Here’s a satisfying little allegory from the ‘Doctrine of Method’. Kant tells us that we must give up our ambitious designs for human knowledge, turning away from rationalism and its metaphysics which wanted to build a “tower reaching to the heavens”. Instead, we must remain content with something altogether more modest, merely a “dwelling house” which is “just roomy enough for our tasks on the plain of experience”.
If we look upon the sum of all knowledge of pure speculative reason as a building for which we have at least the idea within ourselves, it can be said that in the ‘Transcendental Doctrine of Elements’ we have made an estimate of the materials, and have determined for what sort, height and strength of building they will suffice. Indeed, it turned out that although we had in mind a tower that would reach the heavens, yet the stock of materials was only enough for a dwelling house — just roomy enough for our tasks on the plain of experience and just high enough for us to look across the plain. The bold undertaking had come to nothing through a lack of materials, quite apart from the babel of tongues that unavoidably set workers against one another about the plan and scattered them across the earth, each to build separately following his own design. Our problem is not just to do with materials, but even more to do with the plan. Since we have been warned not to risk everything on a favourite but senseless project, which could perhaps exceed our whole means, yet cannot well refrain from building a secure home, we have to plan our building with the supplies that have been given and also to suit our needs.
This is from one of Kant’s pre-Critical works, published in 1764, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime:
A profound feeling for the beauty and dignity of human nature and a firmness and determination of the mind to refer all one’s actions to this as to a universal ground is earnest, and does not at all join with a changeable gaiety nor with the inconstancy of a frivolous person. It even approaches melancholy, a gentle and noble feeling so far as it is grounded upon the awe that a hard-pressed soul feels when, full of some great purpose, he sees the danger he will have to overcome, and has before his eyes the difficult but great victory of self-conquest. Thus genuine virtue based upon principles has something about it which seems to harmonize most with the melancholy frame of mind in the moderated understanding.
— Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen (trans. Goldthwait) p. 62-3.
1. David Harvey is giving a course that undertakes a close reading of the first volume of Capital, which you can watch over at davidharvey.org (via NP).
2. Here is a collection of talks given at a workshop with Brandom in 2005. Immersed in Fred Beiser’s The Fate of Reason, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism and Schiller as Philosopher as I have been over the last few weeks, I found the anaemic post-analytic approach of them somewhat grating. Nevertheless, there’s still some good stuff to be found in there.
In my recent post on Kant’s idealism, I noted that part of Kant’s strategy was to give a critique of our powers of cognition so as to identify the conditions for epistemic access to appearances. According to Hegel, insofar as this critique must be prior to the exercise of cognition, so as to determine how our cognitive capacities are to be applied (e.g. only to sensible objects, conforming to the forms of intuition and a fixed set of general conceptual categories) then he thinks Kant has got himself in a bind. With somewhat uncharacteristic perspicuity, Hegel sets out his objection like so:
A very important step was undoubtedly made, when the terms of the old metaphysic were subjected to scrutiny. The plain thinker pursued his unsuspecting way in those categories which had offered themselves naturally. It never occurred to him to ask to what extent these categories had a value and authority of their own. If, as has been said, it is characteristic of free thought to allow no assumptions to pass unquestioned, the old metaphysicians were not free thinkers. They accepted their categories as they were, without further trouble, as an a priori datum, not yet tested by reflection. The Critical philosophy reversed this. Kant undertook to examine how far the forms of thought were capable of leading to the knowledge of truth. In particular he demanded a criticism of the faculty of cognition as preliminary to its exercise. That is a fair demand, if it mean that even the forms of thought must be made an object of investigation. Unfortunately there soon creeps in the misconception of already knowing before you know — the error of refusing to enter the water until you have learnt to swim. True, indeed, the forms of thought should be subjected to a scrutiny before they are used: yet what is this scrutiny but ipso facto a cognition?
Here is a preliminary draft of the second chapter of my thesis. The aim of the chapter is to explicate the relation between freedom and rational constraint in both Brandom and McDowell. I don’t try to assess either position at this stage but simply to try and frame their projects as involving attempts to develop Kantian accounts of autonomy that bear upon my project of exploring the relation between the senses in which we are both free but nonetheless subject to external constraints. The first half deals with Brandom, reworking and revising some of the things that I have written here on him. The second half is new material on McDowell and needs the most work still to expand upon and sharpen up. As ever, any comments are warmly appreciated!
Update:Two years and many revisions later, this material is no longer the basis of a thesis chapter, but dismembered parts have still found their way into the final draft.