Friday, July 15, 2011

With a Little Help

How am I supposed to write about Kant? Synthetic a priori judgments. If you understand that phrase, you don't need me to explain anything. On the other hand, if you don't understand it . . . well, you still don't need me to explain it.

Kant is hard to read. His revolutionary ideas are difficult to grasp because they are so counterintuitive, and he didn't do himself any favors by couching them in such turgid language with so few illustrations. But having made it through his works once in the first ten-year reading plan, I wanted to go through them again after finally having something of a grasp on them -- a loose, greasy sort of grasp though it may be.

This year my assignment was to read a middle section of the Critique of Pure Reason, a part designated as the Analytic of the Transcendental Logic, by which Kant means the description of the fundamentals of thought. In the previous section, on Transcendental Aesthetic, Kant explained his view that everything we perceive seems to be in space and time only because our mode of perception uses space and time to sort out the objects we perceive. Space and time, he says, don't exist outside ourselves, at least not that we could ever tell. What things are in themselves, we don't know, but they seem to us to have locations in space and time because that's just the way our senses work. Space and time are in us, not in the outside world. Along the same lines, in the Transcendental Logic Kant says that categories such as causality, necessity, quantity, and so forth are also in our minds; they are the forms by which we must think thoughts and conceive conceptions and judge judgements, but we cannot know whether causality and the rest actually exist in the world.

Sometimes in reading Kant it becomes clear that I need help. An example: one of Kant's categories, these forms of pure understanding with no known basis in the outside world, is existence. Seriously? Existence is only a mode of thought? We can't know that anything exists? Not even, say, ourselves? It is very easy for me to read this kind of thing and wonder if I'm misinterpreting; I'm sure I'm not alone in having this feeling. It would help if I could travel through this reading list with a panel of expert teachers who could guide me and cut away the vines when I reach dense thickets such as this one. I don't carry my own faculty around with me, but I do consult expert teachers -- in other books. Yes, my list for any given year is larger than it looks, because it involves an implied list of books about the books.

This year, in order to boost my understanding and confidence while reading the Critique of Pure Reason, I've also been reading Peter Kreeft's Socrates Meets Kant, part of a series of imaginative dialogs in which the ancient sage meets up with various philosophers in an afterlife and puts them through his searching routine of questioning all assumptions. If you can get past that funny conceit and accept a Socrates that has kept up with the story of western philosophy, the book proves both entertaining and instructive. Kreeft's Socrates call Kant on several "self-contradictions" like saying both that various things exist and that existence is only a form of thought, or saying both that objects cause sensations and that causality is only a form of thought.

Another similar problem of inconsistency in Kant that I've noticed over the years involves his conception of human beings. One of the rules in his ethical system is that one should never treat another human being as a mere means to an end. Kant's reasoning involves his understanding of human nature, yet he claims that we can never know what the things we perceive in the world are really like in themselves. So how does he know that these beings he sees and hears are humans with the same nature he finds in himself? I agree with Kant's ethical rule. It's just that he says in one book that it is logically inescapable while saying in another that one of its premises (the nature of human beings) is absolutely unknowable to us.

I sat down this afternoon intending to explain briefly why I shouldn't write about Kant and then to spend most of the space on Kreeft's book and other guides. But now that I see that I've written several paragraphs about Kant, I'll close with just a brief mention of several books about books that I've found helpful in pursuing my plan.

• Also doing a great deal of the clarifying work that Kant didn't do for himself is Roger Scruton's Kant: A Very Short Introduction. All the other volumes I've tried from the Very Short series have been helpful, so I'm sure I'll look at more.

• For Shakespeare, I find Isaac Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare invaluable. His strength lies in historical, geographical, and mythological background, but his plot overviews and critiques of quality are also interesting to read.

• The Tragic Drama of the Greeks by Arthur Elam Haigh is available for free online and provides an excellent overview of every extant play by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

• Mortimer Adler, the godfather of my reading project, wrote a book called Aristotle for Everybody that serves as a perfect starting place for reading The Philosopher.

• As clear as Aquinas seems to me now, I would never have started making sense of him without Peter Kreeft's selective commentary, A Shorter Summa, and Kreeft's commentary on Pascal literally changed my life.

• The Oxford World's Classics series provides an expert introduction in every book, fiction or nonfiction, and every one I've read has helped a lot.

Well, now you've read my post about books that tell about books, including one by Kant that says that humans can never know what things are in themselves. If that seems to leave you a long way from any actual knowledge and suggests that today's post has very little value, remember that distance and value are both measured as quantities and that quantity is only a mode of thought.


  1. Dr. S- Mike Stutzman here. I'm reading through these posts chronologically, as I'm sure you would approve.

    In reading these, am I going to eventually get the story of how Kreeft's commentary on Pascal literally changed your life, or can you offer that to me here as a supplement?

  2. I put a hint of the story here: Basically, I grew up to be a melancholy person, and the Christian environments I found myself in all indicated that sorrow rose from a lack of faith and obedience, since Christians had an obligation to rejoice always. No matter that the Bible says that with much wisdom comes much sorrow and that godly sorrow brings repentance. I felt guilty about feeling bad, and I felt bad about being guilty. When I read it in the early 90s, Pascal's book showed me that (or authorized me to accept that) a proper Christian understanding not only allows but demands a sorrowful acknowledgement of our monstrously broken glory. Finally the cycle ended: now I could feel good about feeling sad.