Thursday, March 07, 2013

Against the One True Kant

I start with two premises:
Premise 1: All human beings are bad at philosophy.
Premise 2: Kant was a human being.
Therefore, um, uh, let's see....

It is sufficient a person's for being "bad at philosophy" in the relevant sense that when that person tries to build an ambitious, elaborate philosophical system that addresses the great, enduring questions of metaphysics and epistemology, there will be some serious errors in the system, as a result of the person's cognitive shortcomings (e.g., invisible presuppositions, equivocal arguments). It is very easy to be bad at philosophy in this sense, and we have excellent empirical evidence for Premise 1. Premise 2 also seems well attested. Further supporting evidence for the conclusion comes from the boneheaded things Kant sometimes says when he is speaking clearly and concretely rather than in a difficult-to-evaluate haze of abstracta.

Here's a vision, then, of Kant:

Kant has a brilliant sense of what it would be very cool to be able to prove -- or at least a brilliant sense of what lots of philosophers think it would be very cool to be able to prove. For example, it would be very cool to (non-question-beggingly) prove that the external world exists. It would be very cool to prove that immorality is irrational. Kant also has some clever and creative pieces of argumentation that seem like promising elements in potential proofs of this sort. And finally, Kant has an intimidating aura of authority. He creates a fog of jargon through which the pieces of argument appealingly glint, in their coolness and cleverosity. And, voila, he asserts success. If you fail to understand, the fault seems to be yours.

Maybe this sounds bad. But the thing is: There really are interesting pieces of argument in there! It's just that they don't all fit together. There are gaps in the arguments, and seeming inconsistencies, and different possibilities for the meaning of the jargon. Because these gaps, seeming inconsistencies, and possibilities might be variously resolved, there need be no one right interpretation of Kant. We can be Kant interpretation pluralists. Although there are clearly bad ways of reading Kant (e.g., as an unreconstructed Lockean), there might be no determinately best way, but rather a variety of attractive ways with competing costs and benefits.

Interpret the terms this way and fill in the gaps that way, and find a Kant who thinks that there's stuff out there independent of our minds that causes our sensory experiences. Interpret the terms this other way and fill in the gaps that other way, and find a Kant who regards such stuff as merely an invention of our minds. Yet another Kant holds that there might be such stuff, but we can't prove that there is. Call these Kant Model 1, Kant Model 2, and Kant Model 3. There will also be Kant Model 4, Kant Model 1a, Kant Model 5f, etc. Similarly across the range of Kantian issues.

But surely only one of these things is what Kant really thought? No, I wouldn't be sure of that at all! When our terms admit multiple interpretations, when our arguments are gappy and dispositions unstable, the contents of both our occurrent thoughts and our dispositional opinions can be muddy. When I say, "the only really important thing is to be happy" or "all men are created equal", what exactly to do I mean? There might be no exactness about it! (See my dispositional approach to attitudes.) This is as true of philosophers as of anyone else -- and, I would argue, as true of the mortal Kant as of any other philosopher.

But even if Kant did have absolutely specific private opinions on all the topics of his writings, it doesn't matter. The philosophy of Kant is not that. Maybe in the secret grotto of his soul he was an orthodox Thomist and he invented the critical philosophy only as a joke to amuse his manservant Martin Lampe. This would not render the Critique of Pure Reason a defense of Thomism. Kant's philosophy is embodied in the words he left behind, not in his private opinions about those words. And those words might not, very likely do not, determinately resolve into one single self-consistent philosophical system.

Historians of philosophy can and should fight about whether to treat Kant Model 2b, Kant Model 5f, or instead some other Kant, as the canonical Kant. But those of us who don't make Kant interpretation our profession should have some liberty to choose among the Kants, as best suits our philosophical purposes -- as long as we bear in mind that Kant Model 2b is no more the One Kant than Hamlet Interpretation 2b is the One Hamlet.


Pete Mandik said...


Brandon N. Towl said...


I would add that Kant is not the only one that this pattern applies to, though. Could we not say the same for Plato? Descartes? Leibniz? Carnap? Quine? Foucault?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Brandon: Yes, I think it applies in varying degrees to different philosophers. Nietzsche and Plato admit a very wide range of viable models, for instance, and Berkeley a much narrower range.

Josh said...

