The Other I

June 10, 2010

I’d like to talk to Kant

Filed under: Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 9:00 pm

Immanuel Kant was one of the great philosophers and a major influence in the 19th century.  I am not a philosopher and am not even a neophyte in relation to Kant’s thinking.

But I am familiar with two of his significant ideas.  In the first, he argued that our moral principles were instinctive.  That is, we all recognize the Categorical Imperative without needing to be taught that doing unto others as we would have them do unto us is the essence of morality.

Secondly, he argued that we cannot be absolutely certain about those things which we cannot experience directly.  He argued that greater  certainty could be reached by studying what we can observe, and thus gave a great boost to the study of science in the Victorian era.  Whether he meant to or not, this thinking  also seems to have resulted in a loss of faith for many in religious dogma.

I wonder if Kant were alive today how his thought would have developed in relation to these two issues in the light of modern experience.  More practically, I suppose I should ask what the great philosophers of science today are thinking about them.

In relation to the Categorical Imperative, we know now that what we call altruistic behavior, a willingness to care for the young and vulnerable, and to give priority to the well-being of the group instead of individual well-being are common throughout the animal world.  Certainly the roots of morality seem to reach much deeper and much wider than we thought even a century ago.  Whether Kant would still use the word “instinctive,” to describe a fundamental grasp of morality, I’m not sure.  But I think his thinking would not need any radical change in the face of modern evolutionary discoveries.

But on the second principle, I’m not so sure.  Kant died before the great scientific revolutions brought about by quantum mechanics and relativity.  It wasn’t immediately evident, but what has gradually become apparent since the beginning of the 20th century is that science is not nearly as certain as we once thought.

Science is not truth, but rather a collection of theories which we espouse because at any given time they seem to be the best explanations and most useful tools to solve the problems and answer the questions with which at any given time society is most concerned.

Science is immensely useful and, unlike religious dogma, openly committed to the need to test and validate its theories.

But Absolute Certainty or Truth it is not.

I wonder what Kant would say.

Though come to think of it, perhaps he did say something about it.  I might have to start reading philosophy again.

But probably not.  At heart, I suspect I’m too pragmatic to stick it out.



  1. You raise some interesting questions, and I don’t how Kant would respond, but it’s always stimulating to imagine.

    In regard to the idea that Kant thought of morality as instinctive, I think that’s the opposite of what Kant would have said. The Categorical Imperative is based on the nature of reason, i.e., universality and necessity being key features here. Universality and necessity (logically and ontologically, cannot possibly be ascribed to instinct). So, the concept that could take the place of instinct is that of knowing something a priori, and the Categorical Imperative would fit the bill.

    And you would be surprised to learn that Kant thought that the action of a woman who cares deeply about the welfare of her newborn would not qualify as a moral action. To act morally is to “act in such a way that you will the MAXIM [emphasis mine] by which you act to become a universal law.” And the corollary: “Always treat other persons, yourself included, as an end, never as a means.” Further, the essence of morality is good will:

    “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it,
    which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will.
    Intelligence, wit, judgement, and the other talents of the mind,
    however they may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as
    qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many
    respects; but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad
    and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and which,
    therefore, constitutes what is called character, is not good. It is
    the same with the gifts of fortune. Power, riches, honour, even
    health, and the general well-being and contentment with one’s
    condition which is called happiness, inspire pride, and often
    presumption, if there is not a good will to correct the influence of
    these on the mind, and with this also to rectify the whole principle
    of acting and adapt it to its end. The sight of a being who is not
    adorned with a single feature of a pure and good will, enjoying
    unbroken prosperity, can never give pleasure to an impartial
    rational spectator. Thus a good will appears to constitute the
    indispensable condition even of being worthy of happiness”

    Now, as to not being absolutely certain of things except those we experience directly, Kant would say that we cannot be certain of them at all except that they are the “things-themselves” of which the phenomena (what we experience) are the manifestation. Space, time, causality, quality, quantity, existence, reality, etc, all these categories, do not apply to them, and therefore, in principle, these things remain unknown to us.

    Also, when Kant says that we can only know what we experience (in your words, “observe), this is not exactly consistent with the presuppositions of science. Science posits that we can know the real qualities of things independent of our minds, that we can measure them, and that we can predict their behavior. What Kant is saying is that we can only know the phenomena, things as they appear; of things independent of our minds, we cannot know anything (which might be inconsistent on Kant’s part given that even knowing nothing amounts to a form of knowledge).

