Max Gottschlich on the limits of knowledge

Max Gottschlich

A few months ago, I came across what for most people other than professional philosophers would be an obscure, academic essay on Kant in the journal Metaphysics from 2015. I stumbled onto it after skimming through some art criticism online and finding a phrase about “Kant’s theories on the limitations of logic.” This intrigued me; anything about the limits of human reasoning draws my attention, but especially in relation to this foremost German critic of human reason, who also happened to be the fellow who established the philosophical framework for the reliability of the scientific method.  So I Googled “Kant on the limits of logic” and this essay topped the list of hits. The title of the paper almost sounded like a Monty Python parody of Continental philosophy: “The Necessity and Limits of Kant’s Transcendental Logic, with Reference to Nietzsche and Hegel.” Yet the content of the paper has held my interest, off and on, for months. 

I have reread Gottschlich many times, and though I’m still bemused by a few passages toward the end, the essay strikes me as both a useful explication of what Kant was doing in his philosophy and also a way of putting logical reasoning into proper perspective. All of which has a bearing on what visual art can do outside the scope of what Kant was exploring. The quietly radical implications of all this probably wouldn’t bother those who think science is the last word on truth—but it should. In other words, it’s an effort that seems at least partly consonant with Heidegger’s own critical views on the entirety of Western thought and the nihilism at the heart of it.

Max Gottschlich, the essay’s author, starts by pointing out that Kant sets aside metaphysics—all the theories of truth that have arisen in Western philosophy since the Greeks. Instead, he examines, in The Critique of Pure Reason, only the marriage between logic and the knowledge it offers. Instead of postulating an ontology—a theory of being—he shows how the system of logic gives form to the manifold world of sensory experience and thus give rise to our understanding of a world that operates by natural laws. All other forms of awareness are set aside in this process. What the world or anything in it actually is remains beside the point–and unknowable through logic. Logical understanding—transcendental logic as it is called in the essay—provides the superstructure within which all individual things become comprehensible within this ordered world of appearances.

Kant no longer undertakes the inquiry into being and its determinations, but more fundamentally asks about the conditions of the possibility of knowledge of objects in general.

It’s pertinent to note that logic isn’t only the ground for scientific investigation, but also provides the structure of computer software and artificial intelligence, as well as an individual’s common sense problem-solving in daily life. Logic itself is reshaping our entire world–it’s what rules the spirit of our age. Gottschlich wants to understand how this sort of knowledge functions as a whole. For him, Kant isn’t interested, per se,  in particular operations of formal logic, as a computer engineer would be, but in the role that logical understanding and knowledge play in forming the boundaries of thought and human awareness. He aims to think about how logic structures knowledge, how it generates it, rather than about how the rules of formal logic lead to particular valid propositions that can be proven.

He points out that Western philosophy perennially begins with the identification of thinking and being: it is taken for granted that rational thought is how we come to unveil the being of things and the world. Thought corresponds with the world in reliable ways—and the goal of much philosophy has been to propose a theory, a metaphysics, to explain how and why this is so. Until Kant, the author says, philosophy assumed an equivalence between thinking and being. In this view, the actual being of an object in the world, what it is, reveals itself through its intelligibility—it becomes transparent to thought. If you think in a logical, non-contradictory way about the world, it has been assumed you will arrive at an understanding of the world’s inherent nature. To achieve this consistent, non-contradictory realm of thought—and being—much of Western philosophy has situated truth somehow apart from this changing, imperfect world: Plato’s realm of Forms or Ideas, for example.

Yet Gottschlich suggests that this consistent, non-contradictory world of logic exists only as a way for the thinking subject, “the transcendental I”, to maintain itself in time, to persist and endure, to survive–to maintain an integrated sense of personal identity and also to successfully impose one’s will on the world. Witness the power and benefits of science and technology, the children of logic. Yet, as much as logic enables us to master the world, that world  itself, in its actual nature, is almost essentially contradictory–it undermines itself. 

