Realism and Correlationism: Kant and the Short Argument

Meillassoux takes the correlationist to rely on the following argument:

thought cannot get outside itself in order to compare the world as it is ‘in itself’ to the world as it is ‘for us’, and thereby distinguish what is a function of our relation to the world from what belongs to the world alone. Such an enterprise is effectively self-contradictory, for at the moment when we think of a property as belonging to the world in itself, it is precisely the latter that we are thinking, and consequently this property is revealed to be essentially tied to our thinking about the world. (AF: 4)

This argument is a form of what Karl Ameriks calls the ‘short argument’ to idealism, which often gets attributed to Kant. However, Kant does not make this short argument. Ameriks traces this form of argument to Reinhold, and he notes that it does sometimes appear in the post-Kantian tradition. So, we find Reinhold claiming the following:

What is represented, as object, can come to consciousness and become represented only as modified through the form of representation, and not in a form independent of representation, as it is in itself. (Versuch: 240; quoted in Ameriks FoA: 129)

Reinhold takes it that a need to represent objects for them to be given to consciousness ensures that we cannot come into an epistemic relationship to those objects which could be disentangled from our representations:

The concept of a representation in general contradicts the representation of an object in its distinctive form independent of the form of representation, or the so-called thing in itself; that is, no thing in itself is representable. […]

[T]he object distinguished from the representation […] can only be represented under the form of representation and so in no way as a thing in itself. (Versuch: 244, 246)

So, for Reinhold, because we cannot get outside of our representations, then objects cannot be represented as they are in themselves.

If the correlationist — whatever ‘originary correlation’ they are meant to argue for, and whatever it means to say that they cannot consider its terms independently — has to rely upon this argument as it stands, they are in trouble. This is because the conclusion it argues for is trivial given the way key terms in the argument are understood. Reinhold is trying to prove that we cannot know things in themselves, where he takes knowledge to require that objects are represented to us. But if he tacitly understands ‘things in themselves’ just to be what is not representable, then the conclusion follows all too easily. Thus, on its own, this argument ought to convince no-one.

Meillassoux’s presentation of the argument proceeds in a similar fashion. It seeks to establish an (underspecified) ‘essential tie’ between thought and things in themselves. Like Reinhold, this is meant to undermine the possibility of an epistemic relation to the world as it in itself independently of thought (one that the realist requires to distinguish primary and secondary qualities). The way that it does this is by simply noting that we cannot think of features of the world in itself without the world in itself being the object of that thought. Thus, we must always factor in a correlation between thought and the world in itself when attempting to reflect on the latter. Again, the shallowness of this argument ought to be transparent. Knowledge of the world in itself, as required by the realist, is denied to us because thinking is always present when thinking about the world in itself. However, this is only because here we are to understand knowledge of the world in itself as knowledge where thought is not present. The opposition is simply defined out of existence. Nothing is demonstrated by this argument, and it is no more contentful than Reinhold’s efforts.

* * *

Even with Meillassoux’s distinction between weak and strong correlationism, and the specification of different possible correlates than simply thought and world, I am not yet clear in my own mind what the status of the correlationist’s claim that thought and world must be thought together is meant to be. So, I am hesitant to assert or deny that particular philosophers are correlationists. Besides, I am not sure how useful a discussion along the lines of ‘is x really a correlationist?’ would be. Still, insofar as transcendental idealism can be thought of as introducing some significant relation between thought and world, whether we understand this idealism as metaphysical, formal, methodological or whatever, then it may bear considering in this context.

However we understand the relation between objects and cognition in Kant, I have claimed that we do not find a ‘short argument’. Yet, Kant does claim that objects conform to the conditions of cognition. So, we can ask, how does Kant’s position differ from the ‘short arguments’ dismissed above? This ought not to be of mere historical interest insofar as it can furnish us with alternative arguments for either correlationism or a more plausible relative of it. Speculative realists have an interest in attending to other such strategies insofar as their own positions can develop in dialogue with a wider range of opposition than the colourless proponent of the short argument.

