KANT AND PLATO
D. R. Khashaba
I have often before represented Kant’s position as a re-discovery or re-affirmation of an insight that we owe in the first place to Socrates, preserved for us in the works of Plato, though Kant failed to regain the full fruition of the Socratic-Platonic insight. That insight, not only as fully developed by Plato, but even in the partial recovery achieved by Kant, has remained lost to us.
Hume, taking to its logical conclusion Locke’s empiricism, in which the mind was a void receptacle, had shown that, if we took Locke’s assumptions more consistently than Locke himself did, we could have no secure knowledge. All judgment would be either tautologous or strictly contingent. Kant, in seeking to rescue the possibility of scientific knowledge, found that we have to acknowledge the active participation of the mind in knowledge, that what he termed synthetic a priori judgments rest on forms, concepts, and principles that have no source other than the mind. In so doing, Kant moved in the direction of the Socratic-Platonic conception of the mind as the ground and source of all knowledge and all understanding.
When I tried to follow in detail the points where the Critique of Pure Reason met with Plato’s position, I found that I had to highlight the differences more than the points of agreement. Possibly I had read more of Plato into Kant than Kant would have acknowledged. In this paper I mean to suggest that, while there is a considerable measure of convergence in the positions of two of the acutest minds that ever engaged in philosophical thinking, yet Plato opens up for us vistas of thought that Kant did not envisage.
Kant formulates the ‘general problem (Aufgabe) of pure reason’ thus: How are synthetic judgments a priori possible? I think that the answer given to the question in the Critique of Pure Reason and the answer that may be garnered from Plato’s dialogues constitute two distinct universes of discourse that nevertheless reflect the same insight — and as a Platonist I may be permitted to say that the insight in Plato is deeper and less encumbered with non-essential adjuncts: for Kant had Aristotle’s fondness for technicalities, firm definitions, and complex theoretical structures; ‘architectonic’ was a term dear to Kant’s heart.
All quotations below from the Critique of Pure Reason are from the translation by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood.[i] Figures preceded by the letter A and/or B refer to page numbers in the first and/or second editions, followed by page number in Guyer’s and Wood’s translation. Quotations from the Critique of Judgment are from the translation by Werner S. Pluhar[ii] and give the Akademie edition page number followed by the page number in Pluhar’s translation.
An outline of Socrates’ position
Whatever may be due to Plato of the philosophy we find in the dialogues, I think we can with confidence attribute to Socrates (1) the distinction between the intelligible and the sensible; and (2) the radical separation of knowledge relating to the natural world fromn the understanding that the philosopher seeks. Socrates was primarily concerned with moral ideas and values. In his tireless examination of his fellow-citizens, which was at the same time, as he said, an examination of his own mind and soul, he sought to clarify those ideas and values, illuminate them, disentangle them, and free them from foreign accretions. This is what Aristotle misrepresented as the search for definitions. In Socrates’ elenctic discourses all proposed definitions are rejected as unsatisfactory. The negative outcome with the resulting aporia was not accidental. It was not the purpose of Socrates to reach a formal or working definition but to free his interlocutors’ minds of confused notions and presuppositions and help them towards a better understanding of themselves.[iii] Later in life Plato may have experimented with methods of classification, of collection and division, as he experimented with hypothetical reasoning, to reach working definitions and sustainable propositions. That was not a substitute for the Socratic elenctic; it was a diversion in response to the branching interests of the Academy.
Socrates knew that the moral ideas in virtue of which alone we are human, which alone give meaning and value to human life, have no source other than the mind. They constitute an intelligible realm fully independent of the sensible world. The instances of justice, reasonableness, courage, that we find in the outside world are only seen as such, adjudged as such, in the light of the ideas. Socrates may have remained solely concerned with moral ideas, but Plato saw that not only are the moral concepts together with the notions of mathematical equality and number purely intelligible but that all things of the sensible world only have meaning for us in virtue of the intelligible forms engendered in the mind. Perhaps this is what Plato meant to point out when he made Parmenides, in the dialogue named after him, tell young Socrates that when philosophy has taken hold of him he will not think hair or mud or dirt unworthy of being illumined by intelligible forms.[iv]
In the Phaedo Plato makes Socrates give an autobiographical account,[v] the main lesson of which has not yet, I believe, been appropriated by students of philosophy. Socrates says that early in life he renounced inquiry into physical causes when he realized that the study of the outside world does not yield answers to the questions that concerned him. He draws a clear line between the kind of knowledge that can be obtained from a study of the outer world and the understanding[vi] that can only come from reflection by the mind on the ideas proper to the mind. The first, we may say, is the region of science and gives knowledge of the phenomenal world, and the second the region of philosophy and gives insight into the ideals and values by virtue of which humans are human. The scientist’s description of Socrates’ bones and sinews and neurons tells us how he sits crouched on his prison bed but only Socrates’ ideal of obedience to the law makes us understand why he chooses to remain in prison awaiting execution rather than seeking safety elsewhere. This is a corollary of the distinction between the intelligible realm and the sensible realm. The questions raised by physical investigation are distinct from those raised by philosophical inquiry, and the answers reached in the one area irrelevant to the other.[vii] Kant also saw this and the whole of his critical system affirmed it and yet philosophers, scientists, and theologians have equally failed to heed the lesson.
