Anja Jauernig: The World According to Kant

The World According to Kant: Appearances and Things in Themselves in Critical Idealism Book Cover The World According to Kant: Appearances and Things in Themselves in Critical Idealism
Anja Jauernig
Oxford University Press
2021
Hardback £80.00
400

Reviewed by: Michael Blézy (University of Toronto)

The aim of Anja Jauernig’s project is to provide nothing less than a comprehensive interpretation of Kant’s critical idealism understood as an ontology. In The World According to Kant, Jauernig tackles Kant’s theoretical philosophy in particular, highlighting the ways in which Kant’s views on cognition, God, and, most importantly, the distinction between appearances and things in themselves, contribute to the establishment of Kant’s overall “ontological position” (xi; 1-2).

The first of two main studies (the second study, still forthcoming, will deal with the ontological implications of the practical philosophy), the book revolves around a number of issues regarding how it is Kant conceives of “the world.” From the outset, Jauernig flags that, at least in the Inaugural Dissertation and his lectures on metaphysics, Kant understands “the world” to be “a unified whole of substances that stand in mutual interactions” (16) – a description that technically only applies to what the Kant of the first Critique will call “outer appearances” (A24/B49; A106). Taken in a less strict sense, however, Jauernig argues that Kant can be interpreted as providing an ontology of “the world,” where “the world” is more generally understood to be the sum total of all that has realitas:

[The] book … is devoted to an examination of Kant’s critical idealism, understood as an ontological position. Less technically put, it is about Kant’s account of what there is in the world, understood as the sum total of everything that has reality, including, in particular, his account of appearances and things in themselves and their relation to one another. (xii; See also 25; 355)

From her initial depiction of “the world” understood in this more general sense, it is clear it refers to all existents that possess reality, both sensible, as well as supersensible:

Appearances and things in themselves are distinct existents … Kantian things in themselves [however] are supersensible and ground Kantian appearances. (27)

Although recognizing the Kantian twist given to metaphysical inquiry inaugurated by the Copernican revolution – and so the complications that metaphysical investigation faces once questions are posed about the conditions under which one could possibly come to possess knowledge, including the metaphysical – Jauernig’s account of Kant’s ontology thus proceeds in remarkedly traditional terms. This is especially true regarding the ontological status of things in themselves and their relation to appearances; the issue in the book she most thoroughly engages with.

One the one hand, Jauernig raises uniquely Kantian concerns with just how it is we might gain ontological knowledge of things in themselves. Granting that things in themselves, like the objects of traditional metaphysical inquiry, belong to the “supersensible realm” (38), she rightly wonders along with Kant: “In virtue of what can our concepts refer to [things in themselves]? How can we manage to cognitively access them through our thinking? What sort of cognition of them, if any, is possible for us?” (xi). On the other hand, Jauernig’s interpretation of Kant’s ontology sets out, in pre-Kantian fashion, to answer a number of questions about things in themselves conceived of as simply a subset of all that has reality:

[O]ne can take [the question about how to think things in themselves] as a broadly ontological question about Kant’s conception of things in themselves. What sort of things are they? What are their properties? What is their ontological status in Kant’s critical philosophy? (xi)

Of course, whether or not and to what extent answers can be given to these questions (about knowledge of supersensible things such as things in themselves, including their ontological status) will all be determined by the answers given to the first questions (about under what conditions and in virtue of what can we have knowledge, including metaphysical). Sure enough, things in themselves will play a decisive role in critical idealism and a proper account of it will require grappling with ontological questions in some sense. But just how it is that ontology, as first philosophy (one of two main branches of traditional metaphysis, mind you) is to be construed on the Kantian picture will be decided by how it is we understand the philosophical consequences of Kant’s theory of cognition and the revolution in metaphysics it initiated.

