Department of Overstatement

by Brian on November 4, 2003

From Martin Schönfeld’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy on Kant’s philosophical development:

Modern thought begins with Kant. The appearance of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 marks the start of modern philosophy, and Kant’s ideas have helped to shape global civilization. Today his texts are read on all continents. Although Kant is in the same league as Confucius or Aristotle…

I’ve got some relatives who have spent time in Antarctica, but I’ve never heard them talk about the Kant scholars down there. More seriously, there’s more than a few Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Berkeley, Reid and Rousseau scholars who might dispute that modern philosophy begins with CPR, and a few million Americans who would probably dispute that there was no modern thought before Kant.



JoJo 11.04.03 at 7:01 am

I find it hard to take the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy seriously. But it’s a really impressive name.


jdsm 11.04.03 at 8:06 am

I once took a course on environmental philosophy given by Martin Schönfeld. He was a very good lecturer but spent a long time during one of the classes arguing about Kant with one of the graduate students. It’s good to see nothing changes.

Incidentally, he seemed very concerned to point out that environmental philosophy wasn’t “flaky”. He then proceeded to show that it pretty much is.


john c. halasz 11.04.03 at 8:52 am

But the transcendental turn is Kant’s innovation. Kant himself is inscrutable, at once pre-modern and very modern. But the transcendental turn amounts to a plea for the productivity of knowledge rather than its sheer givenness. Though the transcendental turn is now over. The post-structuralists have demonstrated this e contrario. Though Wittgenstein was well ahead of them, had they bothered to read him.


Dell Adams 11.04.03 at 9:15 am

Somehow I expect the elliptical sentence to end something like “…he has never met them in the playoffs until this year.”

Though I should remind John Halasz that, unlike many of his modern successors, Kant himself was always careful to stop and signal before making the transcendental turn.


john c. halasz 11.04.03 at 11:10 am

Play-offs would have been a good idea. (Past subjunctive?)
I don’t know how much it is generally recognized that Wittgenstein’s critique of epistemology is at once a repudiation and a transformation of Kantian critique.


chun the unavoidable 11.04.03 at 4:23 pm

I think the argument that modern philosophy starts with Reid is pretty much indisputable, and thus, like our pimp friend jojo, believe that the Stanford project is hopelessly out of touch.


Michael C 11.04.03 at 4:34 pm

Let’s not tar the Stanford Encyclopedia based on one overblown entry, shall we? It still beats the living daylights out of the ink-and-paper encyclopedias of philosophy and will (I predict) put the others out of business in five years.


Brian Weatherson 11.04.03 at 5:02 pm

I’m certainly not trying to tar the Stanford Encyclopedia – since I’ve written a couple of things for it that would be rather inappropriate. It’s the only philosophy encyclopedia I use, and I often recommend it to my students. I just thought this opening was pretty funny.


Charles Stewart 11.04.03 at 5:54 pm

CtU: I think the argument that modern philosophy starts with Reid is pretty much indisputable…

This is a joke, right?


Curious 11.04.03 at 6:46 pm

RE: I don’t know how much it is generally recognized that Wittgenstein’s critique of epistemology is at once a repudiation and a transformation of Kantian critique.

Could you elaborate?


chun the unavoidable 11.04.03 at 7:41 pm


Brian’s the person you should be asking, but keep in mind that his political compass result seems to place him within the David Stove political tradition.

I am an absolutist, personally.


JoJo 11.04.03 at 9:33 pm

Let’s not tar the Stanford Encyclopedia based on one overblown entry, shall we?

Let’s instead tar it on the basis of a general lack of editorial oversight. From what I’ve seen of it, hobby-horsicality is unchecked.


john c. halasz 11.04.03 at 10:13 pm

Wittgenstein always cited as his first/earliest intellectual/philosophical influence the 19th century physicist Heinrich Hertz. Hertz devised a mode of presentation for mechanical physics that sought to show the validity of its propositions from “within”, so that one could at once grasp the basis of their validity and the limits of their application. In addition, Hertz insisted, against Machian positivism, that the basic concepts of physics required mathematical idealizations that were not themselves empirically observable but justified nonetheless. There is something of a Kantian flavor in this program. In turn, Kant was the only major classical philosopher that Wittgenstein actually closely read. (He read the first “Critique” in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp during his Tractatus phase.) Now the “Tractatus” is basically inscrutable. But it can be seen as an effort to carry through a “Hertzian” program: through a reduction/integration of Fregean logic to show forth the logical structure of all possible true statements. States of affairs and propostions are correlated by virtue of having the “same logical form”, but “objects” are “transcendental”.