An outline of Plato’s position on knowledge and reality
The Socratic radical distinction between the intelligible and the sensible realms remained the basis of Plato’s philosophical outlook.[viii] For Plato, the intelligible realm was the realm of reality. He equated ousia, to on, alêtheia with the intelligible. The sensible world, the whole of the natural world with its phenomenal manifestations, ceaselessly changing and shot through and through with relativity, could not be but a world of shadows. This is the message of the famous Allegory of the Cave. In the Phaedo we are told that when we try to acquire knowledge through the bodily senses, the mind is dragged by the body into the realm of the changeable, and loses its way and becomes confused, but when it investigates by itself, it passes into the realm of what is pure.[ix]
In the Republic Plato gives an account of the philosophic ascent from the mutability and relativity of the sensible world to the contemplation of what is real in the realm of pure ideas. Then he represents the levels of knowledge possible to human beings in the graphic image of the Divided Line. Briefly, we have different levels of knowledge on two planes, that of the real and intelligible on the one hand, and that of the phenomenal, less real and less knowable, on the other hand. The divisions of the line representing these two levels are further each divided into two sections. In the lower section of the lower division we have images or illusions, and in the higher section we can have perceptions and opinions. On the intelligible plane, employing forms, we can have scientific knowledge of perceptible things on the lower level, and we can have a purer form of knowledge concerned with first principles on the higher level.
But for Plato that highest knowledge concerned with first principles, which is philosophy proper, cannot aspire to the possession of absolute or final truth. The intelligible realm is the realm of reality and we learn in the Republic that the apex and crown of that realm is the Form of the Good. That is the highest reality that philosophical thinking can lead to. But Socrates in the Republic cannot give an account of the Form of the Good. He can only give a simile. The Good is to mind and the intelligible as the sun is to sight and the visible. It is the cause of knowledge and truth but is beyond the reach of knowledge and truth. Thus just as the only outcome of the Socratic elenctic examination is to lead us to look within our mind, so for Plato all search for reality leads us back – not to mind as an abstract concept – but to the activity of the mind, the exercise of intelligence, as the only reality we know. Yet all representation of philosophical insight in determinate conceptual formulations must necessarily be imperfect. If we rest content with it, if we accept it as final, it turns into falsehood. Thus in the Phaedrus[x] and in the Seventh Letter[xi] we are told in the plainest terms that the profoundest insights cannot be expressed in a fixed formula of words. Therefore all philosophical formulations must be subjected to dialectical criticism which bares and destroys their conceptual presuppositions.[xii] This is the only way for the mind to remain alive.
An abstract of Kant’s critical system
In this essay I will not examine the argument of Kant’s Critique or subject his highly intricate analyses and deductions to criticism: all of these are accidental accretions to what is essential in Kant. I will not be so heartless as to echo Nietzsche’s lambasting of the “tartuffery, as stiff as it is virtuous, of old Kant as he lures us along the dialectical bypaths which lead, more correctly, mislead, to his ‘categorical imperative’ …”[xiii], but I will say that Kant’s laborious analyses and rigorous deductions do more to obscure his essential insights than to clarify them. Every philosopher arrives at (or adopts from another) his ‘conclusions’ first and then works out arguments to support them. No philosopher worth his salt has ever reached his most important positions by reasoning from neutral premisses.
The legend of Kant’s overnight awakening from his dogmatic slumber thanks to Hume, which was initiated by Kant himself in the Introduction to Prolegomena to Any Fiture Metaphysics, can be misleading. It is important to be clear about what Kant meant in speaking of his ‘dogmatic slumber’. Kant had his early schooling in philosophy at the hands of the Rationalists. He was influenced by Leibniz and Wolff who, in common with Descartes, believed that the world could be known a priori through analysis of ideas and logical deduction. It is this reliance on pure ideas for yielding knowledge of the outside world that Kant came, under the shock of Humean scepticism, to reject and to dub ‘dogmatic’. But he did not forgo his conviction in the active role of the mind. In place of Descartes’s innate ideas, he introduced transcendental forms, transcendental categories, and Ideas of pure reason. His inaugural dissertation was entitled “On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World”. That was in 1770, eleven years before publication of the first Critique in 1781. No doubt the insight that “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”[xiv] was then nascent in his mind even if not explicitly formulated yet.
Locke and Hume discounted the activity of the mind in their accounts of human understanding. Even Berkeley, for whom phenomenal things could only be for a mind, did not lay stress on the activity of the human mind and had to seek security for the being of the phenomenal in the mind of God. Kant had to remind us that without the activity of the human mind there can be no science, no knowledge, no understanding. Thus the first step towards achieving the double-goal of, on the one hand, getting rid of dogmatism, and, on the other hand, escaping Humean scepticism, was to reject Locke’s tabula rasa which Hume had accepted without question. Hence Kant sets on erecting the magnificent edifice of his critical system by proposing that human cognition has two sources, sensibility and the understanding: through sensibility we are presented with objects, but it is through the understanding that we think these objects.[xv] He finds that time and space, which Newton regarded as objective entities containing things, are forms contributed by the mind, and asserts that even sensible perception is only possible through synthesis under the categories of the understanding, so that “the categories are conditions of the possibility of experience, and are thus also valid a priori of all objects of experience.”[xvi] The human mind is active and contributes to knowledge at all levels, from simple perception to the highest levels of theoretical thinking. In the Preface to the second edition of the Critique Kant says that whoever first demonstrated a geometrical proposition found that “in order to know something securely a priori he had to ascribe to the thing nothing except what followed necessarily from what he himself had put into it in accordance with its concept.”[xvii] The revolution brought about in the study of nature was due to “the inspiration that what reason … has to learn from nature, it has to seek in the latter … in accordance with what reason itself puts into nature.”[xviii]
In the first edition of the Critique Kant underlined in bold terms the role of the mind in actively forming our knowledge of the natural world: It is our own mind that confers on appearances the order and regularirty through which the chaotic presentations of our experience are turned into what we call nature.[xix] Thus the understanding, strictly speaking, legislates for nature, so that “without understanding there would not be any nature at all ..”[xx] In so far as human experience is concerned “the understanding is itself the source of the laws of nature.”[xxi] Kant found it necessary to re-write this whole section in the second edition. It was so shocking for both the rationalist and the empiricist frames of mind.
