Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Understanding Judgments as Thought-Propositions

This will be the first installment in a series of articles regarding judgments in Kant's system.  The aim of the series is to use the judgment as a centering point in the interpretation of Kant's critical project, as well as a tool for deconstructing and interpreting other philosophy from ancient to contemporary.
*   *   *
"Now the proper problem of pure reason is contained in the question: How are a priori synthetic judgments possible?" CPR B19
In studying Kant there is a tendency to wonder right off what ‘a priori synthetic’ means without attending to what it means to judge at all.  It is clear that a priori synthetic judgments are the core problem of the critical works, and the 'synthetic a priori' presents itself as questionable while 'judgment' in general is so common as to be passed over.  Kant himself seems to take for granted his particular orientation to judgments throughout his work, only spelling out tacitly how we must understand judgments in general as part of his system.


It is clear that Kant employs a formal system of terms in his work, and also clear that he only gives a cursory description to many of these terms.  When a formal term is itself discussed it is not in some capacity as an object (of experience), but as it provides a way of talking about the thought of objects.  Kant's need for his vast array of formal terms is a demand of transcendental philosophy itself.  We should understand that the formal terms describe ways of thinking about things.  The formal terms don't refer to things in the world, but instead refer to transcendentally ideal ways of thinking the world and objects in it.  Discussion of the division and unity of the transcendentally ideal and empirically real will be avoided for now; it is enough to say that things that are ideal (formal) do not have objects which correspond with them immanently.
Among formal terms ‘judgment’ has the most central of roles, synthetic a priori judgments being the questionable kind for the critique.  A great difficulty in reading Kant arises from neglecting the formal application of the term 'judgment'.  Judgments should be understood as represented through 'thought-propositions'.  The terms 'thought' and 'proposition' must now be clarified, and their relation made known, so that they can describe ‘judgments’.


I distinguish first between what I will call phenomenal thought and formal thought.  Phenomenal thought is experienced; it is the inner monologue of the subject - the “talking in your head” that we are all familiar with.  Formal thought, on the other hand, is not constituted by experiences, but refers to our understanding of experience; that is, when I see a chair and understand that I can sit on it, I may say that my understanding is constituted formally by thoughts about the chair.  The term formal is employed here because what thought refers to is not a thing - it is a way of talking about the understanding of experience.


What one typically thinks of when they hear 'proposition' (particularly in our analytic tradition) is a sentence which evaluates to true or false; this usage can be granted, and we can be sure that Kant writes propositions like this in his critical work, but we can also be sure that these written propositions are not of interest so long as they are considered merely as written and not thought.  This allows us to distinguish between two possible referents of ‘proposition’, as sentences (written, or spoken), or as descriptions of the content of (formal) thought.  Let us look at a sample proposition:
'This chair is blue.'
This proposition may be analyzed as a sentence – nothing in the concept blue contradicts the concept of chair, but we don’t know what chair is being referred to by the indexical ‘this’, so we don’t know if it is true of any chair in particular.   Kant's interest in this proposition would be as formally thought.  This proposition as thought about the object (chair) would be accounting for our experience of it as blue.  The proposition is then our way of discussing what is contained in formal thought.

Judgment as Thought-Propositions

Given our account of thought and propositions, judging can be understood as thinking a proposition.  A thought can be represented by a proposition, but when we judge we should understand the proposition describing the judgment as thought.  When we represent a judgment through propositions we can evaluate these propositions to be true or false, but when these propositions are considered as formal descriptions of what is thought in a judgment, then we do not evaluate them as true or false, but recognize that they are our reflective evaluations of an actual experience.  This is the difference between how we can doubt an object is blue (there may be a blue light on it), but we can’t doubt that we experience it as blue – this has incredibly crucial implications for reading Kant, in doing transcendental philosophy, we are not interested in the evaluation of judgments as true or false; what is at stake is how to give an account of the forming of judgments – how they are possible.

