April 20, 2010

Kant on Socrates

I've just been reading Kant's lectures on anthropology. One of the things that astounded me about what Kant writes is his description of reason. Kant makes a distinction between what he calls common sense or le bon sens and academic science. The first he tells us is the application of general rules to particular circumstances, the second is the definition and questioning of those general rules and he suggests that the faculty which leads to the one is not the one which leads to the other. So much so unsurprising. What is interesting though or was so for me was what Kant furnishes as an example of common sense: I quote the entire passage, he is talking here of sound understanding which he has previously equated to le bon sens,

It is strange that sound human understanding which is usually regarded as only a practical cognitive faculty is not only presented as something that can manage without culture, but also something for which culture is even disadvantageous, if it is not pursued enough. Some praise it highly to the point of enthusiasm and represent it as a rich source of treasure lying hidden in the mind, and sometimes its pronouncement as an oracle (Socrates' genius) is siad to be more reliable than anything academic science offers for sale... sound understanding can demonstrate its superiority with regard to an object of experience, which consists not only in increasing knowledge through expereince but also in enlarging that experience, not however, in a speculative, but merely in an empirical- practical respect. (Louden ed., Kuehn intro., Kant Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View 28)
Kant's distinctions may not seem so odd here- but he does not scatter an example like Socrates into his text without thinking hard about using him. Kant wants us to think about that example and to make us realise it is not arbitrary, he elaborates upon it a couple of pages later

it is true that there are judgements which one does not bring formally before the tribunal of understanding in order to pronounce sentence on them and which therefore seem to be directly dictated by sense. They are embodied in so-called aphorisms or oracular outbursts (such as those to whose utterance Socrates attributes his genius) (Louden ed, Kuehn intro., Kant Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View 36)
Again the point seems logical, but why bring up Socrates?

There are two reasons for so doing- the first is a simple historical reason. Socrates did refer to his daimon who helped him solve problems (the Greek daimon has the same etymological route as our demon but not the same sense). But Kant doesn't just do this for a historical reason: he is interested I think in doing something else. Part of Kant's interest lay in discussing what reason was and how much it could do. Socrates was the first proponent of the idea in Plato's dialogue that reason could do almost anything: for Plato's Socrates to behave badly was to make a mistake, to behave well was to think well. These points about Socrates being the epitome of common sense suggest to me that Kant was offering a reappraisal of Socrates's project. His marginal comments were a reminder that even Socrates had not been able to purely reason- even his thought was derivative from oracular outbursts and common sense observations. The little mentions of Socrates are Kant's way of suggesting to his reader that philosophising about some subjects starts from commonly agreed principles and cannot be a priori- as even the father of a priori philosophy was himself the servant of the daimons of his past.


James Higham said...

This is your m├ętier, Tiberius but you might need to fill us in on more detail.

My experience of "common sense" is that it is very uncommon.