Transcendental idealism famously effects a Copernican turn. Instead of assuming that all our knowledge must conform to objects, Kant ventures a hypothesis: objects must conform to our knowledge. This claim has proven difficult to understand. It is clear that Kant is not asserting an empirical idealism, which holds that objects have a metaphysical dependence upon our epistemic activity or our ‘representations’. Kant denies this when distinguishing his position from what he calls Berkeley’s dogmatic idealism. In the Prolegomena, he calls his position formal idealism, and any dependence of objects upon our knowledge is restricted to the forms of our knowledge. In the Analytic of the first Critique, regarding the categories of the understanding, Kant denies he is engaged in a traditional metaphysical investigation of being qua being (A247=B303). However, it can appear that the Aesthetic claims that our forms of sensibility, namely space and time, are ontological conditions of objects (although Kantians such as Henry Allison and Graeme Bird forcefully argue against such a reading). Whatever the right interpretative approach here, obviously some important connection between formal conditions of knowledge and objects is being asserted. But why? The answer provides some possible motivations for something like a correlationist position which are not simply versions of the short argument.

Kant makes his speculative Copernican hypothesis because he is dissatisfied with metaphysics. When compared with mathematics, say, which also seeks knowledge which is not directly empirical, it can hardly be said to be on the ‘sure path’ of science. For Kant, this was illustrated by the hollowness of metaphysical inquiry into the nature of the soul, God and world, reflected in the the interminable debates in rational psychology, rational theology and rational cosmology which are diagnosed in the Transcendental Dialectic. The problem, he thinks, is that metaphysics has employed theoretical reason in illicit ways, beyond its proper bounds. Traditional metaphysicians have failed to take into account the anthropocentric forms of human cognition, and so constantly come to grief by asking of reason what it cannot deliver. However, this is merely a sketch of some of the territory. There is no swift move from registering the forms of human cognition and towards sealing us off from a non-human world. From the bare fact that it is our cognition, it does not follow that it cannot deliver things in themselves. To attribute such a short argument to Kant on this basis is to ignore the details of Kant’s examination of cognition and his lengthy inquiry into metaphysics.

If transcendental idealism does ultimately count as a form of correlationism, this will be on the basis of the determinate limits on knowledge explored in Kant’s inquiries. These include sensible conditions, intellectual conditions, cognitive conditions governing the relation of the sensible and intelligible (e.g. the discursivity thesis), and rational conditions pertaining to the proper use of practical and theoretical reason. Each is supported by argument and analysis, which vary in success. For example, the intellectual conditions on empirical knowledge include conformity to the categories of the understanding. These conditions on thought are backed by an examination of the forms of judgement, which many people have found problematic and dogmatic. This set of conditions will probably not be the most troubling for the speculative realist though (Kant allows that we can think the thing itself — though whether that is just as a limiting concept is debatable). Rather, it will be the sensible conditions which will be most problematic. These sensible conditions enable objects to be given. Thus, they provide the main receptive framework for cognition, where the understanding provides the main spontaneous framework. Objects are given to sensibility according to its forms, namely space and time. This can seem an unassuming empiricist move: we know about things through spatio-temporal experience. But it goes beyond this insofar as Kant’s Copernican turn makes an a priori pure form of intuition logically prior to objects. Objects are given according to this pure intuition, such that they have formal properties in conformity with this pure form. This can be understood in more or less metaphysical terms. It is where realists will doubtless demur though, since it can seem to impugn the independence of objects from our cognitive apparatus.

Why does Kant embrace something like correlationism here? Some reasons are arguably idiosyncratic. For example, Kant thinks that we require pure forms of intuition to help apply the categories of the understanding (such as existence or plurality) to sensible objects — they bind the a priori and the empirical together ‘schematically’. Also, given his understanding of geometry and arithmetic, pure forms are meant to explain the synthetic a priori status of mathematical knowledge.

What may have a wider resonance though is the role of forms of intuition in grounding Kant’s revised metaphysics. Kant thinks that reason can be shown to fail when, like the rationalists, it strays from the path of possible experience. This was what led metaphysics into darkness. But if objects have to conform to the forms of intuition, then their formal properties can be grasped a priori. So, for any object which is given to us, we can justify limited metaphysical knowledge of it with reference to the pure forms, since nothing can be given that does not conform to these forms. Kant sums it up like this: “reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own.” Now, by my lights, Kant’s specific appeal to pure forms of intuition is not ultimately successful. But it does give a substantive argument for a correlationist-like understanding of the relation between objects and cognition. Furthermore, it outlines a strategy which I think can be made to work, albeit in a heavily revised form, with respect to the normative bases of cognition (and which, in time, I hope to outline).