    Lastly, science by its very essence can never be absolutely certain of anything, despite what scientism would like to claim. Empirical truth is always contingent truth. I may assert something about X which may be true today, but not true in a year. What I assert about X is not necessarily true about it. The only truths that are necessary are the statements of mathematics and logic.

    At any rate, that’s all I’ll say for now, but I will leave you with two excerpts, from two philosophers (Heidegger and Plato) that I find really interesting with respect to the claims of modern science, and even the a priori science of math (geometry):

    Heidegger on Science, and the Common Understanding’s Obsession with “Facts”

    “Plato says in the Republic: Hai de loipai, has tou ontos ti ephamen epilambanesthai geometrias te kai tas taute hepomenas, horomen hos oneirottousi men peri to on, hupar de adunaton autais idein, heos an hupothesesi chromenai tautas akinetous eosi, me dunamenai logon didonai auton. The other technai–mode of commerce with beings, of which we said that they always apprehend thematically a piece of what is, as such, that is, the sciences of beings, geometry and those sciences that, following it, make us of it–dream about beings; but they are not in a position to see a being as something sighted in waking vision, idein, idea, that is, to apprehend the being of such a being. They are not in a position to do this as long as they make use of presuppositions about what is, about its ontological constitution, and leave these presuppositions unmoved, akinetous, do not run through them in philosophical knowledge, in dialectic. But for this they are fundamentally unqualified, since they are not capable of exhibiting what a being is in its own self. They are unable to give an account of what a being is as a being. The concept of being and of the constitution of the being of beings is a mystery to them. Plato makes a distinction regarding the way in which that which is, the on [emphasis mine] is accessible for what we today call positive sciences and for philosophy. The on [emphasis mine] is accessible for positive science in dreaming. For this the Greeks have a brief expression, onar. But for them the on is not accessible as a waking vision, hupar. Among the sciences which merely dream about their object Plato reckons geometry, too. Thus at the basis of what geometry deals with a priori there lies a still further a priori to which geometry itself is not awake, not just contingently, but to which it cannot be awake, in correspondence with its character as science, any more than, say, arithmetic can understand and explain in its peculiar nature the law of contradiction, which it makes use of constantly. I cannot elucidate the law of contradiction either arithmetically or otherwise. If even a priori sciences like geometry, which never deal with empirical facts, still presuppose something that is inaccessible to them, the constitution of the being of their thematic domain, then this holds all the more for all factual sciences and consequently also for psychology as a science of life or, as is often said now in imitation of Dilthey, anthropology, the science of living humans. Each psychology merely dreams about man and human existence, because it must necessarily make presuppositions about the constitution of the being of the human Desein and of its way of being, which we call existence. These ontological presuppositions remain closed off for all eternity to psychology as an ontical science. Psychology must let them be given to it by philosophy as ontology. The positive sciences, however–and this is what is remarkable–arrive at their results precisely while dreaming in this way. They do not need to become philosophically awake, and even if they were to become so they would themselves never become philosophy. The history of all the positive sciences shows that it is only momentarily that they awaken from their dreaming and open their eyes to the being of the beings which they investigate. That is our situation today. The basic concepts of the positive sciences are in a state of flux. It is demanded that they be revised by recourse to the original sources from which they sprang. To speak more precisely, we just recently were in such a situation. Anyone who listens more precisely and detects the true movement of the sciences above the external din and the busy activity of the industry of science must see that they are already dreaming again, which naturally should not be any objection to science, say, from the lofty standpoint of philosophy; it must rather be recognized that they are already returning to the state that is suited and familiar to them. It is too uncomfortable to sit on a powder keg, knowing that the basic concepts are just well-worn opinions. People have already had their fill of inquiry into the basic concepts; they want to have some respite from it. Philosophy as science of the “inverted world” is uncomfortable for the common understanding. Thus the concept of philosophy is governed not by philosophy’s idea but by the needs and the possibilities of understanding belonging to what Kant calls the common understanding, which is impressed by nothing so much as facts” (Martin Heidegger, Basic Problems of Phenomenology, pp. 53-54).

