Immanuel Kant


Wednesday 4pm

Immanuel Kant said that, besides the usual forms of knowledge - analytical knowledge and empirical knowledge - we also have a priori knowledge that is \'synthetic\' in the sense that it tells us something about the world. He applied this general theory to art by saying that in art we see beauty that we recognise through our a priori knowledge of beauty.

The possibility of such knowledge is easily disproved, following David Hume\'s argument, which Kant knew of. Suppose you had a belief, and you were considering whether it was synthetic a priori knowledge. To establish that it was knowledge, you would have to justify it. You could not prove it analytically, as it is synthetic; nor could you justify it from your observations of the world, as it is a priori. Nor could you justify it from any propositions that had been derived from analytic or empirical knowledge. What else is there? Only, perhaps, other synthetic a priori assertions. Well, if there are any other assertions that you take to be synthetic a priori knowledge, then trace them back to their antecedent premises. Those premises cannot be analytic (because they are synthetic), nor can they be empirical (because they are a priori), nor can they be derived from other synthetic a priori knowledge (because, by hypothesis, they are the basic premises). We have therefore exhausted all the possible sources of justification.

This argument obviates further consideration of Kant. For corroboration, however, note that what Kant claimed as synthetic a priori knowledge in physics has been found fallacious by scientific research. He said we knew a priori that space is Euclidean, but we now know it is not; and that all events must be caused, but we now know that some quantum mechanical events are not. Furthermore, his claim of objective moral values knowable a priori is demolished by the elementary consideration that any set of categorical imperatives begs the question of why we should accept the principle of obeying that set of categorical imperatives. Aesthetics may be another game, but Kant\'s track record does not inspire confidence.

Finally, in what Kant says about aesthetic judgements, he simply assumes - without any supporting argument - that aesthetic judgements are universal. Yet it is an everyday fact that aesthetic judgements are not universal. Highly erudite art critics differ radically in assessing works. Kant could claim that this is because large swathes of the art-critical community have defective aesthetic faculties, and cannot see artistic value when they see it. That can be dismissed on Popperian grounds of non-falsifiability: if there is no robust means of telling which works possess aesthetic value, then "aesthetic value" refers to nothing over and above whether a work is "agreeable".

Consider also Kant\'s basic argument for synthetic a priori knowledge. He says we possess some concepts (such as causation and aesthetic value) that cannot have been abstracted from our observations of the world, and they must therefore be \'synthetic and a priori\'. This is untrue, and suggests that Kant used too limited a notion of what counts as abstraction. For example: the natural numbers 1,2,3,... can indisputably be abstracted from observations, but Kant would balk at saying the imaginary square root of 1 can too. Abstracting is, however, only a further step in the same process. Likewise, causation is a higher-order abstraction from the observed world. We need posit no mysterious faculty of transcendental cognition to account for our having the concept. And, likewise again, the concept of aesthetic value is an abstraction from agreeableness.