Fortunately, at least with regard to her account of how Kant reaches his position on the ontological status of things in themselves and their relation to appearances, Jauernig’s book is a model of clarity. Fully laying her cards on the table, Jauernig tells her readers right out of the gate exactly where her reading is heading. Outlining the core tenants of what she refers to as Kant’s “fundamental ontology” (39; 43; 44; 247), the book aims to defend six main theses regarding appearances and things in themselves (15-16):

(1) Appearances and things in themselves are not numerically identical, but are distinct existents

(2) Appearances and things in themselves are both “things,” although they are not the same things. Appearances and things in themselves in no way ontologically overlap, but they are closely related: appearances are grounded in things in themselves

(3) The distinction between appearances and things in themselves is an ontological  distinction

(4) Empirical objects are appearances

(5) Appearances and, hence, empirical objects are fully mind-dependent. This entails that Kant is a genuine idealist about empirical objects

(6) Things in themselves actually exist

Taken together, Jauernig claims these six theses add up to a new version of the “classical” two-world theory of appearances/things in themselves. Appearances, and hence empirical objects, are wholly mind-dependent existents in virtue of their being given under the formal conditions of sensibility, whereas things in themselves are the distinct, wholly mind-independent existents that provide the ground of these appearances. As this is an unabashedly, “ontological” reading of the distinction, Jauernig tells us, and so one of the main targets of the book is the two-aspect theories of appearances/ things in themselves (especially methodological, two-aspect theories) that have dominated Anglo-American Kant scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century (4-5). Indeed, methodological, two-aspect views in particular are either “unfathomably mysterious” insofar as they maintain “that the properties of things truly vary according to how we consider them” or “disappointingly modest,” insofar as they maintain “that considering things as they are in themselves amounts to no more than abstracting from some of their properties” (15n).

In order to establish her “classic,” two-world reading, Jauernig first offers an account of where she stands on some basic interpretive questions regarding Kant’s critical idealism. After outlining the basic tenants of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” in chapter one, chapter two relies principally on some well-known (and hotly debated) passages from the Critique (e.g., B59/A42; B164; A383) to make the case that, for Kant, “the world” is comprised of various “levels” of reality. Consider, for instance, B59/A42:

Thus we wanted to say: that all our intuition is nothing but the representation of Appearance … and that if we take away the subject or even merely the subjective quality of the senses in general, all quality, all relations of objects in space and time, indeed even space and time themselves, would disappear and can as appearances not exist in themselves but only in us.

On Jauernig’s account, appearances are identified with intentional objects of experience or the objects that make up the mind-dependent level of reality. Due to these appearances only existing “in” us or “in our representations” – even when passively given in perception, for instance – their “ontological ingredients” or properties and “modes of being” all presuppose the human mind. In contrast, things in themselves are to be identified with existents understood to be wholly apart from any human mind, and so make up the mind-independent “level” of reality (27). Things in themselves have “ontological ingredients” and “modes of being,” but these ingredients and modes are thus fully mind-independent (30-33; 42-50). What is more, if a mind represents anew given appearances through the power of imagination, it can bring into existence intentional objects, but, due to the flexibility of the mind’s representational capacities, these representations need not faithfully represent the objects as they have been originally given (say, once again, in perception). Some objects (for example, fictional creatures like dragons) have “pseudo-existence” insofar as they are intentional objects that exist in thought, but cannot be found anywhere in given experience (36-42).

Chapters three and four are primarily concerned with demonstrating that empirical objects, as appearances, are not things in themselves, but appear under certain a priori conditions (notably, the formal conditions of space and time). Although on the Kantian picture we are certainly able to distinguish between “inner” and “outer,” “subjective” and “objective,” and so Kant ought not be charged with reducing all objects of representation to our mind à la Berkeley, the notion that space and time are “nothing” but forms of sensibility entails that empirical objects are spatial-temporal existents that fully depend on the mind, and this further entails that Kant is a genuine idealist about such objects (129-141). Once again, that we are only acquainted with appearances, as representations “in” us and whose ontological ingredients and modes all presuppose our mind and its forms of sensibility, means that even passively given, spatial-temporal things and their sensible characteristics are mind-dependent (204-244).

Chapters five and six deal with Jauernig’s positive account of things in themselves. Skirting around long-standing issues regarding just how it is possible to achieve genuine knowledge of things that are wholly mind-independent (much less know for certain that they are), her interpretation takes its guidance primary from passages in which Kant claims that things in themselves “ground” appearances (B61/A44) and “affect” the mind (B522/A494). Jauernig is clear that the way things in themselves relate to appearances ought not be confused with the way in which an objective reality underlies and gives rise to our merely subjective (even potentially deceptive) experience of the world (248-256); nor with the way in primary qualities relate to secondary qualities (257-266). However, in some sense, things in themselves exist, ground our passively receiving representations in sensibility, and are genuinely affective. Indeed, Jauernig advances a version of what she calls “bold critical idealism” in which Kantian appearances are grounded on other, finite things that are “outside us” in a transcendental, and not merely spatial, sense. What is more, these finite things in themselves are genuinely affective, yet still mind-independent in that at least one such thing exists and is distinct from both the totality of human minds and even God (295-302).