    Plato’s Version of Science Merely Dreaming Being:

    “In any case,” I said, “no one will object to our saying that it is some further method which endeavors in every case systematically to apprehend concerning each reality that which it is. But all the other arts are concerned with beliefs and desires of men, or are directing towards becomings and compositions, or towards the care of growing or composite things. And as for the exceptions which we declared to partake in a measure of being, the art of geometry and those which follow it, we see that these dream about being. They cannot behold it with waking eyes so long as they use hypotheses and leave them uncriticized, without being able to give an account of them. For if a man’s first principle is one he does not know, and his final conclusion and the intermediate stages are compounded out of that which he does not know, what possibility is there of such an agreement ever becoming knowledge? (Plato’s Republic, Ch. VII).


    Comment by demian217 — June 10, 2010 @ 11:24 pm | Reply

    • First of all, thank you for such a long and helpful comment. I very much appreciate the time and effort.

      A couple of clarifications, and a lot more questions:

      I can see I should not have used the word “instinctive” to describe what Kant meant by knowing something a priori. (Even as I used it when I was writing the post yesterday, a little warning bell rang which I ignored — “instinct” has not been a professionally respectable word among academic psychologists for close to half a century.) Had I appreciated that the Categorical Imperative does not include behaviors such as mother love, I would not have done so.

      But now I find myself asking as a cognitive psychologist what Kant did mean. Is something that is known a priori learned through the application of logic and reason in the same way that we learn that 1+1=2 (at least in base 10 and when we are dealing with discrete objects of the same kind)? Are these principles learned in the same way we learn to reach other indisputable conclusions based not on the sensory evidence but on intrinsic logic?

      If so, then perhaps – to my great surprise – I do not totally agree with Kant. There seems to me to be an evolutionary foundation to moral behaviour that precedes reason. Not that reason does not amplify and clarify moral choices. But it is not its sole constituent. I would be interested in what you think.

      Kant’s position that nothing can be called good in its own right except good will is provocative. It’s an idea that in the hands of the less sophisticated makes me very nervous. “I didn’t mean it,” or “I was just trying to be helpful.” isn’t, for me, quite enough of a justification much of the time for the resulting destruction. Bush & Blair thought going into Iraq would make the world a better place. For that matter, Hitler might have thought Auschwitz would. One of the enduring themes of the Greek tragedies is that wanting to do the right thing isn’t enough. (Obviously Kant was not saying this — I’m just commenting on the potential for distortion of his thought.)

      As for Absolute Certainty, I fully appreciate that Kant was not saying that we could obtain certainty by the study of phenomena. His exposition that what we know is always, inescapably a result of the interaction between the Known and the Knower, and that there is no way out of this has always seemed to me to be the death toll for any hope for Absolute Certainty. And if you notice in my post, I used the words “greater certainty.” Nonetheless, it does strike me as strange that this position seems to have increased the study of science and disregard for theology among the Victorians.

      But does science posit that we can know the real qualities of things independent of our minds? Independent of our experience or of our direct observations, yes. But how can we possibly know the real quality of something independent of our capacity to think of those qualities? ie, independent of our minds? Or am I missing something here?

      Thank you for the quotes from Heidegger and Plato. I understand. I agree. And they illustrate the reason why I am, with some difficulty, returning to read some philosophy once again. It would be utter hubris to think that I should grapple with some of these questions without acquainting myself a little more fully with those great thinkers who have already done so.

      Thank you once again. I read your comment with appreciation.


