The agnosticism of Kant regarding the noumenon

I’ve never read anyone so difficult to understand as Kant, but his importance serves as a goad to persist… If anyone reading this is a Kantian or a Kant scholar, please feel free to correct me if what I’m saying here is either inaccurate or contested. Anyway, as I quoted in a previous post, Etienne Gilson writes, “Today our only choice is not Kant or Descartes; it is rather Kant or Thomas Aquinas. All the other positions are but halfway houses on the roads which lead either to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics” (God and Philosophy p. 114). In §32 of the Prolegomena, Kant refers to “special beings of the understanding (noumena), which are supposed to constitute an intelligible world.” He grants the possibility of the existence of such beings “but only with the enforcement of this rule that admits of no exception: that we neither know nor can know anything at all determinate about these pure beings of the understanding, because our pure concepts of the understanding as well as our pure intuitions extend to nothing but objects of possible experience” (i.e., extend to the realms of Newtonian physics). Here is Kant’s agnosticism regarding intellectual beings. Kant’s interest is not that we be conformed to the totality of what is real as much as we are able (in conduct and thought) but that we ourselves process our intuitions rendering them into experience which is in accordance with the laws of Newtonian physics (the principles of which reside in us a priori). I would like to contrast what Kant regards as being our own a priori understanding which is able to order our intuitions as coherent experience with Aquinas’ notion (h/t Aristotle) of the “agent intellect” (i.e., the proper active principle). The agent intellect renders intelligible all sensory experience received by the “possible intellect” (i.e., the passive principle). Aquinas’ cognitive theory has the interaction between active and passive principles as foundational to all reality. In Kant there is also an interaction between active and passive principles, but where the natural theology of Aquinas gives us the ability to say something “positive” about the objects external to us, in Kant we have external to us something real but we know not what (“we are not discussing the origin of experience, but what lies in experience” §21a). Kant’s agnosticism regarding “special beings” extends to the very origins of our intuition. While they are ‘real’ we can’t know them. So, there is an activity of some sort, as without it our intuitions receive nothing whatsoever, but his philosophical commitments don’t allow him to express anything confident or positive about what constitutes that activity.

A basic comparison between the thought of Plato and Aristotle, in similarity and difference.

“Now for such general conceptions as that of manhood, or triangular shape, or any other abstraction that exists in a number of concrete things but nowhere by itself, Aristotle usually adopts the same word that Plato had used for his self-existing realities, namely “kind” or “kinds.” But just as Plato, in addition to this term which he shares with Aristotle, had a synonym which is peculiar to himself, namely “idea,” so Aristotle too has his own special synonym, namely “form.” And in expounding the doctrines of the two philosophers it has, very naturally, been usual to avoid the term “kind” common to them both, and to adopt for each the synonymous term characteristic of himself. Thus we speak of Platonic “ideas” and Aristotelian “forms.” It is a practice which has an undoubted convenience and is conducive to clearness from one point of view, but it has the great disadvantage of always suggesting the difference between the two thinkers and never their common ground, and also of severing the technical language of both of them, from the common matrix of natural, and naturally significant, phraseology out of which it grows and with which it always remains in connection. It is easy, however, to discern this common ground. “Idea” and “form” are mere variants on “kind.” And Plato and Aristotle both investigate such problems as these: What is meant by saying Socrates and Sophroniscus are both “men”? What does it really tell you of them? What does it enable you to understand? When you ask “what” a thing is and get your answer:–It is a cart, a horse, a tree–what really is that “whatness” or “thatness” that makes it the thing it is and not some other thing? And why can you never give any explanation of a thing except by determining some “kind” or “kinds” which it is or to which it belongs? But Plato is always trying to get at something behind the concrete and Aristotle to get at something in it. The Platonic “kinds” or ideas  exist apart from individual things and are the perfect prototypes of which they are the imperfect imitations or reflections; the Aristotelian  “kinds” or forms are abstractions of the human mind that have no actual existence except in transient and concrete individuals.” (Philip H. Wicksteed, Dante and Aquinas, pps 18-19 [bold emphasis mine]).

Frederick Copleston on the limits of human language and metaphysics

“Language is primarily designed to refer to the objects of our sense-experience, and is very often found inadequate for the precise expression of metaphysical truths. Thus we speak, and cannot well help speaking, of “God foreseeing,” a phrase that, as it stands, implies that God is in time, whereas we know that God is not in time but is eternal. We cannot, however, speak adequately of the eternity of God, since we have no experience of eternity ourselves, and our language is not designed to express such matters. We are human beings and have to use human language — we can use no other: and this fact should make us cautious in attaching too much weight to the mere language or phrases used by Plato in dealing with abstruse, metaphysical points.”

Copleston, Frederick Charles. A History of Philosophy: Volume 1. Garden City, NY: Image, 1962. 165. Print.

