Lecture Notes for Class 9
Kant and the “I think”
Locke’s groundbreaking theory of self and personal identity aims in the first place to draw borders between different ways of defining individuality and assigning criteria of identity in the domain of (broadly taken) human individuals.
The background, which is itself deeply innovative, is to conceive of individuation as a function of ideas (sortals), rather than of any specific metaphysical category, i.e., substance.
Against this background, Locke distinguishes, in the relevant domain, 3 sortals and 3 criteria of identity: Human being, Thinking substance, and Person or self. We have seen the contents of the corresponding sortals and the possible divergence between the identities that they mark. I want to say, conclusively, something about the inspiration for Locke’s philosophical operation and about its implications.
Locke’s philosophical inspiration is in many respects anti-Cartesian. Locke recognizes the subjective or agential dimension of thinking and cognition, alongside the dimension of episodes and contents, ideas. But, on general grounds of skepticism about metaphysics, he refuses to equate it with some sort of substantial being. No res cogitans, no res the essence of which is cogitation.
This clearly raises a problem about the individuation and the identity of thinking subjects, of persons: insofar as they are real, they must be individuated and re-identified independently of thinking substances; at least, in ways non-reducible to thinking substances. Locke’s sortal: Person or self, aims precisely to this. Self or person is individuated and re-identified by/as first-personal consciousness.
The ontology of self or person, in this way, becomes extremely complex. We must distinguish, in its constitution, self-consciousness or first-personal consciousness, two aspects or dimensions.
One is consciousness itself, the mental or thinking action. This is essentially dependent on the thinking substance: an action is a ‘part’ of a thinking substance, just as an idea is. The actions and ideas cannot be transferred from one thinking substance to the other: they are jointly individuated and re-identified as the thought x belonging to substance y.
The other is the self-character or the first-person. This is difficult to capture in terms of Locke’s ontology. It is a mode, obviously; but this does not distinguish it from consciousness or reflex thought. Very tentatively, we may say that it is something like a manner of conception, or a viewpoint, a conceptual determination of consciousness, its immediate first-personal recognition – as myself.
No matter how sketched is Locke’s ontology of the first person (ours is not much better, however), one point is very clear. Differently from acts of thought and ideas, the first person can be individuated and re-identified independently of thinking substances, it is self-individuated and self-identified (this is, after all, what makes it constitutive of selves and persons, in Locke’s theory).
Then a problem arises. The first person is a manner of conception or viewpoint, something very thinly mental and cognitive, which by definition can be modally detached from any contentful thinking episode. This is entailed by its modal detachment from thinking substance. But then, how can it be individuated and re-identified as a manner of conception or viewpoint? Isn’t the first person too thin to support the substance-independent individuation and re-identification of a self or person? This is the emptiness problem.
At the same time, the kind of subjectivity in thinking that Locke aims to keep apart from substantial determination seems to be an indispensable aspect of thought and cognition and of being a self, a subject, a person. This is the indispensability problem.
The emptiness and the indispensability problems are Locke’s legacy about persona identity and the self. They depend on the underlying self-constitutive insight.
(2) Kant: Philosophical Preliminaries
(a) Kant regards the task of his theory as primarily epistemological and only derivatively content-explanatory. The task is to explain knowledge, not only ideas and beliefs, and knowledge is an essentially normative concept. To explain thought and cognition is to explain their forms and possibilities of being correct or incorrect, valid or invalid, justified or unjustified.
Kant’s concept of it that knowledge includes, constitutively, a necessary relation between representation and object. Kant is strongly committed to truth-makers. The correspondence of representation and objects, at the level of judgments and propositional contents, requires a grounding; such grounding is to make that correspondence necessary and intelligible. And he looks for this grounding in a necessary a priori dimension of knowledge.
The question now is as to a criterion, by which we may securely distinguish a pure from an empirical cognition. Experience no doubt teaches us that this or that object is constituted in such and such a manner, but not that it could not possibly exist otherwise. Now, in the first place, if we have a proposition which contains the idea of necessity in its very conception, it is as if, moreover, it is not derived from any other proposition, unless from one equally involving the idea of necessity, it is absolutely priori. Secondly, an empirical judgment never exhibits strict and absolute, but only assumed and comparative universality (by induction); therefore, the most we can say is—so far as we have hitherto observed, there is no exception to this or that rule. If, on the other hand, a judgment carries with it strict and absolute universality, that is, admits of no possible exception, it is not derived from experience, but is valid absolutely a priori (43-44)
The a priori is what is strictly universal and necessary, and therefore objectively valid, in cognition: considered by itself, it is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for representation to count as knowledge. Therefore, in order to explain how knowledge is in general possible, Kant must explain whether and how representation can be a priori, in the different domains, under the different aspects, and at the different levels in which we claim to have knowledge. Because the a priori is the ultimate, if conditioned, source of the essential normativity of knowledge.
