Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Thoughts without content are empty"

It's one of the most quoted zingers in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.
Thoughts without content are empty.  Intuitions without concepts are blind.
OK.  So what is the chap talking about?  Kant's whole game is to deal with the David Hume challenge, his so-called "associationism."  On this view we humans are more or less passive consumers of a bundle of sense impressions of the real world.  Kant's strategy is to turn this on its head.  No we don't associate sense impressions with the real world.  We take formless sense impressions, view them with the forms of intuition about space and time, synthesize them with intuitions, and then own them as ours by applying the pure concepts of the understanding to our intuitions and finally applying judgments.

The experts call this the "togetherness principle."  You need both concepts and intuitions to achieve useful judgments about the world as it appears to you.   Kant repeats his famous apothegm several times:
  • "[N]either concepts without intuition corresponding to them in some way nor intuition without concepts can yield a cognition."
  • "Thus pure intuition contains merely the form under which something is intuited, and pure concept only the form of thinking of an object in general."
  • "Without sensibility no object would be given to us, and without understanding none would be thought."
  • "The understanding is not capable of intuiting anything, and the senses are not capable of thinking anything."
All along, Kant is arguing for the importance of both intuition and concepts in full human cognition.  Thus, Kant might have made things clearer had he written:
Thoughts without sensible content cannot apply to the real world; intuitions without rational concepts cannot be used for judgment.
For all its famous difficulty.  Kant's Critique does have its moments.


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