The empiricist position maintains that true statements are of two kinds only. They are either (a) empirical statements verifiable by observation and experiment or (b) analytical statements. Apart from these there are no true statements. To save mathematical propositions which were too important, practically, to be dumped, empiricists considered them to be analytical. Kant re-classified statements into three kinds. He went along with the empiricists in admitting analytical statements (which are only useful for clarification but do not add to our knowledge) and empirically verifiable statements which Kant termed synthetic a posteriori statements. In addition to these he maintained that there are synthetic a priori statements. He found the prime example of such statements in mathematical propositions, which the empiricits had considered as analytical. Kant, agreeing with Plato (whether consciously or unconsciously) said that 5 + 7 = 12 is not analytical but synthetical. This led him to raise the question how such synthetic a priori statements are possible. The answer he found was that the mind contributes forms, concepts, and principles that join distinct elements synthetically. Not only does the mind join 5 and 7 in the original form 12; the mind also joins an antecedent and a consequent event – which Hume saw as succeding each other without any necessary connection – under the form of causality, which decrees that the cause must be followed by its effect and that the effect must have had a cause.
This was the substance of what Kant announced as his ‘Copernican revolution’. While earlier it had been assumed by thinkers that “all our cognition must conform to objects”, he suggested that we “try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition.”[xxii] But this is nothing but the Platonic principle that all knowledge – including empirical knowledge down to simple sensible perception – rests on ideas born in the mind. Here we have the same insight: that all things are only intelligible in virtue of the forms engendered in and by the mind; that concepts of relationship, identity, causation, etc., are not found in the natural world; they are contributed by the mind.
The first foundation of Kant’s epistemology, then, is the distinction between the sensibility and the understanding. The sensibility receives its content from the natural world, but this content only yields knowledge when subjected to the forms of the understanding, which forms do not come from the outside world but are provided by the mind. But the knowledge we thus obtain of the world is knowledge of the world as it appears to us under the garb supplied by our own mind. The concepts of the understanding, for all their vital importance, can only give us knowledge of objects in space and time, which are themselves not objective but are modes of our sensibility or, in Kant’s terminology, forms of intuition. It follows that “everything that the understanding draws out of itself, without borrowing it from experience, it nevertheless has solely for the sake of use in experience.”[xxiii] The understanding with its concepts and categories must be kept apart from the pure transcendental ideas of reason. We err when we try to apply the concepts and categories of the understanding – time, space, causality – to the final ground of things or the ultimate origin of things, which are beyond the range of all possible experience.
We need not at this point busy ourselves with the Kantian distinction between phenomena and noumena. What is of consequence, under these conditions, is that all we can know a priori (= independently of experience, = by pure reason) is of the world as it may present itself to us under the forms of the understanding. This is the limit of our knowledge of the natural world: we know the immediate presentations of our experience and we can make judgment of possible presentations of our experience. Thus Kant heads section 22 of the second-edition version of the ‘transcendental deduction of the pure concepts of the understanding’ with the rubric: “The category has no other use for the cognition of things than its application to objects of experience”[xxiv], and opens the following section with the words: “The above proposition is of the greatest importance, for it determines the boundaries of the use of the pure concepts of the understanding in regard to objects.”[xxv]
In the Transcendental Dialectic[xxvi] Kant sets out to clear away the illusions of dogmatic metaphysics and theology. Thus in the extensive and laboriously argued Antinomy of Pure Reason Kant shows that, taking the concepts of the understanding – the mathematical notions and the principle of causality – which serve us so well in dealing with the phenomena of nature and employing them as abstract concepts without experiential content, we can build up logically valid inferential sequences yielding mutually contradictory propositions. He thus shows that the traditionally conflicting theological and metaphysical positions relating to the fundamental nature and ultimate cause of things that had been hotly debated for millennia could all be plausibly proved and disproved at the same time. What we must conclude from this is that these theological and metaphysical questions can neither be settled by the methods of empirical science, being beyond the scope of experience, nor by the procedures of pure reason.
As opposed to the concepts of the understanding, the concepts of reason, which Kant calls transcendental ideas, are concepts “to which no congruent object can be given in the senses.”[xxvii] While the concepts of the understanding bring about the synthetic unity of representations, the transcendental ideas of pure reason produce “the unconditioned synthetic unity of all conditions in general.”[xxviii] Kant brings all transcendental ideas under three classes: (a) the absolute (unconditioned) unity of the thinking subject, (b) the absolute unity of the series of conditions of appearances, (c) the absolute unity of the condition of all objects of thought in general.[xxix] These translate into: (a) the idea of the self, (b) the idea of the world, and (c) the idea of the ultimate ground and origin of all being, or, using Platonic terms, into: (a) psuchê, (b) phusis, (c) to on. These transcendental ideas, according to Kant, have no application in experience and are thus of no theoretical utility. On the plane of theoretical thought, our only gain in being aware of them would be the negative (yet very important) one of avoiding the error of drawing from them judgments relating to the phenomenal world. However, Kant found employment for them in the postulates of practical reason: of this I will have more to say in what follows.
