The Peculiar Fate of Reason

Does any book open more occultly?

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.

What is Kant thinking?  Why affright the reader in the first sentence?  “Hear your fate:  You will ask questions that you are required to ask and that you are not permitted to ignore; but you will not be able to answer those questions—they are too much for you, you are too limited, too weak.”  So why read on?  The requirement to ask will not be relaxed.  You will have to ask, have to pay attention.  Your powers will not enlarge, grow.  So why read on?  What is the value of reason if this is true of it?  Is reason, too, broken, like everything else about us?

It is easy to think of Kant as reason’s champion, its scarf affixed to his armor, a colorful declaration, as he jousts with speculative metaphysics.  But that is not quite right.  Shake up CPR; shuffle its Table of Contents.  Imagine, if you will, a Noumenal Table.  The Antinomies would come first, syllogistically displaying the peculiar fate of reason.  (If I remember correctly, Gabriele Rabel more or less arranges contents this way in his book of selections (Kant)—or at least he talks about the preferability of so arranging them.)  The reason Kant seeks to understand is not divine; it is human; it is antinomian.  Nothing divine could be fated for such perverse knottedness, such abyssal self-conflict, such stopless restlessness.  Reason can be, must be, Critized.  But, even Criticized, reason is not divinized.  It recognizes what it is but cannot stop being what it recognizes itself to be.  By ascesis, by discipline, it can cease asking unrequired questions, and it can come to see the peculiarity of the required questions.  But that’s all.  What is the value of reason?  Well, it has value.  It serves us well empirically, here under the sun.  But it lacks the fullness of value we could have attributed to it when we thought it divine (as perhaps the Greeks did).  CPR teaches a skepticism about human reason, even as it attempts to subjugate Humean skepticism.

Since I have mentioned the chiastic structure of TLP and PI, let me note that the Antinomies are placed by Kant at what could be regarded as the crux of CPR, at its dialectical middle.  That is a way, on a chiastic scheme of organization, of placing the Antinomies first.  Anyway, the book begins with the Antinomies furled into a remarkable sentence, a sentence that is unfurled across the length of the book.

11 responses

  1. i don’t know much about theology, so i wonder whether it would have been natural for the eschatalogically-sensitive to automatically understand ‘fate’ as restricted in reference to our mortal lives, as opposed to possibly pertaining to anything we might be predestined to or any judgment we might be subject to on the basis of our mortal lives.

  2. somewhat as you indicate, i think. so that there would be a fit between the view of reason in kant’s ethics and reason here: reason sets us tasks we are fated not to complete in the sense that it sets a standard of perfection we are fated (by what we are?) to fall short of; yet that doesn’t free us from the obligation to work at the tasks.

    the flip side of the implication (of choosing the word ‘fate’ to name this situation) would be imagining the state of affairs in a realm where one wouldn’t be / needn’t be ruled by fate, presumably a divine one, popularly the afterlife, subject of course to the usual kantian limitations on cognizing it in that way.

    so the eschatologically-sensitive would be primed to accept the moralization of questions about the scope and power of human reason, i guess—accept it without thereby wanting to give up on reason (just the opposite). i don’t know if hume would use the word ‘fate’ if making a comparable pronouncement, but i would guess that if he did the tone would be considerably less portentous.

    • Ah, ok; thanks! That’s a good suggestion. I will think more about it. I have been wondering about the different faces, so to speak, reason has for Kant and for Hume. As is usually the case, much of what is said about Kant can be said about Hume (and vice versa), except that somehow the overall physiognomy of the views is quite different. If you have any further thoughts on any of this, please post them, j.

