Finally, a return to the series on epistemology. Previously, we’ve covered the “basics” of epistemology, as well as the Greek responses to epistemology. Last time, we hit on Descartes and the early French and English responses. Now, we turn to the Germans.
A Response to Rationalism
Let’s start by reviewing Descartes by analogy. Let’s say Jim finds a photograph of a building titled “Empire State Building” in his grandmother’s attic. He’s never heard of this building, never saw King Kong, etc. Does the picture provide enough evidence to prove that the building exists? No, because it could have been drawn by a good artist and simply be a product of the artist’s imagination. Even if Jim knows that the artist always paints from his life experiences and is a good painter, he might have enough evidence to convincingly argue that the building exists. This is what Descartes means when he says that God is what presents information to our senses for experience and that God can be trusted.
Now let’s look at Hume‘s conclusions: knowledge cannot rely on any form of correspondence with either some external “reality” or even some internal belief. Truth is nothing but an agreed-upon custom. So, let’s imagine Steve takes Terry to a baseball game, but Terry is totally ignorant of this game called “baseball” and Steve keeps him in the dark. As Terry watches the events unfold during the first inning, he will come to the conclusion that each inning will run in the same predictable fashion (one team hits the ball with the stick and runs around the track of dirt touching the white bags on the ground while the other team tries to touch that guy with the ball he just hit, etc). But, Terry has no sufficient proof that this will continue. This is analogous to Hume’s dilemma (above).
So now, we can bring in Kant. His response is simple: if our mind uses rules to process our experiences and join them together, then we can be certain that the regularities will always occur in “reality.” To return to our analogies, it would be like Jim going to New York City and finding the city archives (without ever seeing the Empire State Building) and finding in the archives the blueprints for a building titled “Empire State Building.” Those blueprints are a set of rules for creating such a building, so as long as Jim knows that they have been used, then he can be sure that there is a building that resembles those blueprints. There is an expectation that if there are a set of rules for the creation of something and that those rules have been enacted at least once, then there should be that particular product. With Terry, let’s imagine now that Steve explains to Terry that they are at a baseball game. Because games have rules, Terry is confident that the remaining innings will occur in roughly the same fashion.
Kant spends the majority of his time in the Critique of Pure Reason developing these ideas and discovering the rules by which the mind processes and unifies experiences into a coherent whole. How so? All humans are roughly equal in abilities when it comes to experience and knowledge–a regularity. Furthermore, humans do agree that green is green, so there must be a common set of experiences that humans do process roughly the same. Let’s label this set of experiences phenomena. By tracing what occurs when the mind experiences something in the phenomenal world of experience, Kant argues that there is a non-physical aspect of humans that does this processing. Let’s label that area noumena. This is where the self (i.e. one’s mind) exists and processes experiences. The pathway that this occurs is through the usage of rules, what Kant labels judgments of perception and judgments of experience. These are first filtered through what Kant calls the pure (read noumenal, not clean) categories of understanding. It is quite likely that other types of beings have different processes, so this isn’t something universal and across the board. These rules and pathways can only apply to things experienced, but there’s one shortcoming: one cannot experience any pure (again, noumenal) thing. These are the things in themselves (Ding-an-sich) and are always experienced through the phenomenal categories first.
There were a few differences with those who followed after Kant, namely Hegel and Kierkegaard. Hegel sought to remove the limit of knowing things in themselves. His arguments were based on what he termed Absolute Knowledge, which is to be seen not as some form of omniscience but rather as an understanding of self-understanding, (introspective) reflection, and understanding that the object of knowledge is also a subject understanding oneself. In this way, Hegel argues that one can actually know and experience things in themselves. Kierkegaard takes a different route and stands against Hegel’s interpretation of Kant while also inserting his own view of faith into it. Kierkegaard argues that all knowledge is grounded in the ethical–that is, knowledge is itself ethical and rooted in ethics and morality. While both of these derivatives of Kant have some ground, they have been largely ignored by subsequent epistemology (and only there).