فصل 19

دوره: تاریخچه کوتاهی از فلسفه / درس 19

فصل 19

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chapter 19

Rose-Tinted Reality

Immanuel Kant (1)

If you are wearing rose-tinted spectacles they will colour every aspect of your visual experience. You may forget that you are wearing them, but they will still affect what you see. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) believed that we are all walking around understanding the world through a filter like this. The filter is the human mind. It determines how we experience everything and imposes a certain shape on that experience. Everything we perceive takes place in time and space, and every change has a cause. But according to Kant, that is not because of the way reality ultimately is: it is a contribution of our minds. We don’t have direct access to the way the world is. Nor can we ever take the glasses off and see things as they truly are. We’re stuck with this filter and without it we would be completely unable to experience anything. All we can do is recognize that it is there and understand how it affects and colours what we experience.

Kant’s own mind was very ordered and logical. So was his life. He never married and he imposed a strict pattern to each day. In order not to waste any time, he had his servant wake him at 5 a.m. He would then drink some tea, smoke a pipe, and begin work. He was extremely productive, writing numerous books and essays. Then he would lecture at the university. In the afternoon, he would go for a walk at 4.30 – exactly the same time each day – up and down his street precisely eight times. In fact people who lived in his home town of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) used to set their watches by his walk.

Like most philosophers, he spent his time trying to understand our relation to reality. That, in essence, is what metaphysics is about, and Kant was one of the greatest metaphysicians to have lived. His particular interest was in the limits of thought, the limits of what we can know and understand. This was an obsession for him. In his most famous book The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), he explored these limits, pushing right to the boundaries of what makes sense. This book is far from an easy read: Kant himself described it as both dry and obscure – and he was right. Very few people would claim to understand it all, and much of the reasoning is complex and jargon-heavy. Reading it can feel like struggling through a dense thicket of words with little sense of where you are going, and few glimpses of daylight. But the core argument is clear enough.

What is reality like? Kant thought that we can’t ever have a complete picture of the way things are. We’ll never learn anything directly about what he calls the noumenal world, whatever it is that lies behind appearances. Although he sometimes uses the word ‘noumenon’ (singular) and sometimes ‘noumena’ (plural) he shouldn’t have done (a point Hegel made too, see Chapter 22): we can’t know whether reality is one thing or many. Strictly speaking, we can’t know anything at all about this noumenal world; at least we can’t get information about it directly. We can know about the phenomenal world, though, the world around us, the world we experience through our senses. Look out of the window. What you can see is the phenomenal world – grass, cars, sky, buildings, or whatever. You can’t see the noumenal world, only the phenomenal one, but the noumenal world is lurking behind all our experience. It is what exists at a deeper level.

Some aspects of what exists, then, will always be beyond our grasp. Yet we can, by rigorous thought, get a greater understanding than we could get from a purely scientific approach. The main question Kant set himself to answer in The Critique of Pure Reason was this: ‘How is synthetic a priori knowledge possible?’ That question probably doesn’t make any sense to you. It will take a little explaining. But the main idea is not as difficult as it first seems. The first word to explain is ‘synthetic’. In Kant’s philosophical language ‘synthetic’ is the opposite of ‘analytic’. ‘Analytic’ means true by definition. So, for example, ‘all men are male’ is true by definition. What this means is that you can know that this sentence is true without making any observations of actual men. You don’t need to check that they are all male, as they wouldn’t be men if they weren’t male. No fieldwork is required to come to this conclusion: you could sit in an armchair and work it out. The word ‘men’ has the idea of male built into it. It’s like the sentence ‘All mammals suckle their young.’ Again, you don’t need to examine any mammals at all to know that they all suckle their young, as that is part of the definition of a mammal. If you found something that seemed to be a mammal, but which didn’t suckle its young, you’d know that it couldn’t be a mammal. Analytic statements are really just about definitions, so they don’t give us any new knowledge. They spell out what we’ve assumed in the way we’ve defined a word.

Synthetic knowledge, in contrast, requires experience or observation and it gives us new information, something that isn’t simply contained in the meaning of the words or symbols we use. We know, for example, that lemons taste bitter but only through having tasted them (or because someone else tells us about their experience of tasting lemons). It isn’t true by definition that lemons taste bitter – that is something that is learnt through experience. Another synthetic statement would be ‘All cats have tails.’ This is something that you would need to investigate to find out whether or not it was true. You can’t tell until you look and see. In fact some cats, Manx cats, don’t have tails. And some cats have lost their tails, but are still cats. The question of whether all cats have tails is, then, a matter of fact about the world, not about the definition of ‘cat’. It’s very different from the statement ‘All cats are mammals’, which is just a matter of definition and so is an analytic statement.

So where does that leave synthetic a priori knowledge? A priori knowledge, as we have seen, is knowledge that is independent of experience. We know it prior to experience, that is, before we’ve had experience of it. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a debate about whether or not we know anything at all a priori. Roughly speaking, empiricists (such as Locke) thought we didn’t; rationalists (such as Descartes) thought we did. When Locke declared that there were no innate ideas and that a child’s mind was a blank slate, he was claiming that there was no a priori knowledge. This makes it sound as if ‘a priori’ just means the same as ‘analytic’ (and for some philosophers the terms are interchangeable). But for Kant it doesn’t. He thought that knowledge that reveals truth about the world, yet is arrived at independently of experience, is possible. That’s why he introduced the special category of synthetic a priori knowledge to describe this. An example of synthetic a priori knowledge, one that Kant himself used, was the mathematical equation 7 + 5 = 12. Although many philosophers have thought that such truths are analytic, a matter of the definition of mathematical symbols, Kant believed that we are able to know a priori that 7 + 5 is equal to 12 (we don’t need to check this against objects or observations in the world). Yet at the same time this gives us new knowledge: it is a synthetic statement.

If Kant is right, this is a breakthrough. Before him philosophers investigating the nature of reality treated it simply as something beyond us that causes our experience. Then the difficulty was how we could ever get access to that reality to say anything meaningful about it that was more than just guesswork. His great insight was that we could, by the power of reason, discover features of our own minds that tint all our experience. Sitting in an armchair thinking hard, we could make discoveries about reality that had to be true, yet weren’t just true by definition: they could be informative. He believed that by logical argument he had done the equivalent of proving that the world must necessarily appear pink to us. He’d not only proved that we are wearing rose-tinted spectacles, but had also made new discoveries about the various shades of pink that these glasses contribute to all experience.

Having answered to his satisfaction the fundamental issues about our relation to reality, Kant turned his attention to moral philosophy.

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