More on Whitehead and Kant

I can’t seem to get away from the subject.

For Whitehead, the great accomplishment of Kant’s Copernican Revolution in philosophy is its “conception of an act of experience as a constructive functioning” (PR 156). That is to say, Whitehead credits Kant with originating philosophical constructivism. Kant denies the possibility (or even the meaningfulness) of knowing “things in themselves,” 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 “stubborn fact” (128-129) external to ourselves, is itself the reflexive process through which the world, including ourselves, gets constituted. For Whitehead, as for Kant, “the whole universe consists of elements disclosed in the experiences of subjects” – and nothing else (166). As a constructivist, Whitehead is very much a post-Kantian thinker – 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 “excess of subjectivity” (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 “concepts of understanding,” or Categories. “There can be no doubt that all our cognition begins with experience,” Kant writes. “But even though all our cognition starts with experience, that does not mean that all of it arises from experience” (CPR 43-44). For Kant, the Categories of the understanding cannot be derived from experience – even though they can only be legitimately applied within experience. In referring the Categories to “our spontaneity of cognition” (106), Kant in effect reaffirms the cogito, the Cartesian subject separated from, and unconditioned by, the world that it only observes and “thinks” from a distance. Though Kant, in the “Paralogisms of Pure Reason,” demolishes any substantive claims for the Cartesian ego, he nonetheless retains that ego in the ghostly, residual form of the “transcendental unity of apperception” that accompanies every act of cognition. Kant thereby exempts the subject from the (otherwise ubiquitous) sense of “experience as a constructive functioning.”

Whitehead, like many post-Kantians, rejects this exemption or separation. For constructivism to be complete, the transcendental presuppositions of experience must themselves arise – immanently, contingently, and historically – from within experience. Even Kant’s basic “form of intuition,” Whitehead says, must be “derived from the actual world qua datum, and thus is not ‘pure’ in Kant’s sense of that term” (PR 72). The transcendental presuppositions of experience must be processes, rather than fixed logical categories. And they cannot be attributed to the “spontaneity” of a subject that would already be in place. “For Kant,” Whitehead says, “the process whereby there is experience is a process from subjectivity to apparent objectivity.” But Whitehead’s own philosophy “inverts this analysis, and explains the process as proceeding from objectivity to subjectivity” (156). The subject emerges from experience, rather than being presupposed by it. Whitehead thus replaces Kant’s “transcendental idealism” – his “doctrine of the objective world as a construct from subjective experience” – with something more on the order of William James’ “radical empiricism,” or of what Deleuze will later call “transcendental empiricism.”

The important thing for Whitehead about Kantian “critique,” 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 Kant’s “Transcendental Logic,” according to which “ordered experience is the result of schematization of modes of thought, concerning causation, substance, quality, quantity” (113). But he largely accepts the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” in which Kant gives his “exposition” of space and time. This rendering of “the rules of sensibility as such” (CPR 107) is, for Whitehead, “a distorted fragment of what should have been [Kant’s] main topic” (PR 113). Kant’s great discovery in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” is that space and time are “constructs,” in opposition to “the Newtonian ‘absolute’ theory of space-time” (70-72); but also that space and time, as constructs, are acategorical and non-conceptual. Space is “an a priori intuition, not a concept,” Kant reminds us (CPR 79). Time, similarly, “is not a discursive or, as it is called, universal concept; rather, it is a pure form of sensible intuition” (86). This is why time is “nothing but the form of inner sense. . . the formal a priori condition of all appearances generally” (88). Space and time are immanent conditions of sensible intuition: they indicate the ways in which we receive the “data” 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 “sources of cognition” (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, “the radical disconnection of impressions qua data” from one another (PR 113). For Hume adheres to what Whitehead calls the sensationalist principle: the idea “that the primary activity in the act of experience is the bare subjective entertainment of the datum, devoid of any subjective form of reception” (157). Kant’s aim, in the Critique of Pure Reason, is to avoid the skeptical consequences of Hume’s position by rejecting this sensationalist principle. He seeks to show how the chaos of “mere sensation” 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 “Transcendental Logic,” Kant does this in what Whitehead regards as an overly intellectualistic way. Kant appeals to what Whitehead calls “the higher of the human modes of functioning” (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 “sensible” (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 Kant’s account, the understanding, with its Categories, imposes a conceptual order upon an otherwise disconnected and featureless flux of individual impressions.

But in the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” Kant does not altogther adhere to this dualism of form and matter. He does indeed say that space and time are the “pure forms” of perception, and “sensation as such is its matter” (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 (“causation, substance, quality, quantity”) do. They are not organizing principles actively imprinted upon an otherwise shapeless and disorganized matter. Rather, space and time are themselves effectively “passive,” since they are modes of receptivity rather than spontaneity. Kant says that sensibility or receptivity “remains as different as day and night from cognition of the object in itself”; rather than being cognitive, sensibility has to do with “the appearance of something, and the way we are affected by that something” (CPR 96; italics added). And this is the crucial point. Even though the “thing in itself” is cognitively unknowable, nevertheless it affects us. And by conveying and expressing “the way we are affected,” 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 “Transcendental Aesthetic,” 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 “the datum includes its own interconnections” (PR 113).

