Kant and Phenomenology

Kant and Phenomenology

by Tom Rockmore


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Kant and Phenomenology by Tom Rockmore

Phenomenology, together with Marxism, pragmatism, and analytic philosophy, dominated philosophy in the twentieth century—and Edmund Husserl is usually thought to have been the first to develop the concept. His views influenced a variety of important later thinkers, such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, who eventually turned phenomenology away from questions of knowledge. But in this significant new work, Tom Rockmore argues for a return to phenomenology’s origins in epistemology and does so by locating its roots in the work of Immanuel Kant.

Kant and Phenomenology traces the formulation of Kant’s phenomenological approach back to the second edition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In response to various criticisms of the first edition, Kant more forcefully put forth a constructivist theory of knowledge. This shift in Kant’s thinking challenged the representational approach to epistemology, and it is this turn, Rockmore contends, that makes Kant the first great phenomenologist. He then follows this phenomenological line through the work of Kant’s idealist successors, Fichte and Hegel. Steeped in the sources and literature it examines, Kant and Phenomenology persuasively reshapes our conception of both of its main subjects.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226723402
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/01/2011
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Tom Rockmore is the Distinguished Humanities Chair Professor and professor of philosophy in the Institute of Foreign Philosophy at Peking University and was formerly a McAnulty College Distinguished Professor at Duquesne University. He is the author of numerous books.

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Kant and Phenomenology


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-72340-2

Chapter One

From Platonism to Phenomenology

Phenomenology is an epistemological strategy that arises in dialogue with earlier modern and ancient Greek thinkers. This chapter further examines the origins of modern phenomenological epistemology in relation to Platonism. Studies of phenomenology, especially in English, routinely begin with Husserl, who is usually discussed in detail prior to more or less detailed accounts of Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and others. There is rarely more than cursory mention of pre-Husserlian phenomenologists, such as Hegel, whose relation to Husserl (or even Heidegger) is not often analyzed and remains unclear.1 In dealing with prior debate, students of phenomenology routinely make do with a rapid glance at such predecessors of Husserl as Brentano with perhaps scant mention of Lambert or Kant in referring to several appearances of the term phenomenology in his writings. The typical approach to phenomenology centers on Husserl, and the phenomenological aftermath conceals as much as it reveals. In propagating the Husserlian myth that Husserl and he alone invented phenomenology worthy of the name, a myth for which Husserl and his interpreters bear responsibility, his theory, however understood, becomes the phenomenological norm. As a result, it becomes difficult, perhaps impossible, to assess Husserl's specific contribution to an ongoing approach whose origin lies in the pre-Husserlian history of the phenomenological debate at a time when, on the Husserlian perspective, phenomenology had not yet even begun. And it is not possible to evaluate the epistemological contribution of pre-Husserlian forms of phenomenology beginning with Kant's critical philosophy.

Though Husserl clearly defends a phenomenological approach to epistemology, a study of this theme does well to start with Kant and Plato. Even more than Plato, the author of the critical philosophy is key to an understanding of the relation of phenomenology to epistemology for two reasons. He is, as noted, arguably the initial figure of the first rank to turn to phenomenology as an approach to knowledge, and his approach to knowledge is enormously influential in the later debate.

Kant was aware of his link to Plato, though perhaps not to Platonism. Kant's complex link to Platonism is an important key to understanding his later turn toward phenomenology. His phenomenological approach to knowledge, which arises out of his Copernican revolution, is a replacement strategy that reverses (or inverts) Platonism.

Platonism, the Theory of Forms, and Phenomenology

We can distinguish between Plato, whose position remains unknown and cannot now be recovered, and Platonism. Platonism is the series of theories often ascribed to Plato. Platonism, without mentioning the term phenomenology, which only arises much later, presupposes the failure of a phenomenological approach to knowledge understood as the phenomenal appearance of the real. In other words, Platonism presupposes that the real does not and in fact cannot appear in cognizable form.

