David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: kant (page 3 of 6)

Blumenberg and Husserl

Durkheim (not that one) wrote about my account of Blumenberg:

I think that Blumenberg is much more positive about the modern age than you suggest. Indeed, one might even compare his remarks on science – particularly its institutionalisation of method – with those of Popper. Popper of course would have no time for myth, but Blumenberg’s genius was to have shown that myth too can be defended in a similar way to science. The never ending variation that is the history of myth’s rewriting is comparable to the infinite progress that is the fate – and the triumph – of modern science.

I agree with this and I didn’t mean to give the impression that Blumenberg is a pessimist. In fact, Blumenberg’s ire seems reserved for those conservative pessimists like Schmitt, Loewith, or even Voltaire, who define the present moment as a crisis and look back to the past to try to find some point where we went wrong. He has even less patience for those, from Epicurus to the Gnostics to Kierkegaard, who ask that we should turn our back on the world and seek some private, otherworldly transcendence. And I do believe that Blumenberg’s endorsement of curiosity, science, and a secular interest in improving the world amounts to a prescription for a pragmatic progress: the right for humanity to explore, experiment, err, and positively evolve.

It is so optimistic, in fact, that it is difficult for me to accept enthusiastically. If I believe that a humanistic science offers the best way forward for the people on this planet, it’s only because I can’t think of any better ideas, not because I am filled with hope that things will work out. Blumenberg is more of a believer, and the faith he holds seems best portrayed in Blumenberg’s touching portrait of Husserl:

Scarcely a decade after theory, as mere gaping at what is ‘present at hand,’ had been, if not yet despised, still portrayed as a stale recapitulation of the content of living involvements, it was the greatness of the solitary, aged Edmund Husserl, academically exiled and silenced, that he held fast to the resolution to engage in theory as the initial act of European humanity and as a corrective for its most terrible deviation, and that he required of it a rigorous consistency, which is still, or once again, felt to be objectionable. Hermann Lübbe has described as the characteristic mark of this philosophizing, especially in the late works, the “rationalism of theory’s interest in what is without interest”: The existential problem of a scholar who in his old age was forbidden to set foot in the place where he carried on his research and teaching never shows through, and even the back of the official notice that informed him of this prohibition was covered by Husserl with philosophical notes. That is a case of ‘carrying on’ whose dignity equals that of the sentence, ‘Noli turbare circulos meos’ [Don’t disturb my circles].”

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, III.Introduction

Let’s leave aside that Archimedes, in addition to being killed while working on theoretical math, had also designed warships and this claw:

The ideal here is that of a scholar who can retain his absorption in theory even as the surrounding chaos nearly envelops him. Here, for Blumenberg, it is theory that acts as the linking and growing mechanism of humanity. (And as commenter Durkheim suggests, theory is something of a halfway point between myth and science.) The danger is, of course, that theory turn into something as private as Gnosticism. What is it that gives Blumenberg and Husserl the assurance that they have not disappeared into a private fount of knowledge irrelevant to the greater world? This is a crucial question for Blumenberg to answer in the context of the book. I think that the answer, which is hinted at above, is that there needs to remain some sort of firm method, that “rigorous consistency” that Blumenberg mentions: the placing of the external world as authority and arbiter rather than one’s own self-certainty. (Here, Blumenberg separates from Hegel and moves back to Kant.) Again, I see this as a pragmatic methodology more than anything else, except that there was no such named tradition in Germany.

The other somewhat orthogonal point is how Blumenberg contrasts Husserl with Heidegger, who goes unnamed but is sniped at as the person who attacks Husserl’s theory as “gaping at what is ‘present at hand'”. Blumenberg implicitly connects Heidegger’s political beliefs with Heidegger’s priority of the “at hand” and activity over cognition and observation. Heidegger’s political associates bar Husserl from the library at which he studied. Heidegger removes the dedication to Husserl from Being and Time. Husserl stands back. He keeps working. And Husserl remains one of the least alluring, least sexy philosophers ever. He never cheats, he is never cheap, he is never glamorous. (Even his glamorous successors–Derrida and Sartre–did not put a shine on him.) He just keeps working things out.

