Friday, July 17, 2009

Kantian humility

I'm listening to a podcast I found of Dr. Susan Stuart giving undergad lectures on Kant. In her first lecture, she mentions something called "Kantian humility," which is apparently not Kant's term. Some background, as I understand it:

We might poorly summarize Kant by saying there are three kinds of stuff. There is reason, which is a purely internal process of intellectual activity; there is the sensible world (sensible in that we sense it); and there is the noumenal world. Reason, the domain of a priory judgments and such, cannot happen without interaction in with the sensible world. First one senses, then one understands, then one can reason (the middle term here does not correspond to the above triple). A priory reason is possible, but is also always rooted in some encounter with the sensible. The nouminal world is off limits.

Now apparently Kant's work (or at least the Critique of Pure Reason), serves two polemical purposes: it refutes rationalists and empiricists. The former, typified by George Berkeley (though the more popular Descartes is amongst their number) skeptically discount all sensible encounters, supposing that the eye can deceive you, and you shouldn't trust it. Kant argues counter to this that we cannot begin to reason purely without sensible event (how can I count if I've never seen discrete objects?). The latter set, the empiricists, include Locke and Hume. Pure empiricists argue that while we can see what looks like causality, experience does not logically lead to axioms or principles. Hume says that though we may see the sun rise every morning, we cannot logically infer from that that the sun will again rise tomorrow.

Stuart summarizes by saying that Rationalists believe that the world is fundamentally disjunct from the mind, while empiricists believe that the world shapes the mind through experience. So on the one hand the mind and experience are disjunct (the latter may not even truly exist), and on the other hand the mind is wholly contingent upon experience.

The Kantian revolution is this: it is not so much that the world orders and shapes the mind, but that the mind orders and shapes the world.

Oh yes, but what about humility? By Kantian humility Stuart means the refusal to claim knowledge over the noumenal. Locke, apparently, errs in this respect, and rather brashly claims to know objective but non-experiential attributes. Kant says we cannot do this; the noumenal is marked off.

This resonates with my approach to agnosticism, but not in a way that makes me wholly pleased. On the one hand, I agree in principle that it is irresponsible and dishonest to make claims, totalizing, moralizing or otherwise, about that which is permanently extra-experiential. On the other hand, I am disquieted by the fundamentally theistic origins of this prohibition.

By saying that we must be humble, or meek, and not make claims for the noumenal (or the real, or the Ideal, or what have you), we presuppose that there *is* a noumenal world; agnosticism based on this prohibition is perhaps not really agnosticism after all, but rather a sort of overly reverential theism (though perhaps a pleasantly antisocial one).

Now I can't offer here any solid reason to distrust theism (presuming humility). Also I need to sleep so for now I won't go on any further I think. Suffice it to say that a certain poststructural critique of the situation would, I expect, undermine the assumption of the noumenal itself. Provisionally, I'd say that saying there is a noumenal world always already prohibits the sort of humility that Kant is supposed (by Stuart) to be advocating (though this may be a result of the epistemological limits of his time).

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