The end-result of all of Kant’s Herculean endeavours – and his system is truly an edifice that only a Hercules of Thought could have erected – was to re-state in more complex terms what Plato had already said: All that we know of the objective world, of the world of nature, we only know by means of and in the light of ideas engendered in and by the mind; that the mind-generated ideas that transform for us the world of shadows into an intelligible realm relate only to that actual world of shadows. Kant takes us on an exhilarating journey through the realms of the mind, but in the end, to me at at any rate, adds nothing to what I find in Plato’s Republic – and I find Plato’s account simpler, profounder, more inspiring, and less open to contradiction.
Kant expected his Critique of Pure Reason to bring about a complete change of thinking. His expectation was not unreasonable, and yet, even now, more than two hundred years after publication of the Critique, it is far from fulfilled. Despite the massive scholarly work done on Kant’s philosophy, philosophers are in as deep a ‘dogmatic slumber’ as before Kant completed the structure for which Hume had levelled the ground. The lesson has not been learnt: theologians and scientists on different sides and in opposite directions glibly and in all confidence believe themselves able to determine what is beyond experience by sheer reasoning. Not only do we find theologians arguing about God and immortality but we also find scientists seriously seeking to discover the ultimate origin of the world, an origin which, if in time, can never be the origin but must always have something preceding it as its ground and origin, and if outside time, cannot be subject to empirical criteria and empirical methodology and consequently does not lie within the scope of objective knowledge. They fail to see that all of human knowledge is comprehended exhaustively in two spheres: on the one hand we have factual information about phenomenal presentations and on the other hand we have awareness of the living, creative, inner reality of the mind. The one sphere is that of science which teaches us the what and the how but never the why of things, and the other sphere is that of poetry and art and philosophy in which our spiritual essence affirms its reality in living its own creativity.
Kant hoped to make of metaphysics a ‘secure science’, and indeed thought he did. That was the error that obscured his great insight — the insight that should have put philosophy on the true path. Science and theology together had conspired to bury the Socratic insight under heaps of brilliant knowledge and mountains of dazzling theoretical speculation. That went on for some twenty-two centuries. Then came Kant and after much knocking about he saw what Socrates had seen. But he constructed around the vital insight a massive edifice of analyses and deductions and architectonics, and scholars busied themselves studying the majestic surrounding structure – Kant’s cherished science –, admiring it or finding fault with its details, and both admirers and fault-finders lost sight of the treasure that lay hid within.
Criticism of certain aspects of Kant’s critical system
Kant seeks to deduce the a priori grounds for the possibility of experience. If we do not start from the self-evidence of intelligent experience as the ground of all understanding and all knowledge, we keep vainly going round and round in our epistemological and psychological theorizing. But if we start from the activity of the mind as a self-evident reality, then no argument and no proof are needed. By arguing for this, by advancing proofs for this, Kant was turning the mind into an objective, observable, analyzable thing, and was thus equally with the empiricists, opening the door for reductionists to throw the reality of the mind behind their backs. To my mind, the totality of our experience is what we know. The immediacy of intelligible living experience is the starting point, the springboard, for all thought.
After representing space and time as forms of intuition, Kant goes on, in the Analytic of Concepts, to argue that there are a priori categories that we apply to the natural world. Kant ‘deduces’ the complete set of these categories, arranging them in four groups, each containing three categories, making a total of twelve fixed categories.[xxx] Kant created for himself and for others unnecessary difficulties by limiting the contribution of the mind to fixed forms of intuition and fixed categories. Despite his sophisticated deductions and proofs, there is no necessity and no finality attaching to Kant’s Categories any more than to Aristotle’s, which Kant criticizes. Both thinkers overlooked that their sets of categories were merely a convenient classification of the kinds of concepts, as good as but no better than the grammatical classification of the ‘parts of speech’. That Kant’s categories were metaphysical while Aristotle’s were logical is beside the point. Both great thinkers were seduced by their fondness for the neat and finished.
All of Kant’s transcendental arguments, all of his elaborate analyses and deductions, can be replaced by a descriptive account of a world-view and a special universe of discourse that can exist side by side with other world-views and universes of discourse. Witness how radically distinct cultures embody concepts that are strictly untranslatable into each other. Even languages which are not widely different from each other contain concepts which cannot be translated into each other without some distortion. Every language is a special universe of discourse through which speakers of that language live out their special life as human beings.
In his ‘refutation of material idealism’, Kant offers to prove the existence of objects in space outside us. The proof runs as follows: I am conscious of my existence as determined in time, which presupposes something persistent in perception; but this cannot be something in me, since my own existence in time can only be determined through this persistent thing. “Consequently, the determination of my existence in time is possible only by means of the existence of actual things that I perceive outside myself.”[xxxi] As a proof this is dubious; it is much better to present this as a creative idea. What I am aware of, what a new-born baby is aware of, what a pup is aware of, is the experiential continuum. By dividing this continuum into self and other than self, I become a person surrounded by an external world; the baby becomes a person surrounded by an external world; the pup may perhaps never achieves that separation and thus remains an undistinguished part of the continuum.