12 thoughts on “More on Whitehead and Kant”

  1. “Modes of receptivity rather than spontaneity”? How, apart from your frankly dazzling explication in English, is this different than what the Germans, before we bombed them into submission, used to call ‘gestalt’ psychology? And isn’t this the ground where writers like Alduous Huxley and Colin Wilson tried and to some extent succeeded in making a fresh start half a century ago?

  2. I live in Chile and I discovered your blog more than a year ago. I have to say that maybe it is the best blog in its kind in all the net. Is wonderful you have the skill of write clearly about difficult matters. Definitively a very important node in the network of relevant content out there. Congratulations.

  3. I can’t get rid of my blackheads.

    I think that Kant has a two-kingdom’s orientation where perfection is hidden inside of imperfection. We can glimpse but not embody perfection. I think this is what Kant means by the beautiful and the sublime and even by judgement in the third critique. That it is possible for us to get an inkling, but we must turn away from the Glory, because it is too dazzling for our brainstems.

    Whitehead has a process theology where God begins at alpha and is imperfect but as He moves through history the universe gives Him a kind of therapy through which He arrives at perfection.

    Whitehead therefore seems to owe much to Hegel in terms of his notion of the universe as a process. Whitehead is the thinker behind the fifties movement called Process Theology.

    But behind that is Hegel and the notion of a Universal History in which the Subject creates objectivity in order to learn more about Himself.

    Kant has a more static vision, but I think it’s more enchanting.

    I still have a whitehead or two, but by the end of history, my pores will be childlike in their smoothness once more.

  4. I can’t help but see a connection here between your reading of Whitehead’s answer to the noumena / phenomena problem and the issue of causaulity in Quantum Gravity. Oddly like the Categories of Experience, we seem to find all phenomena “quantized” into Planck-“X” (length, time, etc.) units. Below the level of the Planck-scale . . . ?

    And yet, we have causality. Mediated through the Schroedinger Equation, we have a probabilistic smear that, it seems to me, speaks to the “noise” below the Planck scale (or, if you prefer, between the quanta). The little micro-variables that are impossible to measuure – but none-the-less have a non-zero impact on the shape of future events. Like the tiniest variation of torque of a pool-cue on a billiard-ball. Sometimes they really are just noise – and are lost in the ocean of noise. But sometimes they are reflections of an underlying shape that can be measured and, in some sense, understoood. Through a sifting through a very large number of actual events, we can come to a point where we can uncover underlying regularities in their causal dispersion. An interpolation, as it were, of the higher-dimensional events that are projected into our space-time causality.

    This class of coherences would be, in Deleuzian terms “The Virtual’. The phenomena closest to the noumena.

  5. Steve, What you neglect to mention in your wonderful exposition of Kant is his adherence to intuition. The architecture of Kant’s idea of cognition has its basis in both idealism (a better word, his own wording, Transcendental Categories) and the externality of objects.

    His philosophy is both constructive and critical. He uses Hume as a shield so to speak against the German Idealists of his day, you know, the dogmatists. He then rejects his own interpretation of Hume, namely, that he is a skeptic. Wrong, wrong, wrong. In the end Hume and Kant are not so far apart as to be contrary epistemologists and discoverers of cognition.

    Hell, if we didn’t need the evidence to substantiate our theories of cognition, Damasio wouldn’t have had to go to the lab or cite events from the history of neuroscience. He could have just read Hume and Kant.

    Sorry if this is rushed. I hate responding to blogs. I feel put on the spot when I’m truly compelled to say something.

    “We therefore assert the empirical reality of space (with respect to all possible outer experience), though to be sure at the same time its transcendental ideality, i.e., that it is nothing as soon as we leave out the condition of the possibility of all experience, and tae it as something that grounds the things themselves.” B44 Cambridge Text

  6. Apperception is important to the structure of categories. The way we experience the world is ordered by them, but without awareness of what we perceive there can be no certainty about the externality of objects. The categories are as much a modal part of Kant’s structure as the externality of objects. The following is also a critique on the possibility of conception and representation.

    “The -I think- must be able to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me that con not be thought at all, which is as much as to say that the representation would either be impossible or else at least would be nothing for me. That representation that can be given prior to all thinking is called intuition.” S16 B132

  7. In my first reply I said, “In the end Hume and Kant are not so far apart as to be contrary epistemologists and discoverers of cognition.” This is a presupposition on my behalf. In my readings I’ve found some passages from both which could substantiate a claim as weak as: “Hume isn’t contrary to Kant.” Nor are they contradictory if we were to somehow merge their two theories together. This is my bias so far because I took a detour into Damasio and Pinker’s work.

    I’m not making the stronger claim that Hume and Kant are anywhere near each other when it comes to the their epistemology.

    I haven’t had the time to read you blog in a long time. I appreciate you comments on Kant, Whitehead, and Deleuze.

  8. Let me make a stronger claim then: “The way we experience the world is ordered by them, but without awareness of what we perceive there can be no certainty about the externality of objects.” (Me, a couple of days ago)

    The way we experience the world is ordered by the Categories (see A Kantian Dictionary by Caygill), but without awareness of what we perceive and how our perception is order (by the Categories) then there can be no certainty about the externality of objects.

    This is my interpretation of Kant. I have yet to figure what he or how he uses this noetic scheme to justify, warrant, or ascribe truth to propositions about the external world.

  9. It is all over the place, not in any one place in particular. Look up Kant in the index of Process and Reality.

  10. Does W anywhere say that Kant does (or does not) perpetuate the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness?
    ……I’ve searched, but can’t find the answer.

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