      Comment by theotheri — June 11, 2010 @ 2:54 pm | Reply

  2. I first want to say that I immensely enjoy your thoughtful responses and intelligent questions. It seems to me that even though you claim to lack the credentials in philosophy, you’re a philosopher in your own right, as your mind seems intuitively to make you raise the questions other philosophers ask, the important and relevant questions. You think very much like a philosopher, and you’re willing to ask questions that go beyond your specific field of study. Thank you very much for this opportunity.
    Knowing something a priori is something that can be really confusing, and not easy to explain, but once it is understood, there is a simplicity to it. A priori knowledge just happens to pertain to more abstract rather than concrete, empirical knowledge, even though it can involve an empirical concept like “bachelor.” A priori knowledge is related to analytic propositions, where the predicate of the proposition is contained in the concept of the subject. Thus, ‘All bachelors are unmarried males’ can be known a priori, and is therefore analytic. ‘All bodies are extended’ is also known a priori. By simply examining the concept of ‘body’ we infer that ‘extension’ essentially belongs to it. This is intuitively true.
    Arithmetic and geometry were also considered knowable a priori by philosophers before Kant. But Kant reformulated this scheme in a way that is not easy to understand. Instead of being knowable a priori, these propositions are ‘synthetic judgments a priori’. The synthetic/analytic and a priori/a posteriori distinction underwent a change that much complicated the issue, and which involves understanding Kant’s epistemology in depth.
    I admit that I still get perplexed by Kant, and as much as I think I understand some of his ideas, at times I find myself at a loss to explain them in a satisfactory way. He deserves a lot of study, especially for someone who claims to have effected a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy.
    So to your question of a priori knowledge, yes, I think Kant does mean something like reaching a conclusion on logic alone rather than on empirical grounds, that is, deductively.
    It may be that an evolutionary foundation precedes reason, but Kant did not live at a time when these principles were well-known or discussed, at least not in the way that we understand nowadays thanks to the breakthroughs in evolutionary science. I also agree that reason is not the sole constituent in moral choices, and I think that’s the great limitation in Kant, which other philosophers have not failed to point out. Schopenhauer, for instance, in the Basis of Morality, argues that compassion is the basis of morality, not an abstract categorical imperative deduced from reason. I tend to agree that compassion is a much better candidate, but in my view this doesn’t preclude a significant role for reason in helping us “amplify and clarify moral choices.”
    With respect to his concept of good will as the basis of what is good, I agree with you that someone who does not possess a sophisticated understanding can use this idea to justify all sorts of actions that have the most horrendous consequences. Thus the saying: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And Bush, Blair, and Hitler highlight this problem poignantly.
    But at the same time, I would deny that these individuals are adhering to a Kantian view of ethics; maybe a small portion of it. Kant also speaks of universalizing “the maxim by which one acts.” What if all countries were to engage in preemptive wars, would that be desirable, even morally conceivable? So, by universalizing, one avoids, in principle, the pitfalls of arbitrary action. Consequentialism and utilitarianism, on the contrary, make much more of the consequences of actions, and such a consideration is key in any moral calculus.
    It is ironic that you would point out that Kant’s epistemological position would have changed and even inspired the study of science in the Victorian age. But we have to understand that his blow was never intended for science, but for metaphysics (pure reason). Scientific thought, he asserted, was perfectly consistent with the study of phenomena. What he does undermine, however, is the realist metaphysical underpinnings in much scientific thought. For example, John Locke posits primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are those that can be known by science since these involve, in this view, “measurable qualities”: height, width, length, etc. These qualities, Locke thought, were objectively present in the things themselves. Colors, smells, audio qualities, tactile qualities, etc, were secondary, as these were constituted by the subject’s subjectivity more than the nature of the said objects. Science, in much of its investigations, has presupposed the view that primary qualities are valid and knowable.
    Bishop Berkeley I believe was the first one to challenge this view in order to make empiricism consistent with itself. He collapsed primary qualities to secondary qualities, and maintained that to be consistent with empiricism, we can only talk about those things we directly experience. Even “primary qualities” would fall within the province of our experience. Kant radicalized this insight by positing that ding an sich (things-themselves) are in principle beyond our cognitive grasp. The irony I was alluding to consists in that Kant said somewhere that he den[ied] knowledge in order to make room for faith.” So, how was this conducive to more scientific exploration?
    When you say:
    “But does science posit that we can know the real qualities of things independent of our minds? Independent of our experience or of our direct observations, yes. But how can we possibly know the real quality of something independent of our capacity to think of those qualities? ie, independent of our minds? Or am I missing something here?”
    Science posits the existence of things independent of our minds or our capacity to think them, or know them. I think that’s the philosophical consensus in the scientific community, though they would never call it that. This is science’s fundamental article of faith. So the question you ask seems a bit circular. If science posits that things have qualities independent of our minds, which we can know, then, it would follow that these things and their properties would be the way they are independent of our capacity to think and/or know them.
    The question of whether things have certain qualities, any qualities, is a metaphysical question; the question whether we can know these things, is an epistemological question. Science works with a realist metaphysics and its corollary epistemology. Kant’s system is a system of Transcendental Idealism. The condition of possibility of experience lies in the way our minds are constituted more than the way things are in themselves. Our minds constitute objects formally. The intuition of any object requires certain conditions, such as space and time, which are given and constituted by our mental makeup. These conditions are a priori and antecedent to all sensible experience.
    So, Kantian epistemology and metaphysics is very different from scientific epistemology and metaphysics. I’m not saying that I agree with Kant, but I do think he’s an important thinker that has many lessons to teach, and he can make us aware of many of assumptions we take for granted since we’re almost unconsciously operating from a scientific conceptual framework. Other thinkers challenge his notion of thing-in-themselves. Phenomenology in the twentieth century asserts that behind phenomena there isn’t a thing that stands under and that is its basis. The phenomena is as real as it gets. Deep questions!

