Friday, August 21, 2015

Kant’s remarks on Berkeley and Descartes

In ‘Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy – an invitation’ (posted on July 8) I wrote: ‘The main uniting theme of the Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy will be the question, how can philosophy contribute to the optimal development of our HSN (human spiritual nature). It was this question that has recently led me back to Kant (I devoted a lot of time to Kant in my twenties), as can be seen from the entries on my blog devoted to him. Kant has led me to thinking a lot about Hume, and Berkeley, and Locke, and so I have decided to devote as much time to them before I go to Prague, as my work on Aristotle and Kant will allow me.’

I was almost immediately rewarded for my decision to read Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge. In the ‘Elucidation’ (Erläuterung) to his exposition of time Kant explains why ‘intelligent men’ (einsehende Männer) expressed almost unanimously objections against his theory, ‘which grants empirical reality to time (welche der Zeit empirische Realität zugesteht), but denies to it absolute and transcendental reality (aber die absolute und transzendentale bestreitet)’ (B53) … men who cannot start any intelligible arguments against the ideality of space (die gleichwohl gegen die Lehre von der Idealität des Raumes nichts Einleuchtendes einzuwenden wissen).’ For this he gives the following reason: ‘They have no hope of demonstrating apodeictically the absolute reality of space, because the doctrine of idealism is against them, according to which the reality of external objects is not capable of any strict proof.’ (B54-55, tr. Meiklejohn) I highlighted this passage in my copy of the Critique and wrote on the margin: ‘Berkeley’. [In his Principles Berkeley maintains ‘that extension, figure, and motion are only ideas existing in the mind’ (par. 9).] As I did so, I remember being surprised that Berkeley had had such a powerful influence on the minds of Kant’s contemporaries. And I remember noticing a discrepancy between the idealism as Berkeley conceived of it, and as Kant in the given passage reflected on it.  For Berkeley did not think that ‘the reality of external objects is not capable of any strict proof’; he believed that he proved that there are no external objects, only ideas: ‘all place or extension exists only in mind, as hath been already proved’ (par. 67).

Then, in the ‘Genral Remarks on Transcendental Aesthetic’ (Allgemeine Anmerkungen zur transzendentalen Ästhetik) I came across a passage in which Kant refers to Berkeley: ‘If we ascribe objective reality to these forms of representation [i.e. to space and time] (wenn man jenen Vorstellungsformen objektive Realität beilegt) it becomes impossible to avoid changing everything into mere appearance (so kann man nicht vermeiden, dass nicht alles dadurch in blossen Schein verwandelt werde.). For (Denn,) if we regard space and time as properties (wenn man den Raum und die Zeit als Beschaffenheiten ansieht,), which must be found in objects as things in themselves, as sine quibus non of the possibility of their existence (die ihrer Möglichkeit nach in Sachen an sich angetroffen werden müssten,), and reflect on the absurdities (und überdenkt die Ungereimheiten) in which we then find ourselves involved (in die man sich alsdann verwickelt,), inasmuch as we are compelled to admit the existence of two infinite things, which are nevertheless not substances, nor anything really inhering in substances, nay, to admit that they are the necessary conditions of the existence of all things, and moreover, that they must continue to exist  (indem zwei unendliche Dinge, die nicht Substanzen, auch nicht etwas wirklich den Substanzen Inhärierendes, dennoch Existierendes, ja die notwendige Bedingung der Existenz aller Dinge sein müssen, auch übrig bleiben,), although all existing things were annihilated (wenn gleich alle existierenden Dinge aufgehoben werden;) – we cannot blame the good Berkeley (so kann man es dem guten Berkeley wohl nicht verdenken,) for degrading bodies to mere illusory appearances (wenn er die Körper zu blossem Schein herabsetzte.).’

At this point the discrepancy between Kant’s remark on ‘the doctrine of idealism according to which the reality of external objects is not capable of any strict proof’ and his remark on Berkeley became obvious. And so I looked in the ‘Index of Names’ in my copy of the Critique, where I found another reference to Berkeley, which referred me to Kant’s ‘Refutation of Idealism’ from which I quote: ‘Idealism (Der Idealismus) – I mean material idealism (ich verstehe den materialen) – is the theory (ist die Theorie,) which declares the existence of objects in space without us to be either (1) doubtful and indemonstrable, or (2) false and impossible (welche das Dasein der Gegenstände im Raum ausser uns entweder bloss für zweifelhaft und unerweislich, oder für falsch un unmöglich erklärt;). The first is the problematical idealism of Descartes (der erstere ist der problematische des Cartesius,), who admits the undoubted certainty of only one empirical assertion (assertio), to wit, “I am” (der nur Eine empirische Behauptung (assertio), nämlich: Ich bin, für ungezweifelt erklärt;). The second is the dogmatical idealism of Berkeley (der zweite ist der dogmatische des Berkeley,), who maintains that space, together with all the objects of which it is the inseparable condition, is a thing which is in itself impossible, and that consequently the objects in space are mere products of the imagination (der den Raum, mit allen den Dingen, welchen er als unabtrennliche Bedingung anhängt, für etwas, was an sich selbst unmöglich sei, und darum auch die Dinge im Raum für blosse Einbildungen erklärt.). The dogmatical theory of idealism is unavoidable (Der dogmatische Idealismus ist unvermeidlich,), if we regard space as a property of things in themselves (wenn man den Raum als Eigenschaft, die den Dingen an sich selbst zukommen soll, ansieht;); for in that case it is, with all to which it serves as condition (denn da ist er mit allem, dem er zur Bedingung dient,), a nonentity (ein Unding). But the foundation for this kind of idealism we have already destroyed in the transcendental aesthetic (Der Grund zu diesem Idealismus aber ist von uns in der transzendentalen Ästhetik gehoben.). Problematical idealism (Der problematische), which makes no such assertion (der nichts hierüber behauptet), but only alleges our incapacity to prove the existence of anything besides ourselves by means of immediate experience (sondern nur das Unvermögen, ein Dasein ausser dem unsrigen durch unmittelbare Erfahrung zu beweisen, vorgibt,), is a theory rational and evidencing a thorough and philosophical mode of thinking (ist vernünftig und einer gründlichen philosophischen Denkungsart gemäss;), for it observes the rule not to form a decisive judgement before sufficient proof be shown (nämlich, bevor ein hinreichender Beweis gefunden worden, kein entscheidendes Urteil zu erlauben.). The desired proof must therefore demonstrate (Der verlangte Beweis muss also dartun,) that we have experience of external things, and not mere fancies (dass wir von äusseren Dingen auch Erfahrung und nicht bloss Einbildung haben;). For this purpose, we must prove, that our internal and, to Descartes, indubitable experience is itself possible only under the previous assumption of external experience (welches wohl nicht anders wird geshehen können, als wenn man beweisen kann, dass selbst unsere innere, dem Cartesius unbezweifelte, Erfahrung nur unter Voraussetzung äusserer Erfahrung möglich sei.).’ (B274, tr. Meiklejohn)

To make the long story short, I should have written Descartes instead of Berkeley on the margin of the highlighted passage in my copy of the Critique, to which I refer, and which I quote, in the second paragraph of this post.

Those of my readers, who follow the German text, may have noticed that in the text quoted in the third paragraph of this post Kant uses the term Sache to denote ‘things in themselves’ Sachen an sich. Cf. ‘A Kant’s distinction I had missed’ with Alberto Vanzo’s comment, posted on August 2, and ‘A remark on Alberto Vanzo’s comment’, posted on August 17.

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