02 June 2013

"Kantian Humility"

I read about half of Rae Langton's "Kantian Humility"; I skimmed the chapters between the one on phenomenal substance and the one on primary/secondary qualities. Here are some thoughts I had.

She latches on to some passages that I find fairly opaque, and is able to give a sense to them (the stuff about matter being constituted by "mere relations"), but I felt like her overall interpretation was severely hindered by her unwillingness to discuss core arguments of the Transcendental Analytic. For instance, she doesn't commit herself to any view as to how the argument for the First Analogy is supposed to work. But, she's committed to reading "phenomenal substance" as akin to "wax duck": phenomenal substances just aren't substances (and in her defense, she shows that this is how Wolff used the phrase); the schematized category of substance is not a species of the pure category for her, and on her reading Kant denies that we are ever given anything in experience which "can only be thought as subject, not as predicate". She puts a lot of weight on Kant's remark that we can make anything a "logical subject" in a judgement without that saying anything about whether or not it's a substance ("Love is abiding" and "Yellow is pale" don't make love or yellow into metaphysical substances), and holds that this shows that treating "matter" as a substance is only done by Kant in a "comparative sense": that it is a logical subject relative to empirical predicates of matter, not that it can't be thought of as a predicate of the thing-in-itself. And in fact she holds that this is how it is: the only substances for her Kant are things-in-themselves, which can't be thought as predicates of anything. (She assumes this throughout, without any argument that I saw. I don't know why someone like Spinoza wouldn't deny it, and claim that these monadic "substances" are in fact mere predicates of God; I've never been clear on how Leibniz prevents his monads from collapsing into God in this way, though it's clear he wants them not to.) All of this means that, in fact, no knowledge of substance can play any part at all in the First Analogy: the subsistent in time is only a permanent predicate, not something which can only be thought as subject. This strikes me as ruling out any plausible interpretation of the First Analogy, as it makes the relationship between its principle and the category associated with it essentially null.

She constantly turns to Kant's physics when discussing what Kant means by "matter", and reads his dynamical theory of matter as providing argumentative support for large swathes of the critical philosophy. (How this doesn't render the entire project circular is a problem I don't think she ever addresses: From what I recall of the Metaphysical Foundations of Nature, Kant uses the Analogies to argue for his force-theory. So he can't presume that this is how matter works when arguing for the Analogies themselves.) But if the permanent in experience is the matter explicated by Kant's physics, then it's not something we are consciously aware of as such: attractive and repulsive forces are not something we can sense directly. She takes a very radical move here, and severs the connection between the senses and intuition: she reads the Third Analogy's principle as committing Kant to the view that all matter affects us at all times, and that it is only because most of these effects are too small ("lacking in reality") to be brought to consciousness that prevents us from being aware of all objects at all times. This puts Kant's view of experience very close to Leibniz's: every subject represents the entire world at all times. In her defense, she quotes Kant saying things that seem close to this radical a view in his reply to Eberhard in "On a New Discovery etc.", which I haven't read. (I remembered reading Allison's introduction to it years ago, and then skimming the text to confirm that it was how Allison had said it was. But all of the details are now lost to me.)

But if this sort of neo-Leibnizian view is Kant's, then it seems simply incoherent: if external bodies are given to us only by means of attractive/repulsive forces, then the fact that forces sum means that external bodies are not given to us individually: two forces of velocity X and one force of velocity 2X are not distinguishable, and so all of those remote objects which Langton's Kant has making "subconscious" effects on us are not distinguishable (in principle) from a single external object making a single impression on us whose force is the sum of those effects. It might seem that her Kant also faces the problem of how to distinguish between proximal and distal causes of the effects on us, but I think that's actually not a problem for her Kant if the issue of forces summing isn't: since Newtonian forces act instantaneously at a distance, a proximal and a distal stimuli simply produce distinct forces on us, and so if these forces can be distinguished then so can the proximal and distal stimuli.

I don't think Leibniz's view has these problem, because Leibniz thinks that forces, which are relational properties of bodies, are "well-founded phenomena" which reduce down to simple properties of monads: so the representation in a single monad of some particular lump sum of force is analyzable (by God, not by us finite provers) into non-relational properties of monads, and it is only by means of these non-relational properties that Leibniz has each monad representing the entire world. But Kant is adamant about relations not being reducible to non-relational properties, as Langton shows at length, so I don't see how her Kant can go from the forces to anything which represents the world -- even setting aside that Kant has independent arguments against Leibniz in these quarters (such as Leibniz presuming the identity of indiscernibles, which is needed to make his monads "represent" individual objects by means of non-relational descriptions of them). I don't know how her Kant is supposed to be able to represent individual objects merely by having forces impinging upon it at all, but she is explicit that this sort of physical interactionism is what drives Kant's thoughts about thought's receptivity.

I found the book disappointing overall, but if Langton's not right about what "matter being constituted by mere relations" means, I don't know what those passages in Kant mean. (Langton can here apply Modus Tollens; I apply Modus Ponens.) So the book is worth looking at just to see how she handles the passages her view handles well; it is a desideratum for any alternative view of Kant's matter-doctrine to be able to handle them as smoothly, but without sacrificing so much of the rest of Kantianism.

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