Stumbling Through the History of Philosophy, Research Time, 22/01/2014

You see, the reason I’m reading Graham Priest’s book right now is that it’s the central figure of Dr Arthur’s graduate course at McMaster this semester, even though I haven’t been able to show up yet (the first week, I was in Newfoundland; the second week, I had only just gotten back from St Catharine’s). What I found fascinating about the book, why I wanted to take part in the seminar, was that Priest was exploring the nature of the limits of thought (hence the book’s name) using the framework of the dialetheic logic he developed in which there can be logically coherent and true contradictions. 

But the historical explorations of the first half of the book are starting to grow stale. I’m not sure what their purposes are. He states at the beginning of Beyond The Limits of Thought that the historical explorations are very partisan and skip over most of the contextual issues. His goal is to identify a point where the totality of what can be coherently thought is defined, and a particular concept, according to that definition, lies simultaneously within and without the limits of that totality.

The first step to understanding Kant is accepting that Kant's
philosophy is an enormous, complicated edifice that's very
difficult to understand.
So his exploration of Immanuel Kant as one of the philosophers who at least could conceptualize this limit both intrigues and frustrates me. Priest discusses Kant’s antinomies* as identifying how the limitations of thought involve contradiction. The antinomies are laid out in a section of the Critique of Pure Reason where arguments for and against four ideas that are beyond the human ability to prove their truth one way of another: 1) whether the universe had a beginning or was eternal, 2) whether matter has simple parts or is indivisible, 3) whether there is or is not an active causality, freedom, and 4) whether there is or isn’t a necessary being. But Priest spends so much time disproving the arguments of the antinomies that he misses the entire point of their construction, which builds its own twisted logic of true contradiction.

* There’s another chapter where he discusses the categories of the understanding, but that involves too much technical Kant for this post.

The most egregious example of Priest misunderstanding Kant’s purpose is clear in the antinomy of the universe’s origin. He dismisses both of Kant’s arguments, for and against, on the cosmological grounds that we’ve since discovered through empirical observation that (at least the observable) universe had a beginning, the Big Bang. What’s more, he analyses the logic of Kant’s arguments to show that he can't prove either side of the antinomy.

But the point of the antinomies is that they’re unprovable, and it was never the point to prove them in the first place. These arguments were laid out in a two column text, where the thesis and contra were adjacent to each other. The typography itself implies their parallel unprovability. The antinomies are rhetorical: a demonstration of the futility of reasoning about the traditional ontological roles of God and freedom. Reason and understanding can’t solve these arguments on one side or another. That’s why Kant puts the arguments next to each other, and never tries to resolve them. 

The proper resolution of the roles of God, the immortality of the soul and the universe, and human freedom in the world is a moral one. The existence of God, God’s role in creating and developing the universe, the immortality of the soul, and human freedom to act beyond the necessity of causation are all postulates we have to make in order for morality to be valid in our everyday lives. This is the central argument of the Critique of Practical Reason.** The contradictions of the subjects of the antinomies remain in cognition, but must be accepted as part of the universe if we want to maintain the consistency of our morality.

** I don’t actually believe in this moral philosophy at all, but I respect it as a brilliant philosophical creation.

Priest doesn’t seem to understand that at all. The bibliography of Beyond The Limits of Thought doesn’t even include the Critique of Practical Reason. He writes as if he were completely ignorant of the moral dimensions of Kant’s thought, even though the Critique of Pure Reason acts, in many ways, as a prologue to the moral philosophy. Its negative arguments set the conditions for the positive arguments of the later book.

If anything, the logic Kant uses to maintain the contradictory
nature of our knowledge of properly moral concepts is
stranger than Priest's relatively simple account of how
'A and not-A' can be true.
Even in Priest’s long quotations from The Critique of Pure Reason regarding the possibility of there being a necessary cause, he makes a show of cutting the parts of those quotations that identify such a cause as God. He considers that immaterial to the logic of Kant’s argument for there being a necessary cause. But that’s only because Priest is oblivious to the longer game Kant is playing: removing the subjects of God and freedom from cognitive or scientific domains to solidify their place in the moral domain. Instead of incorporating a historical example into his exploration of how to articulate true contradictions in philosophy, Priest only looks like a fool to anyone more familiar with Kant’s corpus.
• • •
All this sounds like it could make a really interesting article exploring several different ways to discuss figures in the history of philosophy, what the purposes of historical research can be, and an interesting way to teach some of the stranger details of Kant’s ideas. But there are too many mitigating factors against publishing this in a journal. These ideas are disconnected from the major issues of Kant scholarship at the moment, and it’s in reference to a 20 year old book that isn’t even centrally focussed on Kant or the history of philosophy. And Priest’s book itself is too old to be considered worth talking about in journals anymore. Even though this idea would make for a great article, a blog post is all it can get.

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