I don’t want to enter that eternal debate on Heidegger, but I do sympathize with the emphasis Blumenberg places on detached observation, on the classical act of thinking and theorizing that still seems to have gone missing amidst unending talk of politics, subversion, performativity, and so on. (To those who say that detached observation is a luxury, the subsequent activities are no less luxuries.)

When I quoted Satie the other day (apparently an appropriate quote, thank you Dennis), it was this contrast between theory and action that I was thinking of: youth in action, old age in reflection. As every development in culture and technology (hello, the web) rushes to celebrate and analyze itself before it has barely begun to be anything at all, the nonstop circle of activity exhausts me, and I want to be the rigorous, consistent theorist myself:

Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, and innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.

Kafka, “At Night”

Collingwood and Sellars

This impression of a difference between the ideals
of a scientific vocabulary and a philosophical is only
deepened by observing that many of the greatest
philosophers, especially those who by common consent have written well in addition to thinking well,
have used nothing that can be called a technical
vocabulary. Berkeley has none ; Plato none, if consistency of usage is a test; Descartes none, except
when he uses a technical term to point a reference
to the thoughts of others ; and where a great philosopher like Kant seems to revel in them, it is by no
means agreed that his thought gains proportionately
in precision and intelligibility, or that the stylist in
him is equal to the philosopher.

A general review of the history of philosophy
compared with the equally long history of mathematics, would show that whereas exact science has
from the first been at pains to build up a technical
vocabulary in which every term should have a rigid
and constant meaning, philosophy has always taken
a different road: its terms have shifted their meaning
from one writer to another, and in successive phases
of the same writer’s work, in a way which is the
exact opposite of what we find in science, and would
justify the assertion that, in the strict sense of the
word technical, philosophy has never had anything
that deserved the name of a technical vocabulary.
Before concluding that this is a state of things
calling for amendment, it may be well to ask what
technical terms are, and why they are needed in the
expression of scientific thought.

Technical terms are terms not used in ordinary
speech, but invented ad hoc for a special purpose,
or else they are borrowed from ordinary speech but
used ad hoc in a special sense. They are needed
because it is desired to express a thought for whose
expression ordinary speech does not provide. Hence,
because they are essentially innovations in vocabulary,
and artificial or arbitrary innovations, they cannot
be understood and therefore must not be used unless
they are defined: and definition, here, means ‘verbal’
as distinct from ‘real’ definition.

It has sometimes been maintained that all language consists of sounds taken at pleasure to serve as
marks for certain thoughts or things : which would
amount to saying that it consists of technical terms.
But since a technical term implies a definition, it is

impossible that all words should be technical terms,
for if they were we could never understand their definitions. The business of language is to express or
explain; if language cannot explain itself, nothing
else can explain it; and a technical term, in so far
as it calls for explanation, is to that extent not language but something else which resembles language
in being significant, but differs from it in not being
expressive or self-explanatory. Perhaps I may point
the distinction by saying that it is properly not a
word but a symbol, using this term as when we speak
of mathematical symbols. The technical vocabulary
of science is thus neither a language nor a special
part of language, but a symbolism like that of mathematics. It presupposes language, for the terms of
which it consists are intelligible only when defined,
and they must be defined in ordinary or non-technical
language, that is, in language proper. But language
proper does not presuppose technical terms, for in
poetry, where language is most perfectly and purely
itself, no technical terms are either used or presup-
posed, any more than in the primitive speech of
childhood or the ordinary speech of conversation.

Thus the technical element in scientific language
is an element foreign to the essence of language as
such. So far as scientific literature allows itself to
be guided by its natural tendency to rely on technical
terms, scientific prose falls apart into two things:
expressions, as a mathematician speaks of expressions, made up of technical terms, which signify
scientific thought but are not language, and the
verbal definitions of these terms, which are language
but do not signify scientific thought.

Philosophical literature shows no such tendency.
Even when, owing to the mistaken idea that whatever is good in science will prove good in philosophy,
it has tried to imitate science in this respect, the
imitation has been slight and superficial, and the
further it has gone the less good it has done. This
is because the peculiar necessity for a technical
vocabulary in science has no counterpart in philosophy.
Technical terms are needed in science because in
the course of scientific thought we encounter concepts which are wholly new to us, and for which
therefore we must have wholly new names. Such
words as chiliagon and pterodactyl are additions to
our vocabulary because the things for which they
stand are additions to our experience. This is possible because the concepts of science are divided
into mutually exclusive species, and consequently
there can be specifications of a familiar genus which
are altogether new to us.

