Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Report on UKKS conference 2011

I've recently returned from St. Andrews where the 2011 conference of the UK Kant Society was held. The theme of this year's conference was "Reading Kant" and it was organised by Jens Timmermann. The theme may sound unusually broad but the point of it was to focus attention on response to specific texts of Kant so that these texts can be given careful articulation rather than encouraging wide speculative moves that might be at some distance from what Kant wrote. There are good arguments both for and against such an approach but the conference itself provided some ground for thinking that, done in the right way, such an approach certainly has much to commend it.

The conference opened with a general speech by Konstantin Pollok who was apparently focusing on the passage from the B-preface to the Critique of Pure Reason that deals with the supposed "Copernican revolution" but, despite this being his official text, he wandered rather far from it in order to make a general set of remarks about the distinction between Critical and pre-Critical philosophy. The paper seemed rather unfocused and largely expository, indicating one of the dangers of the conference theme.

However, Pollok's paper was followed by two which were rather livelier. Adrian Piper set out a paper that linked up two, at first sight, rather divergent passages from the Critique of Pure Reason on the one hand (A751/B799-A752/B780) and the Groundwork (Ak. 4: 424) on the other and read them as connected in expressing a riposte to Hobbes on Kant's part. The first passage is full of the legal metaphors with which the Critique expresses its general mission and is part of the chapter on the 'discipline of pure reason', the first part of the Doctrine of Method. Here Kant does expressly name Hobbes and indicates the need to abandon the state of nature but the reference to the "state of nature" here is part of Kant's response to philosophical disputes and articulates his case for taking the method of critique to be a way past these disputes. The Groundwork passage, by contrast, indicates a problem with taking certain forms of maxim to be the ground of a universal law and is stated after Kant gives the four examples for the first time in Groundwork II. Here Kant is describing, however, the problem with the second two examples, namely, that they lead to a contradiction in the will and Piper, somewhat surprisingly, viewed this passage as a kind of "application" of the first passage from the Doctrine of Method. Whilst this was certainly a surprising way of understanding the relationship between these passages it had one central advantage which is that it enabled Piper to view the "state of nature" less as something definitely superseded and more as something that there is a constant danger of slipping back into. Unfortunately, the clarity of this point was somewhat obscured, however, by failure on Piper's part to distinguish between different types of "state of nature". After all, in the Religion, Kant talks about going beyond an ethical state of nature and this type of state of nature can exist even whilst the state of nature that would be contrary to right has been superseded. So it might have been more apposite for Piper to clarify the relationship between these two states of nature and bring out how, without superseding the ethical state of nature, there is always incipient conflict within the state of right. Piper went on to discuss Kant's "criteria of rule rationality", a set of four points derived from the conjunction of the two passages and taken to include universality, logical consistency, objective necessity and conceptual unity. Whilst these criteria seem pretty good there is one problem which is that the citations given for objective necessity related strictly to the notion of contradiction in the will so something should have been said about this. Piper concluded her paper with a third passage from the Groundwork concerning false promises  (Ak. 4: 403) and Piper used this to argue that a practice of false promising is unstable in a way that universal lying would not be, a point that led to serious exchanges during the discussion. Again, a potential development of this point would concern precisely the status of promises in contract, something that underlies any type of social order and points to a way that the specific importance of promising could be further shown.

The third and final paper of the first day of the conference came from Graham Bird who defended his general deflationary view of Kant's transcendental idealism by discussing the account of freedom in the Critique of Practical Reason and arguing that Kant was saying no more about the status of freedom there than he had in the Critique of Pure Reason. Bird went so far as to claim that the construction of Kant's account as stating more than in the theoretical philosophy could only be "fantasy" thus denying Kant's clear statement in the Critique of Practical Reason that there are ways of extending pure reason practically that are not permitted theoretically (Ak. 5: 50-57). The paper was characteristically provocative and lively debate ensured concerning its claims.