* * *

A final thought on the question of metaphysics. The metaphysics which Kant seeks to cut down to size is an unbridled rationalism. But speculative realism has typically championed a kind of empirical metaphysics. It seeks to be porous with respect to scientific discovery: it is science which is to be the leading-edge of ontology. I have some limited sympathy with this approach with respect to certain theoretical endeavours, and agree that on the whole there is no need for a metaphysical grounding for science, provided by philosophy. However, I wonder quite how speculative realism will come to understand the status of its own metaphysical claims.

Alexei has raised the problem of normativity in this area: does a radical materialism have the resources to account for its own justification? We are all naturalists now — after a fashion, at least. But speculative realists have adopted a particularly strident form, which does not seem to be friendly to normativity. Just witness Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound. Can it understand, or sufficiently redescribe, the context in which it puts forward its own theory, such that it can allow that such a theory is meaningful, justifiable and truth-apt, whilst cleaving to a sparse materialist metaphysics which admits values, if it all, only in an anti-realist fashion? I will have more to say about this at a later date.


Realism and Correlationism: Some preliminaries

Over at Larval Subjects, Now-Times and Perverse Egalitarianism there has been a fractious debate regarding realism which has gone on for some time. This is in the wake of ‘speculative realism’ coming to increased prominence, under the influence of Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant and Graham Harman. This realism has been contrasted with a correlationist position, which is taken to infect much contemporary philosophy.

Meillassoux introduced the term ‘correlationism’ to describe a non-realist position which claims that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” (AF: 5) As Meillassoux also puts it, the correlationist denies that it is possible to ‘consider’ the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another. Of course, this could mean any number of things. Whether correlationism proves to be a useful philosophical category depends upon how this claim is spelled out.

Kant is supposed to be the paradigm correlationist. This is because Kant was meant to disallow us knowledge of any object subsisting ‘in itself’. Instead, knowledge was to be restricted to objects as they are ‘for us’. Thus, Kant is said to have eroded the pre-critical distinction between primary and secondary qualities, since even central candidates for the status of primary qualities (such as its mathematisable ones) must be “conceived as dependent upon the subject’s relation to the given — as a form of representation.” (AF: 4)

Does Kant’s position get fairly characterised by the new realists? A lot of acrimony has resulted from the attempt to answer this question in discussions between Levi, Alexei and Mikhail. Both sides are now pretty entrenched, and that is when they are on speaking terms. I don’t want to reignite these ‘Kant wars’ but I will offer some comments on this issue in the next few posts.

Firstly, Levi has expressed some dismay that this question has become a focal point at all. It is, he thinks, another sign of a kind of hermeneuticism endemic in continental philosophy, which drives philosophers into endless debates over the meaning of texts at the expense of assessing their truth. Of course, detailed textual work is often extremely valuable, but — the concern is — many philosophers have stopped reading the work of Kant, Heidegger or Deleuze as tools in a larger quest to understand the world, but have taken this activity to be an end-in-itself. It is true that this is a problem, and I am equally frustrated when scholars turn into scholastics. But I do not think the charge applies in this instance.

Levi claims that Kant is the ‘inventor’ of correlationism and is a central example of a correlationist (though by no means a unique one). Moreover, there is repeated reference to his position — and perhaps more importantly, his vocabulary — in contrasting correlationism and the new realism. If there is a dispute over Kant’s position, where there is a risk of it being unclear, it is important to at least articulate this. Otherwise, the exposition of correlationism risks being unclear — where it has been to me, for one, until getting a handle on what reading of Kant is in play here (for example, regarding how ‘in itself/for us’ is being understood). More importantly though, Kant gives us a detailed and nuanced treatment of the ways in which being might be taken to be related to thought. If that account was buried under a problematic reading of him, then the substantive debate risks being all the poorer as a result. These two considerations should have some weight even amongst those for whom understanding Kant’s own thought is a secondary consideration.

