01 June 2012

"The Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy": some criticisms

As I mentioned in my previous post, I really like "The Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy", which I have now finished. It gives the clearest accounts I've seen of big chunks of German Idealism, and I think Förster is especially good at laying out what the post-Kantians took to be the problems Kant had left them with. My high praise of those parts of the book remains. Where I think he's less successful is in showing that those problems do in fact get resolved by the post-Kantians. This post will be about those less successful parts.

To give an example: One of the clear issues in Kant that the post-Kantians tried to get past is Kant's conviction that out finite intellect is a special sort of finite intellect, and that others are possible (or at least thinkable); this aspect of Kant's thought means that when Kant proves that such-and-such is a condition on reality's being an object of cognition for us, we must not infer that such-and-such is a condition on the object's being an object of cognition as such. If our intellect was the only possible sort of intellect, then we could infer from "Such-and-such must be the case if reality is to be cognizable by us" to "Such-and-such must be the case if reality is to be cognizable" -- and then skepticism about such-and-such would refute itself, for it would cognize reality in trying to deny that such-and-such was true of the reality it cognized.

(If skepticism tried to back up and say that it merely wanted to say of reality as such that it might not be such-and-such, abstracting from whether or not we can cognize it that way, then skepticism can state a truth only at the cost of reducing itself to a tautology: apart from the conditions under which we can think of things/know things, we cannot think of things/know things. This is no real limitation on our knowledge, and so no real skepticism; this is the place to bring in Kant's discussion of the "noumenon in the negative sense".)

But, since Kant thinks that our intellect is of a special sort (finite as opposed to infinite, discursive as opposed to intellectual, sensibly intuitive as opposed to intellectually intuitive, spatiotemporal as opposed to having some other forms of intuition), it remains the case that anything Kant can show about the conditions for objects to be cognizable by us will leave open that there might be other sorts of intellects (even finite, discursive, sensible ones) that could cognize the objects which we can cognize only under those conditions outside of them: the objects of our cognition might not in themselves be as we (must) cognize them to be, and our forms of cognition might distort their objects. At this level, as opposed to an empirical level, Kant thinks that skepticism is true: things-in-themselves are not knowable by us, because of the distinctive form of our intellect. (Again, I think Förster is very good at explaining this stuff, though his account in the first two chapters of the book is admittedly compressed.)

Kant thinks we can entertain the (merely logical) possibility of other forms of finite discursive sensible intellects than our spatiotemporal one, and so the fact that he (takes himself to have) proved that our synthetic a priori knowledge is limited to spatiotemporal objects gives us transcendental idealism in its familiar form: we can know a priori only objects of possible experience, and this is not to know objects as things-in-themselves. Our understanding is not bound by the forms of our intuition, and so we can think objects in ways that we cannot cognize them; this is what makes transcendental idealism coherently formulatable, and simultaneously what makes transcendent metaphysics possible (it thinks erroneously of objects which are not given in space and time as being cognizable). Kant is explicit that we cannot know why we have the forms of intuition we have: "This peculiarity of our understanding, that it can produce a priori unity of apperception solely by means of the categories, and only by such and so many, is as little capable of further explanation as why we have just these and no other functions of judgement, or why space and time are the only forms of our possible intuition." (B146, section 21 of the B-Deduction). The earlier parts of the paragraph which this sentence closes makes clear that Kant is here calling "incapable of further explanation" the facts that our intellect is discursive, sensible, and has spatiotemporal forms of intuition.

Förster spends a good deal of time on the first two of these qualifications: he thinks that Fichte showed that our intellect is not (solely) sensible, but that the I knows itself via an intellectual intuition (it knows only its own act/product, and that is what the pure I is), and that Goethe showed that our intellect is not solely discursive, but that in scientia intuitiva (such as Förster and Goethe say was behind Goethe's theories of morphology and color) we know objects as a whole prior to knowing their parts. He also spends some time at least sketching how Fichte tried to address the issue of our having "such and so many" categories and "just these and no other functions of judgement", in chapter 8, "Fichte's "Complete Revolution of the Mode of Thought"". I didn't find this account satisfying, but it was clearly not meant to be fully rigorous or complete: Förster doesn't even try to tell us how Fichte derives the categories of Quantity or Modality, nor does he try to tell us how Fichte proceeds from his deductions of the logical laws of identity and non-contradiction to Kant's table of judgements.