If the first day of the conference was primarily marked by plenary sessions, on the second day, the conference broke up into thematic sessions. The unity of these sessions was not entirely obvious although one group of them was clearly theoretical and another focused on the Doctrine of Virtue. The point of the other two groupings was less evident. I began the day in one session and finished it in another. The morning session I attended was focused on the Groundwork and featured papers from Georg Urich and Martin Sticker. Urich's paper was a case where the injunction about addressing a particular passage was taken very literally since he focused on one sentence from the Groundwork at Ak. 4: 397 where Kant was ruling out the idea that actions recognised as contrary to duty could also be understood as in accordance with duty. In addressing this passage Urich spoke about the division of classes of action of duties and mentioned the argument of those who take there to be a "neglected alternative" here that Kant has not considered. The "neglected alternative" would be actions that, whilst wrong in themselves, were nonetheless committed for the right reasons. The point of focusing on such actions is that it would be a question not merely whether such actions were possible but also, assuming their possibility, whether they would possess moral worth. Some ways have been developed in the literature that attempt to circumvent this possibility such as the suggestion that the aims of the Groundwork preclude dealing with such a question (Timmermann's position), that Kant simply conceptually defines duty in such a way as to rule out this question (Kerstein's view) or that the question is practically irrelevant (also a view of Kerstein). However the second of these views was ruled out by Urich on the grounds that definitional claims would be non-explanatory and the third on the ground that there is conflicting evidence. I was less clear what his response to the first view is. Subsequently Urich considered the question as to whom actions contrary to duty are seen as such mentioning objective and subjective views of this. On the objective view it is the objective observer who sees them to be wrong (Herman's view) whilst on the subjective view it is the agent himself who sees them to be wrong (Stratton-Lake's view). Urich preferred the subjective reading for three reasons: firstly, Kant rules out consideration of reference to "usefulness" in intent (which implies he considers intent), secondly, his account refers to ulterior motives, thirdly, in stating that actions contrary to duty "conflict" with duty there is no reference to objective considerations beyond the "recognition" of the action in question. However having made these points, Urich moved on to reject the idea that there was a "neglected alternative" on the grounds of a typology of Kant's view of duties not enabling room to be left for it. Instead there has to be left reference to actions carried out in accordance with a mistaken moral judgment.

In contrast to Urich's very narrow consideration of texts, Sticker looked at the conception of "rationalising" in Kant in order to bring out that it is the generic term that Kant uses to describe the mode of reasoning that tries to escape considerations that would be otherwise rationally compelling. In addressing this idea Sticker discussed the necessary presuppositions of moral agency as involving universality, a distinction between legality and morality, respect being the only source of motivation for moral actions, the will being guided by the moral law in an unconditional way and that the foundation of moral judgment has to be pure. The place where Kant first introduces the conception of "rationalising" is towards the end of Groundwork I where the "natural dialectic" into which the common man is led is mentioned when his "innocence" gets compromised. At this point "rationalising" involves casting doubt on the validity, purity and strictness of the moral law (or its unconditionality, purity and universality). Sticker went on to discus the variety of references Kant makes to "rationalising" in the critical works, showing how it has both theoretical and practical relevance. In the theoretical sphere rationalising means to give too much weight to pure reason whilst in the practical realm, by contrast, it means giving undue weight to inclinations. 

