thinker are able to provide, and these divisions could potentially be important into readings of Wittgenstein or of Plato in order to get a deeper reading of these other impressive thinkers, and this work could be used then in similar ways.
   Apart from these concerns of philology, understanding Kant's divisions can also help us to reflect on our own experience and lives and potentially help us to organize our thoughts better. Every new distinction for us is a possibility for more clarity in our thoughts, and the ability to better compare thoughts adds to distinctness.  
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