I can’t seem to get away from the subject.
For Whitehead, the great accomplishment of Kantâ€™s Copernican Revolution in philosophy is its â€œconception of an act of experience as a constructive functioningâ€ (PR 156). That is to say, Whitehead credits Kant with originating philosophical constructivism. Kant denies the possibility (or even the meaningfulness) of knowing â€œthings in themselves,â€ and points instead to the ways that we are always already constructively involved with whatever it is that we experience or observe. We do not represent, in our minds, a reality that would simply exist out there, by itself, independent of and prior to our experience of it. Nor do we just create the world through our own mental processes or forms of representation. Rather, our experience of the world, of what Whitehead calls â€œstubborn factâ€ (128-129) external to ourselves, is itself the reflexive process through which the world, including ourselves, gets constituted. For Whitehead, as for Kant, â€œthe whole universe consists of elements disclosed in the experiences of subjectsâ€ â€“ and nothing else (166). As a constructivist, Whitehead is very much a post-Kantian thinker â€“ rather than the pre-Kantian throwback that he is sometimes taken to be.
Whitehead signals his indebtedness to Kant at every turn. Like Kant, he performs a delicate balancing act, rejecting the claims of idealism on the one hand, and of scientific positivism on the other. But at the same time, Whitehead criticizes Kant for exhibiting an â€œexcess of subjectivityâ€ (15). Kant simply claims too much for thought, or for the mind. He says that our minds actively shape experience, by structuring it according to certain extra-experiential â€œconcepts of understanding,â€ or Categories. â€œThere can be no doubt that all our cognition begins with experience,â€ Kant writes. â€œBut even though all our cognition starts with experience, that does not mean that all of it arises from experienceâ€ (CPR 43-44). For Kant, the Categories of the understanding cannot be derived from experience â€“ even though they can only be legitimately applied within experience. In referring the Categories to â€œour spontaneity of cognitionâ€ (106), Kant in effect reaffirms the cogito, the Cartesian subject separated from, and unconditioned by, the world that it only observes and â€œthinksâ€ from a distance. Though Kant, in the â€œParalogisms of Pure Reason,â€ demolishes any substantive claims for the Cartesian ego, he nonetheless retains that ego in the ghostly, residual form of the â€œtranscendental unity of apperceptionâ€ that accompanies every act of cognition. Kant thereby exempts the subject from the (otherwise ubiquitous) sense of â€œexperience as a constructive functioning.â€
Whitehead, like many post-Kantians, rejects this exemption or separation. For constructivism to be complete, the transcendental presuppositions of experience must themselves arise â€“ immanently, contingently, and historically â€“ from within experience. Even Kantâ€™s basic â€œform of intuition,â€ Whitehead says, must be â€œderived from the actual world qua datum, and thus is not â€˜pureâ€™ in Kantâ€™s sense of that termâ€ (PR 72). The transcendental presuppositions of experience must be processes, rather than fixed logical categories. And they cannot be attributed to the â€œspontaneityâ€ of a subject that would already be in place. â€œFor Kant,â€ Whitehead says, â€œthe process whereby there is experience is a process from subjectivity to apparent objectivity.â€ But Whiteheadâ€™s own philosophy â€œinverts this analysis, and explains the process as proceeding from objectivity to subjectivityâ€ (156). The subject emerges from experience, rather than being presupposed by it. Whitehead thus replaces Kantâ€™s â€œtranscendental idealismâ€ â€“ his â€œdoctrine of the objective world as a construct from subjective experienceâ€ â€“ with something more on the order of William Jamesâ€™ â€œradical empiricism,â€ or of what Deleuze will later call â€œtranscendental empiricism.â€
