Kant & powers

I will pose a new question, directed to those who (as I do) find it helpful to think about Kant.

There are a few Kantians around who think that a properly Kantian ontology includes real causal powers.  Eric Watkins is one well-known example.  Anita Leirfall is a (perhaps) less well-known example, if only less well-known in some circles.  Plainly, Kant does talk about the transcendental faculties, at least, as “powers.”  Anita’s interventions have helped me to appreciate this.  This is very clear in the 3rd Critique, especially.  But there in the 3rd he is also so clear to stipulate that the “causality” of aesthetic judgement, for example, isn’t causality-proper, i.e., the kind that he tells us in the 1st C. is a transcendental rubric of necessity that holds vis-a-vis relations between phenomenal objects.

So the question – and it’s an honest one – is this: is it just the faculty of judgement that, for reasons specific to that faculty, will have to be a power but not a causal power?  Why won’t this be the the case with respect to the other transcendental faculties, too?  It seems that none of those powers can be causal powers, because causation just is the fact that, thanks to pure (theoretical) reason, we cannot help but experience events involving phenomenal objects as standing in lawful relations with one another.  So it doesn’t seem as though any of the transcendental faculties could themselves be causal powers.  (Even apart from this more general bar, I’m not seeing how the moral faculties – if pure practical reason &/or the will are thought to be powers – could be causal powers, as they are precisely what (purportedly) allows us to escape the hold of causal necessitation.

But what would a power that is not a causal power be, exactly?  Is a power a “non-causal power” if it’s a power-to-do but not a power to produce an effect?   Is such a thought coherent?  [Jonathan Lowe sometimes talked that way about the will.  He wanted it to be a “non-causal power” whereby causally powerful particulars productively cause effects that they have the causal powers to produce.  I always found the very notion of “non-causal power” perplexing.]

I’m not sure if one can make it work out, for Kant, if one substitutes the account of causation in the 1st C. for every use of the concept of a power.  That would be one option.  The other would be to say that Kant himself falls back into non-Kantian talk about powers, i.e., powers that really must be construed as causal.  [Though if Kant is as Watkins takes him to be (and thinks we should too) then this talk won’t be non-Kantian; by “non-Kantian” I mean only “does not appear to be the position defended in the 1st C., or something like that.]

I think I might be starting to think #2.  A Hume-version of #2 is definitely what I’d say about Hume — have said.  (Hume tells us explicitly that he’s going for #1, but it doesn’t work; he makes arguments that presuppose robust, oomphy powers.)  Kant might be able to pull off #1 in his own case.  But if he does, then this will not help the Kantian who wants to say that he/she holds the same ontology that the anti-passivist holds.

Very interested to hear from the Kantians in the crowd!

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11 Responses to Kant & powers

  1. Olav Eikeland says:

    Interesting (I think) but not my question, so my comment is just to get the updates. But are “powers” in the world like ordinary objects or what difference would it make to talk about them more transcendentally?

    • rgroff2013 says:

      I don’t really know. Maybe you would be a transcendental powers theorist if you said not “The world contains things that can do,” but instead something like “We can’t help but experience the world as containing things that can do.”

  2. Lawrence of Arabia says:

    A question of clarification from someone who does not normally spend a lot of time explicitly thinking about ‘powers’, though I do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about Kant…

    But, the distinction you are drawing here is between causation as an account of the experience of the relations of necessity between phenomenal objects, and some activity of the subject at the level of the transcendental (in this case judgement) which is not governed by necessity. And the two systems are so different that the idea of ’cause’ clearly cannot be univocal across the two instances.

    Am I understanding the question correctly?

    • rgroff2013 says:

      Hi Lawrence!


      I mean, it seems as though one way to say that Kant has real causal powers is to argue that what he actually means to be saying in the 1st C (or otherwise somewhere that trumps the 1st c.) is that causation is the display of empirical entities’ powers to do (this or that). This seems so far from what Kant seems to me to say so plainly, in the 1st c. (viz., that causation is not this at all, but rather is the fact that, thanks to the machinations of the transcendental subject, we cannot help but experience events involving phenomenal objects as being lawfully ordered) that it seems implausible to me that’s what Kant thought causation is. Still, it’s one way one could go.

      The other way would be to say that it’s the transcendental faculties themselves that are real causal powers. I was trying to say why this too seems implausible to me.

      I really need to read Eric Watkins’ book. But I know that Anita, who is a first rate Kantian, thinks that Kant has real causal powers, and I believe that she takes issue with some of what Watkins says, so I am hoping that she, and others too, will weigh in.

      Does this help?

    • Lawrence of Arabia says:

      Isn’t it precisely because the category is transcendental that Kant can be empirically realistic about causes? When you go searching for a metaphysical ground of causality within the empirical itself, Kant argues that Hume has rightly shown that you won’t find it. But as long as you understand that the whole category of causality is transcendental, you are justified in saying that, empirically, the fire, for example, is the cause of the heat.

  3. rgroff2013 says:

    Yes, but when you say that “The fire is the cause” you don’t mean that the fire has some power to warm things up. You don’t mean that if you are Kant, I mean — at least as I have always understood the 1st C (more on this). What you mean is that you (& everyone else) will necessarily experience the fire as being constantly conjoined (certeris paribus, if that’s how I spell it) with things being warmer. There is no chance that you (or anyone else) will experience it some other way than that (c.p.).

    Of the people you read, Adorno is good on Kant, on this. In his (Adorno’s) Lecture’s on Kant’s CPR.