In philosophy, where the species of a genus are
not mutually exclusive, no concept can ever come
to us as an absolute novelty; we can only come to
know better what to some extent we knew already.
We therefore never need an absolutely new word for
an absolutely new thing. But we do constantly need
relatively new words for relatively new things: words
with which to indicate the new aspects, new distinctions, new connexions which thought brings to light

in a familiar subject-matter; and even these are not so
much new to us as hitherto imperfectly apprehended.

This demand cannot be satisfied by technical
terms. On the contrary, technical terms, owing to
their rigidity and artificiality, are a positive impediment to its satisfaction. In order to satisfy it, a
vocabulary needs two things: groups of words nearly
but not quite synonymous, differentiated by shades
of meaning which for some purposes can be ignored
and for others become important; and single words
which, without being definitely equivocal, have
various senses distinguished according to the ways
in which they are used.

These two characteristics are precisely those
which ordinary language, as distinct from a technical
vocabulary, possesses. It is easy to verify this statement by comparing the scientific definition of such
a word as circle with the account given for example
in the Oxford English Dictionary of what the same
word means or may mean in ordinary usage. If it
is argued, according to the method followed elsewhere in this essay, that since technical terms are
used in science something corresponding to them,
mutatis mutandis, will be found in philosophy, the
modifications necessary to change the concept of a
technical term from the shape appropriate to science
into the shape appropriate to philosophy will deprive
it exactly of what makes it a technical term and
convert it into ordinary speech.

The language of philosophy is therefore, as every
careful reader of the great philosophers already
knows, a literary language and not a technical.
Wherever a philosopher uses a term requiring formal
definition, as distinct from the kind of exposition
described in the fourth chapter, the intrusion of a
non-literary element into his language corresponds
with the intrusion of a non-philosophical element
into his thought: a fragment of science, a piece of
inchoate philosophizing, or a philosophical error;
three things not, in such a case, easily to be dis-

The duty of the philosopher as a writer is therefore to avoid the technical vocabulary proper to
science, and to choose his words according to the
rules of literature. His terminology must have that
expressiveness, that flexibility, that dependence upon
context, which are the hall-marks of a literary use
of words as opposed to a technical use of symbols.

A corresponding duty rests with the reader of
philosophical literature, who must remember that
he is reading a language and not a symbolism. He
must neither think that his author is offering a verbal
definition when he is making some statement about
the essence of a concept—a fertile source of sophistical criticisms—nor complain when nothing resembling such a definition is given; he must expect
philosophical terms to express their own meaning
by the way in which they are used, like the words
of ordinary speech. He must not expect one word
always to mean one thing in the sense that its meaning undergoes no kind of change; he must expect
philosophical terminology, like all language, to be
always in process of development, and he must
recollect that this, so far from making it harder to
understand, is what makes it able to express its own
meaning instead of being incomprehensible apart
from definitions, like a collection of rigid and therefore artificial technical terms.

R.G. Collingwood, “Philosophy as a Branch of Literature” (1933)

The habits of any formal scientist, like those of the mathematician in particular are tautology-habits. We can urge their adoption;
we can point to the practical consequences of not adopting them. The same is
true of justification. Thus, a “justification of induction” is either a tautology
in pragmatics; or else it is a recommendation of a set of tautology-habits for
“law,” “confirmed-to-degree-n,” “evidence,” etc.

“Are you not saying that, after all, the pragmatist has the last word?”, I
shall be asked. In a sense this is true. But the pragmatist must take the bitter
along with the sweet; for the “last word” is not a philosophical proposition.
Philosophy is pure formalism; pure theory of language. The recommendation of
formalisms for their utility is not philosophy. Hume’s scepticism was a consequence of his mistake in supposing that the philosophical questions he asked
in the study were sweeping questions of fact, and that therefore outside the study
he took an unquestioning attitude towards factual propositions questioned in
the study. The truth of the matter, and I speak in the tradition of Hume, is
very opposite. There are no factual statements which become philosophical
in the study (though there are non-factual statements which are philosophical
outside the study); and in philosophy, scepticism is a self-contradictory position.