Chapter five concludes with a discussion of how it is we can know things in themselves are in fact finite existents and sets the stage for the argument that things in themselves possess the various positive features Jauernig attributes to them (295-318). To my mind the most interesting section of the book, Jauernig provides the reader with a series of carefully laid out syllogisms that move from showing that we can go from the existence of empirical objects to the “existence” of things in themselves, by demonstrating that the passivity of sensibility and the unoriginality of thought and imagination require that there is something other than sensibility and thought.

Essentially outlining the way in which the Kantian “levels” of reality relate to and presuppose each other, Jaurenig’s argument takes a few key steps. First, she makes the case that, due to its essentially unoriginal nature, the imagination can produce pseudo-existents (e.g., intentional objects or representations of inner experience) only by reproducing and recombing sensations. Second, for their part, sensations, are passively delivered via sensibility and the forms of sensibility. Third, due to its passivity, sensibility can only deliver sensations by the mind being transcendentally affected by something other than the mind (namely, things in themselves). Fourth, we in fact have sensations and can think of pseudo-existents (as well as distinguish between them). From the first three premises it follows that these sensuous representations exist and are a response to the more fundamental things in themselves which exist and must affect us (313).

This argument requires that we extend the scope of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” given so far so as to include an ontology of the human mind – the very finite existent that the other finite existents and their “ontological ingredients” and “modes” presuppose (or do not presuppose). That is, unlike the divine intellect, which can bring about the existence of the object or create objects in virtue of its thinking (and so has an “intellectual intuition” of objects), the finite human being’s thought must passively receive sensible materials from without (in sensible intuition) to occasion the representing via thought that constitutes its experience of objects.

For simplicity sake, Jauernig calls the idea that, as essentially finite, the human mind is ontologically uncreative and thus, unlike the divine mind, incapable of originally generating the matter of its objects of representations “UNCREATIVITY” (314). This ontology of the human mind underlies and provides the fundamental support for drawing the conclusion that the existence of things in themselves follows from the fact that we have the material with which to think at all.

On Jauernig’s account of things we can rightly wonder, however, how it is that Kant arrives at and justifies this ontology. How, for instance, can we conclusively establish that it must be something finite that affects our mind and, as it were, kick cognition into gear. Indeed, are there not equally compelling accounts of how we come to have the material by which we think provided by other ontologies, equally as “fundamental”? For his part, Berkeley notoriously made the case that it is only God that can supply our representations with the totality of their matter – the so-called “material” world itself being an extraneous posit. This is not to say we should simply follow Berkeley here, but how exactly can Kant know for certain what supplies the mind with its matter? Indeed, to take another worry, how do we know for certain that is not we who create such matter – that is, that transcendental idealism does not ultimately collapse into idealism proper? Indeed, given that Kant grants the mind some creative power (such as when it represents to itself pseudo-existents) and argues that the a priori forms of the mind (as the very conditions of the possibility of experience) are not capable themselves of being derived from any experience of objects, how exactly does he justify drawing a solid line between passivity and reproduction, between constitutive a priori structuring and creation? As Jauernig puzzles:

[T]here is not much difference with respect to creative power between a mind that actively brings about the “matter” of empirical objects and a mind that brings about the “matter” of empirical objects by affecting itself … If my uncreativity is compatible with me constituting … without any assistance from things in themselves that are distinct from my transcendental mind, why would it not also be compatible with me constituting empirical objects without any assistance from things in themselves that are distinct from my transcendental mind? (316)

But why assume that this [Kantian] uncreativity manifests itself in that we are incapable of actively generating any “matter” for the objects of our representations? Why could it not manifest itself in that we cannot actively generate the “form” of the objects of our representations, or their “form” or their “matter”? (316n)