Secondly then, moving to the issue proper, I want to flag some of my concerns over the use made of Kant. In these matters, I am predominantly in agreement with Alexei, who I think has done a sterling job in this respect. I suspect this is because we are familiar with much of the same recent literature on Kant which brings out just how complex and well-crafted a project transcendental idealism is. Here, I am thinking of Kant scholars such as Henry Allison, Karl Ameriks, Graeme Bird, Fred Beiser, Allen Wood, Onora O’Neill and Paul Guyer. Though by no means united, the sophistication of their approaches to Kant is commendable, and their sustained attention to detail has shown how Kant was aware of many of the standard charges against him (subjectivism, a priorism, emptiness, etc.) and either responded to them or developed the resources to do so. The point is not to be an apologist for Kant but to do justice to the power of his thought insofar as it promises to help us understand the world. I think that it still can, even if I am not (just as Alexei and Mikhail are not) a paid-up Kantian.

In the posts that follow, I will concentrate on three cases, with an eye towards why the readings of Kant matter. (I won’t address the recent hot topic concerning time and ancestrality, since I can’t devote the energy to it, especially as tempers are flaring once again.). Again, the aim will be to show why a focus on Kant is not a morbid fixation but a useful piece of the puzzle. I want to show how the cases I’ll look at bear upon substantive issues in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, even when abstracted from the historical issue of what Kant thought. Also, I shall try to counter the second-guessing of the motivations of critics of speculative realism, providing some symptomatological musings of my own. However, I also want to issue a plea for a bit of old-fashioned bourgeois civility, which would not go amiss on all sides. I’ve no interest in questioning other people’s intelligence or integrity. This said, the next post will be about what Ameriks calls the ‘short argument’ to idealism, and which Meillassoux and Levi attribute to correlationists.

The Year in Books

Academic presses are still creaking under the weight of books published, so you would be forgiven if the occasional gem passed you by. It being the end of the year as well, I thought I would flag some notable philosophy books published this year, as well as point to some to look out for in the coming year. I’d be happy to hear of any of your own picks for this year’s best too.

My favourite book to appear this year is one I’m still reading — Robert Pippin’s masterful Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life. As ever, Pippin manages to combine a wonderful lucidity of thought with a rich and suggestive prose style, which makes all his work a pleasure to read. This book develops the reading of Hegel which he shares with Terry Pinkard, which sees Hegel as engaged in the project of constructing a theory of normativity which would build upon, whilst radically revising, Kant’s talk of self-legislation. As long-time readers will be aware, I think this project is flawed both historically and philosophically. Nonetheless, Pippin has brilliantly buttressed his case here; and even where I think he goes astray, he is always insightful, especially when engaging with contemporary philosophical developments. If you have any interest in Hegel, metaethics or normativity, this comes highly recommended!

Another book in a similar vein, though this time arguing against a central role for autonomous agency, was Charles Larmore’s The Autonomy of Morality. Like Larmore’s other books, its mainstay is a collection of revised articles, loosly connected to the central theme. These are tied together by a central essay, arguing against Kantian constructivism as a metanormative theory. Larmore thinks that in place of a morality of autonomy we need to reclaim an autonomous morality. To unpack that slogan a little, he thinks that treating autonomy as a foundation for normativity is incoherent: any norms based upon autonomous endorsement alone will be little more than products of what Donald Regan calls ‘arbitrary self-launching’. Any putative norms arising from a process of self-legislation, so understood, cannot have a rational claim upon us. Instead, he thinks we must suppose that morality itself (and presumably other normative domains) is autonomous — independent of our practices, insofar as its ultimate authority is concerned.

My main reservations about his position arise with his conception of this independent normative realm — something he takes to be a robust metaphyiscal space, akin to the space of physical or psycholgical inquiries. In one essay, ‘Attending to Reasons’, he argues against the more Wittgensteinian conception of philosophical inquiry which animates McDowell’s work on just this sort of issue. It seems to me that Larmore lacks any good argument against such a position though; he simply restates the demand for philosophical explanation — e.g. surely we need to know what reasons are — which is the very thing that the Wittgensteinian tries to get us to loosen our grip upon by directing us to more modest questions about what we do and what we treat as a reason. This is a debate which needs reformulating if either side is to find traction with the other — something I am finding myself tasked with doing at the moment.

