Monday, 10 December 2007

McDowell's Kant (Part I)

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on McDowell. So for the next few posts I will be returning to this blog’s original inspiration with a series on McDowell’s Kant. In the next few posts I will be attempting to re-express the dialectic McDowell sets up in the introduction to Mind and World in Kantian terms, thereby displaying the deeply Kantian nature of McDowell’s project. I begin with Kant’s claim that “experience itself is a kind of cognition requiring the understanding” (Bxvii). Thus, we arrive at the first Kantian principle I wish to exploit in my discussion of McDowell’s Kant:
(K1): experience requires understanding
How are we to interpret the word “understanding” as used by Kant? Perhaps the closest thing to a definition can be found in A69/B94, where Kant writes: “We can reduce all acts of the understanding to judgements, so that the understanding in general can be represented as a capacity for judging.” Thus, we arrive at our second central Kantian principle:
(K2): understanding =def a capacity for judging
We can combine (K1) and (K2) to arrive at our third Kantian principle:
(K3): experience requires a capacity for judging
I take (K3) to be one of the key insights of Kant’s Copernican revolution in philosophy. Broadly speaking, Kant’s Copernican revolution amounts to the claim that the formal features of the empirical world (i.e., space and time and the categories) are transcendental impositions of the subject’s mind. For example, when one takes one’s experience to be of a mind-independent object, one is essentially judging that that object is located somewhere in space. Kant makes this point explicitly in the first edition of the Critique, where he posits: “experience consists of judgements”.[Kant, 1998] p. 202. fn.]

Putatively, judgement involves commitment to something being the case. Thus, to say that experience involves judgment is to say that experience involves actively taking a stand on how things are. But this seems to run counter to the conception of experience as passively registering the way things are, prior to and independent of taking a stand on whether or not things are that way. This suggests at least two ways in which experience putatively contrasts with judgement. First, experience is passive while judgement is active. Second, experience simply registers that things are a certain way, while judgement involves being committed to things being a certain way.

The forgoing considerations are meant to register what I believe to be a set of pre-theoretical intuitions regarding the nature of experience. These pre-theoretical intuitions seem aptly captured in the Lockean empiricist idea that experience is the means by which objects are given to a subject. On this picture, one may proceed to make judgments based on experience, but experience itself consists in simply registering sensory impressions. Thus, on the Lockean empiricist picture, experience does not seem to require a capacity to judge. If this is right, then both (K1) and (K3) would be false on the Lockean empricist account. If we wish to preserve the idea that experience is the means by which objects are given, within a broadly Kantian framework, then we must find some way to reconcile these two sets of intuitions. I have suggested that this is what McDowell wishes to do. This brings us the first formulation of the question that motivates McDowell’s Kant:
(Q1): How are we to reconcile the Kantian claim that experience involves making judgements with the Lockean conception of experience as the means by which objects are given to us?



4 comments:

Marcus said...

Hey, Avery,

Thanks for the informative blog. I have a couple of simple questions about Kant's notion of understanding, which reflects, more than likely, my misunderstandings of Kant.

My problems revolve around Kant's pseudo-definition of the understanding: "We can reduce all acts of the understanding to judgements, so that the understanding in general can be represented as a capacity for judging."

Is the understanding the activity of judging, the capacity for judging, or something altogether different? I do not think most of us would use the two key terms in Kant's definition (acts and capacities) interchangeably, because the explanation of a capacity will be utterly distinct from the activity. For example, my capacity to throw a baseball would be explained in terms of my anatomy, say, by virtue of me having oppposable thumbs. It is my opposable thumb that makes baseball throwing something I can put into action. The activity, on the other hand, would be a description of the activity itself (the rotation of my arm, etc). Moreover, would we define, say, jumping as the capacity to propel one's own body into the air or just propelling oneself into the air?

My question, then, is: why is (K2) "understanding is the capacity for judging" rather than "understanding is the activity of judging"? Or do you not think there is any need for this distinction?

Lastly, maybe you know the German, but how is Kant using the term understanding? The word is used in many ways in English, but I imagine there are two ways it is primarily used: 1) I am understanding you, meaning I am actively following you (present-active usage) or 2) I understand, which may mean that I am in a certain state with a set of judgments. Basically, is he using the word understanding as an activity or is it a state?

AVERY ARCHER said...

Hey Marcus,
I have a logic final tomorrow that I'm in the middle of studying for, so I'm going to make my answer brief. I think the key to understanding Kant here is his use of the definite article: "the understanding". This suggests that Kant is using "understanding" as a noun rather than a verb. In short, the understanding (for Kant) refers to a certain human faculty; namely, that which allows us to make judgements.

Anonymous said...

Avery is exactly right, so far as my knowledge of Kant goes -- the Kantian term designates a faculty/capacity/power (Vermoegen in German) to make judgments (determinative judgments specifically -- judgments in which one comprehends a particular thing by subsuming it under a more general concept).

Anonymous said...

nice post avery. i have a few comments.
(1) the following quote is not really indicative of kant's view: "the formal features of the empirical world (i.e., space and time and the categories) are transcendental impositions of the subject’s mind"... the way i read "transcendental impositions of the subject's mind," you seem to be committing Kant to a kind of inner-to-outer idealism, whether we call it subjective idealism. it is also unclear how such formal features could be features of the EMPIRICAL world, if we maintain the picture of the transcendental being of the subject's mind and the empirical as not of the subject's mind. the difficulty partly stems i think from the undue emphasis on the Cartesian concept of "mind" rather than registering that Kant sometimes uses "mind" as das Gemut with a biological sense. it is for this reason that when we are talking about understanding and sensibility, we might interpret Kant as elaborating functions/affections of an organism. to say that the object is not independent of the judgment of the organism is not to say anything too deep about the mind-dependence of objects in general (using a red sunglasses interpretation of transcendental idealism), but instead to say that when we consider an object as transcendental, we cannot consider that object independently of the judgment that determines that object. comparably, when we consider objects as empirical, such objects are constrained also by the forms and structures of space and time, the laws of physics, articulated in the principles, etc.
one way to see how Kant differs from Locke is not to read Locke as anachronisitically rejecting the Kantian account of K1 and K2, but instead as articulating the affections of our human sensibility as part and parcel of our understanding. partly, i think that Kant thinks that Locke's account of abstraction works only for empirical concepts (cf. threefold synthesis), but not for the pure or mathematical concepts. also, i am concerned with the following: "First, experience is passive while judgement is active. Second, experience simply registers that things are a certain way, while judgement involves being committed to things being a certain way." this cannot be a Kantian conception of experience. it is likely that experience is both active and passive. the active aspect involves petite judgments (or applications of concepts) all the way down. the passive aspect involves the force and insistence of matter on the senses. and judgment seems to be (pace Brandom's interpretation) more that just taking up commitments and entitlements for claims about experience, but, instead actively talking or thinking about the world. in the sense in which experience involves intuitions, then experience is for Kant "the means by which objects are given to a subject". for this reason, it seems kinda strange to say that mcdowell is trying to reconcile something between Locke and Kant, rather than trying to make room for a broadly Kantian "transcendental empiricism". the empiricism involves the traditional idea that experience is the central way or mode of knowing. it is not that "experience is the means by which objects are given" or that in cognition we "make judgments based on experience" but instead that empirical cognition just is the actualization of conceptual capacities in experience.