Concepts like κίνησις, οὐσία, ἐντελέχεια, σύνολον, causa sui, monad, and, as Kant indirectly shows, the concept of freedom and the “I” have something in common: they cannot be conceived other than as a unity of opposed determinations (being–nothing, rest–motion, particular–general, possibility–actuality, matter–form, unity–plurality, cause–effect, determination–indeterminacy, subject—object).

Even with pure reason, even putting aside the polarities of the actual world, the mind finds itself ultimately in a state of contradiction. The abstract idea of causation can’t resolve the contradictions inherent within it. Every effect has a cause, each cause has its own antecedent cause, all of which must have been started in motion by a Prime Mover, a first cause. And yet there is no such thing as an action without a cause: the notion of a first cause is self-contradictory. We can’t rationally conceive of a first cause. 

Kant looked at the philosophy of his own day—from empiricism to pure idealism—and found that both opposing schools led to self-contradictions and the inability to ground reason in a valid way. The outcome of this realization is that thinking and what is, the actuality of the world, come apart. Thinking isn’t commensurate with actuality. So, for Kant, all these other attempts at philosophical thinking offered no way to establish a reliable connection between thinking and the phenomenal world, the “spacial-temporal manifold” of sensory information.

(With David Hume’s empiricism, if every idea or content of consciousness should be proven to be grounded only in sensation,) then not only does all objectivity immediately vanish into a “bunch of impressions,” so that something like a common world is a fiction, but also the so-called subject is nothing but a Heraclitean flow of impressions in which it immediately dissolves. Thus, not only metaphysics, but all scientific knowledge and its presuppositions, are fundamentally unjustified.

If all knowledge is simply grounded in sensation and the mind is a provisional epiphenomenon of the random behavior of the world, then all knowledge is equally random, simply a mirroring of the endless, orderless shifting river of experience. Science and natural laws are just as fungible as the ideas that arise out of this ever-changing kaleidoscope of phenomena. In this case, knowledge is either inherently contradictory—a thing is both there and then not there, changing slightly into something else, just as you try to pin it down with a name—or ultimately illusory. But science works, the world is predictable, up to to a point, so this can’t be the case. 

Kant establishes how, in fact, there can be any identity between thinking and being: how thinking can actually reflect or represent an intelligible, ordered world—in a way that works for human purposes.

Kant inquires into that which lies behind previous epistemologies, the prerequisites of the interrelation of the logical and reality.

Kant’s endeavor is consequently to unfold systematically all the presuppositions that guarantee that thinking in accordance with the forms and principles of formal logic does not result in mere tautologies or lead to contradiction but is objectively valid.

He wants to show how thought can be objectively valid, neither contradictory nor a matter of empty equivalences—how and why rational thought itself creates its own necessity.

What knowledge do we achieve or obtain about being or actuality by means of formal logic?

This line from Gottschlich is his central interest: what sort of knowledge do we achieve through formal logic, or to put it more compellingly, what is modern science actually teaching us? What is human knowledge, as defined by Western thinking, and how does it reveal to us—or potentially divert us from—the nature of actuality?

Against the background of this question, we can capture the main difference between formal and transcendental logic: formal logic presupposes the constitution of the objectivity of the object, whereas transcendental logic shows the mode of the constitution of objectivity.

The eyes want to glaze over here, but his argument pivots on this assertion: logical thinking presupposes the objective validity of its own processes, which can’t be proven from within the procedures of logic itself—an observation akin to Godel’s incompleteness theorem—while Kant’s “transcendental” examination of logic tries to reveal how objectivity itself is established, without going beyond this question to ask exactly what “objective thinking” is doing in the world, and in the foundation of human nature itself. Kant is critically thinking about the nature of objectivity as a whole, not simply looking at ways in which objective knowledge of particular things is acquired.