The important thing for Whitehead about Kantian â€œcritique,â€ therefore, is neither its determination of the limits of reason, nor its deduction of the concepts of understanding, but rather its constructivist account of the conditions of receptivity, or sensibility. That is to say, Whitehead rejects Kantâ€™s â€œTranscendental Logic,â€ according to which â€œordered experience is the result of schematization of modes of thought, concerning causation, substance, quality, quantityâ€ (113). But he largely accepts the â€œTranscendental Aesthetic,â€ in which Kant gives his â€œexpositionâ€ of space and time. This rendering of â€œthe rules of sensibility as suchâ€ (CPR 107) is, for Whitehead, â€œa distorted fragment of what should have been [Kantâ€™s] main topicâ€ (PR 113). Kantâ€™s great discovery in the â€œTranscendental Aestheticâ€ is that space and time are â€œconstructs,â€ in opposition to â€œthe Newtonian â€˜absoluteâ€™ theory of space-timeâ€ (70-72); but also that space and time, as constructs, are acategorical and non-conceptual. Space is â€œan a priori intuition, not a concept,â€ Kant reminds us (CPR 79). Time, similarly, â€œis not a discursive or, as it is called, universal concept; rather, it is a pure form of sensible intuitionâ€ (86). This is why time is â€œnothing but the form of inner sense. . . the formal a priori condition of all appearances generallyâ€ (88). Space and time are immanent conditions of sensible intuition: they indicate the ways in which we receive the â€œdataâ€ that objects provide to us, rather than being logical categories to which the objects providing such data are themselves compelled to conform. Because they are merely forms of reception, space and time are not adequate for cognition. Indeed, Kant says that space and time are â€œsources of cognitionâ€ (92), in that nothing can be cognized apart from them. But space and time are not in themselves enough to authorize the active process of cognition.
This point can be stated in another way. Kant starts out with the Humean assumption of a complete atomism of subjective sensations, â€œthe radical disconnection of impressions qua dataâ€ from one another (PR 113). For Hume adheres to what Whitehead calls the sensationalist principle: the idea â€œthat the primary activity in the act of experience is the bare subjective entertainment of the datum, devoid of any subjective form of receptionâ€ (157). Kantâ€™s aim, in the Critique of Pure Reason, is to avoid the skeptical consequences of Humeâ€™s position by rejecting this sensationalist principle. He seeks to show how the chaos of â€œmere sensationâ€ can be ordered, or its elements connected, in a more stable and satisfactory way than Hume is able to accomplish with his appeal to mere habit. In the â€œTranscendental Logic,â€ Kant does this in what Whitehead regards as an overly intellectualistic way. Kant appeals to what Whitehead calls â€œthe higher of the human modes of functioningâ€ (113), ignoring the more basic and primordial modes of sensation and perception. That is to say, Kant takes a cognitive approach, rather than an affective one. He also presupposes a dualism of form and matter, according to which materiality, or the â€œsensibleâ€ (that which can be apprehended by the senses alone), is passive, inert, and intrinsically shapeless, and that it can only be organized by an intelligibleform that is imposed upon it from the outside, or from above. In Kantâ€™s account, the understanding, with its Categories, imposes a conceptual order upon an otherwise disconnected and featureless flux of individual impressions.
But in the â€œTranscendental Aesthetic,â€ Kant does not altogther adhere to this dualism of form and matter. He does indeed say that space and time are the â€œpure formsâ€ of perception, and â€œsensation as such is its matterâ€ (CPR 95). But his discussion also bears the traces of a different logic. Because time and space are not categories or concepts, they do not relate to their objects in the way that the forms of logical intelligibility (â€œcausation, substance, quality, quantityâ€) do. They are not organizing principles actively imprinted upon an otherwise shapeless and disorganized matter. Rather, space and time are themselves effectively â€œpassive,â€ since they are modes of receptivity rather than spontaneity. Kant says that sensibility or receptivity â€œremains as different as day and night from cognition of the object in itselfâ€; rather than being cognitive, sensibility has to do with â€œthe appearance of something, and the way we are affected by that somethingâ€ (CPR 96; italics added). And this is the crucial point. Even though the â€œthing in itselfâ€ is cognitively unknowable, nevertheless it affects us. And by conveying and expressing â€œthe way we are affected,â€ space and time establish immanent connections among objects, and especially between the object and the subject. These affective connections are already given in the very course of any experience of spatialization and temporalization. In the â€œTranscendental Aesthetic,â€ there is no problem of formlessness, or of disconnected impressions; and therefore there is no need to impose the Categories of understanding from above, in order to give these impressions form, or to yoke them together. As Whitehead puts it, in such a process of feeling â€œthe datum includes its own interconnectionsâ€ (PR 113).