David Bentley Hart on Heidegger and the ‘evasion of the mystery of being’ in the west

“Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) –a morally problematic figure, admittedly, but not to be dismissed–was largely correct in thinking that the modern West excels at evading the mystery of being precisely because its governing myth is one of practical mastery. Ours is, he thought, the age of technology, in which ontological questions have been vigorously expelled from cultural consideration, replaced by questions of mere mechanistic force; for us, nature is now something “enframed” and defined by a particular disposition of the will, the drive toward dominion that reduces the world to a morally neutral “standing reserve” of resources entirely subject to our manipulation, exploitation, and ambition. Anything that does not fit within the frame of that picture is simply invisible to us. When the world is seen this way, even organic life–even where consciousness is present–must come to be regarded as just another kind of technology. This vision of things can accommodate the prospect of large areas of ignorance yet to be vanquished (every empire longs to discover new worlds to conquer), but no realm of ultimate mystery. Late modernity is thus a condition of willful spiritual deafness. Enframed, racked, reduced to machinery, nature cannot speak unless spoken to, and then her answers must be only yes, no, or obedient silence. She cannot address us in her own voice. And we certainly cannot hear whatever voice might attempt to speak to us through her” (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 311-312).

Soloviev: The meaning of Dostoevsky’s “Beauty will save the world”

To purchase the book which contains this essay please follow this link.

“Dostoevsky not only preached, but, to a certain degree also demonstrated in his own activity this reunification of concerns common to humanity–at least of the highest among these concerns–in one Christian idea. Being a religious person, he was at the same time a free thinker and a powerful artist. These three aspects, these three higher concerns were not differentiated in him and did not exclude one another, but entered indivisibly into all his activity. In his convictions he never separated truth from good and beauty; in his artistic creativity he never placed beauty apart from the good and the true. And he was right, because these three live only in their unity. The good, taken separately from truth and beauty, is only an indistinct feeling, a powerless upwelling; truth taken abstractly is an empty word; and beauty without truth and the good is an idol. For Dostoevsky, these were three inseparable forms of one absolute Idea. The infinity of the human soul–having been revealed in Christ and capable of fitting into itself all the boundlessness of divinity–is at one and the same time both the greatest good, the highest truth, and the most perfect beauty. Truth is good, perceived by the human mind; beauty is the same good and the same truth, corporeally embodied in solid living form. And its full embodiment–the end, the goal, and the perfection–already exists in everything, and this is why Dostoevsky said that beauty will save the world” (Vladimir Soloviev, The Heart of Reality, trans V. Wozniuk, p. 16).

Von Balthasar on Soloviev: The meaning of Dostoevsky’s “beauty will save the world”

If you wish to purchase Von Balthasar’s classic work, please follow this link.

From the very beginning, Soloviev wanted to complete his theosophy with a universal aesthetics. He prefaced his essay on natural aesthetics with Dostoyevsky’s dictum that “beauty will save the world.” The Critique of Abstract Principles had proclaimed that ‘the realization of pan-unity in its external actuality is absolute beauty’, so it is as little something ‘given’ as is ‘pan-unity’ itself; it is a task assigned to humanity, and human art is a vehicle of its realisation. Soloviev promises to develop, at the end of his work, ‘the common axioms and rules of this great and mysterious art that brings all beings in the form of beauty’. According to another declaration, the sphere of aesthetic realisation should be divided into three areas: the material (technology), the formal (the ‘fine arts’) and the absolute (mysticism). For Soloviev, however, mysticism is not only passive devotion to the divine or direct contact with it; it also is the active art of bringing the divine from Heaven to earth, and, in this sense, ‘theurgy’—it is concerned, that is, with the realisations of the ideal: this is why Soloviev becomes a bitter opponent of classical idealist aesthetics, according to which beauty is allowed to be ‘only’ appearance, not reality, only an illusory reflection, not even a true promise or foretaste. ‘An infinity that existed solely for an instant would be an unbearable contradiction for the spirit; a bliss existing only in the past would be a torture for the will.’ Continue reading “Von Balthasar on Soloviev: The meaning of Dostoevsky’s “beauty will save the world””

Dostoevsky — “Beauty would save the world”

“HIPPOLYTE, who had fallen asleep during Lebedeff’s discourse, now suddenly woke up, just as though someone had jogged him in the side. He shuddered, raised himself on his arm, gazed around, and grew very pale. A look almost of terror crossed his face as he recollected.

“What! are they all off? Is it all over? Is the sun up?” He trembled, and caught at the prince’s hand. “What time is it? Tell me, quick, for goodness’ sake! How long have I slept?” he added, almost in despair, just as though he had overslept something upon which his whole fate depended.

“You have slept seven or perhaps eight minutes,” said Evgenie Pavlovitch.

Hippolyte gazed eagerly at the latter, and mused for a few moments.

“Oh, is that all?” he said at last. “Then I–“

He drew a long, deep breath of relief, as it seemed. He realized that all was not over as yet, that the sun had not risen, and that the guests had merely gone to supper. He smiled, and two hectic spots appeared on his cheeks.

“So you counted the minutes while I slept, did you, Evgenie Pavlovitch?” he said, ironically. “You have not taken your eyes off me all the evening–I have noticed that much, you see! Ah, Rogojin! I’ve just been dreaming about him, prince,” he added, frowning. “Yes, by the by,” starting up, “where’s the orator? Where’s Lebedeff? Has he finished? What did he talk about? Is it true, prince, that you once declared that ‘beauty would save the world’? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he’s in love! Gentlemen, the prince is in love. I guessed it the moment he came in. Don’t blush, prince; you make me sorry for you. What beauty saves the world? Colia told me that you are a zealous Christian; is it so? Colia says you call yourself a Christian.”

The prince regarded him attentively, but said nothing. Continue reading “Dostoevsky — “Beauty would save the world””