Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCE - Kant and Schopenhauer

That our knowledge begins with experience is a fact not to be doubted. (I. Kant, INtroduction to 1787 edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.)

For Kant, knowledge begins with experience but does not end with it. Indeed, the kind of knowledge that begins and ends with experience pertains to the intellect or understanding or instrumental reason (Verstand). This is the knowledge that is encompassed and dissected in his epistemology. But beyond this knowledge lies the transcendental field of metaphysics, the sphere that belongs to Pure Reason (Vernunft) - and that is a rational projection into the transcendental (hence the “purity” of the Reason, purified from experience) that is required by the very fact that our natural intellect (Verstand) is able to reach the a priori knowledge that arises from experience. The mere fact that our pure reason is able to speculate to a sphere beyond that of experience shows that this sphere is indeed a requisite of Pure Reason. As we indicated earlier, this categorization of human reason, of the Logos, erects two divisions and results in two antinomies between human reason and its objects: first, the division between the intellect and experience, then the division between the intellect and the complementary transcendental objects of Pure Reason – the I, the infinite, Uncreated Creator. In Kant, these moments of experience on one side and knowledge derived from it on the other are kept separate, so that what we experience through our sensations (Empfindungen) is neatly distinguished from the process of deriving knowledge from those matters that are complementary to experience and that the intellect cannot countenance.

But before we deal with this transcendental or metaphysical knowledge, let us first deal with experiential or epistemological knowledge. Apart from this generic division between “experience” and “knowledge” (the intellect), Kant operates a division or dissection of the act of perception whereby perception involves a particular “object” or “experience” about which - upon focusing on which - the intellect can derive its synthetic a priori conclusions. Yet, we ought to know that this is simply not so! There is no way known that human perception can be focused on a particular or distinct object or objects – for the shatteringly simple fact that even the act of “focusing” on a particular object within our act of perception is itself an act of selection and application of and by the intellect! (This is one of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s greatest intuitions contained in his The Phenomenology of Perception, a book dedicated to Husserl.) In other words, not only is there not an “object” that can be singled out by the act of perception without the aid of the intellect, but also it is impossible both from the act of perception and the intervention of the intellect to single out or identify an “object” external to human perception that is the source of our perceptions and on which the intellect can exercise its intellective functions! When we perceive or experience or sense the life-world, this perceptum is an indistinct whole out of which no single particular object can be singled out – except for the contemporaneous intervention of our intellect that is able to focus on a particular object for the sake of drawing practical or synthetic a priori generalizations! Once again, not only at the general level of knowledge (intellect) and experience (perception or sensation), Kant has mistaken a logico-conceptual distinction for one existing in “reality”, in our practico-empirical experience!

The mistake is to think of the conceptual logical form as separate from its real content in our intuition! Logic is immanently connected with the life-world through the human intellect, imagination, intuition and sensibility: - first, because concepts and thoughts themselves are material neurological processes; second, because the logical form is inconceivable without a material content; and third, because logico-mathematics is fundamentally a tautological operation, a tool that tells us absolutely nothing new about the experiences to which we apply it. (We follow Bertrand Russell in accepting that mathematics can be reduced to logic overall – v. his Principia Mathematica.) The superficial non-contradictoriness of logico-mathematics induces us to believe falsely that these concepts or thoughts cannot be material. Yet, logico-mathematical reasoning is contradictory when abstracted in non-iterative, non-demonstrative forms – because then it incurs well-known “paradoxes”.

More generally, it is a mistake to think that the universal can be distinguished from the particular, that somehow the universal is “extracted” or “derived” or even “abstracted” from the individual, specific particular – when in reality the universal and the particular are inseverable, inseparable, indivisible in the unity of human perception! Universal and particular would be separate if indeed to an internal, subjective perception-sensation there corresponded an external, objective “reality”. But this is not so for the simple fact that the perception, the percipiens and the perceptum are indissolubly linked with the objectum (the “object”), and both are indissoluble moments of the one “figure” of the imagination, of the intellect! It is important to distinguish the two moments of this analysis: first, the percipiens (the human being) is itself material in the sense that it is not separable – physically and conceptually – from the perceptum and then the Object no longer understood as ob-ject, as Gegen-stand, that stands “behind” the Pro-dukt (Kant) of perceiving: in short, there is no op-position  between perceiver and perceived! And second, the act of perceiving and the perception interpenetrate each other – sensibility and imagination are inseparable, inseverable moments of the one reality. The perception, sensibility, immediately contains the form or figure given to it by the imagination which, in turn, just as immediately contains the experience of the perception. The Thing and the Sensation and the Image or Schema all interpenetrate one another.

Let us summarize this crucial point differently – this time following Schopenhauer’s famous critique of Kant’s epistemology. According to Kant, what our senses perceive are different “appearances” of external objects whose apparent contradictoriness it is the task of the intellect to reconcile so as to derive a physical “law” that makes all appearances reconcilable. The difficulty with this approach is that it assumes what is strictly beyond proof – indeed, beyond experience – that is to say, it assumes that our intellect must postulate the existence of an object external to our perception of which neither our perception nor our intellect can have any cognition at all given that the “appearances” emanated by that external object are both infinite and indefinite. But if this is so, we are then led to conclude absurdly that our experience is based on a “thing” – Kant’s thing-in-itself – that is totally unknowable! Again, if that is so, how is it possible then, as Kant claims in the very first sentence of the Critique, for us to derive any knowledge from an experience that is based on an unknowable object – and that therefore is no proper experience at all because experience must relate to a knowable object in the first instance? There is clearly an antinomy here between the Subject and the Object created entirely by Kant’s inability or unwillingness to concede that the distinction between intellect and perception, between knowledge and experience is entirely logico-conceptual in nature and wholly fictitious in practico-empirical reality!

To recapitulate, for Kant there is an Object, an appearance of the object, the Intellect’s Schema, and then beyond these Pure Reason that governs the Intellect in the practical and metaphysical, the transcendental sphere. For Schopenhauer instead the Object and its appearance are one and the same – representations (Vorstellungen) – so that the Thing-in-Itself dis-appears as “Thing” or Object and reappears or is replaced as qualitas occulta by the Will. Each division in this sequence involves an antinomy, which Schopenhauer perspicuously identified. It is Kant’s positing of these various qualitates occultae, these inscrutable “things-in-themselves” that constitute the corresponding antinomies in his critical or transcendental idealism. As Cacciari put it (in his Krisis), Lukacs’s entire critique of “the antinomies of bourgeois thought” (in History and Class Consciousness) would be unthinkable without the “screen” of Schopenhauer’s critique of Kant’s epistemology. We shall examine this point further in connection with Heidegger’s own critique of Kant in a later section.

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