In part 1, I gave a quick description of Kant’s epistemological project: to uncover what might be called the human “operating system,” or the fixed interpretive framework humans employ in encountering and understanding experience. I also made a couple of brief arguments for thinking that this project is not an exercise in psychological or historical or evolutionary science, since those sciences can only come up with contingent frameworks, and not frameworks necessary for the possibility of human understanding. In this post I’d like to suggest that this Kantian project opens up interesting possibilities for philosophy – particularly in hermeneutics (very broadly construed) and morality.
A striking feature of human encounters with the world is that we strive for understanding: we traffic in explanations, arguments, and justifications. We provide them, and we expect them from others; we engage in critical dialogue about them and discover lapses in logic or judgment. We can call this broad endeavor “participating in the space of reasons,” using a term put forward by Wilfrid Sellars and elaborated in a much greater degree by John McDowell. A first item to note is that reasons are not causes. When I argue with you, I present you with reasons for thinking I am right. I do not merely try to cause you to think I am right. If I were to do that, I might more simply poke you with a stick until I cause you finally to relent and say you agree. Reasons provoke us in a way very different from the way causes provoke us. Reasons engage our capacity to reason. We think through them, assess them, and adopt them or reject them on the basic of our beliefs and logic. I can be wrong in my reasoning, or my justification, while I cannot possibly be wrong in my responses to causes. My reasoning might be skewed or distorted in all kinds of ways having to do with my psychology and circumstance. But that still does not turn reasons into causes; indeed, if we try to reduce reasons to causes, we lose any coherent way of making any genuine sense of making mistakes in reasoning.
Now in a thoroughly naturalistic framework, reasons disappear. Or, at best, reasons turn into disguised causes. The reasons I have for (say) adopting Kantianism might be understood as covert causes – I have been effectively brainwashed by several philosophy books, or philosophy teachers, and provoked to utter certain strings of sentences rather than others, not really for any good reason, but because of factors in my environment or psychological temperament. What I claim to be “reasons” for my view are really idle wheels in explaining why I have the view I have; they are at most symptoms of secret underlying causes. The true explanation for what I say and do is discerned by examining what causes me to say and do those things. But taking such a strictly causal approach is hardly credible. For starters, it just doesn’t meet the “sniff” test: for it sure seems like we take reasons seriously, and act on them. (Indeed, very much so; we can’t help but do so.) But even apart from that, the “causalist” approach to reasons defeats itself. For anyone advancing such an account will argue for it by presenting evidence and reasons for thinking it’s true. If they really believed in their conclusions, they would not be so conscientious! (Or I suppose they might be, if they believed that by seeming conscientious, they in fact would be using the sharpest poking sticks to cause others to agree. But wait a minute; that still would be acting on reasons. We would have to say that the causalists were caused to seem to appear conscientious, and caused to seemingly “believe” they had “reasons.” Is this really how such causalists would understand their own arguments? Or do they in fact believe they have reasons for thinking their conclusions are true?)
The Kantian project of opening up a space for reasons, in the context of understanding the human operating system, preserves the possibility of genuine reasoning. When we participate in the space of reasons, we are operating against the backdrop of human understanding, which is a backdrop distinct from that offered by any causal explanation. It then wouldn’t make sense to collapse reasons into causes, since causes simply cannot do the work of reasons. Indeed, since causal explanations are explanations, there is reason to believe that the backdrop of understanding is prior to any understanding we have of causality. Our understanding is a broader framework in which causes, and our understanding of causes, become possible. In fact, we need that broader framework in order to construct and frame causal explanations of anything.
This participation in the space of reasons is plausibly what separates our kind of understanding from the minds of nonhuman animals. Don’t get me wrong – I love animals, and I think they experience pain and pleasure, and they do very clever things. But none of them understand anything. I cannot in any way apologize to my dog, or compensate her for not getting a walk, or demonstrate to her that it’s too muddy to go outside. I can’t argue with her or reason with her, and that’s not merely because I don’t speak Doglish. She hasn’t any participation in the space of reasons. I can care for her and sympathize with her and treat her decently, but that’s as far as our relationship can go.
This presents a further reason to be interested in the space of reasons – a moral reason. When I engage in reason with you, I accord you a certain kind of respect I cannot show to nonhuman animals. I would claim this respect constitutes dignity. The surest way to strip dignity from a human being is to put them in a circumstance in which their capacity to reason is removed (think of Alzheimer’s) or entirely disregarded (think of the basest slavery). If we ourselves have reason, we cannot help but listen to it and attend closely in ourselves. That intrinsic respect for reason itself extends to the reason I find in others – since as we are human beings, it is the same shared space of reason. We can understand one another. Normally, when you offer reasons, I naturally consider them as reasons, and assess them and try to understand them. If I were somehow to deprive you of reason, or ignore your capacity to reason, I would be committing “a sin” against the very reason I find within myself, the very thing that intrinsically calls for my respect. I do not think this general respect for reason generates the entirety of our moral obligation, though I think it captures something especially important in our dealings with one another. (But I’ll leave matters there for now, as I’m still thinking this part through!)