Kant says that inner sense “by means of which the mind intuits itself, or its inner state, gives … no intuition of the soul itself, as an object.”[xxxii] No wonder Kant finds a difficulty in the question “how a subject can internally intuit itself”. This is a difficulty in which Kant needlessly entangles himself. He speaks of the consciousness of the self in the representation ‘I’ and asserts that it is no intuition but only an intellectual representation of “the self-activity of a thinking subject.”[xxxiii] Since he chooses to speak of ‘the representation I’, then naturally to call that an intuition would be a contradiction in terms. But by refusing to break through the merely intellectual representation to the reality of the “self-activity of a thinking subject”, he renders himself powerless to extricate himself from the difficulty. He finds that inner sense “presents even ourselves to consciousness only as we appear to ourselves, not as we are in ourselves, since we intuit ourselves only as we are internally affected, which seems to be contradictory, since we would have to relate to ourselves passively”.[xxxiv] What a maze of confusion! What a Gordian knot! But the knot can be broken at one blow by simply saying that our inner sense is ourselves. Kant continues the lines I quoted above to say that the difficulty he indicated is the reason why systems of psychology treat inner sense as the same as the faculty of apperception which, he reminds us, he carefully distinguishes. He does not see that it is by making too much of this distinction between apperception and inner sense that he creates difficulties for his system. On the one hand inner sense presents ourselves to ourselves “as we appear to ourselves, not as we are in ourselves’, and on the other hand apperception, to which Kant seemingly assigns a crucial position in his system, becomes a mere conceptual construct.
The transcendental unity of apperception – had not Kant thus rendered it sapless and lifeless – would be the most important notion, the most fundamental principle in Kant’s philosophy, being the final condition of the possibility of experience. But this is not something to be deduced or proved. It is Kant’s attempt to deduce or to prove this that lays his system open to criticism and obscures the great insight at the heart of his philosophy. The transcendental unity of apperception – that frightful mouthful – is simply the reality of the mind, is the nous, the phronêsis, which, for Plato, is the primal self-evident reality, the reality from which all knowledge springs, in which all awareness is grounded. Unless we start from the reality of the mind, of the transcendental unity of apperception, we cannot escape Hume’s destruction of rational knowledge, and cannot find any meaning in the world.
Our philosophers of mind and philosophizing neuroscientists, accepting with Kant that what he calls apperception cannot be an object, and, with him, failing to see that it is just because it is our inner reality that it cannot be objectified, end by turning it into a negligible epiphenomenon, a species of mental gossamer. This inner sense by which the mind ‘intuits itself’, is the only reality known to us immediately, transcending all the transient phenomenal givennesses, and it can never be given as an object, since subjectivity is its essence. This is the reality that empiricists and reductionists deny us; it is the reality that baffles all their efforts to represent the mind as something observable and measurable. This is the reality in which Socrates and Plato saw our distinctive character and our whole worth as human beings.
There are those who tell us that it is our neurons that determine our thinking, our behaviour, our will. With the advancement of research we will no doubt continue to find more and more concomitant incidences of brain states on the one hand and expressed thought and performed action on the other hand. But, I venture to assert, we will never understand how brain states produce thought and action. Well, nevertheless, let us say that I am my brain; I will not here make a bone of contention even of that. It is enough for me if we find that the act of thinking is what is real. But thinking is not a concatenation of Humean ideas. Thinking is an integrated, autonomous activity. And it is in that activity that I find my reality, and it is the inwardness of that activity that I call my mind, my self, my psuchê. Thus,
granted that I am my brain; still, my brain is a relatively autonomous organism,[xxxv] and it is the inwardness of that autonomous organism that is my reality, my mind, my soul. And that inwardness is what I call subjectivity. The intelligent mind is not aware of its reality; its reality is its awareness.
In the “Remark on the Third Antinomy” Kant says that though the thesis affirming that “the faculty of beginning a series in time entirely on its own (von selbst)” is proved, yet “no insight into it is achieved.”[xxxvi] To my mind this reveals a serious and seriously damaging fault in conventional philosophic thinking — that it needlessly limits its purview to discursive thought. Otherwise I don’t see how any intelligent person can say that we have no insight into spontaneous origination when every sentence we utter, let alone every poem or song or tale, is an instance of creativity, is an instance of a directly experienced act of creation. — Kant, in whose system the term ‘intuition’ (Anschauung) features prominently, narrows and depletes the notion and removes it from the richest and profoundest areas of our experience.
Similarly, when Kant says that “reason creates the idea of a spontaneity, which could start to act from itself, without needing to be preceded by any other cause that in turn determines it to action according to the law of causal connection”,[xxxvii] I would say rather that reason does not create for itself the idea of spontaneity as it creates for itself the idea of causality. It knows the reality of spontaneity in the immediacy of awareness. Causality is a working fiction; spontaneity is a lived reality, an aspect of our inner reality.
