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Lecture: Emerson’s understanding of Kant (8)

September 12, 2016

b. Reason

Although understanding occupies pride of place within empirical cognition, insofar as it entails the deployment of concepts does it also come under the purview of a faculty still higher, namely, reason. Speaking of mathematics and physics, Kant remarks in the B “Preface”:

Insofar as there is to be reason in these sciences, something in them must be cognized a priori, and this cognition can relate to its object in either of two ways, either merely determining the object and its concept (which must be given from elsewhere), or else also making the object actual. The former is theoretical, the latter practical cognition of reason. In both the pure part, the part in which reason determines its object wholly a priori, must be expounded all by itself, however much or little it may contain, and that part that comes from other sources must not be mixed up with it […] (Bix-x).

Three key aspects make themselves felt within this introduction. First, reason works independently of experience, as per its a priori status. Second, pure reason admits of a twofold distinction between the theoretical and the practical, of which, in the grand scheme of things, the latter will prove the more important. Lastly, reason, in some sense, suffices for itself and must rely on no other faculty for its exposition; its justification can rely on what content it alone may furnish, being self-contained (cf. [Famous scientists] comprehended that reason has insight only into what it itself produces according to its own design; that it must take the lead with principles for its judgments according to constant laws and compel nature to answer its questions […] Reason, in order to be taught by nature, must approach nature with its principles in one hand, according to which alone the agreement among appearances can count as laws […] like an appointed judge who compels witnesses to answer the questions he puts to them (Bxiii).).

This first point comes out rather more strongly when Kant speaks of reason as the faculty of principles:

If the understanding may be a faculty of unity of appearances by means of rules, then reason is the faculty of the unity of the rules of understanding under principles. Thus it never applies directly to experience or to any object, but instead applies to the understanding, in order to give unity a priori through concepts to the understanding’s manifold cognitions, which may be called “the unity of reason” […] (A302; B359)

Although necessary for the completion of the rules of the understanding, reason does not itself interface directly with representations, provided by sensibility and intuition, but rather with the resultant cognitions arrived at through the understanding. (cf. [T]here is in the case of reason a merely formal, i.e., logical use, where the reason abstracts from all content of cognition, but there is also a real use, since reason itself contains the origin of certain concepts and principles, which it derives neither from the senses nor from the understanding. The first faculty has obviously long since been defined by the logicians as that of drawing inferences mediately […] but from this we get no insight into the second faculty, which itself generates concepts (A299; B355-356))

As concerns the second point, i.e. reason’s theoretical and practical distinction, Kant identifies the latter with that “persisting condition of all voluntary actions under which the human being appears” by which the thinker alludes to free will and humanity’s ambivalent stance as a spontaneous cause within the natural order. This condition of voluntary actions finds its natural completion in pure practical reason’s positive extension beyond the merely empirical bounds of pure theoretical reason. Indeed, “[r]eason is driven by a propensity of its nature to go beyond its use in experience, to venture to the outermost bounds of all cognition by means of mere ideas in a pure use, and to find peace only in the completion of its circle in a self-subsisting systematic whole (A797; B825). (Notably, its practical use bears on the will, soul, and God as Kant specifies in passages thereafter (A798; B826); for more on usages of pure practical reason, see also “The discipline of pure reason” (A708; B736 – A794; B823).)

Nevertheless, there must somewhere be a source of positive cognitions that belong in the domain of pure reason, and that perhaps give occasion for errors only through misunderstanding, but that in fact constitute the goal of the strenuous effort of reason. For to what cause should the unquenchable desire to find a firm footing beyond all bounds of experience otherwise be ascribed? Pure reason has a presentiment of objects of great interest to it. It takes the path of mere speculation in order to come closer to these; but they flee before it. Presumably it may hope for better luck on the only path that still remains to it, namely that of its practical use (A795-796; B823-824)

With this, a clearer view of pure reason comes to the fore as both a faculty of principles and the condition of free activity. Naturally, the question arises whether Kantian reason, like understanding, finds a counterpart in Emersonian reason.

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