      • have you ever read cavell’s essay on emerson’s ‘fate’? he works at the idea of our ‘condition’ a bit and relates it to kant’s reason’s propensity / requirement to seek the unconditioned (i.e. the driving force of its fatedness, in this case, i guess).

        i think the moral aspect tingeing kant’s view is plausible enough (it’s plausible enough to attribute it to him, i mean), but when i stop to think about what it is about the questions of the first critique that makes the fatedness of reason in that case have the same kind of impersonally / universally obligatory aspect that it does in the moral writings, i’m not really sure. i mention that because emerson seems like a kantian, as opposed to humean, in the ‘moralized’ sense i mentioned, except that the claim upon us is pointedly individual, so that the overall physiognomy is different. whereas in kant’s case the critique of pure reason seems to present a standing task to everyone who reasons, a task none of them can legitimately shirk (unless they’re willing to be lost to their fate, as reasoners). so the question is, why should questions about the role of reason in my knowledge of the world, my application of the concept of cause to things i can cognize, be particularly fated? (it seems like a domain where lower-stakes ways of characterizing a propensity to error or a limitation in our powers would be more apt. but maybe only if we consider the situation without thinking too much about the role of freedom in the picture?)

      • I have read the Cavell essay but cannot at the moment dredge much of it up. I will look at it this week, if I get a chance. –On the final questions, only this for now (but perhaps more later, I hope): I don’t believe Kant has in mind a propensity to error or a simple limitation in our powers. The “error” here is a transcendental illusion, a quite special affair, and not really best characterized as an error; and the limits here are of a special sort, not a mere playing out of capacity (like more weight than I am strong enough to lift), not a fence that prevents going further afield. But I suspect you know all this. I agree that freedom must be a part of the story–and a complicating part.

  3. schopenhauer is an interesting point of comparison, maybe, because he’s critical of kant on his use of the notion of the unconditioned in his treatment of the antinomies (in a way reminiscent of wittgenstein on explanations: each cause can in turn be treated as an effect and its cause can be asked after, but he denies that the whole sequence properly admits of explanation, given the form of the principle of sufficient reason, so that there’s no transition from a series of conditioneds to an unconditioned, in general), and so, i guess, doesn’t really admit the same sort of tendency of reason to pursue questions beyond its powers; but he does accept something like a notion of original sin / radical evil that one would think is tied up in kant’s reasons for viewing reason’s task moralizedly. (he just doesn’t have the corresponding setup that imposes a moral task upon us, since in his view there’s nothing to be done about it.)

    • One of the underexplored areas of German philosophy is Schopenhauer’s strange relationship to Kant, particularly as it is detailed in the long appendix to vol. 1 of TWWR. He gets so much of Kant right, in my view, that his departures from Kant become all the more bewildering. For instance, he gets the way in which Kant’s understanding of the mind is as judgmental, as manifested in judgments, never in something sub-judgmental. But although he sees this, and seems to applaud it, he never really seems to recognize the way in which that understanding constrains each of the three Critiques (he seems not even to recognize the way it constrains the first Critique, especially Kant’s response to Hume). Stranger still, he never seems to understand the way in which his own thinking is now similarly constrained, now not. The beginning of wisdom in reading Kant is in registering the variety of unities that shape his thinking. Schopenhauer registers some, not others, and the ones he registers he registers inconstantly, both in interpreting Kant and in prosecuting his own view.

      For me, the central puzzle in Schopenhauer in relation to Kant is this: do we, and if we do, how do we, have unmediated access to the will? Schopenhauer’s answers this in different ways. Sometimes he denies that we actually have such access; sometimes he contends that we do, in that although there are many things in the world that we know, there is one thing we are–incarnate selves, bodies as “the objectivity of the will”. (Section 18, I think it is, of the first volume is the most remarkable of all Schopenhauer’s sections, the section in which he announces, with what I regard as great plausibility, the philosophical truth par excellence.) So, for example, that I am one of the things that exists gives me access to existence itself, noumenally. But then at other times he takes it that such access must itself still be a form of knowledge, and so to be limited in the ways, roughly, that Kant takes it to be limited. This is the crucial locus for settling the question of what reason can and cannot do in Schopenhauer, and it is unfortunately muddy. That said, I do not mean to be disagreeing with you about Schopenhauer, but just trying to reveal more of the problematic.

      I’m not sure that I fully understand your talk about Kant “moralizing” reason. Could you help me a bit more with that?

