Friday, October 26, 2007

Kant's "Refutation of Idealism"

I am curious what people think about the argument of Kant’s “Refutation of Idealism” [B274]. I have been sitting in on a Kant course at NYU/Columbia, and recently we discussed Kant’s argument.

I am wondering to what extent people find the argument convincing. I think this must depend on to what degree one finds transcendental arguments (TAs) convincing and what one thinks such arguments can potentially show. If one does find TAs convincing, then with the “Refutation” we are left with questions about what the argument is meant to prove, what form it takes, and whether it is a TA.

I take it that the “Refutation” is meant to counter the external world skeptic. By arguing for the necessary conditions of a premise the skeptic accepts (that we are aware of ourselves as determined in time) Kant revels that the skeptic is committed to the existence of persisting external objects. Insofar as the argument relies on demonstrating the necessary conditions of a certain experience, the argument seems to be a transcendental argument in the sense people like Strawson [1] and Stroud [2] use the term. From some remarks in Paul Frank’s book All or Nothing it appears David Bell has argued that in some respect the “Refutation” is not a transcendental argument, but I have yet to get my hands on this article [3].

Here is how I see the argument running in its most simplistic form:

P1 I am aware of my existence as determined in time.

P2 A necessary condition of time determination or the determination of successive states is something persisting in perception.

P3 A necessary condition of the persisting thing functioning in time determination is that it is not inside me.

C1 A necessary condition of the persisting thing not being inside me is that it is outside me.

The way Kant puts the conclusion is as follows: “Consequently, the determination of my existence in time is possible only be means of the existence of actual things that I perceive outside myself” (B275).

This argument appears to prove Kant’s Theorem: “The mere, but empirically determined, consciousness of my own existence proves the existence of objects in space outside me” (B275).

If my formulation works then it should avoid the objection that that all the argument proves is that we must take ourselves as conscious or aware of objects, regardless of whether or not such objects do exist.

Here are some remarks about the premises of the argument. P1 the skeptic must accept and does accept if the skeptic is Descartes, Berkeley or Hume. P2 is based up the analogies which precede the “Refutation” and depends heavily on the First Analogy on substance. P3 seems to depend on a separate argument:

1. A persisting thing cannot be intuited through inner sense or as in me (i.e., not mental).

2. If the persisting thing were in me then it would be a representation.

3. If it is a representation then it is intuited as in time.

4. If the inner representation is intuited and determined in time then a persisting thing is required.

5. Appeal to a representation is circular. We are trying to determine our inner successive states as in time, so we cannot appeal to a representation as they are what require time determination.

6. The persisting thing cannot be a mere representation, but must be a thing outside me.

7. Therefore, the persisting thing must be external.

Allison thinks the argument of the "Refutation", which I take to have four steps, actually has a fifth step that says something about how consciousness of my own existence is at the same time an immediate consciousness of objects existing outside me [4]. Kant does makes this point, but it is a mere elucidation of the implications of C1, and not exactly the final conclusion of the argument. This fifth step is perhaps why the argument is sometimes thought to only show that we must take ourselves as aware of objects regardless of their existence. Robert Stern, in his helpful reconstruction of the argument, quotes Nicholas Rescher, who takes the argument to show that physical or external objects must be “assumed by minds” while “the issue of their actual mind-independent existence remain[s] unaddressed” [5].

Any thoughts?


[1] P.F. Strawson, “Skepticism, Naturalism and Transcendental Arguments” in Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

[2] Barry Stroud, “Transcendental Arguments,” Journal of Philosophy 65 (1968).

[3] Paul Franks, All or Nothing: Systematicity, Transcendental Arguments, and Skepticism in German Idealism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005) p. 202.

[4] Henry Allison, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism (New Haven: Yale, 2004/2nd Edition) p. 285-298.

[5] Robert Stern, Transcendental Arguments and Scepticism: Answering the Question of Justification (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 143.


selbst said...

i think this comment is not quite right: "this must depend on to what degree one finds transcendental arguments (TAs) convincing and what one thinks such arguments can potentially show." one might find TAs utterly unconvincing and argue (though this would be difficult) that Kant's "Refutation of Idealism" (KRoI) is convincing on other grounds. for instance, a common sense realist about the external world might think that strictly speaking TAs are invalid, but nevertheless thinking a "kicking the lecturn" argument is sufficient and take some inspiration from Kant's argument here. the conclusion follows from a demonstration, not from a transcendental proof. such arguments are obviously no treatment of skepticism, but they at least don't (intend to) really on TAs. one might also think that TAs are very good arguments in form and structure, but think that KRoI is a baleful argument for reasons independent of its transcendental form and structure. for instance, they might think that transcendental arguments are valid, but in this case do not do the hard work of refuting whatever it was Kant was trying to refute under the banner of "idealism." one more comment, and then i'll keep working on the post: "I take it that the “Refutation” is meant to counter the external world skeptic." this might be more detailed: the refutation is meant to: 1) refute in the sense of show forever false the claims of the skeptic of the external world (SK) (it might be helpful to actually spell out that target); 2) enable us to ignore the nonsensical claims SK by showing that the assumptions that allows for SK are unjustified, false, or don't deserve the respect that garners any charity...; 3) change the subject so that SK is no longer available in the system of critical philosophy...

selbst said...

graham bird's reconstruction of the argument in the revolutionary kant:
"1. i am conscious of my existence as determined in time;
2. all determination of time presupposes something permanent in perception (1st analogy);
3a. this permanent cannot be in me, since only through this permanent can my existence in time be determined. (B275)
3b. this permanent cannot be an intuition in me, for as a representation that requires a permanent distinct from it, in which its change and my existence in time of such change can be determined (preface B).
4. so perception of this permanent is possible only through an outer thing, and not through mere representation of it.
5. so determination of my existence in time is possible only through the existence of actual things i perceive outside me.
kant adds a further elaboration of this conclusion in the following:
6. consciousness of my existence in time is bound up with consciousness of the conditions of its possibility, and so with the existence of things outside me.
7. so consciousness of my existence is at the same time an immediate consciousness of the existence of outer things."

Gabriel Gottlieb said...

Thanks for the Bird comment. I agree, as should be clear, with his assessment, especially his point about Kant's elaboration of the argument's conclusion, a point I make as well.

But, I don't think I agree with your first comment about the Refutation and TAs. One may agree with the conclusion of the Refutation but not how that conclusion is reached. Such a person may not think the conclusion of the argument is valid, which as far as I can tell it is reached via a TA, and if they think this then then they don't think Kant's justification that there are external objects persisting is a good one. So, what would the other grounds be for accepting the argument?

I don't see how a Moorean like proof, say "kicking the lecturn", gets us anywhere, and I don't see how it is connected to Kant's Refutation except for its conclusion.

You are right that one might accept the form of the argument, but think that the starting premise is the wrong one or that some condition is not in fact necessary.

Your points about skepticism are helpful as well.