Jauernig’s response to these worries is not to tackle them head on. There is no attempt to locate the difference between reception and reproduction or formal structuring and creation by appealing to the distinctive characteristics of the various Kantian “representations” themselves (for instance, unlike the representations occasioned by imagination, sensible intuitions obey natural laws). Nor does she provide a Kantian-style argument (not unlike Descartes’ in the Mediations) that the human mind does not have enough creative power to bring about an entire world of objects. Somewhat surprisingly, Jauernig claims when philosophizing about fundamental ontology, there are some features and principles that are ultimately not capable of justification or further argumentation:

All versions of critical idealism … depend for their justification on UNCREATIVITY … It appears futile to attempt a justification for these basic commitments, commitments that one could characterize as being among critical idealism’s constitutive principles, so to speak … [however] the unjustifiability of [critical idealism’s] constitutive principles by further arguments is neither a special problem for critical idealism nor a real problem at all. All arguments for substantive views must start from some substantive assumptions. So, all philosophical positions must incorporate some basic commitments that are not justifiable by any further arguments. (318)

Now, Jauernig’s book has to be admired for its rigor and precision. At key points in her presentation of Kant’s ontology she provides arguments in concise, syllogistic form – no small accomplishment given the complexity of Kant’s thought and the obscurity of the issues tackled. Rigor and precision aside, however, there are many curious features of Jauernig’s account of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” – features that I think are highlighted by the position she arrives at in the passage above regarding basic ontological commitments and their inability to be justified.

What I find most puzzling about The World According to Kant is the very way Jauernig approaches the issue of ontology in Kant’s work. As I have been gesturing at, to frame the issue of Kant’s ontology in terms of a number of issues regarding the ontological status of the existents that populate “the world,” seems to attribute to Kant a traditional metaphysical approach that is – at least on the Kantian picture of knowledge – incapable of furnishing us with any genuine knowledge. To put it succinctly, to conceive of ontology as the investigation into “what there is” in “the world” (at least as Jauernig understands it) is an entirely unKantian move insofar as it disregards the way in which Kant’s revolution in metaphysics fundamentally transforms the ontological issues and shifts them into an entirely different (namely, transcendental) register.

My main concern with Jauernig’s presentation of Kant’s ontology is not simply that it ignores the way in which Kant’s critical system rethinks basic ontological notions such as “reality,” “category,” “being,” “mode,” etc. That being said, it is worth flagging that The World According to Kant gets into trouble with its loose use of ontological terms. For example, after the Copernican revolution inaugurated by the first Critique, “reality” comes to be one of the mathematical categories of the understanding (A70/B95; A161/B200). This category of is to be conceived of as an object’s “what-content” – the essential determinations that constitute or make an object the kind of thing it is. As a Kantian category, however, it is a concept that strictly belongs to the determinations of objects of possible experience. Insofar as “reality” no longer refers to the determinations of a thing (res) as such and in general, but to the determinations of appearances, there is no sense in which it can serve for Kant as a way to think of a general ontology that would include both of appearances and things in themselves. Far from being an innocent terminological move, approaching the distinction in this way suggests that both existents are somehow available to us to be the subject of philosophizing – a commitment that has direct philosophical consequences for how we construe things in themselves.

In a similar vein, being in general (what is to be something, as opposed to nothing) is not to be a member of “the world” in the sense of being an existing thing with reality. To be in general is rather to be posited by a judgment; to have a value relative to a judging cognizer. Hence Kant’s famously arguing that “being” is (1) not a real predicate (does not add anything to an object’s “what-content”), (2) does not add anything to the concept of a thing, and (3) is to be identified with the mere positing of a thing or of certain determinations in themselves (A599/B262). Whether what is posited is merely possible or exists (to be an “existent”) for Kant is a whole different matter.

That there is little to no discussion of the way in which Kant rethinks such notions as “reality” or “being” (much less a take on Kant’s theory of modality or his account of “nothing” as laid out in the table of “nothing” (A2902/B345-9)) in a book-length study of Kant’s ontology seems like an oversight. However, once again the most puzzling aspect of the book is not that it omits such a discussion. Rather, its most puzzling feature is that it does not deal with Kant’s revolution in metaphysics and the consequences this revolution has for the pursuit of traditional ontological knowledge.