(b) On account of its constitutive-explanatory role with regard to knowledge, Kant denies that analyticity, the inclusion of a concept in another, provides an adequate account of the a priori. Analyticity of conceptual inclusion is not productive of knowledge of objects, of real knowledge; as opposed to the subjective awareness, we can gain of these conceptual relations. Apriority, in the knowledge-constitutive sense, is not analyticity.
We must join in thought a certain predicate to a given conception, and this necessity cleaves already to the conception. But the question is, not what we must join in thought to the given conception, but what we really think therein, though only obscurely, and then it becomes manifest that the predicate pertains to these conceptions, necessarily indeed, yet not as thought in the conception itself, but by virtue of an intuition, which must be added to the conception (53-54)
As the closing of this text indicates, Kant is also committed to the view that reference to objects and specification of their properties can only be achieved in sense-experience, in particular, by direct cognitive contact or acquaintance. This is what Kant calls intuition, which, in the actual human case, is restricted to sensibility (to the exclusion of intellectual intuition: direct cognitive contact with objects as they are and not as they appear to us).
Taken together with the demand for a non-analytic a priori, this amounts to saying that the fundamental architecture of the content and of the validity of knowledge is rooted in two sources and is articulated in two forms of cognitive content and commitment, one receptive and one active, irreducible the one to the other: sensibility and understanding.
Our knowledge springs from two main sources in the mind, first of which is the faculty or power of receiving representations (receptivity for impressions); the second is the power of cognizing by means of these representations (spontaneity in the production of conceptions). Through the first an object is given to us; through the second, it is, in relation to the representation (which is a mere determination of the mind), thought. Intuition and conceptions constitute, therefore, the elements of all our knowledge, so that neither conceptions without an intuition in some way corresponding to them, nor intuition without conceptions, can afford us a cognition (92)
The constitutive-explanatory task set by and addressed in Kant’s theory of knowledge is how receptivity or intuitions and spontaneity or understanding and concept contribute on a priori grounds to make possible the strictly universal and necessary, non-analytic correspondence of objects and representations that is the essence of knowledge.
(c) The dual source explains why analytic reason is not productive of knowledge. But it seems also to make the problem of the a priori grounding of knowledge worse. The understanding requires objects in order to produce real a priori knowledge, that is, to secure a necessary and valid relation between thought and object. Sensibility only can give objects. Therefore, if sensibility is only a posteriori and objects are only specifiable a posteriori, there seems to be a clash between what is required for understanding to perform a substantive a priori cognitive role.
Kant tries to solve the problem with the claim that there is an a priori element in sensibility; that objects of sense are not given completely a posteriori.
The effect of an object upon the faculty of representation, so far as we are affected by the said object, is sensation. That sort of intuition which relates to an object by means of sensation is called an empirical intuition. The undetermined object of an empirical intuition is called phenomenon. That which in the phenomenon corresponds to the sensation, I term its matter; but that which effects that the content of the phenomenon can be arranged under certain relations, I call its form. But that in which our sensations are merely arranged, and by which they are susceptible of assuming a certain form, cannot be itself sensation. It is, then, the matter of all phenomena that is given to us a posteriori; the form must lie ready a priori for them in the mind, and consequently can be regarded separately from all sensation (34-35)
This form a priori is identified in space and time, as principles of order and organization of sensations, as universal containers of any possible sensible experience.
Time and space are, therefore, two sources of knowledge, from which, a priori, various synthetical cognitions can be drawn. Of this we find a striking example in the cognitions of space and its relations, which form the foundation of pure mathematics. They are the two pure forms of all intuitions, and thereby make synthetical propositions a priori possible (80)
But how is it possible that a constitutive aspect of sensible objects, or of sensible experience actually presenting objects, be a priori? Kant answers by advancing a conception of space and time as forms of our sensibility, the necessary but subjective forms through or according to which we can only have intuitions of objects. In this way, he reconstructs the reality of the objects that can be given to us by sense to their being objects in our sensibility, to be a kind of representations. The objects we can be acquainted with and that can be the subject-matter of a priori cognition are representations. This is the first step of the Copernican Revolution.
Now, how can an external intuition anterior to objects themselves, and in which our conception of objects can be determined a priori, exist in the human mind? Obviously not otherwise than in so far as it has its seat in the subject only, as the formal capacity of the subject's being affected by objects, and thereby of obtaining immediate representation, that is, intuition; consequently, only as the form of the external sense in general (70)
Kant’s fundamental epistemic requirement: that it be possible to have and to refer to objects a priori, so that the correspondence between representations and object have the strict universality that are implied by knowledge (and that can only be secured a priori), thus is only satisfied if the objects themselves be representations, have subjective nature.
Notice how the satisfaction of the epistemic requirement is connected with the satisfaction of a constitutive-existential condition: we must give ourselves an object a priori; without a priori forms of spatial intuition, objects in space would not even be given. This is the ground of the objective validity of geometry and in general of spatial cognition in the Transcendental Aesthetic: objects located in space, external objects, are representations, that is, are mind-dependent. This gives an unprecedented prominence to subjectivity in thinking and cognition.