I will be calling Platonism the approach to knowledge based on the notorious theory of forms or ideas routinely but perhaps incorrectly attributed to Plato. Platonism is distinguished by doctrinal commitments to metaphysical realism, sometimes eponymously called Platonic realism, and the theory of forms.

There are obviously different kinds of realism, including aesthetic, scientific, empirical, and so on. Aesthetic realism, which is associated with claims about art and art works, is favored in Marxist aesthetics. Scientific realism is associated with scientism, or the view, espoused without reflection by the ordinary individual and, since the emergence of Vienna Circle positivism, increasingly by certain analytic philosophers, that science is the sole measure of the real. Empirical realism is the doctrine, clearly related to the positivist reliance on the so-called empirical criterion of meaning, that what we mean by real is solely empirical. By metaphysical realism I have in mind what Peirce usefully called ontological metaphysics. This includes many versions of the familiar idea, which goes back in the tradition to early Greek philosophy, according to which, under proper conditions, there is reliable knowledge about mind-independent objects as they in fact are, that is, about the mind-independent world, not only as it appears, but as it is.

Metaphysical realism in all its many varieties presupposes three related claims. First, there is a way the mind-independent world, what Kant later influentially called the thing in itself, or noumenon, in fact is. One might paraphrase this informally as the claim that facts are facts, or that there are at least some facts which hold in all possible worlds. Second, "knowledge" by definition concerns the way the world "really" is in independence of an observer. If there is a difference between reality and appearance, however defined, then to know requires that one surpass mere appearance in grasping reality. Third, at least some of the time and in specifiable circumstances, one can reliably claim to know the mind-independent external world as it is and hence to escape epistemological skepticism through reaching knowledge.

Metaphysical realism spans the entire Western philosophical tradition from its pre-Socratic beginnings to the present day. Parmenides believes that what is, is and, for that reason, cannot change. To know is to know what is, and there is no knowledge of what is not. Fragment 2 commits him to the view that what he calls the "path of conviction" concerns knowledge of "true reality," namely, of what is and cannot not be. In fragment 8, he goes on to deny that what is can change.

There is scholarly controversy about how to interpret the Parmenidean view of the real, about whether he understands it monistically, dialectically, in relation to the so-called meta-principal interpretation, or in some other way. But there is no doubt that he believes that to know something is to know it as it is. This view has remained influential through the later tradition. It is repeated in two of the best-known and most influential passages in Plato's Republic, which describes reality as what one knows when one knows in different places, including the famous passage on the divided line and the perhaps even more famous allegory of the cave.

The familiar Platonic two-worlds ontology includes the visible world of appearance and invisible world of reality. Following this distinction, the passage on the divided line in book 6 draws attention to four stages of cognition, which are correlated to four levels of cognitive objects. The latter are divided into invisible and visible objects of knowledge and opinions situated respectively in the worlds of reality and appearance. The two worlds of reality and appearance are further subdivided into objects of reason and understanding situated in the former, and objects of belief and imagination located in the latter.

The Platonic problem of knowledge, which respects the ontological distinction between two irreducibly different kinds of cognitive objects, concerns knowledge of the mind-independent invisible real—in short, the forms or ideas. The series of views widely known as the theory of forms (or ideas) remains controversial. The theory of forms apparently centers on an effort to take a median position between materialism (identified with the Sophists, for whom the real is limited to body, or the visible) and the very radical Eleatic view, according to which the true reality of the Sophists is no more than "a moving process of becoming" in the eyes of those who are referred to as the "friends of the forms." If, in mentioning the friends of the forms, Plato is not referring to his own circle but, as seems likely, to the Eleatics, then he does not invent but only adapts an earlier version of the theory of forms, which is perhaps invented (and defended) before him, as Aristotle thinks, by Socrates, as a median position between the extremes in the battles of gods and giants that began between the defenders of materialism and the defenders of ideas. Some observers detect traces of the theory of forms throughout the Platonic corpus. Current Platonic scholarship accepts that this theory is first referred to in the Symposium; then stated, argued, and defended in the Phaedo; expounded and applied in the Republic; mentioned in the Timaeus and in the Philebus; and famously subjected to very thorough but puzzling criticism and, depending on the interpretation, perhaps also strenuously defended, in the Parmenides. In the Phaedo, where Plato examines the question of the immortality of the soul, a concept (or idea) is said to be immutable, timeless, unitary (or one over many), and knowable in virtue of its status as a mind-independent thing. Many passages in Plato's writings appear to refer to different versions of a doctrine that is often abbreviated as one over many. They include passages in the Republic (596A), where it is said that there is one idea for each type of object; in the Hippias Major (287CD), where it is suggested that good things are good because of the Good; in the Phaedo, where it is said that beautiful things are beautiful because they participate in the Beautiful (100C); and in the Parmenides (132DE), where it is suggested that things that participate in the same idea resemble each other in this respect.

