Kantian philosophy, part 2: why be interested

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!)

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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7 Responses to Kantian philosophy, part 2: why be interested

  1. Den NC USA says:

    Don’t get me wrong – I love humans, and I think they experience pain and pleasure for themselves as well as for other humans, and they do very clever things. They think clever things. They make clever devices to destroy themselves and their environment in a way that other dumb animals cannot, or at least, cannot conceive of. But humans, for all their so-called understanding of themselves and their world… honestly, often, all over the world, none of them really seem to understand anything natural.
    I cannot in any way apologize to my wife for what other husbands do, or compensate her for not getting a better life, in another country, in another time in history, even the future… or demonstrate to her that it’s too dangerous to go outside, not because of the animals, but because of the humans. Not the little ones that we and other children adoptors have, but the older, supposedly wiser ones. The ones who are supposed to know what to do in their lives.

    I can’t argue with her or reason with her as to why our governments grow too large to really care for the people they govern, nor why, in spite of a widening world of knowledge, science and technology, some of the world is adamant in keeping centuries-old traditons and religious folkelore as their manifest motive for doing what is obviously criminal, cruel, unjust and illogical., and that’s not merely because I don’t speak their language that they don’t seem to make sense to me.
    It’s almost as if we live in different times in different places, but refuse to see that, since we all now know that the earth is round, and that time is such that it is day here, it is night there, and the world is one big spinning ball of human desire for human goals and achievements, regardless of the human-made consequences.

    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, since I can’t control the rest of the world, nor make it see life and meaning my way, regardless of my wisdom or learning.

    My dog knows good, love, warmth and happiness. She doesn’t need to think about meaning or truth. She embodies it in her simple way of living life. That is a good goal for humans. Just like some early humans lived life. We think too much now, and feel less for it often. We go on vacation to live. We work to make human reality more real, and earth’s reality less real, and less abundant.

    Sad but true. But don’t get me wrong – I love humans. After all, I am one.


  2. Huenemann says:

    So I read you as saying: humans do many horrible things, to each other and the planet; women are systematically disenfranchised; dogs don’t hurt others and the planet as much as humans do; earlier humans had lives that are by one measure at least more authentic. I agree.


  3. Charlie, I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy between reasons and causes. You suggest, for instance, that what we call reasons might instead be covert “brainwash[ing],” and that “causalists” undermine themselves eo ipso when they “argue for [the causalist approach] by presenting evidence and reasons.”

    But this tension simply disappears if we suppose that reasons get at (or are aimed to get at) something about the world. They are “covert” causes in the sense that their natural structure is opaque to us. But that doesn’t undermine their normative function unless we assume we can’t have normativity on naturalist assumptions. And why assume that?

    Aside from which, I think we need a much stronger justification for abandoning the intuition that reasons just plainly are (or at least can be) causes. If I yell “Fire!” in a crowded fire house, for instance, I’ve provided a reason—a very good reason—for those inside to get the hell out of there. But it would be just nuts to say that I didn’t also thereby cause the subsequent (I want to say “resulting”) melee. (Query whether this causal aspect of reasons is why we say things like “The fire inside the crowded fire house was cause for alarm.”)


    • Huenemann says:

      Excellent, thanks. I need to read and think more about this. It seems to me there are things that are clearly causes and not reasons (tripping down the stairs), and things that are clearly reasons but not causes (I have reason to be grateful to Sally, though in fact act only with scorn), and then a broad swath of mixed cases. I’d be grateful (and not scornful!) for any good reading suggestions on this.)

      I’m tempted to say that naturalism can provide some normativity – certainly of the purely instrumental or prudential kind, maybe a bit more – but that it’s limited. It can’t provide for grander moral norms (small loss, say some), but it also can’t ground norms having to do with valid reasoning, justification, and explanation. I should have more to say about this, but right now it’s a bit inchoate.


      • “I have reason to be grateful to Sally, though in fact act only with scorn.”

        It’s an interesting case, but I still think your reason here can easily be accounted a cause, for at least two reasons. First, a reason is just one isolated condition. And the fact that an isolated condition doesn’t cause an event E doesn’t mean that under different conditions it might not be among the joint conditions sufficient to cause E. That is, a condition can still have causal efficacy even if one of its distinctive or anticipated effects doesn’t obtain under the specific circumstances. (Gravity is a condition of your falling off a log, but it won’t cause you to fall off a log if you keep your balance.)

        Second, and related, your reason to be grateful to Sally, even if doesn’t cause you to behave gratefully toward her, almost certainly (at least if we’re being internalist about “reasons,” anyway) causes something—greater deliberation about how you should actually behave toward her, say; or cognitive dissonance about the prospect of acting scornfully toward her; or regret at having done so; or whatever. (These effects are all cognitive, of course, but I didn’t want to assume that the reason in question would have observable behavioral effects, and it isn’t critical to the point.)


  4. Huenemann says:

    Michael, what about when those reasons are unbeknownst to me? Aren’t they then still “present” as reasons, but not at all as causes?


    • Right, that’s what I was trying to cover with my parenthetical about being internalist about reasons: It’s one thing to have (or be in possession of) reasons; another for there to be reasons (in the abstract). Something can be reason for (=”cause for”) x without actually causing x.

      For a reason to cause x, the reason would have to have some sort of epistemic contact with an agent capable of acting on reasons to x. Well, that’s a bit quick—you could come up with Gettier-like counterexamples (e.g., Al has reason R to x, and motivated by R, but without appealing to it, he convinces Bob to x; R caused Bob to x, even though Bob wasn’t in possession of R)—but you get my drift.


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