Thursday, November 22, 2012

Kant and "Dogmatic Idealism"

Kant set himself a big task in his Critique of Pure Reason. It was not perhaps as big a task as that of the Rev. Edward Casaubon in his "Key to All Mythologies," but big nonetheless.

Kant wanted to spike Descartes's skeptical idealism, that the "I" was indubitable, but the world not so much. He wanted to whack Berkeley for his dogmatic idealism that the world was an illusion.  But he also wanted to deal with Hume and his denial of cause and effect.  Never mind that he also had a mind to derail the whole global industry busily proving that God existed, not to mention the rapidly growing atheist startups aggressively insisting that God didn't exist.

Common sense tells us that the world exists; that's what Dr. Johnson insisted by kicking a stone with his foot and saying of Berkeley's idealism "I refute it thus."  Common sense tells us that every effect has a cause, even if we didn't see the cause coming before the effect.  So somehow those clever Dicks had to be wrong.

Now you might think that Kant was also a dogmatic idealist.  After all, his repeated insistence that we do not know things in themselves but only appearances suggests that we do not have knowledge of things in the outside world.

I prefer to interpret Kant as setting out the first modern attempt to figure how our mind/brain actually deals with the outside world.  He does this by accepting (even as he insists he refutes) the positions of his predecessors.  Yes it's true that we cannot be too certain about the outside world (Descartes) and that it could all be an illusion (Berkeley) and that cause-and-effect is a tricky business (Hume) especially if you get the cause for an effect wrong.  So what?

So Kant sets up what we would call a "model" of the way that humans deal with the outside world, whatever it really is.  We possess "sensibility", the "capacity... to acquire representations" from the outside world.  From the representations we form "intuitions" based on the forms of intuition inside us about space and time.  We apply the categories of the understanding to our intuitions and then form a unified judgment about the result through the power of "apperception" or self-consciousness.  This judgment is made about the object given in sensibility, its appearance as conditioned by our intuition our understanding and so on.  But what the object really is, in itself, can never be known to us.

It all comes down to common sense.  We know, if we know anything, that we should never assume that we have nothing left to learn, that we have grasped the complete truth about life, the universe, and everything.

Because the moment that you figure you have everything figured out, the world will refute you, "thus."

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