This justification requires necessarily establishing an a priori (universally valid and necessary) relation between the logical form and what we call the object.

Therefore, the logical must be regarded as forming form, as logical activity a priori, which constitutes the identity of something as something, the objectivity of the object.

“Logic must be regarded as forming form” is a pivotal phrase in the paper. Max G. shows how human understanding, at the level Kant was trying to elucidate, the “transcendental level,” prior to particular thoughts, actually creates the forms which provide the structure of thought itself: thought unifies multiple sensory impressions into the perception of an object, establishing the identity of things in the world, in such a way that this act of “forming form” constitutes both the objective world and the mind that understands it simultaneously.

(A) concept is not like an empty box, waiting to be filled with content or to be applied to given objects or particulars. Rather, the concept is a concept if and only if it grasps something.

Logic is prehensile, almost creative. A concept isn’t something that exists in the mind waiting for the individual to come across its equivalent in the world: a concept is formed only when it grasps something in the world: takes manifold sensory impressions and actively unifies them into a useful idea or perception. Without that soup of sensory data, there is no concept. Logic gives form to the world itself. So much for Plato. And yet this entire complex network of understanding itself, structured by logic, remains ungrounded and unproven. 

The logical principles (mainly the principles of identity and noncontradiction) are no longer simply axioms. According to formal logic, the principles of logic cannot be positively grounded or proved, as every proof or every syllogism already presupposes these principles.

This is where the argument here veers toward Godel, who suggested that every mathematical system depends on certain axioms that have to be assumed and can’t be proven by the system itself—because they need to be used in order to work out any proof at all.  It’s a bootstrapping problem inherent in human thought.

All deductive (as well as inductive) reasoning must therefore ultimately rest upon principles which seem to be given patterns of reason. This is true given that formal logic cannot ground its own principles. Now, in transcendental logic, thought can proceed a step further and enlighten the relative necessity of this positing. Transcendental logic reveals that these principles are demands of consistency that are to be set in order to maintain or preserve the identity of . . .  self-consciousness.

In a philosophical sense, this transcendental logic is precisely the structure of self-preservation for the thinking subject—the “transcendental I.” It enables rational consciousness, a sense of self, to survive through time and gives it continuity—while at the same time being the framework for useful, purposeful behavior essential to physical self-preservation. Logic is essentially at the heart of the will to power, or put another way, in common terms, the survival instinct.

Objectivity is not, as common sense believes, the representation of something beyond the I, of an object outside us, but a system of necessarily related representations. Therefore, according to Kant, the objectivity of the logical form requires the givenness of the matter as a separate source of knowledge and a necessary relation of the representations to each other. Again, it is important to note that the limitation of knowledge to the object of appearance must not be regarded as an expression of skepticism or the modesty of telling a story about alleged finite human capacities. Its purpose is rather the opposite: this and only this limitation will guarantee the necessity of knowledge . . . 

This strikes me as a rare, remarkable insight (I suspect, not being a professional philosopher and not knowing how much this field has been tilled in the past few decades). Gottschlich points out that Kant’s transcendental logic and the way in which it arises through its own action in establishing objects of thought and their interconnections, as they yield themselves to logic itself,  represents the only way to assure the validity of scientific endeavor, or “the necessity of knowledge.” Logic, or what we consider the only reliable form of human understanding, represents a system of knowledge in which all things in the world have reality only in relation to the way they appear to fit into this system of knowledge.

There is the problem inherent in this Faustian power. We have no way to consciously step outside this system and behold things as they are, no way to willfully set aside our pragmatic, manipulative (and self-interested) understanding of how appearances behave—and this doesn’t detract from the validity of scientific, logical thought. In fact, it’s what makes it work—this limitation.

Necessary knowledge of objects is not possible with regard to a thing in itself, but only with regard to a coherent, contradiction-free, and therefore unequivocally determinable system of appearances. This is nothing other than the object of modern natural science.