Does any of this actually matter? Kant is a touchstone in philosophy despite everything you have said. If you properly do any philosophy you cannot avoid him - this is because he has been inspiring for generations and generations. Whether you see a 'fog of jargon' is irrelevant to his work as a an ever-inspiring, ever-relevant critique on the foundations of experience.

Brandon said...

I'm not sure I'm following the thread of the argument. The initial argument is about Kant as a philosopher, and Premise 1 and Premise 2 don't imply interpretation pluralism, even when taken as a foundation for the claim that serious errors will tend to creep into ambitious systems. (They don't, for instance, imply anything about Kant's works as a whole, since all the errors covered by Premise 1 are potentially corrigible in later work, and because a system can have flaws that have nothing to do with whether it exhibits these flaws. And Kant scholars don't proceed on the assumption that Kant got everything right and made no errors; they just demand evidence, and thorough evaluation of it, in attributing error. It's not difficult to find Kant scholars whose interpretations do attribute serious errors to Kant.) Likewise, the appeal to the interpretation in which things Kant says are boneheaded (rather than just, say, confusing to those who aren't used to the idiomatic expressions of Roman law as used in Prussia at the time, or whatever) or a difficult-to-evaluate haze of abstracta (rather than, say, just application of the logic of the day to concrete topics, and thus easy to evaluate and not at all hazy in those terms) implies at the very least that the right interpretation of Kant will include these things, if it's to be usable as evidence at all in this context. Likewise, if we say that Kant's system is definitely or intrinsically ambiguous or equivocal or hazy, this is entirely consistent with just saying that the One True Kant is ambiguous or equivocal or hazy. Whether Kant or anyone else is a bad philosopher just doesn't seem to have any bearing on the issue.

But the ultimate conclusion simply follows from the fact that history of philosophy, unlike some other kinds of philosophy, is entirely evidential in its approach, and the evidence underdetermines interpretation. And this is certainly true, and is the attitude most historians of philosophy tend to have; Kant scholars, for instance, are not particularly interested in the One True Kant, but in asking the question, "Is there relevant evidence that hasn't been properly taken into account yet that might actually determine this or that possible issue of interpretation, or rule out this or that particular kind of interpretation?".

I have to confess, being not a Kant scholar but a historian of philosophy myself, that my first thought at your final paragraph was that while true it's phrased in a way that sounds an awful lot like the excuse historians of philosophy constantly get from other philosophers who are unwilling to hold themselves to evidential standards in interpreting other people's arguments. This doesn't affect the argument, but is a common enough problem that it's perhaps important to mention. If a historian of philosophy were to write a post like this, it might well begin with:

"Premise 1: All human beings are bad at interpreting philosophical arguments"

and conclude with the claim that people should always be very careful about "choosing among the Kants" at all.

David Smith said...

I am definitely skeptical about premise two. Kant was a Vulcan.

Sam Rickless said...

Hi Eric,

I see why you think these things about Kant, but it strikes me as unlikely that the work of a philosopher that has been found worthy of attention by great philosophical minds over many years (I dare say, philosophical minds greater than yours or mine) can be reduced to a series of potential gappy proofs written in a fog of jargon full of seeming inconsistencies and consistent with numerous interpretations. Sure, his words, as you say, *might not* resolve into one single self-consistent philosophical system. But I really don't see why you think that they "very likely do not* so resolve.

Yes, there is a lot of jargon in Kant, perhaps more than necessary. And perhaps in the end some of the jargon does not answer to anything real. But I don't think that Kant is any more of a sinner in this respect than, say, Plato, or Aristotle, or Aquinas, or Descartes, or even Locke, Berkeley, or Hume. Are phantasms, notions, or (clear or distinct!) ideas any easier to grasp than intuitions and concepts? (On the other hand, I really do think that, e.g., Hegel and Heidegger are particularly guilty of piling on the jargon without clarifying it sufficiently.)

Your main example of the way in which Kant allows for different interpretations concerns the question whether he is a realist or an idealist. But Kant is rather explicit about this in the First Critique. He tells us that he is an empirical realist and a transcendental idealist. So, he is a realist in one sense but not in another. And he is an idealist in one sense but not in another. This may explain why some are tempted to interpret him as a realist and why others are tempted to interpret him as an idealist. But surely both of these interpretations are mistaken. Now what exactly transcendental idealism amounts to and what empirical realism amounts to are difficult questions of Kant interpretation, but I see no good reason to believe that the right interpretation here is more elusive than the right interpretation of, say, Berkeley's idealism. And one reason I say this is that Kant's language is remarkably consistent (even if occasionally loose) throughout the critical corpus, so consistent, in fact, that it strikes me as far more likely that there is a single correct interpretation of his philosophy than that there are multiple equally plausible interpretations.


