Sunday, May 31, 2015

Back to Kant?

In ‘Human Spiritual Nature and the X of Neurophysiologists’ on my website I argued that ‘the world’s stage’ is organized in our minds in accordance with the space, shapes and movements of objects, animals, activities and interactions of people in front of us and around us, all of which is fundamentally different from the way in which the fabric of the brain is organized within the space of our skull and from the way in which the activities of neurons proceed in time, so that here must be at play an entity distinct from the brain, which transforms the information as it is processed in the brain into ‘the world’s stage’ in our minds. I noted that the process of this transformation is entirely subconscious.

I further pointed out that the ancients did not have any word for subconscious, and that the sceptics could therefore argue against the possibility of knowledge as follows: “The argument (ho logos) is compounded of judgements (sugkeitai ex axiȏmatȏn), but compound things (ta de suntheta) cannot exist (ou dunatai huparchein) unless their component elements mutually co-exist (sunuparchêi), as is pre-evident from the case of a bed and similar objects; but the parts of an argument (ta de merê tou logou) do not mutually coexist (ou sunuparchei). For when we are stating the first premiss (to prȏton lêmma), neither the second premiss nor the inference (epiphora) is as yet in existence (oudepȏ huparchei); and when we are stating the second premiss, the first is no longer existent (ouketi huparchei) and the inference is not yet existent (oudepȏ estin); and when we announce the inference, its premisses are no longer in being (ouketi huphestêken). Therefore the parts of the argument do not mutually co-exist (ou sunuparchei); and hence the argument too will seem to be non-existent (hothen oude ho logos huparchein doxei). (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, II. 144, tr. R. G. Bury.)

This argument illustrates the narrow straits within which consciousness apprehends the unfolding of speech. As one speaks and as one listens, sentences emerge from the subconscious into consciousness, where they acquire their form, while the posterior part of the train of thought gets submerged into the subconscious. Thus in the interplay between the subconscious and consciousness the understanding of what is said is being constituted. This argument of the sceptics ought to have alerted philosophers to the reality and the potency of the subconscious; apparently, it didn’t. – What about Kant? In my late twenties and early thirties I spent a lot of time with Kant, but all that reading had not helped me to answer this question. Should I return to Kant?

In the ‘Preface’ to the 1st edition of the Critique of Pure Reason Kant sets the task of ‘addressing the Reason with the demand (eine Aufforderung an die Vernunft) to face the most difficult of all its tasks (das beschwerlichste aller ihrer Geshäfte), that of undertaking self-knowledge in a new way (nämlich das der Selbsterkenntnis aufs neue zu übernehmen).’ (Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, nach der ersten und zweiten Original-Ausgabe neu herausgegeben von Raymund Schmidt, Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 1956, p. 7) In the ‘Preface’ to the 2nd edition he speaks of ‘the thing in itself’ (die Sache an sich selbst) as real for itself (als für sich wirklich), but unknown to us (aber von uns unerkannt, p 22). Reason can according to him know only mere objects of experience (blosse Gegenstände der Erfahrung), but in his view it must be noted (wohl gemerkt werden muss) that ‘we must be able at least to think those very objects as things in themselves, although we cannot know them (dass wir eben dieselben Gegenstände auch als Dinge an sich selbst, wenn gleich nicht erkennen, doch wenigstens müssen denken können). For otherwise the absurd proposition would follow (Denn sonst würde der ungereimte Satz daraus folgen), that there would be appearance without anything that appeared (dass Erscheinung ohne etwas wäre, was da erscheint, pp. 25-26).’

How can Kant speak of knowledge, if the only possible objects of knowledge are appearances, not things in themselves? For him, knowledge is possible only a priori, derived from Reason itself; what comes a posteriori is only experience, not knowledge. ‘Until now men supposed (Bisher nahm man an) that all our knowledge must look to objects for guidance (alle unsere Erkenntnis müsse sich nach den Gegenständen richten, p. 19)’. Instead, ‘objects must be determined and regulated by our knowledge (die Gegenstände müssen sich nach unserem Erkenntnis richten, p.20)’, for ‘in fact we can know about things a priori only that (dass wir nämlich von den Dingen nur das a priori erkennen), which we put in them (was wir selbst in sie legen, p. 21).’

In the ‘Introduction’ to the 2nd edition of the Critique Kant maintains that ‘this science (diese Wissenschaft), since it has nothing to do with the objects of Reason (weil es nicht mit Objekten der Vernunft), the multiplicity of which is endless (deren Mannigfaltigkeit unendlich ist), but is preoccupied merely with itself (sondern es bloss mit sich selbst), that is with the tasks (mit Aufgaben), which spring in their entirety from its own bosom (die ganz aus ihrem Schosse entspringen), and which are not given to it by the nature of things (und ihr nicht durch die Natur der Dinge), which are different from it (die von ihr unterschieden sind); it is preoccupied only with tasks prescribed by its own nature (sondern durch ihre eigene vorgelegt sind, zu tun hat); because (da es denn) it has beforehand acquired the complete knowledge of its own capacity concerning objects it can encounter in experience (wenn sie zuvor ihr eigen Vermögen in Ansehung der Gegenstände, die ihr in Erfahrung vorkommen mögen, vollständig hat kennenlernen), it can easily (leicht werden muss) and with certainty determine its own scope and set limits to any attempts of enlarging its use beyond the limits of experience (den Umfang und die Grenzen ihres über all Erfahrungsgrenzen versuchten Gebrauchs vollständig und sicher zu bestimmen, p. 54).


Neither in Kant’s a priori knowledge of Reason, nor in his concept of unknowable ‘thing in itself’ could I find any place for the subconscious or the unconscious. Moreover, I found it very difficult to think in English about what Kant said in German. I would have loved to consult an English translation of his Kritik, but I had none: ‘Should I get one on Amazon at the expense of my wife and my children, my only income being the state pension of £ 28.38 a week?’ (see ‘The Citizens Advice Bureau intervenes’, posted on November 22, 2014) – Instead, I wrote ‘Aristotle on Plato in Metaphysics A and Λ, and the strange case of the Phaedrus’, posted on March 24, 2015.

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