It is important to note that in this perspective all phenomena (individuals, particulars) as appearances must not have something like an identity within themselves, an internal or imminent identity which presents itself in the way a thing changes or reacts, as previous ontology conceived it. To put the point more sharply, they are not selves at all, that is, they have no internal self-relation. Rather, they are merely functional elements in a system, and their identity or determinateness is rooted only in this system of appearances.

The living, changing self of things endures beyond the ambit of rational thought. For the purposes of logical thought, things have no inherent being in and of themselves, but exist for us only as nodes in a vast matrix of appearances ordered by the human mind. What a thing is, in and of itself—Kant’s thing-in-itself—is irrelevant when it comes to reasoning. And operating only in this logic-generated world of appearances, logic finds its supreme power. The manifold world of appearances reveals itself as orderly, useful, an enormous resource, or in Heidegger’s terminology “a standing reserve” of raw material for human purposes.

Now, we must not think that this is only a matter of the scientific worldview. The logic of objectification or identification with which the transcendental logic deals is of course a matter of our everyday life, too. Without this objectification, human beings could not survive biologically.

Kant’s transcendental logic unveils the hitherto hidden teleological character of formal logic, its imperative character: formal logic is the logic of knowledge for the sake of domination, of control. The goal of modern mathematical natural science is knowledge that can be applied. The transcendental logic shows that this is made possible only because this object, the world of appearance, is not alien but thoroughly constituted by the logical I.  . . . .. It is a logically transparent world. This enables prognosis, and prognosis enables technical mastery of nature. I can control something completely only if I am able to predict action and reaction a priori. This is the one side, namely, that Kant’s transcendental logic shows under which conditions this knowledge of domination is possible.

But unlike Kant, Nietzsche stresses that the concepts we build up via logic are sheer positings, hypostases. By “hypostasis” we mean something that is factually ontologically dependent and yet is regarded as if it could exist on its own.

We accept that this vast system of logical understanding exists on its own, but it is in fact adopted provisionally–the entire system is posited–for its usefulness, rather than because there is any way to establish that it is actually commensurate with the world as it actually is. In his shift to Nietzsche, Gottschlich tries to elucidate what is implicit in Kant’s critique of reason—that it establishes objective validity for thought, but also shows implicitly that logical thought isn’t impartial or without “interest” in the world. Logical thought is the central way in which human beings exercise the will to power over the world, for better or worse, from the wonders of arthroscopic surgery and targeting cancer drugs to Chernobyl and Hiroshima. And it all rests on our collective agreement to trust in logic as if it were the most faithful way of being aware of the true nature of things–with no way to prove that this is actually the case. Logic works. That’s the best we can say for it. 

Nietzsche claims that all of this vast body of reliable knowledge is founded upon the illusory assumption that there is such a thing as truth. This was the first note in our now familiar, discordant symphony of postmodernism. While this assumption gives us power over nature, truth is nothing more than pragmatic, useful “hypostases.” We act as if logic is more than simply a tool with which to assert our power, but it is actually merely a ploy for bringing the world to heel. Postmodernism follows inevitably from this. For Nietzsche and for Gottschlich, actuality doesn’t square with logic–the world exceeds what we regard as the truth of it. What he’s also suggesting is that there may in fact be something true beyond our pragmatic rational science, but it is outside the reach of logic–he’s not siding with Hume and Heraclitus or, necessarily, the postmodernists.

If actuality or life is conceived as becoming, then it cannot be conceived as free of contradiction. Therefore, the model of a world which is free of contradiction amounts to a perversion of actuality or, according to Nietzsche, the expression of the will to dominate life. For this reason, formal logic cannot serve as an organon of knowledge of actuality.

Formal logic cannot serve as a means of gaining knowledge of the thing-in-itself, but only of the thing as appearance, which is contradiction-free.

Logic tells us nothing about the actual nature of anything as a whole. From within its bounds, we are as clueless about what the world actually is as we ever were. We understand only how to make the world work for us.