We might expect that any attempt to give an account of Kant’s ontology should pay heed to the way in which Kant takes himself to have fundamentally transformed this branch of metaphysics. Consider his two clearest statements on the subject of ontology in the first Critique:

The Transcendental Analytic accordingly has this important result: That the  understanding can never accomplish a priori anything more than to anticipate the form of a possible experience in general, and, since that which is not appearance cannot  be an object of experience, it can never overstep the limits of sensibility, within which alone objects are given to us. Its principles are merely principles of the exposition of appearances, and the proud name of an ontology, which presumes to offer synthetic a priori cognitions of things in general in a systematic doctrine … must give way to one of a mere analytic of the pure understanding. (A247/B303)

[Metaphysics’] speculative part … considers everything insofar as it is … on the basis of a priori concepts, is divided in the following way … Metaphysics … consists of transcendental philosophy and the physiology of pure reason. The former considers  only the understanding and reason itself in a system of all concepts and principles, that are related to objects in general, without assuming objects that would be given (Ontologia); the latter considers nature, i.e., the sum total of given objects, and is therefore physiology (though only rationalis). (A845/B873)

As the first passage states, a key finding of the Transcendental Analytic – the transcendental investigation into the a priori contribution made on behalf of the understanding to the possibility of objects of experience – is that the move to consider objects as they appear under certain a priori conditions leads to us to give up the “proud name of an ontology.” By this, Kant means that insofar as objects are given under these intellectual conditions, the traditional attempt to straightforwardly provide an ontology gives way to two critical tasks. First, expounding transcendental conditions and the a priori knowledge of objects these conditions allow for (i.e., the a priori knowledge of objects generated by the anticipatory intellectual forms that structure our representation of any possible object of experience whatsoever). Second, as these transcendental contributions to our representation of objects (the source of our transcendental knowledge) simultaneously circumscribe what can possibly appear as an object of experience, and so expose the attempt to gain a priori knowledge of objects (including ontological knowledge of them) independently of these conditions (or in themselves) as unable to furnish us with any genuine knowledge.

The undermining of the traditional attempt to secure ontological knowledge is further expanded upon in the second passage, wherein Kant also shows that the faculty of reason – the faculty metaphysicians prior to Kant most heavy relied upon to supply them with a priori knowledge of objects that goes beyond what is made available by sensibility and understanding – also cannot assist us in our quest for traditional metaphysical knowledge. As Kant makes clear here, speculative metaphysics considers “everything insofar as it is” on the basis of reason alone and so according to a priori concepts. Utilizing “pure” reason or reason within which nothing empirical is mixed, we can achieve knowledge through both transcendental philosophy and what Kant calls the “physiology” of pure reason. The former allows for transcendental knowledge, i.e., a priori knowledge (of both understanding and reason) of “objects of in general … without assuming they would be given [in sensibility].” The latter gives us knowledge of objects through reason or rationalis alone, however, it deals strictly with the sum total of “given objects,” i.e., our purely rational, a priori knowledge of the objects (objects of experience) that make up “nature.”

Now, we might expect that a “physiology” of pure reason, insofar as it supplies us with knowledge of objects by way of reason alone, might be able to supply us with ontological knowledge of objects in themselves. However, as Kant makes clear, it is limited to the given objects of nature even when pure reason makes transcendental contributions, and so, in the end, merely gives us the system of the a priori concepts or ideas supplied by reason required to represent this given nature as nature (A846/B874).

Transcendental philosophy, both the kind made possible by the transcendental contributions of the understanding and reason, in contrast, deals with a priori knowledge of “everything insofar as it iswithout objects being “given” in sensibility and is itself explicitly identified by Kant as Ontologia or ontology. Notice, however, that this Kantian ontology is limited to possible (given) objects of experience as the very conditions of their appearing. Although transcendental philosophy does not depend on experience or any particular objects being given in order to establish its transcendental knowledge, it is limited, as the anticipatory forms that structure this experience, to the sphere of objects that can be possibly given in sensibility.

