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Lecture: Emerson’s understanding of Kant (10)

September 14, 2016

c. Intuition

Whereas Emersonian understanding largely reprises its Kantian counterpart and the former’s reason respects the hallmarks and needs of the latter’s, the faculty of intuition, briefly introduced above, will prove decisive in setting out their differences. Recall that, for Kant, intuition plays a limited though essential role in empirical cognition in its role of passive representation of objects. While its limited role owes to human inability to think through intuition, i.e. independently of understanding, its essentiality follows from the understanding’s inability to supply itself matter, i.e. representations, for thought. For objects can be given to humans by no other means than intuition. (To this effect, see Kant’s discussion: “In whatever way and through whatever means a cognition may relate to objects, that through which it relates immediately to them, and at which all thought as a means is directed as an end, is intuition. This, however, takes place only insofar as the object is given to us; but this in turn, at least for us humans, is possible only if it affects the mind in a certain way. The capacity (receptivity) to acquire representations through the way in which we are affected by objects is called sensibility. Objects are therefore given to us by means of sensibility, and it alone affords us intuitions; but they are thought through the understanding, and from it arise concepts. But all thought […] must […] be related to intuitions, thus, in our case, sensibility, since there is no other way in which objects can be given to us (A19; B33; see also A50; B74).)

The question then arises whether there are not then intuitions which do not follow from sensibility. For this, the lone possibility takes the form of intellectual intuition. Although Kant allows for the possibility thereof, the thinker views such an intuition rather as an instructive, limiting case as to the bounds of human mental economy than a faculty available to humanity:

If by a noumenon we understand a thing insofar as it is not an object of our sensible intuition, because we abstract from the manner of our intuition of it, then this is a noumenon in the negative sense. But if we understand by that an object of a non-sensible intuition, then we assume a special kind of intuition, namely intellectual intuition, which, however, is not our own, and the possibility of which we cannot understand, and this would be the noumenon in a positive sense (B307).

Indeed, the sole entities to which such an intuition might belong are, in Kant’s estimate, the divine (as suggested elsewhere: […] thus not intellectual intuition, which for the ground already adduced seems to pertain only to the original being […] (B72)). Accordingly, its illustration above serves a heuristic function as a limit on the aspirations of human mental economy by means of a distinction between negative and positive noumena. Kant elaborates on this distinction:

[T]he concept of a noumenon, taken merely problematically, remains not only admissible, but even unavoidable, as a concept setting limits to sensibility. But in that case it is not a special intelligible object for our understanding; rather an understanding to which it would belong is itself a problem, namely, that of cognizing its object not discursively through categories but intuitively in a non-sensible intuition, the possibility of which we cannot in the least represent (A256; B311-312)

Thus the concept of pure, merely intelligible objects is entirely devoid of all principles of its application, since one cannot think up any way in which they could be given, and the problematic thought, which leaves a place open for them, only serves, like an empty space, to limit the empirical principles, without containing and displaying any other object of cognition beyond the sphere of the latter (A259-260; B315).

In a word, negative noumena represent an outer bounds for empirical cognition of which, accepting a Kantian inventory of the faculties, human mental economy, structurally speaking, can make no apprehension. On the other hand, positive noumena do not set conceptual bounds to empirical cognition but, rather, belong to a class of entities of which human mental economy can make no apprehension nor even make sense of a mental economy which could attain thereto.

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