Application of Judgment as Thought-Proposition

Let us take an example of a proposition which causes some confusion and show how our way of understanding judgments helps us to clarify it:
‘5 + 7 = 12’
Kant’s claim that this is a synthetic judgment is much disputed; the reason that Kant says that it is synthetic is that the concept given by ‘12’ does not contain the concepts given by ‘5’, ‘7’, ‘+’ or ‘=’, so that the combination of the numbers requires a synthesis.  We can see, however, that even though the character ‘5’ is obviously not the same as the character ‘12’, five is contained in twelve because we know that twelve is larger than five.  So if twelve contains five, and it also contains in it, in this same sense, that if you add five to seven you get twelve, then this is analytic and not synthetic, correct?  This is false.  This is treatment of the proposition ‘5 + 7 = 12’ not as an actual thought, but a thought to be further evaluated.
When we consider the proposition in question as a description of what is thought in a judgment (a thought-proposition), then we can see right away that our thought of ‘12’ does not contain ‘5’ or ‘7’.  When I think of the number ‘twelve’, I do not understanding in my experience five plus seven, or thirteen minus one, or three times four.  I can evaluate the number twelve and determine all sorts of things about it and all manner of ways that it can be divided up or constructed, but I don’t consider these merely through thinking ‘12’.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Call for Questions

   One of the intentions of this blog is to address questions for those that are engaged in studying Kant.  Please send your questions regarding Kant to and I will do my best to address your questions.  The following sorts of questions are most appropriate:

1) Detailed interpretations of text
   Sometimes it is hard to understand a passage because one doesn't know what is at stake, or because a term is being used in a new way.  If there is a section or passage that is causing difficulty tell me where it is and I will set to work elucidating the text.

2) Arguments against Kant
   Send in your complaints regarding Kant's work and I will address the solution that Kant presents.  The intention for these is not to protect Kant, but to find in the arguments against Kant the points in which such a counter example first comes to be. 

3) Questions regarding Kant's terminology
   Sometimes it is hard to know how a term is being used and not clear that a definition has been given.  Ask about a term Kant employs and I will attempt to clarify its usage, and if there are multiple over his corpus that I am aware of I will address them as well.

4) Kant applied to realms that Kant did not address
   If you are working on something that you want to know the Kantian perspective on I will either show you where he addressed it, or if this is not available then how one would begin to address the problem from the perspective of transcendental philosophy.

5) Submit an post you would like me to put up
   If you would like to share some scholarship on Kant please feel welcome in submitting it to me and I will review it and give you feedback which you can use to update your post if you wish before I put it up.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Introduction to an Outlook for all Philosophical Interpretation

   I may have been the only one watching. He let the book fall from his hand, causing it to slam loudly on the table. Silence followed, but only for a moment. He spoke, his words continuing the shocked state provided us.
   "This is the most difficult book ever written. It is not because of anything that he says in it, but because he means everything he says."

* * *

   Above are the first moments of the first course I received on the Critique of Pure Reason under Prof. Gelven at Northern Illinois University. This manner of introduction inspired my approach to the interpretation of philosophy generally, and it is important to acknowledge from the outset this formative moment in my study, as well as to make some remarks about this moment that intimate some of the proper goals and procedure for interpretations where the effort is made for philosophical purposes. This can be taken as a criticism of some typical procedures used that are mistaken for philosophical. These non-philosophical procedures have merits; among these merits are understanding the history of a text, or the psychology of the writer, or the correctness of an argument, yet, as important as these ends are, these are not the ends of philosophy which constitutes an entirely different engagement.
   A number of elements in this moment in class produced a rather sublime effect on me: Firstly, my respect for Prof. Gelven; next, the noise was shocking viscerally and enhanced the claim that was made, true or not, regarding Kant's first Critique; and finally, the object of some sort of ideal of humanity, found in Kant's work, that I was standing in comparison to by the daunting task of facing up to it. All these led to a certain feeling that I had of being faced with a noble challenge and a need, which I thankfully fulfilled, to see myself as capable of achieving an understanding; yet what was the most important part of those moments for the development of the interpretation that guided my reading of the Critique tacitly, was also the most difficult part to understand immediately.  It was the last part of Gelven's statement - that the text is difficult precisely because Kant means what he says.
   The immediate product, in me, from this moment was dedication in the study of Kant grounded in trust. Trust can be seen as a bias, surely, but the trust here that is so crucial for interpreting texts philosophically is trust in the sincerity of the author's concerns - that for all the error and inconsistency that may exist in a text, it yet is addressing problems that were of essential importance to the author. Once we recognize that what is essential to authors is what is necessarily the same for all authors - their humanity - we can begin to interpret their texts as philosophical: as revealing something essential for all humanity.
   To expand on the above paragraph rather glibly: philosophical truths, as essential to humanity, are not up for disputation; they do not come in and out of fashion and are not dependent upon culture or other factors of our intellectual development - in fact, as essential, they are precisely those things that do not develop. The interpretation of a text for philosophical purposes, therefore, examines it to discover in it that which is entirely uncontentious. This does not mean that philosophers are unable to err in practice as to what is essential, for being limited is part of our humanity as well, but insofar as we trust that sincerity of a thinkers engagement with his own essential problems, we can expect to find the essentially true revealed in the manner of attaining to answering these problems, even if the answers given are themselves entirely fruitless, even wicked. When driven by sincerely essential problems, these matters of answers being incorrect or even evil add to the ability to interpret a text philosophically by revealing how one errs in relation to these essential problems. The truth of philosophical inquiry found in philosophical interpretation is the uncovering of the essentially human at all points.
   From this, interpreting a text merely in terms of the truth or falsity of the arguments contained in it is unphilosophical, for it takes as its end the discovery not of what is essential, but what is only the product of the inquiry: there are a vast multitude of arguments, both true and false, so that none of them in particular need be essential. However, the essential condition of humanity from which these problems arise is not a vast multiplicity, but is a universal condition, and here we can find what is of essential interest to humanity - the problematic - and distinguish it from what is of interest to the humanities - the particular answers to these questions.