The theory of forms (or ideas) is described, formulated in different ways, and criticized in a series of dialogues in the course of the discussion, as a nonstandard causal approach to knowledge. This theory is based on the familiar ontological dualism between sensible things, or appearances, and ideas, also called forms. This theory has two main functions: to explain the origin of appearances through a theory abbreviated as one over many; that is, one form or idea is invoked to account for the origin of many appearances and to deny knowledge of reality on the basis of appearance.

The theory of forms, which is earlier alluded to in the Symposium, seems to have been introduced for the first time in the Phaedo. From the Phaedo, for example, we learn that the young Socrates was interested in "the investigation of nature," which consists in a search for "the causes of everything," understood as "why each thing comes into being and why it perishes and why it exists." This calls for a general theory of causality, which Socrates presents in two main steps concerning the existence of ideas and their explanatory function. The existence of forms is proven by the argument from relativity at 65d4-66a3. At 100, Socrates proposes a theory of causation through the theory of forms in analyzing extant scientific and philosophical approaches to knowledge. Socrates mentions Anaxagoras, who claims mind is the cause of everything, as well as a "scientific" theory of causation, which makes no use of mind. He objects that the "scientific" theory does not explain individual situations before turning to the theory of forms as a better type of causal explanation. According to the hypothesis of the theory of forms, the essential properties of a thing are related to forms. Thus, a thing is beautiful because of the form of beauty. The form of beauty functions as a cause to explain the existence of the beautiful thing. In other words, reality is the cause of appearance that is said to partake of, or participate in, what it illustrates. This claim is generalized as the familiar view that appearances are caused by "participation" in the forms or ideas.

Modern theory of perception, the main modern epistemological model, is based on a causal relation. The theory of forms, which joins together a nonstandard theory of causality as well as an exceedingly modern denial of a cognitive inference from effect to cause, is basically unclear and problematic on many levels. The inability to formulate an adequate causal explanation through the theory of forms is arguably one of the reasons, which leads Aristotle to focus on this problem. In the theory of forms, Plato appeals to a causal mechanism that he is unable to describe other than to attach a name to it. Aristotle, who seems to have no doubt about the relation of Plato to Platonism, seems to characterize Plato as the chief Platonist in clearly placing him among the friends of the forms. Aristotle sees the theory of forms in the context of a long series of efforts at causal explanation leading up to his own theory of four causes. We have Aristotle's testimony that Plato throughout follows Heraclitus's view that sensible things, which are in flux, cannot be known. He sees Plato as applying the Socratic concern with universals to the forms while neglecting nature.

Criticism of this theory has continued over the centuries, beginning with Plato himself. In dialogues after the Phaedo, Plato both reformulates and criticizes versions of this theory, most enigmatically in the Parmenides. Aristotle, who is one of the early observers to react to the Platonic theory of ideas, sees Plato's contribution as lying in the invention of the term participation, which is not yet an explanation of a causal relation. Aristotle lists a series of difficulties with the theory, such as the unnecessary multiplication of entities (Meta. 1.9), failure to prove that forms exist (Meta. 1.9), infinite regress (Meta. 1.9), the claim that forms do not contribute to knowledge of sensible things (Meta. 1.9), and failure to arrive at a first principle (Meta. 2.1).