Wilfrid Sellars, “Pure Pragmatics and Epistemology” (1947)

Though seemingly in opposition, aren’t the two of them effectively making the same point about technical discourse in philosophy?

A Bit on Kant’s Schematism

It should be noted how Kant’s proposal for connecting the
sensible and the conceptual, though superficially straightforward, is at another level extremely
perplexing. Is a transcendental schema a thought about time, or is it time as thought in a certain
way? Our ways of referring to transcendental schemata inevitably assimilate them, it would
seem, to one side or the other of the concept/intuition divide. Moreover, it appears necessary to
do exactly this, if we are to answer the question of what they are, or say anything contentful
about them. The cost of the assimilation, however, in either direction, is to make them
apparently unfit for their designated mediating role: if they are either concepts with a special
relation to intuition, or intuitions as formed conceptually, then they seem to presuppose the very
possibility of connecting the sensible and the conceptual which transcendental schematism is
invoked to explain.

Kant may declare that transcendental schemata are irreducibly sensible-and-intellectual, and
that this is how the question of their identity should be answered. If so, Kant’s original division of
our representations into intuitions and concepts is not exhaustive, for there is a third class,
about which we can say very little, other than that it is dependent on and somehow derivative
from the others. We can specify it in terms of the transcendental role to which the problem of
relating concepts and intuitions gives rise, but the manner of its derivation, and the nature of
schemata, we cannot specify. Note, it is not just that we can say relatively less about schemata
than we can about intuitions and concepts, and that we cannot identify their ultimate source; we
are equally ignorant of the grounds of our faculties of sensibility and understanding.
Transcendental schemata remain in a special sense hard to grasp, because they are required to
combine in themselves two kinds of property, or representational functions, the seeming
immiscibility of which is precisely what made us introduce them in the first place. That this is
nevertheless Kant’s own view of the matter is, plausibly, what is suggested by his statement that
schematism is ‘an art concealed in the depths of the human soul, whose real modes of activity
nature is hardly likely ever to allow us to discover’ (A141/B180-1).

Sebastian Gardner

I’ve been accused of obsession with the schematism, but the intuition-concept gap is for me the core problem that Kant runs into, and I have never been able to find an adequate solution in Kant for it. Here’s Paul Guyer’s unsatisfactory explanation:

Thus, in the case of
the categories our concepts are not “homogeneous” with our objects, and
some intermediary has to be found in order to make them so.
But this is
not the case with our other concepts, which are inherently homo-
geneous with their objects. A pure mathematical concept like circle is
homogeneous with our experience, because it describes its object in terms
of properties that can be directly presented in experience – that something
is a curved, closed line every point of which is equidistant from its center
is the kind of thing we can observe because the pure form of all our outer
intuition is spatial. And an empirical concept like plate or dog is already
homogeneous with its object because it includes predicates that correspond immediately to observable properties of objects, whether those
properties are pure, like the circularity of a plate, or empirical, like its non-
porousness or like the furriness or noisiness of a typical dog.

If you’re willing to accept that Platonic concepts like “plate” and “dog” have exact referents in the real world, then fine. But Kant doesn’t (since he thinks the application of all concepts is normative and prescriptive and subjective) and his whole project is to figure out a way to salvage conceptual mental content out of a non-conceptual world.

Anyway, I mention this because I was just thinking about how much of modern philosophy grows out of exactly this particular problem. Kant wasn’t the first to come up with it, but I think it’s his formulation of it and failed solution to it that echoes in Russell (who tries to pull the same trick solution), Heidegger (who tries to punt the problem away), and many others.

And ultimately there’s something a little pleasing in Kant’s ceding of this problem to “art,” which is a rare concession on his part.

Sellars on Kant

When Kant insists that we ought to act from a sense of duty he is not making the absurd mistakes which have often been attributed to him. He is simply repeating the point with which he opens the argument of the Fundamental Principles of Metaphysic of Morals, that the only unconditional good is a good will. By this he means that the only state of a person which is unconditionally good from a moral point of view is the disposition to act from a sense of duty. He has two points in mind: (a) Whereas action from any motive can have bad results, the sense of duty alone is such that only by virtue of ignorance does it have bad results. Action from other motives even where ignorance is absent can lead to bad results. Thus the sense of duty is the only motive which has a direct conceptual tie to the categorically valid end of moral conduct. In this sense a good will is a categorical ought-to-be. (b) Although the general welfare is also an end in itself, a categorical ought-to-be, the ought-to-be of the happiness of any given individual is, Kant believes, conditional on his having a good will.