Scott Bakker said...

I thought I had the gist of your argument until you say 'historians of philosophy should attempt to arbitrate between Kants' (as opposed to say, clarify versions). Since nonhistorians always have had liberty to choose between the Kant's that best suit their purposes, I suppose I'm wondering what the upshot is. Are you saying that they should be able to choose without being called to account for perceived shortcomings of their choice? The problem with this skeptical argument, aside from applying to your second-order argument, is that it seems to apply to all non-naturalistic philosophy. I personally have no problem with this - theoretical incompetence, I think, clearly means most all philosophy posturing as 'truth-seeking' is bunk.

But doesn't this mean that what you're really arguing for is a wholesale recharacterization of what philosophy is? So for me, this means that philosophy is more about opening up the possibility of systematic (inferentially constrained) thinking. And this inclines me to more sympathetic to Kant: if there are any explanatory virtues that traditional philosophy can aspire to, it seems that parsimony and comprehensiveness have to count high among them. So your argument could be turned around: Given theoretical incompetence (outside the sciences), any and all philosophical claims are susceptible to 'death by a thousand qualifications' - and philosophical argument can be made to 'look bad' as Rorty would say. So the question then becomes one of why a given inferential structure, such as transcendental idealism, *hangs together* the way it does, all on the basis, of a basic reinterpretation of the constitution of objects. My suspicion, for instance, is that a mature neuroscience and understanding of consciousness will allow us to empirically reinterpret Kant (so I would argue that he's exploring the a version of the perspectival/cognitive illusion that made geocentrism such an intuitive no-brainer).

Is there that much to choose between when it comes to systematic versus desultory bunk? Well, either the systematicity of the former is *entirely* an artifact of wishful thinking, or then there is something. Despite all the problems, Kant provides a system of material inferences that allows careful readers to predict what he would say on certain matters at least. Sup wit dat, Eric? ;)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, folks!

Brandon: My hope for the initial argument was that it would help remind the reader that Kant might very well have bad arguments and inconsistencies. Bad arguments and inconsistencies are likely to license interpretative pluralism, I'm inclined to think. Anyhow, that's how I hope the first material hangs together with the rest.

You write: "Kant scholars, for instance, are not particularly interested in the One True Kant." I'm inclined to disagree. *When pressed* with arguments like the one in my post, many Kant scholars will back away from asserting they're after the One True Kant. But I think the default attitude of Kant readers -- as revealed, for example, in their reactions to those who disagree with their interpretations -- is mostly non-pluralistic, at least about the big issues like the relationship between the phenomenal and things in themselves.

I acknowledge the concern that my approach will encourage interpretive sloppiness. But I think there's a sweet moderate middle because lazy cartoon Kant and One-True-Kant-ism -- a middle occupied, I'm inclined to think, by insufficiently many philosophers. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Kant specialists frighten non-specialists into avoiding discussion of Kant by insisting that the non-specialist is mistaken when the non-specialist doesn't adopt the specialist's own particular preferred Kant model.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sam: Thanks for your patience with my ill-tempered remarks about Kant, which are bound to annoy some Kant enthusiasts. I appreciate that we're able to keep it civil, even if I'm somewhat rude to Kant, whose reputation is surely safe from the likes of me! He is bigger than life, so I don't react to him as I would to a peer.

I agree that Kant is not the only great philosopher with gappy arguments, inconsistencies, and unclear jargon, and consequently not the only great philosopher for whom interpretative pluralism is licensed. In fact, I'd be an interpretative pluralist about any philosopher ambitious enough to make sweeping claims on grand issues of metaphysics and epistemology, and I would include Plato and Nietzsche among the great philosophers who license interpretative pluralism across at least as broad a range of possibilities as Kant's.