Critique of Pure Reason: Beginning of the A Edition

   The two prefaces to the Critique of Pure Reason are vastly important for guiding the reader through the text.  They provide an overview and insight into the spirit of the text, and also determine crucial limits that Kant observes through the remainder of his critical project.  The preface in the A edition of the Critique can help to give us a view of what the critical project meant to Kant before it was let loose upon the world, that is, before Kant received the massive amount of feedback that demanded him to produce a new preface in the B edition.
To begin with, I will be taking the first sentence of the A preface and examining what it reveals to us about the critical project and for the particular sort of problematic that Kant is working within.  The sentence runs as follows:
HUMAN reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.
In the B edition, after the work's tremendous reception of positive, negative, but almost universally misunderstood, commentary, the first sentence reveals a change in Kant's problematic from a concern with something essential to man, over to a concern with the reception of Kant's own work.  The B edition starts as follows:
WHETHER the treatment of such knowledge as lies within the province of reason does or does not follow the secure path of a science, is easily to be determined from the outcome.
It is possible to see a greater level of sincerity in the A edition because Kant is not concerned with commentary.  However, while the A edition may be more grounded in essential concerns for humanity, the B edition is concerned in the human activity of communication and this is of primary importance from a pragmatic standpoint: the text is essentially intended to communicate something.  Furthermore, in the B edition one can see Kant pouring over the necessity and benefits of the work, almost as if to reassure himself.  Recognizing the importance of both A and B editions, we now concern ourselves with the A edition alone.
   When one reads the first sentence in any philosophical work one can tell that the author has put a great deal of effort into it.  Kant, recognizing, but it seems not fully understanding, the great importance of his work certainly would have put a great deal of effort in to his first impression on an audience, and he shows great sagacity in how he proceeds - from an orientation in his problematic dealing in essential concerns for all humanity.
   The discussion in the first sentence is about reason, and not just reason but human reason.  This reason we are in possession of is fated to pose unsolvable problems for itself.  This being fated is constituted by both the problems, and the inability to solve them, flowing directly from the nature, or essence, of our reason. 
   These unresolvable questions have seen attempted solutions, and through the Critique Kant intends to show that while the questions are unassailable, if we are careful [readable as critical] we can understand the questions such that what is truly important in them can be understood, though never in a resolved or unproblematic way.  It is true that the Critique is not intended to provide any positive knowledge, but merely a restricting, but through coming to terms with the limitations on our knowledge we acquire clarity in their exposition - we discover what it means for us to have these questions and these limitations regarding them.

   The opening sentence of the A edition preface reveals the orientation of the problematic of the Critique as guided by limits of human knowledge, but not concerned with overcoming these limits - our being finite takes a central role here. 

   It is interesting that Kant uses the word fate in the first line - later he will refer to words such as fate and luck as usurpatory concepts.  Here Kant may just be allowing for a little bit of the poetical, but it is also interesting to consider what this addition may mean.
   Reason here is used in a rather vague way and this term will take some time to form itself in a definitive way to any who are unfamiliar with Kant.  Here, however, he does seem to be referring to our faculty of reason, which is called elsewhere the faculty of desire.  This would make sense since the being compelled to answer these unanswerable questions is a desire.  The inability to answer them is from limitations in our faculty of cognition, however, which is the understanding.
   That finitude is a concern for Kant isn't something that is necessarily new, even that our being limited is positive is nothing new - one has to look to Socrates in the ancient world or Descartes in the start of the modern period.  Now we can see the continued importance of our finite existence in the works of thinkers such as Heidegger.