      • that seems right to me about schopenhauer’s inconstancy. but i have trouble telling whether it is real or apparent (i.e. as opposed to just principled disagreement: schopenhauer could always be right too!). part of the trouble is that he is not very vocal on points where i would expect him to register agreement or disagreement with kant on methodological issues, for instance in books two and three where kant’s problematics on teleological judgment are obviously relevant, but schopenhauer seems not to take them as his starting point (even if he rebuts some of their elements at some points).

        another quiet point is right about where you’re talking about, where someone familiar with kant would expect a little bit more attention to whether claims of access to the noumenal are contentful and in what ways it’s legitimate to extend them.

        personally i think schopenhauer makes a nod there to the fact that he’s working in that region of kant (in the german, but not in payne, at the point where he’s making the argument that other representations must have another ‘side’ too, he talks about having to ‘orient oneself’, which i take as an allusion to the ‘orientation in thinking’ essay), and he seems to think he’s discharging his obligations (such as in the consideration of the advantage of ‘will’ over ‘force’ because of the content it can be given).

        but because he mostly does not explicitly address his proximity to kant on the suprasensible and the like, we’re left without a straightforward discussion of the need, or license, for performing the extension of ‘will’ beyond my own body—or a very satisfying characterization of what we get, when (in doing philosophy) we do that.

        in kant the kind of legitimation of that step is something more on the permissible side, as long as we confine ourselves to regulative ideas; or stronger, when we’re talking about the author of the moral law. but the way schopenhauer frames the problem that introduces book two (what is the significance of representation? is there anything more to the world as representation?) is not so explicit.

        he talks as if we have to solve the problem on pain of insignificance, but he also talks as if representation already has significance in virtue of our double knowledge of our own bodies, so that what he’s doing is just drawing out the significance of all other representations which is implicit in the fact that we relate to them in the mode of willing, acting, feeling, via our bodies.

        i tend to see the result of doing this extension—a modified, more widely applicable philosophical concept of ‘will’—as a kind of interpretative consolation for the fact that we can know everything but only be one thing. since we can only be one thing, there’s a sense in which the only ‘access’ we have to the noumena is by existing (thus, for him, by willing, acting, feeling, suffering). the philosophical extension of the concept of will doesn’t change that, it just serves as a key term in an attempt to answer a question that comes up because of existing-but-knowing (i guess: ‘why does the world exist?’, connected in some way to the fact that life is suffering).

        at least, that makes some sense to me—but schopenhauer seems to be prone to the worst slippage back and forth between claiming more access to the noumena and refraining from it.

        i don’t mean anything well-thought out by talking about ‘moralized’ reason. just a sense i connect to kant’s project, activated by your initial focus on the opening of the CPR. i get a greater sense from kant than many other philosophers that it’s not just… intellectually incumbent upon thinkers, but morally incumbent upon everybody (because of the nature of kant’s ethics) to engage in the critique of pure reason. probably because of reason’s role in his ethics—something like, since you’re subject to the moral law, and the moral law is an imperative of pure (practical) reason, you had better get straight on what pure reason can and can’t do, and not become entangled in the illusions to which it is fated. (otherwise, you’re in moral jeopardy.) though surely there’s a sense in which that’s a sentiment toward reason common to philosophers.

        i don’t know if you can get that from, say, a supposed kantian like wittgenstein—i can imagine him thinking that a person could be morally exemplary without giving a second thought to what it’s possible for reason to do. (although there is that time he exploded at… malcolm?… for saying something about ‘the british national character’—’what’s the point of doing philosophy if you’re still going to say things like that?’)

      • I really appreciate this full and helpful response. You suggest interesting ways of thinking about Schopenhauer. I will bear them in mind when I next get a chance to look at him. I better understand now what you meant by ‘moralizing’. That term is ambiguously stationed between the eulogistic and the dyslogistic and the neutral, and I was just unsure which of these ways you were using it. But I see now. Thanks for your help with that. I agree that there is a dimension of moralizing (in your sense) in Kant.

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