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Fr. 370

August 12, 2013

IV: Conclusion: Reconciling Wolff and Kant

In the way of summary, I now turn to an abbreviated, reconstructive reading of Wolff’s text within the bounds of Kant’s critical project. I will draw primarily on a number of suggestions found in the A-Paralogisms. Kant first indicates how one might go about reconciling rational psychology with Kant’s critical philosophy in remarking:

“(W)e can rightfully say that our thinking subject is not corporeal, meaning that since it is represented as an object of our inner sense, insofar as it thinks it could not be an object of outer sense, i.e. it could not be an appearance in space” (A357).

In short, the rational psychologist is right to speak of the thinking subject as incorporeal; as a feature of inner sense, it lacks extension, the foremost quality of body and appearances “in space.” It could never take on the form of an object of outer experience, pointing to a basic asymmetry in inner experience as compared to outer experience. The incorporeal subject of the rational psychologist, in the end, proves to be half-right.

Kant’s concession above underscores an essential point made above; the account of the “I think” given by the rational psychologist retains some currency in how we speak and conceive of ourselves as subjects. Indeed, the conclusions of the rational psychologist remain meaningful, so long as we are careful to avoid the equivocations inherent to dialectical inference from pure concepts. There exists a fine line between a heuristic mode of thought and dialectical delusion.

Kant provides a positive suggestion elsewhere:

“(T)he very same thing that is called a body in one relation would at the same time be a thinking being in another, whose thoughts, of course, we could not intuit, but only their signs in appearance. Thereby the expression that only souls…think would be dropped; and instead it would be said, as usual, that human beings think, i.e., that the same being that as outer appearance is extended is inwardly…a subject, which is not composite, but is simple and thinks” (A359-60).

Kant here gestures towards a nuanced understanding of subjectivity’s different modalities. The rational psychologist’s suggestion that “only souls think” proves profoundly unhelpful and, moreover, dangerous in the end. As such, Kant suggests a view on which a set of alternative subjective-objective “relations” or modes converge in subjectivity. Wolff likewise recognizes these two modalities, though he maintains a stark contrast between body and soul. By contrast, for Kant, the subject qua human being is not merely material; nor is the subject essentially simple and incorporeal. The subject is both material and immaterial, in the world and above the world, inner appearance and outer appearance.

This ultimately proves to be in line with Kant’s larger goal of defusing the tension between rationalism and empiricism. Despite consigning the tenets of rational psychology to a new, qualified role in subjective experience, Kant also manages to preserve the sense of orientation they lend to the subject in relating to him or herself. Indeed, Kant’s criticism of the simplicity of the soul proves heuristic insofar as those restrictions upon dialectical inference aid the subject in understanding the limitations of the subjective perspective and experience. I might even go so far as to call the account therapeutic.

In sum, I contend that Wolff would not utterly reject a Kantian restructuring of his system. It retains the fundamental sense and ideas of rational psychology. As noted above, Kant even improves upon Wolff’s demand for rigor in securing a legitimate area of experience (i.e. consciousness) from which to explicate the basic features of subjectivity; Wolff simply makes the mistake of going beyond those bounds in the introduction of “essence” into an argument that is otherwise logically sound. Although a Wolffian would likely reject the qualified role that rational psychology plays in Kant’s critical philosophy, that role would be even less visible in an empiricist account of the soul. Likely, Wolff would seek to preserve something of his system by meeting the Kantian demand for rigor, especially as concerns inference and language. In the end, a reading of Rational Thoughts that incorporates Kant’s criticism of rational psychology’s equivocation between the logical and the metaphysical proves more tenable than a reading that is otherwise not cognizant of the dialectical illusion at work in its fundamental inferences concerning the soul.

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