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’.
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