But one major issue in Kant, the question of whether our spatiotemporal forms of intuition are the only ones possible (for a finite, discursive, sensitive intellect) is only addressed in a single footnote, number 13 on page 201. Förster partly excuses himself here by noting that Ficthe himself skimmed over this point in Foundation of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre: "Kant demonstrates the ideality of objects from the presupposed ideality of space and time: we, on the contrary, shall prove the ideality of space and time from the demonstrated ideality of objects. He required ideal objects to fill up space and time; we require space and time in order to locate the ideal objects." But Förster says that Fichte gives a "deduction of space and time" in Outline of the Distinctive Character of the Wissenschaftslehre, and that "in strict terms such a deduction is indeed required at this point in order to explain how it is possible for the image and the thing to correspond or agree with each other." It would've been nice to see more discussion of this, but then one can only ask so much of a 400 page book.

But another issue in Kant, the discursive nature of our intellect, gets a great deal of treatment by Förster, and he clearly means for the reality of non-discursive knowledge to be one of the main results of his book. To quote the last sentences of the final chapter: "The path of scientia intuitiva [non-discursive knowledge] alone is still open". Chapter 11, "The Methodology of the Intuitive Understanding", is supposed to show how we can achieve scientia intuitiva of natural objects. (As a reminder, Spinoza's examples of scientia intuitiva in the Ethics are always mathematical; it is unclear how much he believed we could really have scientia intuitiva of non-mathematical finite objects, though the general thrust of part five of the Ethics suggests that acquiring this is in fact within our power, and also important for us to achieve.)

I think that a summary version of my complaint about Förster here can be put by looking at a conclusion Förster takes himself to have demonstrated in his methological discussion of Goethe's botanical studies: "In summary, then, we can say that if an idea lies at the basis of a set of phenomena and is operative in all its parts, then that fact can only be recognized by the method described here. Whether or not an idea in this sense lies at the foundation of a set of phenomena can also only be determined in this way." (p.264) -- By "idea" here Förster means something peculiar, and it's probably best to read the book yourself to get the details. But the gist of what an "idea" is here can, I think, be appreciated by looking at the example that Kant originally uses in section 77 of the Critique of the Power of Judgement, and that inspired Goethe et al: a plant. In thinking of a plant as a plant, we are thinking of it as a certain sort of organism. Thus, following Kant's account of organisms in the third Critique (which, as Förster notes in a footnote on p.138, is similar to Hume's in the Treatise), we are thinking of it as having parts which are both the cause and effect of its whole: a tree has roots and limbs and flowering buds because it is the sort of tree it is, and its having roots and limbs and flowering buds are how it is able to be that sort of tree.

Kant thinks that we are unable to know anything in nature in this way, because of the discursive nature of our intellect: "Our understanding, namely, has the property that in its cognition, e.g., of the cause of a product, it must go from the analytical universal (of concepts) to the particular (of the given empirical intuition), in which it determines nothing with regard to the manifoldness of the latter, but must expect this determination for the power of judgment from the subsumption of the empirical intuition (when the object is a product of nature) under the concept. Now, however, we can also conceive of an understanding which, since it is not discursive like ours but is intuitive, goes from the synthetically universal (of the intuition of a whole as such) to the particular, i.e., from the whole to the parts, in which, therefore, and in whose representation of the whole, there is no contingency in the combination of the parts, in order to make possible a determinate form of the whole, which is needed by our understanding, which must progress from the parts, as universally conceived grounds, to the different possible forms, as consequences, that can be subsumed under it. In accordance with the constitution of our understanding, by contrast, a real whole of nature is to be regarded only as the effect of the concurrent moving forces of the parts." (AK 5:407, section 77 of the third Critique) In other words: to know an organism as a product of nature, we would have to know it as having its parts produced by its whole (and vice-versa, in reciprocal fashion). But we can only know products of nature as having their parts produced by forces, and of all natural "wholes" as aggregates of such parts. For our thought is (thinks Kant) always discursive: we are first given particulars, and then bring those under universals; we are never given particulars as already "under" universals, such as would be the case in an organism whose particular parts are caused by the universal which is its whole.

This is a jarringly skeptical result: it certainly seems as if we can have knowledge of organisms in nature. So the post-Kantians unite in thinking that Kant has made an error in thinking that our understanding is (always) discursive, for they all agree that Kant has given a correct account of what would have to be the case if we could have knowledge of organisms, but reject his skepticism about knowledge of organisms: so our understanding must also be "intuitive", and sometimes proceed from cognition of wholes to cognition of parts. The sort of cognition of a whole involved here is what Goethe calls knowledge of an "idea", and identifies with scientia intuitiva: we know the "synthetic universal" or "idea" of a particular kind of tree, and so know its parts as being those sorts of parts because it is that sort of tree.