    Thank you once again for having this conversation.


    Comment by demian217 — June 12, 2010 @ 8:27 am | Reply

    • Well, let me begin in response to your comment that I “think like a philosopher.” I would say that you are a philosopher who has the potential for being a greatly gifted teacher. But that may be a curse as much as a blessing. I count being a university teacher among the greatest joys of my life. Being challenged by gifted students and challenging them and showing them how exciting ideas can be is incomparable. But it comes with a price. Faculty life can be as vicious as any being in any business. You have a collection of individuals with above-average intelligence and above-average education competing for promotion. And then you have what you have already alluded to in one of your own blog posts – the emphasis on developing a career rather than acquiring some of the values for living a deeper, more fulfilled life. So there is often a disregard for the value of teaching, and disproportionate rewards for publishing and research grants. In my case, the price was worth paying, but I have seen greatly gifted careers destroyed by the arrogance of faculty who cannot tolerate fellow faculty with different theoretical orientations than their own.

      All right, enough of that. Now for a return to Kant. Yes, I agree that science posits the existence of things independently of our minds and of our ability to know and think about them. I am familiar with the phenomenological approach that suggests that only the phenomena exist. It’s an intriguing idea, and one which is appealing to more mystical types than I have become. One can’t dismiss it, of course, but I find it seems to create more questions than it answers for me.

      However, I do not think that accepting the assumption that things exist independently of our knowing them leads to the necessary conclusion that everything in the universe is knowable. The philosophy of science is split on that. Stephen Hawkins recently concluded that our capacity to understand the universe is like space – it is unlimited. So that we can always understand more but never understand everything. I do not see that it is circular reasoning to assume that the universe exists independent of our minds and that there may be things in or about the universe which are intrinsically beyond our comprehension. I am not sure there are, but I don’t see why there can’t be. As you say, the condition of the possibility of experience lies in the way our minds are constituted.

      I may not totally Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, however. It would be ironic to find myself inadvertently on the reductionist side of the argument, though. The reductionists are one of my bette noir’s in science, surpassed only by their even less tolerant cousins, those who believe that science can actually discover the Truth.

      On a more practical note, I tried yesterday to add my comment to your blog as well as my own but failed. Yet there would be some advantages to posting this dialogue on both our blogs. So I will try again later today. If you have a solution and want to try it, please do!

      And now it’s my turn to say thank you.


      Comment by theotheri — June 12, 2010 @ 4:21 pm | Reply

  3. I’ll start out by quoting you on what you said:

    “But does science posit that we can know the real qualities of things independent of our minds? Independent of our experience or of our direct observations, yes. But how can we possibly know the real quality of something independent of our capacity to think of those qualities? ie, independent of our minds? Or am I missing something here?”

    “However, I do not think that accepting the assumption that things exist independently of our knowing them leads to the necessary conclusion that everything in the universe is knowable. The philosophy of science is split on that. Stephen Hawkins recently concluded that our capacity to understand the universe is like space – it is unlimited. So that we can always understand more but never understand everything. I do not see that it is circular reasoning to assume that the universe exists independent of our minds and that there may be things in or about the universe which are intrinsically beyond our comprehension.”

    In the last quote, you seem to have significantly modified what you said in the first. I do agree with the content of the second one. In the first one, the question you asked suggested a circularity that I still see. That “we can always understand more but never understand everything” I find perfectly reasonable. Of course I am just interpreting what you’re saying, and perhaps your intention in the first excerpt was consistent with the second excerpt.

    Kant’s view, however, seems to me to stand diametrically opposed to the view that things have qualities that are independent of our minds. By “condition of possibility” Kant seems to be asserting that things or objects, as constituted in our experience, derive all their attributes from the categories of the mind, space and time included. So, if I understand this right, one could only hold both views (that things have qualities independent of our minds, and that the objects of our experience are entirely constituted by the categories) on pain of contradiction. And this is what marks the difference between realism and transcendental idealism.