Formal logic—as basis of all science. . . .enables us to gain control over the becoming of life, to domesticate, to govern it. Indeed, Nietzsche wants to uncover the construction of our scientific view of the world by means of logic as a mighty tool of domination. Kant would agree with this by responding: Transcendental logic demonstrates exactly the preconditions under which we can gain objective knowledge qua knowledge that may serve to dominate actuality.

To know actuality, the living world itself,

. . . .is knowing which interprets something as presenting a self. Actuality is not a possible object of scientific experience in Kant’s terms, or a Tatsache in Sachverhalten, <a fact in a state of affairs> as Wittgenstein puts it in the Tractatus, but an event (Ereignis). This requires us to overcome the interest toward this being and to exercise a theoretical perspective (θεωρία), which means letting it be or present itself.

. . . . transcendental logic elucidates how formal logic has always been a logic of technical-practical knowledge. Transcendental logic is the logic of our technical conduct, which shows what it must presuppose and how we must regard actuality—namely, as (a) world of appearances—if we want to gain knowledge that serves as a means of domination.

What began as a technical, academically philosophical examination of Kant’s theories of knowledge has suddenly become a critique of the Western world’s foundational assumptions about truth–about the agenda of domination behind the seemingly impartial search for scientific facts.

The spirit of our age is imbued with the myth of technology in all domains of our life. This myth is the one-sided, abstract enlightenment, the totalitarianism of the standpoint of utility or finite purposiveness. Kant’s transcendental logic is the first inner-logical step of the enlightenment of this myth.

Kant wants to shed light on what’s operative in logical reasoning: the inability to witness or behold the true nature of things as they are, but to control and utilize the world for human purposes. This is pure Heidegger, yet it’s also surprising and refreshing to hear a philosopher say such things without having to slog through Heidegger’s language. In this case, Gottschlich arrives at observations Heidegger arrived at, but he gets there in a much less mystifying way, simply by examining Kant’s reasoning about logic.

What the world needs as desperately as selfless love is what goes by the term “reasonableness,” a sense of disinterested, balanced response to the behavior of others and the vagaries of life. Reasonableness is the best tool we have for getting along. But that isn’t what Gottschlich is talking about when he speaks of about reason and logic. Toward the end, his essay is a reminder of how the myth of science’s omniscience so governs the contemporary spirit that the limitations and true nature of our assumptions about truth have become virtually invisible, simply because—with our thinking moving only within the boundaries of logic—we assume scientific knowledge is the only way to understand the actual world, when in fact the full nature of human life can’t begin to be addressed by rational thought alone, if at all. We have good justification for ignoring this inconvenience, because reason affords such incredible power over the world—though that power begins to look more Mephistophelean (Iris Murdoch equated “Kantian man” with Milton’s Lucifer) with each passing year, despite the benevolent marvels of medicine and computers. The benefits are irresistible and wondrous—until they aren’t, of course. I’m not only thinking of nuclear risks, or the Pandora’s box of genetic engineering, but also simply the way in which purposeful thought quickly comes to be the only way to apprehend life, shutting out all other ways of beholding the world, all of which are an essential yet unconscious backdrop for human life. To be fully alive is to be able to step outside all sense of purpose and recognize something larger, more encompassing and so innate to being alive that it’s nearly impossible to recognize—simply because it can’t properly be an object of thought. Painting’s great virtue is that it offers a way to see beyond human purpose, outside the box of reason, to reconnect with this ever-present backdrop—a world unavailable to reason–that gives life to human purposes in ways that purposeful (logical) thinking itself can’t objectify. And in this way, visual art–when it isn’t being used as a tool–is a counterforce to something far more fundamental than politics and economics, it’s a pursuit fundamentally contrary to the hyper-rational spirit of the age that began with the Enlightenment and the growing hegemony of science. 

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