Talking of Wittgenstein, Oskari Kuusela’s The Struggle against Dogmatism: Wittgenstein and the Concept of Philosophy came out in April. This is another which I have not got all the way through yet, but the parts I have read are promising. The book is an attempt to describe Wittgenstein’s methodology, especially as it blossoms in the later philosophy. I had occasion this year to speak to Oskari whilst attending an event we were at, and I was struck by the intensity of his commitment to reading Wittgenstein with an anti-dogmatic tenor — one in which we have to radically rethink philosophy’s approach, as opposed to sliding into an equally formulaic characterisation of philosophy (e.g. the first thesis of Philosophy Club is that there are no theses in Philosophy Club…). What is particularly striking about Oskari’s approach is that it takes the question of methodology to be the beating heart of Wittgenstein’s work, whilst nevertheless letting us see how genuinely productive, progressive and insightful philosophy can still be done under its auspices.

I was rather less enamoured with Brandom’s Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism, in which he attempts to reconcile pragmatism and more mainstream analytic philosophy. He claims that it is pragmatism in both the classical and Wittgensteinian senses which are to be one side of this reconcilliation. However, Brandom’s Wittgenstein is the worst of caricatures — a sloganeer, reduced to spitting ‘meaning is use’ and other proto-systematic dictums. His is a decidely non-Kuuselic reading. This bears upon his recent book insofar as it is animated with the worst of Brandom’s habits, and indeed the red thread which will unravel most of his work: reductionism. Brandom seeks to describe a set of reductive relations between different sets of vocabulary (logical, modal, normative, intentional, etc.). My thoughts here are that Brandom is doing little more than repeat the mistakes of traditional metaphysical inquiry in a semantic key. The lure of reductive accounts is great, and they are quite rightly indispensable in the natural-scientific enterprise. But philosophy is neither natural science nor composed of formal systems like logic, and the understanding which a massive program of theoretical interdefinability promises is little more than a mirage. It is Wittgenstein himself who provides the greatest lesson about this in the development of his early work away from the false clarity of the thoroughgoing analysis of the logical structure of natural language. This is yet another reason why Brandom counting Wittgenstein as an ally, albeit a misguided one, is perverse.

On a happier note, the blogosphere’s very own Sinthome, of Larval Subjects, published Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence. The project is an exciting one: a rehabilitation of a Deleuzian metaphysics as the ground of rethinking the perennial philosophical questions surrounding the particular-universal, existence-essence and sensible-conceptual relationships. It is the last of these which takes centre-stage, with the guiding question being how we are to understand Deleuze’s ‘transcendental empiricism’, which seeks to unfold the productive conditions for experience. It is in virtue of this topic that those of you with a ‘post-Sellarsian’ temperament may find it particularly interesting, since it tackles questions surrounding the intelligible structure of experience, familiar in the neo-pragmatist literature, from an interesting angle. Unfortunately, it has proved a little too hard-going for a casual reader like myself with little exposure to Deleuze. I hope to have the stamina for another go in the future though.

McDowell-watchers will have noted John McDowell: Experience, Norm and Nature, edited by Jakob Lindgaard, which collects many of the recent essays on his work from the European Journal of Philosophy, including new replies by McDowell. The most notable addition is a new essay by McDowell in which he revised his long-held and controversial position on the propositional structure of experience, replacing it with a claim that experience is conceptual simply in virtue of its ability to be discursively articulated. This claim is ostensibly made in response to Charles Travis’ arguments about conceptual content, though I think it may come to be seen as being heavily influenced by the next book I’ll mention.

I’ve yet to read more than a handful of pages of it, but Micheal Thompson’s book Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought looks fascinating. In it, he undertakes an Aristotelian analysis of the concepts of life, action and practice, as the basis for a clear view of practical philosophy. As I say, I suspect that it is Thompson’s influence on McDowell which can account for some of the impetus for his revised position, as reflected in McDowell’s eagerness to make room for a distinct mode for the representation of life within experience. I am reliably informed that Thompson’s work is attracting a lot of attention amongst the Chicago-Pittsburgh circuit, and I would expect to see his work discussed widely in the future. Were I to hazard a guess for which philosophy book this year in the broadly conceived post-Kantian tradition will end up being most influential, it would be this one.