“The final aim”, Kant says, “to which in the end the speculation of reason in its transcendental use is directed concerns three objects: the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God.”[xxxviii] Pure philosophy is concerned with these three problems. These in turn boil down to the question of what is to be done “if the will is free, if there is a God, and if there is a future world.”[xxxix] Kant not only narrows the scope of ‘pure philosophy’ unncessarily, but, more seriously, harms the autonomy and degrades the worth of the moral life. Philosophy is not concerned with ‘what is to be done IF etc.’ but with what is to be done SINCE we are creative intelligent beings that have insight into the ideals of eternity, reality, and goodness, ideals which are real in us and which constitute our reality and our worth. Since we are intelligent, creative beings, since that is our proper character and our true worth, if we understand ourselves as such, there is nothing for us but to live as such. Only that is wholesome for us. That is what Socrates and that is what Plato taught: our true worth, our true well-being, is to live intelligently, is to care for and to preserve that in us which thrives by doing what is consistent with intelligence and is harmed by doing what is inconsistent with intelligence: that is the sum of Socrates’ life, that is the gist of the whole of Plato’s philosophy. It takes away from this to be good because there is a God, to do good because there is a future life. Plato may or may not have believed in a future life, but he, following Socrates, most emphatically held that we must be good because only in being good are we true to ourslves, only by being good do we live the life proper to a human being, a being whose proper character is intelligence. That is why we should not (cannot, rather, if we are true to our humanity) live in deception, that is why we should not follow false or illusory values. And that is the sum of morality.
Kant sums up the interest of reason, speculative and practical, in the following three questions: (1) What can I know? (2) What should I do? (3) What may I hope?[xl] I answer these questions as follows: (1) I can know (a) the appearances of things in the outer world, without penetrating to their essence, or origin, or purpose, and (b) the realities within me, principally my own inner reality. (2) I should value, care for, preserve my proper reality as active, creative, intelligence, and should take care not to harm or damage that reality. (3) Any hope beyond my present life is delusion, and in my present life, I may seek to live pleasantly, quietly, happily, but to think that it is in my power to secure that is folly. I cannot expect happiness, and to make happiness a prime end can lead to injury to my only certain good, the integrity of my inner reality.
Kant believed he had spoken the last word in philosophy. He was wrong, not due to any defect in his system, but because there is no last word in philosophy. The philosophical endeavour is even more radically insusceptible to completion than the scientific endeavour. Not only must philosophy remain an ever-renewed expression of the reality within us, but philosophy is also necessitated by its own central principle ever to destroy the foundations of its structures — Penelope-like, to be true to her own heart and to her absent lord, ever to unweave by day what she wove by night.
Kant’s violation of the limits of pure reason
On the strength of the separation between the understanding, which applies concepts to phenomena, and pure reason, which reflects on its own ideas, pure reason is found incompetent to pass judgment on the outer world. Yet Kant makes Practical Reason, which should be concerned solely with moral issues, rule on questions beyond its legitimate jurisdiction. Further, in the Critique of Judgment, having given us an area for ‘determinative judgment’ where we have empirical knowledge and another area for ‘reflective judgment’ which yields ‘regulative principles’, Kant inconsistently goes on to make the regulative principles of reflective judgment yield knowledge about God and the immortality of the soul, knowledge which he had shown lies outside the purview both of pure reason and of empirical knowledge.
Thus Kant’s inability to shed off the residue of religious belief harms his philosophical position. He avers that moral belief has an inescapably fixed end and that the only condition under which this end is consistent with all ends as a whole is that there be a God and a future world.[xli] He thus negates the autonomy of morality and turns the categorical imperative (whether he had formulated it at this stage or not is of no consequence) into a conditioned, contingent maxim. Kant condemns himself to live with a split mind when he seeks to combine the above statement with “moral principles … which I cannot renounce without becoming contemptible in my own eyes”, or to combine his determination to bellieve in the existence of God and a future life with his categorical denial of the possibility of knowing that there is a God and a future life. A God out there in the world can neither be discovered there by science nor installed there by reason — not even by Practical Reason. The only viable God must be a God confined within the bounds of the mind.
Kant says, “Thus I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.”[xlii] This can be and has been put to bad use by proponents of dogmatic religion. When Socrates renounced ‘knowledge’ he did not make room ‘for faith’ but ‘for intelligence’, for active, creative reason. When the mind transcends the limits of knowledge and works purely through pure concepts, it does not give us knowledge or belief – which is pseudo-knowledge – but gives us visions that have intrinsic intelligibility and inherent reality but which do not have and cannot aspire to have reference to objective actuality. The faith that Kant made room for, if Kant were to be consistent with himself, would not mean belief in a definite set of propositions. It would be the acknowledgment of rational ideals, ideals created by the mind, affirming the reality of creative intelligence.
In the Critique of Judgment (Section 88, “Restriction of the Validity of the Moral Proof), while acknowledging that the concept of a final purpose is “merely a concept of our practical reason” and that we cannot “apply it to cognition of nature”, Kant yet insists that “we have a moral basis for thinking that, since there is a world, there also is a final purpose of creation.”[xliii] Thus Kant continues to oscillate between acknowledging that pure reason, working solely with its pure ideas, cannot yield objective knowledge, and his desire to affirm the validity of the postulates of practical reason, between the strict consequences of his critical epistemology and his religious convictions. There is no way to unite these two drives in a common field of knowledge. In trying to accomplish this impossible feat Kant creates for himself an unresolvable dilemma and lays himself open to the charge of inconsistency. Apart from the empirical knowledge we have of the world by the procedures of the sciences, we can know nothing of the world outside us (which includes our own physical being). We can have no answer to ultimate questions when applied to the world. That is a limitation that we have to accept humbly. Theologians and scientists are equally deluded when they think they can answer such questions.