The afternoon sessions I attended were grounded in theoretical rather than practical philosophy and were papers by Katharina Kraus and a joint paper presented by Dennis Schulting  and Christian Onof. Kraus' paper focused specifically on the problems with "inner sense" in Kant and argued for a conception of it that would escape the notorious paradoxes Henry Allison argued it contained on the basis of a use of some suggestions from Beatrice Longuenesse. Whilst Kraus' paper was interesting it left open a series of questions about the notorious note at B160 which the complex and important paper of Schulting and Onof specifically set out to address. The basic question is how it can be said that the unity of space and time do not belong to the categories and yet in some sense involve the understanding. In reference to this problem the paper pointed out that space and time are described in the note as being "objects", that the unity of space is said to "precede" all concepts whilst "presupposing" a synthesis, that the note appears to contradict the main text at B161 and that it is connected in some way to the distinction between "form of intuition" and "formal intuition". In response to these points the paper argued that space as unified makes an object and that this is "formal" intuition but that there appears to be a problem with space being presented as a determinate intuition as this indicates a phenomenal object is also infinite. The authors referred to the readings of Cohen and Dufour as arguing that the unity of space is synthetic and indicated we need a conception of unity that describes non-conceptual unity which they termed "unicity-unity". The singularity of space is, for example, necessary for geometry but is not generated by it. Unicity-unity is also required for the particularity of outer sense.  Heidegger's solution of this problem was to argue unity is produced by imagination but A119 already states that apperception and imagination are intertwined. Longuenesse argues for a form of pre-conceptual role for imagination but does not explain how space can possess the property of unicity-unity. When the note states that the unity of space "presupposes" a synthesis this need not mean that it is "produced" by this but only that for understanding to grasp the unity requires this. The discussion of "concepts" of space appeared to be understood in the paper on the model of concepts of reflection rather than categories. The properties of space in the Transcendental Aesthetic are mereological structure, magnitude, topology and the world of outer sense. The Aesthetic is taken to describe the "form" of intuition. Bringing space under the transcendental unity of apperception involves taking the unicity-unity of space as a constraint on reference to it. The argument presented was eventually shown to be a modified form of Allison's conception of the distinction between formal intuition and forms of intuition but the details of the syntheses were left somewhat obscure. The paper as a whole was, however, one of the best of the conference, showed the importance of close textual reading for some key topics and should really have been a plenary.

The final session of the second day of the conference was a plenary speech from Ralf Bader who addressed the topic of Kant's argument for the postulate of the immortality of the soul. This paper was very narrowly circumscribed as it neither investigated the wide status of the postulates of practical reason in general nor showed a basis for understanding the relationship between the postulate of immortality and that of freedom though it did indicate some basis for relating this postulate to that concerned with the existence of God. Bader took the view that the postulate presents a kind of geometrical conception of the relationship between happiness and goodness and thus is a purely theoretical kind of consideration. This meant that the reference of the postulate to desert was, very surprisingly, not really addressed.

On the final day of the conference I was attentive to two of the three plenary sessions. The first was by Alexander Rueger who addressed a a passage from the third section of the Critique of Judgment that some have taken to be in conflict with a view stated by Kant in the Critique of Practical Reason. The passage from the Critique of Judgment (Ak. 5: 205) distinguishes between sensations and feelings on the grounds that without such a distinction there would be no psychological basis to prevent action always occurring in accordance with a principle of hedonism. This appears to make the categorical imperative dependent on a certain view of feeling but Rueger denied this on the ground that Kant can distinguish between the principle of execution and the principle of judgment. The passage from the Critique of Practical Reason some have taken to conflict with the passage from the Critique of Judgment occurs at Ak. 5: 22f and has been taken by some to indicate that Kant there states that all feelings are sensations. However, as Rueger argues, the passage from the Critique of Practical Reason makes a series of conditional claims, not an assertion. So Kant is not committed to the view that all feelings are qualitatively the same. The passage concerning sensation in the Critique of Judgment has to be read as saying that if all sensations were "objective" there would be the problem of commitment to hedonism following automatically. In section 5 of the Critique of Judgment Kant distinguishes specific feelings by means of form and Rueger argued that around 1783-4, whilst composing the Groundwork, Kant came to the view that the moral law requires its own kind of incentive which means he leaves behind his earlier more sentimentalist view of feeling at this time.

The final paper of the conference was a second joint presentation, this time from B. Sharon Byrd and Joachim Hruschka that concerned the passage in the Doctrine of Right where Kant marks the transition from the state of nature to the juridical state (section 41). The paper articulated a very technical set of distinctions that supported the general argument of their recently published commentary on the Doctrine of Right and included a distinction between two forms of the state of nature, one "original" and one "adventitious". This paper was an excellent conclusion to the conference and showed clearly some of the advantages of its theme.

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