Next year will see another promising book on metaphysics, namely, Robert Stern’s Hegelian Metaphysics. It’s going to be a collection of some of his essays, both new and old, on Hegel and metaphysical themes. In particular, there’ll be essays on themes from Hegelian metaphysics, like concrete universality and the Hegelian conception of truth, alongside critical and comparitive essays on historical movements influenced by Hegel, like the classical pragmatists (especially Peirce) and the British idealists. Again, Deleuzian metaphysics comes up, with a defence of Hegel’s position against Deleuzian criticism.

Also next year, two McDowell collections appear, The Engaged Intellect: Philosophical Essays and Having the World in View: Essays on Kant, Hegel, and Sellars. The contents should be familiar to those already keeping up with McDowell’s recent work, though there is what appears to be a new essay on Hegel which I am keen to see. Korsgaard’s Locke Lectures, Self-constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity, also come out. From the lecture texts already online, this looks like it will be a good read, and will no doubt draw a lot of attention! (She also had a collection of essays out this year on similar themes, called The Constitution of Agency: Essays on Practical Reason and Moral Psychology.) A volume of essays on Making It Explicit is also due out, called Reading Brandom: On Making It Explicit. The contributors are not quite as illustrious as those for the McDowell volume in the same series, but it looks interesting nonetheless.

As I say, I am happy to hear your own notable philosophy books of the year!

Hegelian Glee-Watch: Dumber than Dumbo Edition

Our plucky hero gives a Johnsonian refutation of subjective idealism:

Not even the animals are so stupid as these metaphysicians, for they fall on the things, take hold of them, seize them, and consume them.

— Hegel, Encylopedia §246

For a slightly more developed account, see Terry Pinkard’s ‘Inside, Outside and Forms of Life: Hegel and Wittgenstein’, which is where I came across the quote.

Draft Review of Hammer’s ‘German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives’

Comments, whether stylistic or substantive, very welcome!

Espen Hammer (ed.): German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives, London, Routledge, 2007, pp. 339. £18.99 pbk. ISBN 0-415-37305-0.

Update: I’ve taken down this post as the review is now forthcoming in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy in early 2009. Look out for it there…

Update II: The review is available online to subscribers here.

Hegel and idealism I: The case of Kant

Hegel’s idealism is a tricky issue to get a handle on. In this post, I’ll try to lay the ground for a short series that picks up on one strand running through it, relating Hegel’s idealism to Kant’s, as I have done in brief previously. This will be only a very partial picture, sidelining a consideration of the important influence of the idealisms of contemporaries like Fichte and Schelling, and those of the ancients like Plato and Aristotle. Nevertheless, I do not think it simplifies the picture too much. We can start, then, by considering Kant.

In what sense was Kant an idealist? My brutally short account begins as follows: In his oft-quoted 1772 letter to Herz, Kant says that in his previous work, “I still lacked something essential, something that in my long metaphysical studies I, as well as others, had failed to pay attention to and that, in fact, constitutes the key to the whole secret of hitherto still obscure metaphysics.” This key comes from an answer to a further question: “What is the ground of the relation of that in us which we call ‘representation’ to the object?”

It is the dogmatic failure to ask this question that Kant thinks has led all of his predeccesors (even Berkeley) to assume a form of realism, which he calls ‘transcendental realism’. The transcendental realist takes the concept of objectood to be independent of epistemic conditions. So, for this type of realist, the question of what we take objects to be is not dependent on what must be in place to know these objects. For them, first, we have some concept of objecthood; then, we go on to ask how we come to know the things that this concept picks out. (Or at the very least, the transcendetal realist thinks that these two questions are in principal seperable.)