However, since not all interpretations will be equally good, there will be a (fuzzy-bordered) *range* of viable interpretations; and I doubt the range will be as broad for some philosophers as it is for others. My inclination is to think that the range for Berkeley is narrower than the range for Kant. We seem to disagree on this point. I'm not sure how to settle that disagreement other that to point to the secondary literature: It certainly seems that the secondary literature on Berkeley shows less disagreement about how to interpret the central features of his metaphysics. Do you disagree? (That's not to say that Berkeley doesn't have points on which interpretative pluralism might be licensed -- e.g., his claim that we can have no "idea" of a soul or spirit but we can have a "notion" of one.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Scott: Maybe I'm not quite as radical as you! I still want the truth about, e.g., whether space and time (or spacetime) is a feature of the world independent of our minds or whether it is something more like a feature of our "user interface" with the world. I still think there's a fact about that: either it is, or it isn't, or somewhere in between, or the question is somehow broken. And it's an issue on which it seems natural to try to bring Kant to bear.

Now I'm inclined to think that given our cognitive limitations, we should be *skeptical* about issues of that sort; but that's very different from giving up on those issues, or assigning equiprobability to the options, or saying there's no truth to be discovered. And I guess I do think the traditional tools of philosophy can help us somewhat here, though philosophers are habitually overconfident in their use of those tools. And bless Kant for giving us some ways of thinking, or some class of ways of thinking, that we might not otherwise have had!

Scott Bakker said...

Eric: And here I was thinking I was being more conservative than you! What I was suggesting was that the systematicity of Kant could reveal something important about the kinds of illusions philosophical reflection is prone to, and thus help cognitive psychology, say, help research into fundamental questions avoid falling into variants of traditional traps. (So Kant's model, for instance, I see as turning on what Kahneman calls 'WYSIATI.')

Otherwise I would take it that you loosely agree 'philosophy is bunk' up until the point where it becomes science?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Scott, I could see Kant potentially being useful that way.

My view on philosophy and science is this: Philosophy is *almost* bunk up until the point where it becomes science. But also science is *almost* bunk when faced with the biggest philosophical issues. So if we're interested in the biggest philosophical issues -- which we should be -- we're stuck with various pieces of almost-bunk that need to be weighed against each other. Absolutely flat skepticism doesn't follow, but I do think low confidence should follow.

Brandon said...

But I think the default attitude of Kant readers -- as revealed, for example, in their reactions to those who disagree with their interpretations -- is mostly non-pluralistic, at least about the big issues like the relationship between the phenomenal and things in themselves.

Well, I suppose the question is this: what would the difference in their action actually be if we instead interpreted them as being pluralists who think that certain kinds of evidence are being ignored or need to be taken into account? I'm very skeptical that there would be any, and therefore skeptical of the idea that anyone can read One-True-Kant-ness off such behavior. I think non-HoPers often don't understand just how important issues of evidence are for HoP; it's the blood and breath of the discipline: we don't have the luxury of arguing without evidence as some of you do, and so matters of evidence can be quite intense. What you read as One-True-Kant-ism, I would be inclined to read as but-what-about-this-evidence-ism. (I think, closely related to this, it's also often overlooked by non-HoPers just how often they sound like they are the ones putting forward the true interpretation.)

I suppose I'm also still not clear on why interpreting people as having bad arguments and inconsistencies would give pluralism in interpretation; it sounds more like it's an attribution of bad arguments and inconsistencies to the One True Kant. I mean, after all, it's not an important fact that you can come up with some interpretation of a philosopher according to which they have bad arguments and inconsistencies; that's a snap of the fingers. It only becomes important if they really do have the bad arguments and inconsistencies.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Brandon: I'm thinking that one difference in response might be to say "That's an interesting interpretation that fits with this-and-this evidence but has these disadvantages; but I prefer the following interpretation, which has the following advantages and disadvantages". Sometimes I hear that. More often, I hear something like, "No, here's what Kant's position really is, because of X".

On your second paragraph: My view is that the Kantian text has -- must have! -- bad arguments and inconsistencies. Bad arguments and inconsistencies license intepretative pluralism, e.g., for reasons discussed by Dennett. For example, if someone says P and Q and R and not-P, we have some interpretative options. Might the person have changed his mind? Might "P" and "not-P" have different meanings despite the superficial form of words? Might the author be contradicting himself without realizing it?...

Daryl said...

You could re-title this "For the Noumenal Kant."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Daryl: I'm looking for the "like" button....