    Watkins is a Kantian – perhaps the one Kantian – who disagrees with this. Watkins, as I understand him, says that Kant already thought of causation as productive, as activity-based, prior to the 1st C., adding in the 1st C. only the element of necessity that Hume had claimed was insufficiently established by earlier rationalists.

    Interestingly, Watkins’ (non-standard) view is at least compatible with what I see as two different issues, that of powers (activity, dynamism [but not just motion], doing of one kind or another) and that of necessity. Hume replaces both with “custom,” by which he means the feeling of anticipation that one has when one has the antecedent impression of/in a regular pair. But they are different ideas, referring (if they do) to different features of the world.

    In any case, the way that I think of it is to say that Kant adds real necessity back into the Humean picture, but not real powers. But Watkins disagrees. And so does my friend Anita.

    Does this make more sense? What I can’t figure is how to get Aristotle back into Kant. (Or – as I understand it – even Leibniz.) But I think this is Watkins’ claim: that there is more Leibniz in there than people think.

  4. Robert C. says:

    Ruth, I don’t know Kant well enough to say much about Kant here, but I do think that your questions as they pertain to non-causal powers are interesting from the perspective of what Continental philosophers (esp. Deleuze and Badiou) like to think about in terms of events.

    That is, as I understand it, an event is something that cannot be understood as being caused by causal laws (or “causal powers”). In Badiou’s language, an event thus “subtracts” itself from a causal situation, but events have powerful effects. And one of the reasons I like Badiou’s conception of events is because of the way that advances in 20th century set theory can be helpful in thinking about these problems.

    More specifically, I think the question of non-causal power can be understood as being analogous to the problem that Paul Cohen solved in showing that the axiom of choice is independent of the other Zermelo-Frankel axioms. And so a non-causal power should be understood as taking the form of an axiom that is independent of other axioms (where “other axioms” represent causal laws).

    (Sorry if this is too arcane or off-topic to be of help or interest!)

    • rgroff2013 says:

      Hi Robert!

      Hmmm. So it sounds as though for these Continentals that you like an “event” is itself a powerful particular? And that they otherwise reject what in the analytic literature would be thought of as law-governed event causation? Is that right?

      (I like how you point out that it’s the laws themselves that have to do the actual productive causing, on that kind of Humean picture, if there is any productive causing to be done.)

  5. Robert C. says:

    Yes, “powerful particular” seems a reasonable translation of Badiou’s event — I think the oft-used term “singularity” is also alluding to this (Badiou gets this from his teacher Althusser, if it helps to try and think about this in Althusserian-Marxian terms…).

    Because of my idiosyncratic philosophical background, it’ll take me a bit to get used to your terminology and conceptual background here — but I think another way to think about these issues is in terms of Kant’s 2nd critique, and ethical writings more generally (besides, I’m more familiar with Kant’s ethical writings than his other writings). In the ethics debates, my understanding is that Kant’s tendencies toward universalism are what particularists and communitarians tend to eschew. So, if we think about causality as it relates to agentive behavior, there is a strong sense in which thinking in terms of behavioral laws privileges an ultimately rather static conception of things (i.e., actuality as mere realization of primordially given potentiality), rather than a more radically dynamic conception of potentiality and actuality by which an agent’s particular circumstances, abilities, viewpoints, etc., can bring about a more strongly emergent sense of change and dynamism.

    BTW, my sense is that in modern(/neoclassical) economic theory this preference for universals and completeness (I have Godel’s completeness theorems in mind here, if that’s helpful at all) is closely related to the privileging of formal mathematical analysis over the less law-like tendencies of more informal and less mathematical forms of reasoning.

    Anyway: yes, my thinking is that when power and causality are conceived in law-like, universalistic, and formalistic terms, there is a strong sense in which power and causality will tend to be reducible to each other. And then my sense is that a causal-determinist perspective follows rather closely and naturally — and I find this perspective unstatisfying, and I’m guessing that others likely to be following this blog are also ill-disposed toward a causal-determinist outlook, no?

    (Again, thanks for your patience as I first try to find get a general sense of where you’re coming from, and some common language, concepts and ground that we can use to communicate — not a particularly simple task, given my unfortunate non-mastery of Kant’s or Hume’s writings….)

  6. Lawrence of Arabia says:

    Ruth, I am still trying to figure out what the Aristotelians want with respect to causality and powers. So, now I am wondering if buried under the question of how best to describe the experience of cause-effect within, e.g., the region of physics, there is also hidden a dispute over objects themselves: particularly over the status of the thing-in-itself. When you talk of an object possessing a power are you, as neo-Aristotelian, also asserting the idea of an object which possesses a set of positive characteristics, including certain powers, which can be described per se, as belonging to that object? Meanwhile Kant places the Ding an sich beyond all possible knowledge and thinks of cause-effect as describing an ordered system of relations between phenomenal objects. The post-Kantians, beginning with Fichte, go on to dispense with the thing in itself altogether until in Hegel ‘mediation’ explicitly emerges with ontological primacy. If so the dispute with Kant, German Idealism, and their heirs, would touch on some very deep ontological commitments.

  7. rgroff2013 says:

    We can talk about what kind of objects Kant’s objects are – whether they are as real as an Aristotelian subtance (I think that they are as *material* as Aristotelian substances, but not as real, or realist, insofar as they don’t have their forms on their own (either their transcendental “form” as an object at all or their empirical concept “form” as a this or a that *kind* of object). And it’s true that I was wondering if this fact about their constitution would affect whether or not they actually could be powerful or not. So: yes. But it doesn’t have anything to do with any epistemic considerations. But also no in terms of the original issue, which is whether or not Kant thinks that objects *are* causally powerful, and thus that causation is the fact that this is so. See what I mean?

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