After having a comment discussion with JMF about Kant, I realized that I was rather unclear about just what he had done. Kant is a lot like the blind men and the elephant: it’s a wall! It’s a snake! Kant wrote so much that it is hard to get your head around his totality. Being a mathematically inclined person, I’ve always been more interested in his approach to questions more than his answers. Answers are kind of a fools game anyway; we should all of us strive for better questions.
So last night I went to the library online and requested a couple of books, but I was able to download an audio copy of Kant in 90 Minutes. I didn’t expect much. These books are generally little more than mini-biography and this one was no exception. And I have to say, Kant was much more of a miserable bastard than I had expected. I especially didn’t like the way he treated his family. He reminded me of a number of intellectuals who I have known who place such a high value on knowledge that they completely lose sight of anything else. Throughout his adult life, he never visited with his siblings because they lacked “class.” Of course, I don’t understand how that would matter given that he seemed to think that of everyone.
Regardless, the author Paul Strathern does get into some of Kant’s philosophy. In fact, he spends time discussing something JMF brought up: the fact that Kant believed that it was always wrong to lie. It’s pretty clear that Strathern doesn’t think much of Kant as a moral philosopher, and takes the man to task on a couple of things in Critique of Practical Reason. As usual, Kant didn’t really have anything to say about moral philosophy, he just created a framework in which one might be created. As a practical matter, Kant didn’t agree with his own examples like the “never lie” idea.
What is much more interesting is Kant’s idea of metaphysics. He argued that since God was not something that we had actual experience of—since he was necessarily outside our reality—it made no sense to argue for or against his existence. That strikes me as a rather limited way of looking at the issue. For one thing, what are we to make of negative theology? But then, Kant is great largely in the way he argues against the validity of most things that are of interest to actual human beings.
His metaphysics is based on the independent existence of time and space. That is to say that they exist before anything else. So that time and space are on the same level with God, except that they are things we actual experience. That surprised me. Most of the last hundred years of physics has pushed back rather strongly on that idea. With general relativity 99 years ago, Einstein developed a theory that implies that objects create their own space. Kant argued that you could take away all the observable aspects of an object, but you could not take away the space that it occupies. That doesn’t seem to be true.
Similarly for time. It doesn’t exist without a universe to measure it. We tend to look at actions in the universe as a function of time. But it is probably more accurate to say that time is a function of actions in the universe. Regardless, what does it even mean to say that time existed before existence? It makes my brain hurt to think about. But regardless, our understanding of these fundamental qualities of the universe have changed a great deal since Kant.
So where does that leave Kant? I find ridiculous all the work by philosophers to prove that philosophy doesn’t exist or is invalid. Have people really stopped thinking about philosophy since Wittgenstein? Have they stopped thinking about mathematics since Godel? Of course they haven’t! And the idea is similarly ridiculous that Kant had to save metaphysics from Hume who showed that it was an invalid field thought. That’s especially true given that Kant “saves” metaphysics by redefining it.
In the end, I’m left with the same thing that I always thought: Kant is interesting because of his approach to knowledge, not the knowledge he ultimately brought to light. And that’s good enough. What’s more, I think the 90 minutes I spent reading about Kant is enough for now. I’m going to cancel those other books I requested.