Kyborg 27: The A Priori

Three weeks are up: ready or not, here I come.

Here’s where we left the story: once upon a time, philosophers thought they could divine the structure of the world using reason alone. They called their quest for the Fundamental Structure of Being ‘Ontology.’

Try saying ‘ontology’ three times in a row and tell me whether philosophy needs a better marketing consultant.

Reason married to Christian (and Islamic) faith was the foundation of Western culture for fifteen hundred years. Not a bad run, but eternal marriage has its challenges. In the modern era, reason switched partners and eloped with experiment. Newton’s remarkable achievements sealed the deal: here was a form of reason that captured all known experimental phenomena, a new science of mechanics of unparalleled accuracy and explanatory power.

So where does reason get its power? Why is it so good at capturing the structure of the empirical world? Why is the world intelligible? Looking back to the reason’s first marriage: what do we do about faith and morals? And when reason wants some alone time: what are its limits? What can it do on its own?

Kant was the philosopher who recognized intelligibility is the key to the future of philosophy. In his view, the proper task of philosophy is to map the structures of intelligibility while keeping one eye on the second marriage (i.e., experimental science) and one eye on the first marriage (faith and morals). In doing so, Kant carved a middle way between the two marriages:

  1. He charted a metaphysical version of ‘you need an eye in order to see,’ i.e., that the intelligibility of the empirical world presupposed concepts that couldn’t be derived from experience. These a priori concepts provide the scaffolding on which we can hang the body of the universe. The intelligibility of the sensorial world is dependent on the mind’s innate structure, which it imposes on the sensations it receives from the world.

  2. At the same time, the mind’s eye can’t see beyond the realm of the senses - it’s not the third eye of Siva. And therefore, it has no knowledge of God. For that matter, it has no knowledge of objects as such; only objects as filtered through its own concepts.

With that second Copernican revolution, Kant transformed the task of philosophy from discerning the structure of the world (which he thought beyond the capacity of reason) to discerning the structure of intelligibility (which he thought was the proper scope of reason).

These structures of intelligibility, i.e, the means through which we grasp the world aren’t derived from experience or experiment - instead, they are imposed by the mind on the world and are the preconditions for making sense of anything at all. That’s what Kant means by ‘a priori’ concepts.

The Kant’s scheme, the mind is a talisman, the lamp that sheds light on the abyss of existence. Future thinkers have other talismans: some look at logic, others language, consciousness or the unconscious. It’s also possible to historicize the a priori order and attribute it to social classes and the associated means of production.

Nevertheless, whether it’s the revolutionary proletariat or the brain’s wiring diagrams, the secret lies in discerning the talisman that reveals the structures of intelligibility. However, science wasn’t sleeping at the wheel for two hundred years while letting philosophers appropriate intelligibility to themselves.

With cognitive science, neuroscience and AI, we now have empirical disciplines loath to leave the a priori to pure reason; whether it’s space, time or concepts, there are plenty of researchers who study the psychological and neural basis for intelligibility.

How do we bring these two streams together?

That’s the question I want to address in the next five weeks. I will do so by reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason line by line and bringing in modern sources and ideas as I see fit. My reading will be ‘digestive’ rather than analytical. I am not interested in what Kant said per se, as much as using him as a tool for my own thought.

One argument of particular interests: Kant says that the unity of experience follows from the unity of the subject, i.e., that every external cognition (say, me perceiving the tree outside my window) is accompanied by the cognition that indexes the ‘I,’ and that it’s the latter that lends unity to the former.

That’s quite different from the approach of cognitive science & neuroscience, which assumes that I can perceive the tree in the manner of a camera without implicating myself or any other subject and to the extent we perceive unified objects and scenes, it’s because we combine and bind multiple streams of information into a single entity, so that color and shape and texture are all bound into a mango I am holding in my hands.

But the basic structure of a priori arguments suggests why the ‘I’ needs to get involved:

  1. Space and time and other forms of intuition (Kant’s term for the a priori structures that structure incoming sensory data) are necessary for the chaos of sensation to be organized into meaningful unit of experience.

  2. Similarly, there has to be an a priori unity for those meaningful units to be cognized as unities, or else they will be perceived as indivisible layouts rather than a landscape of discrete and individuated objects.

  3. The I is the ‘ur’ unity which serves as the template for all other unities.

In short, just as there’s no seeing without an eye, there’s no understanding without an I.