Indeed, after transcendental philosophy, genuine metaphysical knowledge – knowledge of objects achieved a priori, yet would extend our grasp of them and not simply analytically draw out their marks – comes to be transformed and limited to the knowledge of the transcendental sphere, namely, knowledge of the conditions of the possibility of objects of experience. The main idea is that the same “anticipated” form of the understanding and reason that lets objects appear also provides us with a new source of a priori knowledge (the “fundamental predicates” of objects insofar as they are represented under the categories) that enlarges our cognition of objects without turning to any particular experience (e.g., that objects appear as substances standing in community relations of cause and effect). Transforming metaphysics in this way enables it to take the secure course of a Kantian “science.” Metaphysics is no longer the attempt to gain knowledge of objects beyond all possible experience by way of the analysis of concepts alone, but a systematic body of knowledge that can ground its claims, like other sciences that contain an a priori component, on something over and above our concepts (namely, the very possibility of the intellect representing objects of experience).

Keeping this fundamental re-construal of metaphysics in mind, Jauernig’s presentation of critical philosophy as offering an “ontological,” “two-world” account of the appearance/ thing in itself distinction, as well as positively attributing characteristics to things-in-themselves, seems to attribute to Kant an ontological theory that would lapse back into the traditional metaphysical approach to knowledge that Kant sought to show can never result in genuine knowledge, at least in the theoretical sphere. Indeed, from what knowing perspective could make claims about the appearance/ thing in itself distinction or the way things in themselves are that would allow us to properly ground such claims? As claims about the very “relation” between the different kinds of existents that make up “the world” (those that appear under the mind’s transcendental conditions, those that do not), what resources can Jauernig draw upon to ground her knowledge of this very set up? From which relation to existents do we have access to such that this can be established knowledge? Kant reworks and limits genuine ontological knowledge to transcendental philosophy precisely in order to move beyond the antimonies and the seemingly endless “mock combat” that characterized metaphysical debates prior to his metaphysics as a science. Such debates seemed endless because they were groundless – deploying the mere resources of the intellect and their logical coherence, metaphysicians came up with competing, contradictory systems, with no way, no “touchstone,” to ultimately settle their metaphysical disputes.

As Jauernig’s ultimate worries about her reading of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” attests, there is no way to secure our claims about the basic, ontological set up of transcendental philosophy (at least on her reading) that can be justified by any of the criteria for the establishment of genuine knowledge within its own framework. There is no view from which, in other words, we can concretely establish how (or if) the mind passively receives its objects from without. This leads Jauernig to conclude that we ultimately cannot justify fundamentally ontology – indeed, Kant’s or any others – and so we ought simply, within the bounds of logic, to choose which basic assumptions or position seems most agreeable to us:

But unless we adopt the implausible epistemic norm that, under any circumstances,  only claims that can be justified by an argument of some kind are epistemically permissible, or reasonable, we are within our epistemic rights to choose the most basic assumptions on which to build our philosophical positions according to what seems most agreeable to us, provided these assumptions are internally consistent and cohere with the rest of all claims that we accept, all necessary truths, and the totality of the available empirical evidence. Whether to opt for timid critical idealism or bold critical idealism or a version whose strength lies somewhere between these extremes ultimately is a matter of taste. Kant seems to like bold critical idealism best, and I do not blame him. (318)

And at an earlier point she remarks:

Everybody is entitled to their own intuitions about what is plausible when it comes to matters of fundamental ontology. (31)

Taking this route, however, leads right back to the situation Kant wanted to remedy: contradictory metaphysical arguments with no grounding beyond logical coherence. Kant’s lesson is that what allows us to move forward is not to demonstrate that metaphysical claims are merely logically possible; much less does he think metaphysics is simply based on the necessary of conceptual truths or empirical evidence. Rather, he shows us that the only non-sensible a priori knowledge we can have of objects is limited to knowledge of the (non-sensible) transcendental conditions and that supersensible knowledge of objects apart from these conditions (objects as they are in themselves) is not possible. This would include knowledge of how it is the mind fundamentally, ontologically relates to the source of its cognitions’ material.

Jauernig’s pointing out that there is an entire “fundamental ontology” presupposed by Kant’s move of ontological issues into a transcendental register certainly puts a finger on a lasting problem with Kant’s philosophy. It is no surprise that thinkers from Hegel to Nietzsche, the Neo-Kantians to Heidegger, have all pursued the question of how it is the transcendental philosophy of the first Critique (including its reworking of the traditional ontological project) is itself possible. However, to lapse back into a pre-Kantian approach to metaphysical issues or to ignore Kant’s revolution in philosophy altogether does not seem like a promising approach.

 

 

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