I think there's something to this line of thought, when we are dealing with living things: organisms do have a sort of whole, the knowledge of which is (in a sense) prior to the knowledge of their parts. You need to have some notion of an object in nature as having a whole of that sort to grasp it as an organism, because you need to have some notion of how its parts can be parts of an organic whole. And the account Förster gives of Goethe's methodology seems to me to have a plausible claim to being how we come to know organisms as the organisms they are: we have to recognize the ways in which each part functions to produce and maintain the whole, and the ways in which the whole is nothing but this activity of its parts. Only when we have grasped all of these "transitions" can we fully know an object in nature as an organism. As Förster says, "if an idea lies at the basis of a set of phenomena and is operative in all its parts, then this can only be recognized by the method described here." If this is false, then I think it is at least in the vicinity of the truth. But I'm not sure how to tell whether the antecedent of this conditional is satisfied. It looks like organisms satisfy it, if there are any, as Kant's analysis of what it is to think of something as an organic whole is. Apart from that, I don't see how to tell whether learning about a bunch of connections between natural happenings can constitute coming to know the moments of an idea or not: Förster needs for us to grasp ideas, to come to have scientia intuitiva, by observing transitions, but I don't see how he gets from observing a number of transitions which we take to be the moments of an idea to actually knowing that they are just the moments of an idea. Goethe thought that he had achieved knowledge of the idea of color, but Lichtenberg convinced him he was wrong (as Förster discusses). How are we supposed to tell whether or not we've really grasped an idea, then?

I think Förster's suggestion is that we can know we have an idea on our hands when we have a plurality of moments and all of the transitions between them: the idea is then the totality of those moments/transitions, and is "at the basis of the set of phenomena and operative in all its parts". But how do we know if we have all of the relevant moments? Do ideas have smaller ideas as the parts, which are at the basis of subsets of their moments, so that any plurality which has transitions between its moments will do? Where does Förster get his conviction that ideas are at the basis of all reality, as opposed to being what gives unity to organisms?

If I can find an answer to this, then I will also have an answer to my biggest complaint about the book, which is how Förster shows that Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (or something very close to it) in fact brings an end to the twenty-five years of philosophy and resolves all of the problems Kant left for the post-Kantians. On the penultimate page of the epilogue, he considers the following objection to the claim that Hegel really did solve it all: "it is not convincing that a specific transition [between shapes of consciousness in the Phenomenology] is supposed to be necessary for consciousness at its given level. And such an objection may, in any given case, be justified. Then the question becomes: Is the transition itself not necessary, or has its necessity simply not been convincingly presented? As long as we find that some of the other transitions are necessary, we can always be sure that the problem is one of presentation. That is the crucial point! If a whole makes its parts possible and gives them their shape, then it must be active in all the parts and in all their transitions, not only in some. If that activity (necessity) has been recognized in some of the transitions but not in others, all this implies is that the latter have not yet been adequately grasped and presented." (p.376, my bolding)

As a matter of fact, I find the transitions between the shapes of "Self-Consciousness" very convincing, and have ever since reading McDowell's "Towards a Heterodox Reading of Lordship and Bondage". I also find parts of the "Consciousness" chapters more or less clear. (I can see what is wrong with "Sense-Certainty", but what is going on in the "Perception" chapter always fades in and out of view for me, and "Force and the Understanding" is a very hard piece of Hegeling.) And most of the "Reason" chapter is pretty clear, for Hegel (it helps that the phrenology jokes are funny). So, if I know that these transitions are between moments of an idea (the Absolute Idea that Hegel tells us about in the Science of Logic, as it will happen), then I can be sure that Förster is right: the transitions which look to me to fail are just not convincingly presented. As they are parts of the Absolute Idea, there must be transitions between all of its moments which follow simply from the essence of those moments; this is analytic of what being moments of an idea comes to. But, as Förster presented it, the project of "The Science of the Experience of Consciousness" as originally conceived was just to demonstrate that there is in fact an Absolute Idea for a "Science of Logic" to lay out the moments of! And as this "Science of the Experience of Consciousness" is what became the Phenomenology of Spirit, I cannot simply grant to Hegel that there is in fact an Absoute Idea: this is what he needed to show me by presenting a total account of the plurality of the forms of knowledge-claims and the transitions between them. So Förster's defense of the result of the Phenomenology begs the question: I can be sure that the transitions between the shapes of "Self-Consciousness" are parts of a totality of transitions between moments of the Absolute Idea only if I already know that they are transitions between moments of an idea, which the Phenomenology was meant to show by exhibiting all of the moments of an idea. Förster has not shown that there are not problems with Hegel's approach in principle: that there might not be any idea for a "Science of Logic" to lay out for us, and that Kant's scattershot approach to our forms of thinking might not be where we have to rest, skeptical results and all.

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