Friday, June 15, 2007

In the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” Kant does not altogther adhere to this dualism of form and matter

Kant starts out with the Humean assumption of a complete atomism of subjective sensations, “the radical disconnection of impressions qua data” from one another (PR 113). For Hume adheres to what Whitehead calls the sensationalist principle: the idea “that the primary activity in the act of experience is the bare subjective entertainment of the datum, devoid of any subjective form of reception” (157). Kant’s aim, in the Critique of Pure Reason, is to avoid the skeptical consequences of Hume’s position by rejecting this sensationalist principle. He seeks to show how the chaos of “mere sensation” can be ordered, or its elements connected, in a more stable and satisfactory way than Hume is able to accomplish with his appeal to mere habit.
In the “Transcendental Logic,” Kant does this in what Whitehead regards as an overly intellectualistic way. Kant appeals to what Whitehead calls “the higher of the human modes of functioning” (113), ignoring the more basic and primordial modes of sensation and perception. That is to say, Kant takes a cognitive approach, rather than an affective one. He also presupposes a dualism of form and matter, according to which materiality, or the “sensible” (that which can be apprehended by the senses alone), is passive, inert, and intrinsically shapeless, and that it can only be organized by an intelligibleform that is imposed upon it from the outside, or from above. In Kant’s account, the understanding, with its Categories, imposes a conceptual order upon an otherwise disconnected and featureless flux of individual impressions.
But in the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” Kant does not altogther adhere to this dualism of form and matter. He does indeed say that space and time are the “pure forms” of perception, and “sensation as such is its matter” (CPR 95). But his discussion also bears the traces of a different logic. Because time and space are not categories or concepts, they do not relate to their objects in the way that the forms of logical intelligibility (“causation, substance, quality, quantity”) do. They are not organizing principles actively imprinted upon an otherwise shapeless and disorganized matter. Rather, space and time are themselves effectively “passive,” since they are modes of receptivity rather than spontaneity. Kant says that sensibility or receptivity “remains as different as day and night from cognition of the object in itself”; rather than being cognitive, sensibility has to do with “the appearance of something, and the way we are affected by that something” (CPR 96; italics added). And this is the crucial point.
Even though the “thing in itself” is cognitively unknowable, nevertheless it affects us. And by conveying and expressing “the way we are affected,” space and time establish immanent connections among objects, and especially between the object and the subject. These affective connections are already given in the very course of any experience of spatialization and temporalization. In the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” there is no problem of formlessness, or of disconnected impressions; and therefore there is no need to impose the Categories of understanding from above, in order to give these impressions form, or to yoke them together. As Whitehead puts it, in such a process of feeling “the datum includes its own interconnections” (PR 113). This entry was posted on Thursday, June 14th, 2007 at 1:19 pm and is filed under Theory

Steven Shaviro is the DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University. He writes about process philosophy, film and music video, and science fiction. He blogs at The Pinocchio Theory.

Update: My very brief account of speculative realism is now finally online, both in English and in Spanish translation: http://t.co/sV6BGVcUos 

Modern Western philosophy – at least since Immanuel Kant published his “Critique of Pure Reason” in 1781 – has tended to privilege epistemology over ontology. Ontology is concerned with the nature of being, with defining, on the most basic level, what is. Epistemology, in contrast, is concerned with how we know whatever it is that we know. It scrutinizes the grounds and limits of our ability to know the world. To say that epistemology must come before ontology is simply to point out that, in order to make assertions about what the world is like, we must be able to give grounds for these assertions, to explain how we can know that they are true. Kant observed that the philosophy of his time was unable to provide such grounds. Either it was dogmatic, claiming to discover metaphysical necessity by pure logical deduction, untethered to observation or empirical evidence; or else it was sceptical, grounded in empirical facts and in subjective experience, but unable to generalize beyond these particular facts and that immediate experience. Against both of these tendencies, Kant insisted that philosophy must start by scrutinizing, and thereby accounting for, its own foundations. If it failed to do this, and instead launched directly into metaphysical speculation, then only nonsense would result. For Kant, and for most philosophers ever since, we can only claim to know something (rather than just believing something blindly) when we can explain how we have come to know it, and what justifies our claims that it is true. More at 

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