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Fr. 369

August 11, 2013

As such, I now turn to an area of ambiguity in Wolff’s account that requires some explication. As indicated by Kant, this ambiguity concerns the type of reasoning at work in the steps above. For this, I will introduce Kant’s distinction between analytic propositions and synthetic propositions, a pivotal formal distinction for understanding how the rational psychologist errs.

Kant elaborates on the analytic/synthetic divide:

“The proposition “A thought can be only the effect of the absolute unity of a thinking being” cannot be treated as analytic. For the unity of a thought consisting of many representations is collective, and, as far as mere concepts are concerned, it can be related to the collective unity of the substances cooperating in it (as the movement of a body is the composite movement of all its parts) just as easily as to the absolute unity of the subject. Thus there can be no insight into the necessity of presupposing a simple substance for a composite thought according to the rule of identity. But that this same proposition should be cognized synthetically and fully a priori from sheer concepts – that answer no one will trust himself to give when he has insight into the ground of the possibility of synthetic propositions a priori as we have established it above” (A353).

Kant’s criticism is twofold. First, both absolute and collective unity are tenable ways of understanding the unity of thought. Second, Wolff here makes use of an illicit synthetic proposition. As to the first, recall that Wolff faced the same set of options above in both his discussion of composite being and of powers of the soul, i.e. the choice between the soul as one substance with one power or an association of distinct substances with discrete powers. Wolff opts for the absolute unity of the subject. I there noted that it was “easy enough” to understand Wolff’s reasoning. Yet this is precisely the substitution of one type of proposition for another of which the rational psychologist is not cognizant. In analyzing the relationship of thought and thinking being, both absolute unity and “collective” cooperative unity fall out of the proposition. The actions of the body are one example of a “collective unity that Kant himself raises as a counterexample (ibid.). Absolute unity is not solely contained within the concept of “thinking”; that is, in analyzing “thinking” and “thought” we do not come logically to absolute unity1. Indeed, insofar as a single thought is composed of individual “representations” or other possible thought-parts, the subject can just as easily speak of cooperation among discrete cognitive entities. Collective unity follows just as easily from consideration of the logical necessities of the subjective perspective, the “I think”.

If not an analytic truth, how might we classify Wolff’s reasoning? Kant categorizes it as example of an illicit synthetic proposition. Namely, Wolff attempts to derive absolute unity from “sheer” or pure concepts. In and of themselves, these pure concepts can hold only a subjective significance2. In his criticism of the First Paralogism, Kant makes a remark that concerns simplicity just as much as substantiality:

“(P)ure categories…have in themselves no objective significance at all unless an intuition is subsumed under them, to the manifold of which they can be applied as functions of synthetic unity” (A349).

Pure dialectical reasoning trends towards rational illusion when divorced from the intuition of an object, i.e. experience. Wolff’s discussion of body and composite in §738 marks the inferential phase of his account, the point at which his reasoning diverges from that which consciousness of the “I” provides. There is no corresponding experience or object with which the absolute unity of the “I” might be paired, unlike the pairing of an intuition of body and the concept of body as composite being. Kant admonishes the rational psychologist:

“It (the subject of inherence) signifies only a Something in general…the representation of which must of course be simple, just because one determines nothing at all about it…the simplicity of the subject is not therefore a cognition of the simplicity of the subject itself…” (A355).

Without “objective significance,” we can no longer speak of the constitution of an object in a meaningful way. In considering the “I think,” the subject “determines” nothing of its structure or underlying nature. Kant expands on objective significance elsewhere:

“(I)t must nevertheless always be regarded only in regard to a possible cognition in general, as its merely subjective condition, which we unjustly make into a condition of the possibility of the cognition of objects…” (A354).

“(T)he concept…is used only as a function of synthesis, without an intuition being subsumed under it, hence without an object; and it is valid only of the condition of our cognition, but not of any particular object that is to be specified” (A356).

In essence, Wolff’s discussion of thinking and body renders the subjective and logical conditions of the “I think” instead an objective condition of the subject’s cognition of itself, which holds for all thinking subjects. For Wolff, absolute unity of the “I” is no longer a condition of or a fact about the way in which we experience; rather, it becomes constitutive of how we experience. My experience betrays an absolute unity because the substructure of subjectivity is itself simple. Yet this substructure is not available to consciousness in the way that the subjective experience presents other objects and representations. My experience of the “I” can avail itself of neither intuition nor object. Thus, synthetic propositions concerning its nature are unavailable to me and doomed to an illusory end. In sum, Wolff transitions from a manner of speaking about the “I think” to speaking of the metaphysical constitution of the “I” and, hence, the “I think.” Although the rational psychologist can speak of or think the “necessity” of the I’s absolute unity, he or she cannot posit it as such.


1 The B Edition of the Paralogism diverges significantly on this point. See B407-8, contained in Kant’s abbreviated discussion of simplicity: “That the I of apperception, consequently in every thought, is a single thing that cannot be resolved into a plurality of subjects, and hence a logically simple subject, lies already in the concept of thinking, and is consequently an analytic proposition; but that does not signify that the thinking I is a simple substance, which would be a synthetic proposition.” It is unclear why Kant would diverge from his initial account. He seems to think that the logically simple subject is all that falls out of the “I think,” whereas in the A Edition he holds that the error of the rational psychologist lies in discounting collective unity out of hand. Yet the B Edition criticism points to the rational psychologist’s error as his or her understanding of the logically simple as metaphysically simple, a synthetic conclusion that does not meet the standards for valid synthetic propositions, i.e. there is no intuition or object subsumed to the use of the pure concepts here. One provisional answer to this divergence might lie in the fact that Kant attempts to find a place for traditional metaphysical views within his own system, albeit with a qualified significance. The account of the self as simple resonates with subjective experience and, when properly understood, still has a role in Kant’s philosophical economy. A second, more likely reason might be that Kant wishes to cede as much ground as possible to the rational psychologist, granting him or her this initial premise, in order to place emphasis on the more powerful and wide-ranging of his two counterarguments, that of the rational psychologist’s illicit synthetic proposition. In the end, I find Kant’s point in the A Edition concerning the plurality of analytic propositions of thinking a strong contention, although hardly a knockdown argument. Hence, Kant’s emendation of his text probably marks an attempt to place more emphasis on his stronger counterargument.

2 This only holds, of course, for a limited discursive intellect such as that displayed by the “I.” Conceivably, Kant might allow for a pure intuitive intellect to make use of pure concepts in the way desired by the rational psychologists, but, unsurprisingly, Kant has little to say on the matter.

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