When Wittgenstein’s growing doubts about the passibility and implications of the “Tractatus” program led to a thorough-going self-criticism and transformation of his philosophical outlook in the 1930’s, he ended up with the “grammatical” approach. “Grammar” can be seen as a replacement for Kantian critique, carrying through something of its intention: on the one hand, to show forth, on the basis of its limits and human finitude, the validity of knowledge and, on the other hand, to leave room for “glauben” and the ethical. But this approach also de-transcendentalizes the matter, doing away with the unplaceable transcendental standpoint, together with the whole superfluous and philosophically misleading and erroneous transcendental apparatus, and repudiating the epistemological project of modern philosophy as a whole. Now epistemology- “erkenntnistheorie”, in German, simply, “theory of knowledge”, but it’s the same thing- involves two intertwined ideas: 1) that philosophy, out of its own resources and authority, can validate knowledge, at least with respect to its “true form”, and 2) that from new or newly validated knowledge, a new ethics can be derived. But, in fact, 1) philosophy has no capacity, nor authority to dictate in advance to knowledge its “true form”, outside of the actual testing of its validity-claims- and this means that there is no such thing as distinctively philosophical knowledge as such-, and 2) there is no new ethics to be derived from knowledge, but rather it is a matter of the same old ethics- or the separate ethical dimension, the validity of which develops on its own- taking place under new truth-conditions.

The upshot of this is the replacement of the transcendental standpoint with reference to the “form of life”, historically evolving and contingent, but irreplaceable. One can not “transcendentally” step outside a form of life to judge a form of life as a whole: in one sense, this strongly limits the claims of reason, but in another, it leaves them as they are. The notion of a form of life is stipulated as a background limit-condition, back behind which one can not go. It has unfortunately been brought to the fore by commentators-( the term occurs, if I recall, 6 times in “PI”)- and given rise to much bad commentary to the effect that there are, in principle, an infinite number of cultural forms of life and thus Wittgenstein is committed to a “relativism without recourse”. So it is best to think of a “form of life” as, e.g., having two hands and two feet. Why do we speak of “grasping” a concept? Well, we have prehensile hands with opposable pinkies, so we think of grasping concepts by analogy with grasping the objects that they are concepts of. “If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him”. A lion would “bite” a concept and how can one bite a concept? Well, how can one grasp a concept? Hence, Wittgenstein’s reference to what he is doing as “natural history”. But the fundamental underlying implication of the reference and recourse to “form of life”, the warp and woof of our practices, experiences and relationships as intricated with the grammar of the language games in our historically evolved, (primarily) natural language, is a transformation of the notion of philosophical or rational justification. This can no longer be a matter of appealing to some sort of metaphysical or transcendental a priori which orders the world in accordance with a prior “necessity”. Rather think of something in our form of life, e.g. algebra, and what sorts of practices, insights and accomplishments we would have to forgo were we to entirely remove it from our form of life. Thus justification of an aspect of our form of life occurs through a consideration of the need and value at stake in that aspect for conducting ourselves within our form of life and our accomplishments within it. But such justification is not simply local. Consider, as part of our (modern) form of life, the norm of physical theory that, with respect purely physical processes and their explanations, intentional and communicational predicates do not apply. In the first place, this is a norm and not an empirical fact; we do not go about attempting to test such a proposition empirically, but rather it is part of what we mean by “purely physical process”. But more importantly, such a norm is not restricted in its significance to physical knowledge; it is cross-implicated in our form of life with, e.g., moral notions and practices concerning morally differentiated persons, such that to dispense with the one would also be to dispense with the other. Our necessary rootedness in a form of life does not preclude our recognition of other alien forms of life, nor does such a recognition impugn the validities that obtain within our own form of life. But the impossibility of judging forms of life as a whole does means that one must dispense with the certainties of totalizing critique in favour of the specificities of rational criticism and the actual existential implication of human contact.


JoJo 11.04.03 at 11:07 pm

Now the “Tractatus” is basically inscrutable.


As for the rest, ???


john c. halasz 11.05.03 at 8:32 am

Thomas Reid? I had to consult the internet, though I thought it was a name that belonged to the Scottish Enlightenment.

I much prefer Giambattista Vico, my own damn self.


Kenny Easwaran 11.06.03 at 1:27 pm

While this may be a bit overstated (“modern thought” in particular), there’s certainly no denying the truth to what Schönfeld means to say about the importance of Kant.

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