Wilfrid Sellars, Form and Content in Ethical Theory

It’s still hard for me to see how this is not question-begging or even circular. Sellars wants to bring in specificity to the data on which the good will acts, but this poses the problem of whether the good will obtains its disposition from this data (in which case the will is not unconditioned), or whether the disposition is innate and/or noumenal, in which case the will still has the capacity to act in a state of complete ignorance and still be acting from the sense of duty.

It was Sellars’s goal to merge scientific reality with phenomenological experience by offering a constructivist account of how our conceptual knowledge of the latter emerges without appealing to any pie-in-the-sky Platonism. Since Sellars’s problem was not with a priori knowledge in the Kantian sense per se (whether he would term this knowledge is a different question entirely), he would not have to necessarily be opposed to a naturalistic conception of morality, i.e., one that could fit within the scientific image. This is why he can say that for Kant, “The fallibility of moral philosophy is not the fallibility of empirical induction,” because morality need not be obtained from empirical induction. Consequently, Kant ends up doing a bit of Sellars’s work for him if Sellars can accept that the good will obtained in such a way fulfills the criteria required for a moral authority.

Cassirer on Gobineau, etc.

In order to grasp the purport of Gobineau’s book, too, we must not read into it these later political tendencies. They are quite alien to the meaning of the author. Gobineau did not intend to write a political pamphlet but rather a historical and philosophical treatise. He never thought of applying his principles to a reconstruction or revolution of the political and social order. His was not an active philosophy. His view of history was fatalistic. History follows a definite and inexorable law.

History is no science; it is only a conglomerate of subjective thoughts; a wishful thinking rather than a coherent and systematic theory. Gobineau boasted of having made an end to this state of affairs. “It is a question of making history join the family of the natural sciences, of giving it…all the precision of this kind of knowledge, finally of removing it from the biased jurisdiction whose arbitrariness the political factions impose upon it up to this day.” Gobineau did not speak as an advocate of a definite political program but as a scientist, and he thought his deductions were infallible. He was convinced that history, after innumerable vain efforts, had at last come to maturity and virility in his work. He looked upon himself as a second Copernicus, the Copernicus of the historical world. Once we have found the true center of this world, everything is changed. We are no longer concerned with mere opinions about things, we live and move in the things themselves; our eyes are able to see, our ears to hear, our hands to touch.

Myth of the State, XVI

I hear the heavy hand of Kant in Cassirer’s attack on Gobineau, even before Cassirer cites the individual stupidities that make Gobineau’s work garbage. The hubris of purporting to move into the noumenal sphere is enough to doom him already. (Note that this is an inversion of the “Enlightenment thinking” that is usually associated with Kant and used to damn him on the same grounds that Cassirer is attacking Gobineau on here.)

I thought of this point when reading Walter Pincus’s attack on journalism today (Pincus was the old-timer Washington Post reporter who wrote story after story questioning the administration’s Iraq WMD claims in 2002, only to see all of them shunted to the back page.)

Today’s mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance and at times even accuracy.

At a time when it is most needed, the media, and particularly newspapers, have dropped the idea of having
experienced reporters provide analysis and context and turned instead to retired public figures or so-called
experts to provide commentary. It was not always this way.

Well, we can debate which of so many problems makes the current state of mainstream journalism so wretched, but the obsession with neutrality and apparent lack of bias is certainly one of them, and I wonder if it too is the same mentality at work that Cassirer attacks: that despite there being points of view, there is only one absolute News that presents them all equally, and that’s what to strive for.

I do hear that same absolutist arrogance in this little speech too:

“[The government] will not be satisfied for long with the knowledge that it has 52 per cent behind it while terrorising the other 48 per cent but will, by contrast, see its next task as winning over that other 48 per cent for itself…It is not enough to reconcile people more or less to our regime, to move them towards a position of neutrality towards us, we want rather to work on people until they have become addicted to us…”

Goebbels, March 15, 1933 (taken from Evans, 396)

As with Gobineau, that’s when purported objectivity turns into propaganda.

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