    If you have noticed, I have been posting our dialogue in my blog as well. Thank you again.


    Comment by demian217 — June 12, 2010 @ 7:18 pm | Reply

    • Roberto Let me begin by saying that I consider myself quite fortunate to be carrying on this discussion with several people who actually know what they are talking about. I never did think I knew Kant well, but I did think I had a grasp of the Categorical Imperative. Either I never did or my understanding has degraded with time and disuse. So thank you for your helpful clarifications.

      To clear the air on the second issue of whether things exist independently of our minds, consider my second attempt to explain the valid one. In the first, I was unclear and it’s not worth trying to sort it out.

      I think now, however, that either I have misunderstood you or Kant. I have long thought that Kant’s position was that things do exist independently of our minds but that we could never know them independently of our minds. In other words, that there was no such thing as being able to take a completely objective view of something separate from the perspective within which we viewed it.

      It sounds as if you are saying that Kant’s position of transcendental realism is very much like that of the phenomenologists – that only that which we perceive actually exists. Or does Kant accept the possibility that things actually exist but that we cannot know them – that what we know is totally a function of our capacity to construct various categories such as time, space, etc.?

      The fascinating thing is that once once understand the question that asks what exactly it is that we know, it becomes simply mesmerizing, doesn’t it?

      Thank you. Again.


      Comment by theotheri — June 14, 2010 @ 2:04 pm | Reply

      • I don’t think that what the phenemenologists say about phenomena (though this is a field difficult to generalize) is tantamount to what Kant is saying. Kant, to account for the phenomena, posits the thing-in-itself to account for the idea that appearances are of something, of something which makes itself manifest through them. So, to make sense of our experience, and to satisfy the demands of reason, he erected the phenomena/noumena dichotomy. However, from what I’ve read, phenomenology does not posit a thing-in-itself. In fact, phenomenology does not posit anything at all (though this is a debatable point). This would violate one of its cardinal rules: when we “bracket,” questions of existence and nonexistence become irrelevant. Phenomenology does not have to assume anything, which is precisely why Husserl thought of it as a presuppositionless science. Phenomenology limits itself to describing the eidetic or essential structure of phenomena.

        What is debatable about Husserl’s contention about phenomenology being a presuppositionless science is that he thought he needed to insert the Cartesian cogito (I think, or the ego) to account for what he and Kant would have called the “Transcendental Unity of Apperception” (the fact that our experiences, in their manifoldness, present themselves as an intelligible unity).

        Again, it is hard to generalize what phenomenology is since various people who have made use of it have conceived it differently. Heidegger uses it to examine the “everydayness” of “Dasein” (Dasein “Being there” or the human entity), but he does away with the Cartesian subject or ego, and instead maintains that Dasein is “being-in-the-world”; it’s constitutive of the being of humans to find themselves in a world. He also does away with the idea that phenomenology has to limit itself to the analysis of Ideas or eidetic objects. Instead, he believed that by understanding human existence in its giveness (facticity), he could ultimately come to an understanding of the Being of beings (this must not be read theologically).

        Although there’s a conceptual continuum that runs through Kant and many phenomenologists, many key ideas differ fundamentally. And don’t forget what I said in an earlier post, Kant’s position is “Transcendental Idealism” as opposed to “realism.” It’s also important to understand that Kant is not saying that we construct objects in terms of their content or “matter” (not “matter” in the scientific sense). The Categories are formal, not material. The material of experience, he would say, comes from “outside” our minds. What I am still confused about when it comes to ascribing ‘existence’ to the “thing-in-itself” is that ‘existence’ is also a category, which belongs to the category of modality. “Reality” belongs to the category of “quality.” So, if none of our categories apply to the “thing-in-itself,” there’s not a lot of sense in saying that the latter “exists.” We can’t even say the “thing-in-itself” ’causes’ the phenomena, because causality is intra-phenomenal and does not apply outside it. Kant seemed to have thought that there was a metaphysical necessity in positing the “thing-it-self” but the logical necessity breaks down.

        Thanks you.



