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.
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"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’.


jhbowden said...

Hi Erik! I like what you've done with the place!

As you probably know, my main concern with the Kantian project is whether we're asking well-formed questions.

"Are judgments possible?" "Is there an analysis of judgment?" and "What does judgment entail?" all make sense, in that, we know what kind of answers we're looking for. To answer the first question, we merely need to supply a specific judgment. The second question requests a reduction, as if judgment is a composite notion made up of smaller components. The third asks what judgment implies -- for example, a concrete judgment implies a concrete judger; if judgment is possible then there can be possible judgers; and so forth.

This being said, I'm not convinced whether it makes sense to ask how judgments are possible.

In daily life, when we ask if something is possible, we have two contingent propositions in mind improbable in relation to each other, and we ask whether there exists a third contingent proposition we can add to our cognitive set to increase the probability of the set in question collectively. So, if p and q are contingent, we intelligibly can ask "how is q possible, *given* p?" An answer involves adding one or more contingent propositions r, s, t... to our set of propositions. For example-- question: "How did this movie make a profit, given it bombed in the United States?" An answer: "The film generated huge revenues overseas." So far so good; I don't believe anyone will dispute this.

However, this doesn't work if one of the propositions is necessary. For example, "How is modus ponens possible, given the specific heat capacity of water is 4186 J/(kg·K)?" To even answer this question is to make a mistake. In addition, if we asked how something is possible, when only a single contingent proposition is involved without the "given p" part of our how-is-it-possible-question, we also are not asking a well-formed question. "How is it possible the White Sox play in Chicago?" "How is it possible the Earth has a single Moon?" "How is it possible Jason Bowden is male?"

Things always get philosophically suspicious when questions can be asked iteratively. Do we know our knowledge? Do we believe our beliefs? We could ask how is it possible that judgments are possible. Or how is it possible that it is possible that judgments are possible. Or how it is possible that it is possible that it is possible that judgments are possible. These simply are not well-formed questions, and without well-formed questions, we can have abuse maybe, but no arguments. We go wrong just by asking them!

M: Look, I CAME HERE FOR AN ARGUMENT, I'm not going to just stand...!!
Q: OH, oh I'm sorry, but this is abuse.
M: Oh, I see, well, that explains it.
Q: Ah yes, you want room 12A, Just along the corridor.

Erik Christianson said...

I can understand the question "How are a priori synthetic judgments possible?" without much difficulty considering that it is being asked off the coat tails of Hume saying that they are impossible, and the manner in which it was dismissed.

Since this post isn't properly on the question of how judgments are possible, and just about how to understand a judgment in general, I won't give further discussion to this. However, I will write something in reply and already had set to this task in anticipation.

jhbowden said...

My objections to Kant's project are external, in that I don't believe he is asking well-formed questions. But the best critique of Kantian philosophy comes from Solomon Maimon, regarded by Kant himself as his best critic. Fichte even believed that Maimon overturned the critical project, a development that opened the doors for Schelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer. Maimon's criticism is powerful because it was internal-- he accepted Kant's own premises, something which I do not.

Maimon accepted that the objectivity of knowledge cannot be measured by a standard outside of experience. But can we establish it within experience, given Kant's principles?

For example, Maimon believed that Kant's dualism between understanding and sensibility prohibits concepts from applying to a posteriori intuitions. Understanding, as Kant defined it, is something intellectual, active, and formal, standing above space and time. Sensibility, as Kant defined it, is something purely empirical, passive, and material, standing completely within space and time. Maimon argued these two faculties are too heterogenous for any interaction to occur.

Maimon also noted that Kant had no criterion to detect when, if ever, his categories apply to experience. Experience itself cannot determine when a category applies to it. Kant claimed his categories were a necessary condition for an objective experience, but a skeptic can honestly assert that Kant begs the question by admitting his own personal experience is a phantasmagoria lacking any necessary order.

It follows that there is an insurmountable gap between the categories and the immanent laws of science. Since the categories are compatible with any order of experience, they themselves do not determine which order prevails. This is why Kant's successors deployed the Absolute, the World-Spirit, and other miscreants to tie the remnants of the critical system together.

jhbowden said...

Erik, thanks for cleaning up my typo-ridden deletions! Back to Kant's central question, I personally have no idea what the question "how are a priori synthetic judgments possible? means. If I don't, I suspect others do not either.

Hume, of course, thought a priori synthetic judgments were not possible, which is a proposition easy to understand-- he believed the class of a priori synthetic propositions is empty. To refute this, we merely need to supply a valid counterexample. For example, *if* 5+7=12 is an a priori synthetic judgment, then we have a counterexample which refutes Hume.

Kant's plodding non-answer to his central non-question involved claiming the ideal psychological bureaucracy mentioned above (poor Kant couldn't help it-- Germans love bureaucracy!) "allows" such judgments, or "conditions" them, or is "presupposed" by them. Of course, we could have just asked, "What is a synthetic judgment?" which is a completely different question than asking how they are possible. I don't believe that 5+7=12 is a synthetic proposition, though how we're formulating the questions, as is usually the case in philosophy, is far more important than the answers we can conjure from our minds.

Wrongly and often, when philosophers use words such as "presuppose," "is conditioned by," et cetera, they want to use entailment, but not in a logical sense, but in a get-out-of-jail-free sense. For instance, Popper once remarked someplace that induction "presupposes" the future resembles the past, and hence escaped from his logical prison to assert that scientific propositions are never confirmed, only refuted. Which is nonsense-- that the future will resemble the past is a conclusion of induction. Popper, by using a word like "presupposes," created something that syntactically looks like entailment while having the idea of entailment drop out. I'm challenging you to prove that Kant's mistakes are not of a similar kind. After all, Kant could have just asked if there were any a priori synthetic propositions, or if the a priori excludes the synthetic. What exactly is Kant requesting, when he asks *how* a priori synthetic propositions are possible?

Erik Christianson said...

I can wait to deal with complaints coming from Maimon and similar objections from others in later posts. This blog is not to defend Kant, however, and I would rather provide a structured guide to understanding Kant before handling criticisms that take a vastly different interpretive approach. I respect Maimon's criticism just as much as Kant did, but Kant's respect for Maimon should not be confused for conceding to him.

Concerning the validity of the question: I will still address it in a future post.