Friday, June 3, 2016

transcendent knowledge

digital painting by Lohbado
During a wave of anxiety, Lohbado sat in the park, gazed at the canopies of trees on the horizon and apartment towers and contemplated the situation. Transcendental knowledge is a huge term, which Lohbado would not attempt to explain. However, it's something to contemplate. First of all, what does transcendental mean? Lohbado preferred asking questions more than attempting to provide answers. Questions were like doorways to open the heart and mind to infinite nature. Anxiety felt like a state of being trapped in a confined space of worry and mental turmoil. When in a claustrophobic state of mind, to sit in the park and relax was good medicine.

Once relaxed, when his mind settled enough to focus on things, Lohbado thought about the term transcendental knowledge. The term came to mind as Lohbado reflected on the nature of existence. On a common sense or every day relative level, he would pay attention to details and do what had to be done, until overwhelmed with things. Then he would wonder what is going on, what is life all about, what exactly does it mean to be a human being? The two levels of reality, relative and absolute, are similar to the level of the material, empirical or immanent world and the more abstract or invisible world of mental states, ideas or the transcendental.

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is a fascinating book to stimulate contemplation. Although subsequent philosophers are not agreed on any definitive interpretation of the text and many find problems in the arguments and conclusions, it still remains a classic in the world of philosophy. There's a section on the transcendental deduction, in which Kant describes how the mental faculty of the understanding sorts out sense experience to form a coherent picture of the world and a sense of self. The self is a focal point which unifies the multiplicity of information from the sense world. The mind receives sense input then organizes it into forms occurring within a world. If no unifying factor existed in the mind, the world of things would be chaotic and unknowable.

Ok, it's a long and complex discussion. The moral of the story is that what appears to the eye is not all that there is. Reality opens up as one begins to look closely at phenomenon. Phenomenon is a word Kant uses to describe how things appear, as apparitions which the intuition or sense faculty sorts into spatial objects in sequence. In other words, the first step in the faculty of perception is to sort sense data into space and time, which it can represent as things. The senses scan reality using space and time, create a mental representation, which imagination sends to the faculty of understanding to sort out, then the reason can have fun with speculation.

The mind then sorts out how reality fits together using categories of the understanding, for example, cause and effect. Cause and effect doesn't occur in nature. One could observe an event, for example, a piece of wood being tossed into the fire and burning to ash. One sees wood then ash. One doesn't see cause and effect, because cause and effect don't occur in nature. A sequence of events occurs in nature. The mind draws conclusions from the sequences. The cause and effect aspect is mentally imputed by causation, a category of the understanding. This was Kant's reply to the empiricist philosopher David Hume, who argued that the notion of cause and effect is more like a law of probability based on repeated observation. Once things are sorted out as to what is what, then reason could tackle questions such as the nature of freedom and self.

Again, the moral of the story is to appreciate how there's more to reality than the physical world of the senses and waves of worry that cloud the mind. One could open up to a transcendental level of reality, the aspect of existence that occurs in the mind. Part of reality is material and related to the senses. Part of reality occurs in the realm of thought, concepts, ideas, a vast array of mental events. If one hurries through the day in a blur of habit or routine, one might think of the world as a physical thing in which one does physical activities. It's useful to pause and contemplate that the physical world is only part of the story. The mental, or invisible world of thought is what makes it possible for one to function and to be part of a society.

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason set the ground as he prepared to explore issues of ethics, beauty and the sublime in his subsequent famous critiques of Practical Reason and Judgement. The critique of reason encounters antimonies, or a series of paradoxes which set the limit as to how far reason can go in describing ultimate truth. It's useful to know the limits of pure reason, so one doesn't get carried away with fantasy, or leaps of fancy. Admitting the limitations, Kant turns to the practical aspect of reason in proposing an ethical way to live, a world in which people would be viewed as ends in themselves and never as means...

... ok, lots of fun, lots to explore.... it's a sunny day in Montreal, perfect for relaxing in the park and reflecting on the nature of existence. One could ponder the mystery of noumenon... or the hypothesis of things in themselves, as opposed to phenomenon, or how things appear. What exactly is going on? Aaaa choo!

A good discussion about the role of the categories is in an essay by Antoine Grandjean, "Déduire les catégories. Argument, chemins and présupposés" in Lectures de Kant. Paris: Ellipses 2010.

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