The Theory of Forms and Causal Explanation

The theory of forms is an early entrant in an ongoing struggle that runs throughout the entire later Western philosophical tradition between partisans of causal and noncausal explanation or, in an alternative formulation, between those committed to explanation through material causality or to causality based on forms or ideas. The latter view is later faintly echoed in the Kantian view, central to his theory of morality, of noumenal causality. There is a close relation between the theory of forms and scientific causal explanation. The theory of forms, which Socrates adopts in the Phaedo as an alternative to the early Greek form of causal scientific explanation, is later countered by the emergence of what became modern causal theory of scientific explanation.

The theory of forms explains the origin of sensible things through the causal influence of forms or ideas in which they are said to participate. "Participation" is the Platonic way of designating a causal interaction that the theory does not otherwise explain. The theory of forms is a very early form of the well-known general view, later restated by Kant and others in many different ways, according to which the problem of knowledge rests on a distinction between, in Platonic terminology, appearances, or what are given in experience as effects, and their causes, or supposed necessary conditions.

The Platonic theory of causality is difficult to defend, but the depiction of the problem is right up to date. In the Phaedo, Socrates' concern to explain the contents of experience through a premodern type of causal analysis based on forms as opposed to a scientific type of causality anticipates a widely accepted approach to the relation between the contents of experience and the mind-independent world. Even Berkeley, who is often wrongly criticized as denying the existence of the external world and hence as denying the commonsense view accepted by everyone, rather claims to be defending common sense. The theory of forms is invoked to explain sensible things as effects caused by a mind-independent world. Knowledge requires a grasp of causes; hence it requires following the causal network in reverse from sensible things given in experience to their causes, which, since they are only indirectly experienced, are not, therefore, known through their effects.

The Platonic reliance on causal explanation is modern, but the conception of causality is not. Cause is obviously a historical variable. The span of views about causality from the pre-Socratics to the contemporary period is simply breathtaking. In Homer, causality is understood as including fate (moira) as well as the intervention of gods and goddesses, as when Thetis intervenes to save her son Achilles during the Trojan War. Until the invention of quantum theory, the main modern view of causality depicted it as a mechanical relation among sensible objects in space and time. This view is attacked by Hume, defended by Kant, and described as a relic of a bygone age by Russell. Quantum mechanics, which departs from the mechanical relation among sensible objects, understands causality in stochastic or statistical terms. As part of his rejection of the modern world, Heidegger returns to a premodern view of causality in appealing to destiny, fate (Geschick), and the destiny of being (Seingeschick) as explanatory concepts.

Aristotle usefully contextualizes Plato's conception of causal explanation as one of many approaches, including all his main predecessors concerned with study of nature, leading up to his own position. The Platonic view of causality, hence of causal explanation, depicts a relation between visible and invisible sensory objects and ideas, or between objects in space and time (or things, what Platonism calls phenomena), and ideas outside of space and time. The former are given in sensory experience and hence are cognizable through it. But the latter are not given in sensory experience and are not cognizable through it. Platonic causality is teleological. The cause is the essence or telos, which the latter "imitates" through "participation," as when, in a famous example mentioned above, a craftsman constructs a bed according to an idea.


Excerpted from Kant and Phenomenology by TOM ROCKMORE Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


ONE / From Platonism to Phenomenology

TWO / Kant’s Epistemological Shift to Phenomenology

THREE / Hegel’s Phenomenology as Epistemology

FOUR / Husserl’s Phenomenological Epistemology

FIVE / Heidegger’s Phenomenological Ontology

SIX / Kant, Merleau-Ponty’s Descriptive Phenomenology, and the Primacy of Perception

CONCLUSION / On Overcoming the Epistemological Problem through Phenomenology



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