        Comment by demian217 — June 14, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

      • Addendum:

        This following paragraphs are from an article on Wikipedia; they explain why Kant thought we had to posit the thing-in-self. It also highlights some of the confusions around this concept:

        Noumenon and the thing-in-itself

        Many accounts of Kant’s philosophy treat “noumenon” and “thing-in-itself” as synonymous. However, Stephen Palmquist holds that “noumenon” and “thing-in-itself” are only loosely synonymous in as much as they represent the same thing but viewed from two different perspectives[10][11], and other scholars also argue that they are not identical.[12] Schopenhauer criticised Kant for changing the meaning of “noumenon”. Opinion is of course far from unaninimous.[13] Kant’s writings show points of difference between noumena and things-in-themselves. For instance, he regards things-in-themselves as existing:

        “…though we cannot know these objects as things in themselves, we must yet be in a position at least to think them as things in themselves; otherwise we should be landed in the absurd conclusion that there can be appearance without anything that appears.” [14]

        ..but is much more doubtful about noumena:

        “But in that case a noumenon is not for our understanding a special [kind of] object, namely, an intelligible object; the [sort of] understanding to which it might belong is itself a problem. For we cannot in the least represent to ourselves the possibility of an understanding which should know its object, not discursively through categories, but intuitively in a non-sensible intuition”.[15]

        A crucial difference between the noumenon and the thing in itself is that to call something a noumenon is to claim some kind of knowledge, whereas Kant insisted that the thing in itself is unknowable. Interpreters have debated whether the latter claim makes sense: it seems to imply that we know at least one thing about the thing in itself (i.e., that it is unknowable). But Stephen Palmquist explains that this is part of Kant’s definition of the term, to the extent that anyone who claims to have found a way of making the thing in itself knowable must be adopting a non-Kantian position.”


        Comment by demian217 — June 14, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

      • I forgot to include the link:


        Comment by demian217 — June 14, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

      • Roberto – Thank you for another extremely stimulating comment. I did not misunderstand Kant too fundamentally after all. But I’m still learning a lot more than I expected.

        I’ve taken a quick look at the Tugendhat interview you suggested which looks intriguing. Unfortunately, my time for cyberspace has just taken an unexpected knock, and I now might not get back to you until I return from the States at the end of the month. Do not think my extended silence is for lack of appreciation or interest.


        Comment by theotheri — June 16, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

  4. demian217 got there first – at least twice. I was also going to comment on your word ‘instinctive’ as being pretty much the opposite of what I think Kant would have thought about the categorical imperative.

    As I mentioned in A secular imperative to love, I think Kant was trying to formulate a universal principle which held for all free rational beings rather than one which specifically applied to the kind of free rational beings humans are. For reasons I cover in Categorically imperative, I don’t think he was successful in this. In fact it’s not obvious to me why moral imperatives need to apply to free rational beings per se. The fact that it was important to Kant to be able to demonstrate this suggests to me that for all his analytic rationalism he just couldn’t manage to get God out of his system.

    He was also pretty scathing about the Golden Rule (your reference to ‘doing unto others as we would have them do unto us’) despite its evident structural similarity to his categorical imperative.

    As you know, I’m drawn to the hypothesis that our moral sensibility could have an evolutionary explanation. It certainly seems a lot more credible than other alternatives on offer. And it is fascinating to speculate what Kant would think if he was alive today. Modern evolutionary thinking opens a world of explanatory possibility that was just not available in Kant’s day.

    Your remark that instinct has not been a ‘professionally respectable word among academic psychologists for close to half a century’ is a reminder that we need to be very careful about linking instinct with evolution.

    Clearly there is a link. If we accept evolutionary explanations for features of living organisms then there is no reason to exclude instinctive behaviour from the list of such features. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all behaviour which has an evolutionary explanation counts as instinctive. Unless of course we define ‘instinctive’ to mean this, but then we’d have to re-adjust a few familiar connotations.

    For example I’m fairly sure that Kant would think his concept of duty (as explained by/derived from the categorical imperative) overrode any inclination based on instinct; may well lead to different decisions and actions than instinctive inclination; and in many ways runs counter to instinctive inclination.

    But if we drop the (I would say unnecessary) requirement for something like the categorical imperative to bind all free rational beings, and instead inquire how something like the categorical imperative could be part of the a priori conceptual equipment of the kind of beings we happen to be, then I think there are very interesting and fruitful overlaps between the categorical imperative, the Golden Rule, and evolutionarily explicable algorithms of reciprocal altruism.

    Thanks again,


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — June 13, 2010 @ 8:14 am | Reply

    • Chris,

      Okay, I knew better, and am duly chastened. I promise I will never never never use the word instinctive again. Well, at least not to describe the Categorical Imperative.

