As the title of this post suggests, I’m intending to write several posts reflecting on Kant’s philosophy. I’m doing this because I have a distant goal of writing a book arguing that Kant was essentially right.
In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant had essentially two goals: first, to provide a broad explanation of our knowledge of the world, and, second, to explain why we aren’t able to establish anything for sure about deep metaphysical topics, like God and the soul and human freedom. He accomplished both of these goals by making a single postulation: that all of our experience has a certain format due to the nature of human understanding. So our abilities and our shortcomings have everything to do with what our particular brand of understanding requires.
Two analogies help me to grasp Kant’s postulation. The two analogies get at the same idea, but I offer them both just to get us into the right space of ideas. The first analogy compares human understanding to a computer program. A program is fundamentally some specific way of coping with various domains of data. In a spreadsheet program, for example, we users make declarations about what kinds of data can be put into which cell in the spreadsheet – numbers, names, explanatory notes, and so on. Then, with the appropriate kinds of data, the program can perform all sorts of functions over these data, and get done what needs doing. Now imagine one of these programs becoming conscious – or, less bizarrely, imagine a human user confining all of her attention to just the boundaries of that program. The conscious being might well wonder how it is that the world works out to be so user-friendly, from the perspective of the program; in other words, why it is that the program is able to grasp hold of the world, represent it, and make useful characterizations of it. Who guaranteed that the world would be spreadsheet-expressible? The answer of course is that the programmers and the users have conspired to shield the program from all of the data that don’t fit its parameters. They have taken care not to put names in number slots, or to perform calculations over phone numbers. The programmers and users have in effect filtered the world so as to make the work of the program possible. The real world “in itself” in fact is not fit for a spreadsheet; it has only been interpreted in such a way as to appear “intelligible” to the spreadsheet program.
The second analogy is to Kuhnian paradigms. In his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn claimed that science progresses by big leaps from one paradigm to another. A paradigm, as everyone knows now, is a way of looking at the world; more particularly, it is a way to parse data and interpret experience, in light of a governing theory. The world as seen by Aristotle, Kuhn claimed, is not the same world as seen by Galileo: one sees substances striving toward natural states or resting places, and the other sees masses moving in parabolic motions. In Kuhn’s terms, their experiences are theory-laden with the particular theories they advocate. In the time of a revolution, opposing scientists talk past one another, as big chunks of their disagreements are over the right way of looking at things. Eventually, Kuhn claimed, the old guys die, the young ones get their jobs, and that’s the revolution. Now suppose that humans, in addition to all of the historical paradigms dished up by scientists and others, also share a basic, unshakeable paradigm that is intrinsic to their brand of understanding. That would explain why we can’t help but interpret experience is certain basic ways, and also why some thoughts that reach beyond the paradigm’s parameters are beyond any possible human understanding. That’s Kant’s idea: to articulate the single theory with which all of our experience is laden.
Those are the two analogies. Human understanding, according to Kant, is not totally plastic, not infinitely malleable; it has a specific format or structure to it, like a Kuhnian theory or a computer program. That structure characterizes what human understanding is – it determines the range of explanations humans can offer or comprehend. Moreover – and this is the tricky part – this structure is not something we know about, explore, or chart through psychology or history or evolution. If we could do that – if we could provide a naturalistic understanding of the nature of human understanding – then we would would be in the following position: we would understand how the world really works, and on that basis we would understand what leads human understanding to have the specific structure that it has. But, of course, there is for us no “understanding of how the world really works” that stands apart from human understanding. Aristotle or Galileo (or Kuhn himself) cannot simply “pop out to check” how the world really goes, and then establish a paradigm-free understanding of paradigms. A computer program cannot cannot adopt the perspective we adopted when we saw that the world itself is not spreadsheet-expressible. We are similarly confined within the kind of understanding we have.
Moreover, naturalistic explanations themselves (like those from psychology or evolution) presuppose paradigms that are thoroughly contingent. They have been constructed in real historical time, and they have competitors which, with a little work, can also provide coherent and compelling accounts of the ways human understanding works. But any such accounts constructed by modern psychology won’t be fixed parameters for human understanding so long as it is possible for humans to out-think those psychological parameters, and understand how things would be or seem if those parameters were otherwise. We can ask: how would the world seem to us if Piaget was right/wrong, or Skinner or Freud right/wrong; and the fact that we can consider these questions is evidence enough to show that a natural psychological theory does not reach after fixed parameters of human understanding.
If we want to discover those fixed parameters, we have to go transcendental. That is, we have to reverse engineer the parameters of human understanding, working from those features which are necessary for any possible human understanding, and what is evidently beyond any human understanding, and postulate a structure that has those consequences as consequences. That’s Kant’s project.