Kant allows practical reason “the right to assume something which it would in no way be warranted in presupposing in the field of mere speculation without sufficient grounds of proof; for all such presuppositions injure the perfection of speculation, about which, however, the practical interest does not trouble itself at all.”[xliv] But this concession, which Kant finds necessary in the interest of morality, not only breaches the integrity of the rational bieng, but is, besides being unjustified, actually unneeded. We have no need to assume the soul, the Good (Kant’s perfect being, God), the All, as objective entities. These are forms that give us, make us into, a reality we actually enjoy here and now within ouselves. Kant could not entirely free himself of the theological dream of a yonder and hereafter. Even Plato was not entirely free of that yearning. But to be completely rational and completely free we have to acknowledge that the only eternity we have a right to expect is the eternity of the supra-temporal reality we live ephemerally in our momentary life here and now. — We don’t have to assume or assert a reality outside us, for we have all the reality we need within us.
Beyond the illusions of pure reason
Kant’s ‘understanding’ corresponds to Plato’s dianoia, where the mind can legislate for the phenomenal world because what it may find in the world of regularity is only the order the mind itself confers on the world through ideas born in the mind. Here the mind finds meaning and order in the world as the world presents itself to the mind, but cannot go beyond the immediate presentations of the world. Yet beyond and above the dianoia, Plato had a place for nous, noêsis, phronêsis. Here the mind is not concerned with the phenomenal world but only with its own pure ideas, which are what is real in the truest sense. Kant too had a region of pure reason where the mind dealt with nothing but its own ideas, but Kant did not have the creative audacity of Plato that made of that region the realm of the highest Reality.
Kant tells us that “through the critique of our reason we finally know that we cannot in fact know anything at all in its pure and speculative use”,[xlv] in other words, through the ideas of pure reason alone and through the operations and processes of pure reason alone one cannot have factual, objective, knowledge. From a Platonic position, I readily admit that pure reason has nothing to do with objective truth. Pure reason produces visions of reality that create meaningful worlds within us, worlds in which we, as rational beings, live and move and have our proper human being. These visions are dreams, no more, but it is in these dreams, and only in these dreams, that we have our spiritual life, our spiritual reality. We are creators of worlds of our own and it is in these ideal worlds of ours that we have our worth and our glory or our misery and our perdition. Thus while, by means of reason pure and simple, unaided by empirical experience, we have no knowledge of objects, no objective knowledge, we do have a subjective life that has no need to go to the outside world for confirmation.
The pure transcendental ideas – the soul, the final origin of all things, freedom – are, according to Kant, natural to human reason, but they “effect a mere, but irresistible, illusion,” whose deception is hard to resist.[xlvi] The deception Kant wants us to guard against is the deception we fall to in theological or metaphysical speculation when we fancy that we can deduce from the ideas of pure reason the actual constitution of ultimate reality. Kant was right in warning us against the illusion of thinking that pure reason can give us factual knowledge about the world, the All, or ultimate reality. But in so doing Kant leaves us in want of something of the utmost importance for us as human beings. Though through ‘transcendental ideas’ we can never know the natural world, yet in them we comprehend the world. In the idea of ‘the absolute whole of appearances’ I do not take possession of the whole of appearances but I have possession of the idea of the Whole – an idea in which we humans transcend our ephemerality, our transience, our pettiness. When Thales said that the whole of phusis is water, he may have been speaking scientific nonsense (or making a crude start on the way to a scientific theory of the constituents of nature) but he was creating a vision through which he rose above the whole of space and the whole of time, and raised us with him. When Plato weaves of the intelligible forms a picture of the world, he is quick to tell us that the account he gives is no more than a ‘likely tale’, tôn eikotôn muthôn.[xlvii] The pure intelligible forms, which give us no objective knowledge, and which cannot be embodied in any definitive theoretical formulation are nevertheless the realm in which we have our intelligent being, in which we live intelligently and have our proper life as human beings. This is the spiritual realm which Kant’s transcendental system fails to account for. It is a mode of life, a plane of being, that has to be, and can only be, realized in constant creation of myth, acknowledged as myth, in art, in poetry, in metaphysical systems that declare themselves to be merely ‘likely tales’, and in the ideals of honour, friendship, loyalty, patriotism, which the cynic has no difficulty in showing to be one and all illusory. The cynic lives in the world of fact, the ‘deluded’ idealist lives in eternal reality.
Kant’s critical system undermines the Rationalists’ ‘dogmatic metaphysics’ which aspired to attain supersensible knowledge. But without metaphysics, without that ‘supersensible knowledge’, we are less than human. Human beings have an ingrained need to relate to the All; they have a need to see themselves whole; they have a need to find in their life and their being meaning and coherence. To live in a world that is not all “sound and fury, signifying nothing”, we need metaphysics, we need the idea of the All, the idea of the soul, the idea of freedom. These are creative ideas which give unity and meaningfullness to the insubstantial, transient givenness of the experiential stream. It is when we endue these ideas with objectivity, with independence of the intelligence that bred them, that we fall into illusion. I possess my soul, I live intelligently in my ideal world, I am in communion with the God – the absolute Reality – within me; but when I think of my soul as existing apart from my individuality, when I think I can know anything of the world as a whole other than as presented phenomenally in my experience, when I think I can discover a God other than the God within me, then I err. Plato would agree with Kant that objects can be given to us only in sensibility. But the highest order of knowledge for Plato is not knowledge of objects but is the insight of the mind (nous, phronêsis) into itself, disclosed in pure ideas engendered by the mind itself. It is true that Plato spoke of the immortality of the soul, of the origination of the cosmos, of a celestial sphere of eternal forms, of God and gods in the yonder and hereafter – in all of that Plato was a poet giving creative expression to the realities bred by the mind – it is in such dreams that the creative mind lives its own reality. That ‘supersensible knowledge’ was alone for Plato true epistêmê. The supersensible ideas and the Form of the Good that constitute the highest knowledge, are affirmed and expressed in thoughts and myths that must be constantly subjected to dialectic demolishing. In Plato the only reality that abides is phronêsis, the mind as pure creative activity.