      Seriously, I re-read the post to which you refer A Secular Imperative to Love in the context of the current discussion, and was quite surprised how differently I have understood it this time. The first time round the question I was asking was not about the moral imperative, and I have only now appreciated the full extent of your answer.

      It now seems to me that, in terms of the question of the source of our moral principles, there is very little difference between us. I can’t see how we can reasonably try to explain the development of morality without some reference to evolution. More may need to be said, but evolution must be included in the equation.

      Yes, I can see what you mean when you say Kant didn’t seem to be able to get “God out of his system,” as you put it. As you know, I recognize the problem, but Kant, for all his brilliance, seems somehow to have made a giant leap in the end, bypassing natural reason, science, evidence. The lot. It’s a leap I cannot make.

      I said it seems to me that in terms of the source of moral principle, I do not think I disagree with you in any meaningful way. But I will confess that I have no idea what the “evolutionarily explicable algorithms of reciprocal altruism” are. And I suspect there is still room for disagreement over the point at which reductionism is no longer valid within a scientific framework. There’s hope yet for continued dialogue!

      Seriously, Chris – thank you.


      Comment by theotheri — June 14, 2010 @ 2:47 pm | Reply

      • Thanks again.

        Yes I agree our thinking is pretty close in a lot of areas, and it’s maybe because we came via different routes that we might sometimes describe things in different ways.

        Sorry about that ugly bit of shorthand: ‘evolutionarily explicable algorithms of reciprocal altruism’. I’ll try & unpack it into something more like English. (This will repeat some of what I’ve said in Masters of war, and more particularly in Scratch my back.)

        First, by ‘evolutionarily explicable’ I don’t mean an evolutionary explanation already exists, but that (in my view) an evolutionary explanation makes sense – ie an evolutionary explanation seems feasible. Then ‘algorithms of reciprocal altruism’ refers to research etc done by a number of biologists (starting with eg Robert Trivers) to see if there are evolutionarily valid explanations of altruistic behaviour observed in some animal species. This is because the prior consensus was that altruistic behaviour didn’t seem to make sense in evolutionary terms, because how would an altruistic ‘gene’ survive & replicate at the expense of a selfish ‘gene’. Surely the selfish gene would win out every time?

        But then people started looking at the issue in terms of game theory, and in particular games like the Prisoner’s Dilemma where different strategies are pitted against each other, in repeated rounds of the game. The strategies largely boil down to either defecting (ie cheating) or not defecting. By running computer simulations they found that strategies like ‘tit for tat’ (if your opponent defects, then defect next time against that opponent; if your opponent does not defect, then do not defect next time against that opponent) were in certain circumstances more successful than alternatives like ‘always defect’. So by ‘algorithm’ I mean a behavioural strategy which could be expressed like that ‘tit for tat’, ie if your opponent defects, then defect next time… etc.

        Researchers have also run simulations which allow engagement strategies like ‘tit for tat’ or ‘always defect’ to be inherited from one generation of ‘players’ to the next, and where the results of engagement ‘games’ affect reproductive success. They have found that, again under certain circumstances, populations of ‘tit for tat’ strategists increase at the expense of populations of ‘defecters’. This also seems to be the case where ‘tit for tat’ is ‘generous’ in the sense of giving a new opponent the benefit of the doubt.

        What all this means (to me at least!) is that it seems at least possible that we’ll be able to frame coherent evolutionary explanations of how behaviour which we would call moral or ethical could have developed in intelligent, sentient, social beings like ourselves.

        That was kind of what I meant by ‘evolutionarily explicable algorithms of reciprocal altruism’!

        Thanks again, Chris.


        Comment by Chris Lawrence — June 16, 2010 @ 11:55 am

      • Chris –

        If I am going to begin by saying thank you, I will have to repeat at a minimum of three times. The problem I have with both your comments and your blog is that it inevitably leaves me with a lot to think about, a lot I want to say, and insufficient time. That is particularly the case now that I have stumbled on the dialogue with Georgeon your blog about intelligence and human worth, which I am eager to join.

        I am shortly leaving for a long delayed visit to the States until the end of the month, and I am facing an imminent decision about whether to pack my suitcase or add my comment to one or more of your comments currently distributed on three different blogs. I’m sorry to say I’m afraid the suitcase is winning.

        But I do want to say thank you. Your postings are among the most thought-provoking – and fun – that I read.


        Comment by theotheri — June 16, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

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