Kant believes that the problem with this is, had his question been asked, it would be apparent that pursuing or merely assuming an answer to the ontological question of objectood, apart from the epistemic conditions for knowledge of such objects, was insufficient. According to him, there is a lacuna in any such approach. This is because it will fail to explain how an object comes to be for us — how we can come to represent it, or otherwise be in a meaningful cognitive relation to it. To say that objects affect us, say, by causally impressing themselves on us, would not yet be to explain what it is about both us and the object that allows this affection to form a representation connecting us and the object. Conversely, saying that we represent objects through our affection of them (actively interacting with them), is once again to fail to explain how it is that objects are available to us so that we can grasp them in this way.

To give an adequate explanation, Kant thinks we must take the ‘Copernican turn’. This turn has two closely related moments: one methodological and another substantive.

The methodological component involves making a distinction between the old, transcendental realist, conception of objects, and a new epistemically-inflected conception. So, Kant wants to retain some idea of reality as composed of things in-themselves, which are as they are independent of our capacity to know them. But he thinks that this conception is of no use to us in explaining what our cognitive connection to reality is. The new conception of objects is as things standing under conditions (not yet specified) of knowability; thus, what Kant calls ‘appearances’ (as opposed to ‘things-in-themselves’) are objects insofar as they are essentially available to the subject.

Tied to this methodological move, is a further substantive thesis about features of these objects. Following the methodological distinction, the required sense of objecthood for explaining our connection with reality will be one dependent upon the epistemic conditions that enable us to know objects. If, so conceived, objects must conform to the cognitive capacities of subjects, Kant thinks that it would be remarkable if we were just presented with objects of exactly this type, as if God had set up some harmony between object and cognition. So, he thinks that the subject must have some role in establishing the conformity of objects to the conditions under which we can know them. This role is to actively constitute objects, but only in respect of the conditions for them to be known by us. (Kant also thinks the failure of previous metaphysics justifies this as a tentative experimental hypothesis, but that need not concern us here.)

Kant’s idealism, then, consists in this: objects of knowledge are dependent upon knowing subjects for those features that enable them to be known. Obviously, what this then hangs upon is what features enable objects to be known. Kant argues that our only knowledge of objects is through sensible experience, and attempting to know objects apart from such experience simply leads reason into interminable confusion and contradiction. So, the conditions for knowledge of objects are those related to sensibility. But Kant does not think that all sensible properties of objects are directly dependent upon knowing subjects. Instead, he argues that it is the form of sensible experience, along with a set of conceptual structures in which the objects of experience are relatable, that are the relevant conditions of knowledge. This means that the subject only provides a spatio-temporal framework for objects, along with a number of principles (such as causality) that we must apply to organise experience in such a way that it can present objects graspable in thought.

Once a set of very general a priori conditions are in place, we have no role in shaping objects. Thus, Kant can claim to hold onto a qualified form of realism at the level of ordinary empirical properties. So, for example, we contribute the forms of space and time that an object must appear within, but that does not mean it must be our contribution where and when a given object appears. Thus, Kant marries a transcendental idealism, at the level of the a priori conditions of appearances, with an empirical realism, which holds at the cognition of those appearances.

Now, this is a very schematic account, and which fails to incorporate some of Kant’s central concerns (such as his attempt to explain synthetic a priori knowledge and his arguments against the reality of space of time). Nevertheless, I hope the general picture is clear. First, Kant seeks to explain our cognitive relation to objects. To do so he begins with a novel distinction between things-in-themselves and appearances (i.e. objects which are essentially knowable). He goes on to suppose we can make better sense of our relation to reality if we undertake the hypothesis that objects must conform to cognition rather than cognition to objects. This involves a critique of cognition to determine what the conditions for knowing objects are. The result is a conception of objects as having some formal features contributed by us a priori, whilst having their material empirical properties more robustly themselves.

Obviously, the correct interpretation of Kant’s theoretical philosophy is controversial, and the nature of his idealism particular so. I am somewhat attracted by a reading that moves away from language of the subject ‘constituting’ objects, of them conforming to the conditions of its experience, replacing this with the idea that objects must conform to the conditions of experientiality in general. This is the sort of Kantianism that, arguably, is latent in the Tractatus, though I am not yet sure to what extent it is Kant’s. Either way, I think the picture of Kant presented above is not too far from Hegel’s understanding of Kant — encapsulated in his claim that Kant was a ‘subjective idealist’ — and it is that understanding that will be paramount in the following posts.