Kant ends the section “On the impossibility of an ontological proof of God’s existence” with a short paragraph which shows clearly how Kant’s outlook falls short of Plato’s. After denouncing the futility of attempting to prove the existence of a highest being from concepts, Kant affirms that “a human being can no more become richer in insight from mere ideas than a merchant could in resources if he wanted to improve his financial state by adding a few zeros to his cash balance.”[xlviii] Anselm, Descartes, Leibniz, all had an inkling of a ‘truth of the heart’. We have the idea of a perfect being. That idea must be ‘real’. They sought to prove that by logical demonstration. Kant shows that their logic was faulty. Thus far he is in the right. But when he goes on to assert that a human being cannot “become richer in insight by mere ideas”, he misses something — indeed, I would say, he negates what is most important in the philosophical endeavour. Plato did not try to prove the ‘existence’ of the Form of the Good. He proclaimed that the Form of the Good is all that we know of what is truly real. Our conception of the Good is what gives us reality, what makes us real. While on a lower plane the ideas engendered in the mind shed intelligibility on the phenomenal world, on a higher plane, philosophy, in its pure use, gives us insight into and understanding of the life of intelligence in us that is the only real thing we know. Philosophy gives us ourselves, gives us our reality.
Metaphysics at its best is mythologizing — a mythologizing that affirms the reality of creative intelligence. It is this that vouchsafes its rationality. Formally, the rationality of such mythologizing consists in its intelligibility, its intrinsic coherence. I understand dialectic not as logical deduction and demonstration, but, with the Plato of the Republic, as the annihilation of all the grounds of our reasoning[xlix] — an annihilation that leaves us with nothing but the pure activity of creative reasoning itself, with pure creative inteligence as the final reality.
Shakespeare takes a silly and improbable story as the framework for a play and then makes us live through passions, emotions, and reflections more real than much of what we encounter or experience in the ‘real’ world. This is akin to what philosophers who engage in metaphysical system-building do: they create for us ideal worlds endowed with meaningfullness.
D. R. Khashaba
Cairo, Egypt, 16 February 2008
[i] Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
[ii] Critique of Judgment, translated by Werner S. Pluhar, Hackett Publishing Company, 1987.
[iii] See my Plato: An Interpretation (2005), ch. 3 “The Socratic Elenchus”.
[iv] Parmenides 130e.
[v] Phaedo 95e-101e.
[vi] My own usage of the terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ differs from Kant’s, but in discussing Kant’s position the terms have the sense given them by Kant. I have to ask the reader’s indulgence for this discrepancy.
[vii] For a fuller discussion see my Plato: An Interpretation, pp.126-129.
[viii] Those who speak of a so-called Theory of Forms of the youthful Plato that he discarded in his later years are misled by Aristotle who constructed the putative ‘theory’ out of Plato’s experimentations with encapsulating the basic insight in a verbal formula, experimentations with the outcome of none of which Plato could rest satisfied. Once more I have to refer the reader to my Plao: An Interpretation, ch.1, pp.30-44, and ch.5, pp.117-122. (What other members of the Academy made of the ‘theory’ is another matter.)
[ix] Phaedo 79c-d.
[x] Phaedrus 247b-278e.
[xi] Plato’s Seventh Letter 341c-344a.
[xii] Republic 533c.
[xiii] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, I.5, tr. R. J. Hollingdale.
[xiv] A51, B75, p.193-4.
[xv] Introduction, A15, B29, p.135 and pp.151-2.
[xvi] B161, p.262.
[xvii] Bxii, p.108.
[xviii] Bxiii, p.109.
[xix] A125, p.241.
[xx] A126, p.242.
[xxi] A127, p.242.
[xxii] Preface to the second edition, Bxvi, p.110.
[xxiii] A236, B295, pp.354-5.
[xxiv] B146, p.254.
[xxv] B148, p.255.
[xxvi] Kant, agreeing with Aristotle’s usage, takes dialectic to be a logic of illusion (Schein). This is diametrically opposed to Plato’s usage, where dialectic (in the Republic anyhow) is the highest level of philosophizing. It is best to keep the difference within its proper limits as a different choice of terminology.
[xxvii] A327, B383, p.402.
[xxviii] A334, B391, p.405.
[xxix] A334, B391, pp.405-6.
[xxx] A70, B95, p.206.
[xxxi] B275-6, p.327.
[xxxii] A22, B37, p.157 and p.174.
[xxxiii] B278, p.328.
[xxxiv] B152-3, p.257.
[xxxv] Since we are part of the universe there is no absolute autonomy for any particular thing.
[xxxvi] A450, B478, p.486.
[xxxvii] A533, B561, p.533.
[xxxviii] A798, B826, p.673.
[xxxix] A800, B828, pp.674-5.
[xl] A805, B833, p.677.
[xli] A828, B856, p.689.
[xlii] Preface to the second edition, Bxxx, p.117.
[xliii] Ak.454-5, p.345.
[xliv] A776, B804, p.662.
[xlv] A769, B797, pp.658-9.
[xlvi] A642, B670, p.590.
[xlvii] Timaeus 59c.
[xlviii] A602, B630, p.569.
[xlix] Republic 533c-d.