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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Immanuel Kant & The German Idealists

Will Durant explains Kant and the German Idealists quite well in "The Story of Philosophy", albeit quite briefly. The biographical sketch is both informative and entertaining, but lacks the theoretical vigor of the chapters on Voltaire and even the slim one on Spinoza. Of course Durant qualifies the book as a small outline of philosophy, and his explanation is quite sufficient. I only hope he had touched upon Hegel's dialectics a bit more. Of course, I know this is my preference, as it is Durant's to cover some philosophers more than others. It was Hegel's dialectics (and Nietzsche's nihilism) that first turned me on to philosophy. Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, remained unintelligible to me for many years. I've come to understand him better after this re-reading of Durant's expose.

The reason Kant is so misunderstood is the fact that he grapples with the balance between reason and the metaphysical world. Logic dictated to him things reason only made dance on other philosophers' heads before him. Either way, Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" advocated the consideration of other elements contemporaries deemed "irrational." By his insightful analysis of the lacks in reason, Kant exposes a theory which only fails were his contemporaries ability to comprehend it. Kant influences were more insightful when it comes to understanding the man and the philosopher, and it is good that Durant includes them before he "hits" on Kant directly. Of these Rousseau and Hume are closer ideologically and theoretically. The battle between sense and the concrete then hit Western philosophy quite hard. "... to save religion from reason, and yet at the same time to save science from scepticism--this was the mission of Immanuel Kant." This was a noble aim, to be sure, but how would Kant convey this to his contemporaries, let alone explain it clearly enough so that the authorities didn't throw him in jail? Enter "The Critique of Pure Reason," a book so complicated most politicians and clergy of the age were unable to dissect it and pin anything on Kant. Durant explains the premise: "... what if we have knowledge that is independent of sense-experience, knowledge whose truth is certain to us even before experience--a priori? Then absolute truth, and absolute science, would become possible, would it not? Is there such absolute knowledge? This is the problem of the first Critique... 'My question is [and here Kant picks up] what we can hope to achieve with reason, when all the material and assistance of experience are taken away.... Experience is by no means the only field to which our understanding can be confined. Experience tells us what is, but not that it must be necessary what it is and not otherwise." Of course this sounds quite confusing, but one has to look at the larger picture here. Kant continues: "It therefore never gives us any really general truth; and our reason, which is particularly anxious for that class of knowledge, is roused by it rather than satisfied." Certainly, an attack of this magnitude will grant Kant a number of enemies in both secular and religious camps, but "The Critique of Pure Reason" goes a step further: "Mathematical knowledge is necessary and certain; we cannot conceive of future experience violating it. We may believe that the sun will 'rise' in the west tomorrow, or that some day, in some conceivable world, fire will not burn a stick; but we cannot for the life of us believe that two times two will ever make anything else than four. Such truths are true before experience; they do not depend on experience past, present or to come." This is a bit like the Zen koan of a tree falling in the woods and no one there to hear it fall. The certain truth exists despite our recognition of it. Metaphysically, you may argue the same premise with the question of God. If man didn't exist, would God exist? Reason brings down the tree of that argument based on the following: "Sensation is unorganized stimulus, perception is organized sensation, conception is organized perception, science is organized knowledge, wisdom is organized life: each is a greater degree of order, and sequence, and unity. Whence this order, this sequence, this unity? Not from the things themselves; for they are known to us only by sensations that come through a thousand channels at once in disorderly multitude..." In some way, then, Kant straddled both theoretical stands. One would think that this would have allowed him to gain favor in both reason and theological camps, but this was not the case. Humanity doesn't operate at the level of geniuses. It is here that Durant grants Kant the crown of being the first Pragmatist. Kant certainly influenced William James a great deal, so I can see the connection. Later, by correlating the idea of beauty (as humans experience it) and creation with some systematical process (due to symmetry), he was able to placate criticism from the theologists. By "correlating design and beauty... the beautiful, he thinks, is anything which reveals symmetry and unity of structure, as if it has been designed by intelligence." I am unaware of creationists attaching themselves to this argument and using Kant to further their desires. Does anyone know? Could you respond?

With Hegel, Durant is less objective and kind. Again, dialectics aside, Hegel is not a powerful influence of future Western thought (at least Durant thinks). Hegel was arrogant, that's true, but one cannot judge the theories based on the man. Picasso was a fifth rate human being, but he was a first rate genius. Certainly this doesn't explain his behavior away, but we cannot judge his art based on his human actions... philosophy, like art, is beyond that.

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