Transcendental Platonism

Transcendental Platonism

This week I read an excellent article by John Dillon on Paul Natorp’s Platons Ideenlehre. It helped me develop why I think Kant’s transcendental methodology provides Platonists a way to ground metaphysics as a scientific discipline. To be sure, such a grounding would require an extensive argument, which would certainly exceed the scope of a short blog post. Nonetheless, I think the symbiotic relationship between Kantian methodology and Platonic metaphysics is borne out both by Kant’s use of transcendental arguments in the first Critique and by Plato’s approach to the interrelation of language, thought, and being.

One should begin by defining ‘transcendental.’ At first glance, the term seems strange and rather pompous. A sceptic might doubt whether such esoteric terminology is simply a cover for ignorance or the vacuity of philosophy in general. However, in a rare moment of lucidity, Kant defines ‘transcendental’ as “that which is occupied not so much with objects but rather with our mode of cognition of objects insofar as this is possible a priori.” A transcendental analysis, therefore, seeks to uncover the necessary conditions for any coherent experience of sensible or mental objects.

Before defending this methodology and showing its use for Platonism, one should perhaps consider particular examples of ‘transcendental inquiry.’ The following two should suffice. In the ‘Transcendental Aesthetic,’ Kant gives a battery of arguments that are meant to show that space and time are necessary conditions for the possibility of experiencing any object. For if I consider, see, hear, imagine, etc. any object, I always and necessarily do so on the assumption that it is ‘out there’ in some ‘space,’ which is not itself given as an object. “In order for certain sensations to be related to somethin outside me (i.e., to something in another place in space from that in which I find myself), thus in order for me to represent them as outside one another, thus not merely as different but as in different places, the representation of space must already be their ground” (B38). The structure of the argument is as follows:

P1: I find that I can represent things to myself, whether through the imagination or intuit them directly in sensation.
P2: Whatever I must posit in order to render my experience of representing objects to myself coherent must be a necessary formal condition of that experience.
P3: I must posit space in order to have a representation or intuition of something ‘outside’ of myself.
C: Therefore, space is a necessary formal condition for the possibility of experiencing ‘external’ representations.

If this argument is right, it puts the sceptic in a tough position. He is faced with the difficult dilemma of either denying (P1), that we have the ability to represent things to ourselves, or showing how space is not necessarily presupposed in any such representation. Doubtless, Kant himself wanted to prove more than this (i.e., that space is an a priori form of pure intuition). Yet, it suffices to show that space is always already presupposed in any experience or representation. This formulation, always already, signifies the conclusion of a properly transcendental argument, that purports to show what we must presuppose in order to render even our most ordinary experiences, perceptions, and representations coherent.

Perhaps an Aristotelian would be unhappy with the above argument, given its Kantian provenance and concern with subjectivity. Consider, then, the following argument from the Metaphysics:

Since not everything comes to be by necessity and exists always, whether they be beings or things that have come to be, but rather for the most part, it is necessary that there exist that which is per accidens, such as when the white man is musical, which is neither always nor for the most part. Since it comes to be sometimes it will be per accidens. If not, then everything will be by necessity, such that matter will be the cause admitting things outside of or different from that which is for the most part (1027a8-15).

Aristotle’s argument, while not concerned with the a priori conditions of the subject, still qualifies as ‘transcendental’ in the Kantian sense. For it is concerned with the a priori conditions of experience. In this case, Aristotle wants to explain the condition for the possibility of our experience of causal non-uniformity, that the same effect does not always follow from the same cause. Sometimes the art of building brings about a white house; sometimes a blue one. Sometimes the house pleases its owner pleasure; sometimes it does not, etc. The point here is that Aristotle is saying that we all take this experience, causal non-uniformity, for granted. How is this experience possible? Like Kant, Aristotle reasons backwards from an obvious experience to the way things need to be a priori or the conditions for such an experience. Unlike Kant, however, Aristotle reasons from our experience of things not following ‘on the whole or for the most part’ to the world itself. Aristotle is asking ‘what must the world itself be like in order for it to ‘give’ us this experience?’

One can, therefore, move two ways in a transcendental argument, to the subject or the world. In both cases one starts with an indubitable and certain experience, one which no sceptic could or would want to deny (coherent experience, causal non-uniformity, sequential experience, ability to recognize similarity and difference in things, etc.). Then one can either ask: (1) what must I be like in order to have this experience; or (2) what must the world itself be like in order to ‘give’ such an experience? The first asks about transcendental subjectivity, which is where the idealists after Kant excel. The second seeks to determine what the world must be like in order to ‘give’ or manifest objects intelligibly to mind—transcendental objectivity, so to speak. This area of philosophy has already been well charted by Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics. I suggest that we take both approaches together in order to develop a satisfying account of mind and world, of being’s intelligibility as such. Insofar as thought and being, mind and world, are essential components of experience— consciousness is always consciousness of a being and a being is only a being insofar insofar as it is determinate and thus intelligible being, a this being (τόδε τι)—it follows that both approaches are necessary and supportive of one another.

But how does this sketch of transcendental argumentation and philosophical methodology relate to Platonism? As I see it, it is perhaps the most promising method for recovering first philosophy and grounding its scientific claims. For no sceptic could ever deny the principle of being’s intelligibility without saying something about being, whether it is only to deny something about it. To say x is not y presupposes some acquintance with x and y, at least enough familiarity to make the relevant negation. A sceptic may as well try to deny the principle of non-contradition.

Philosophy in the truest sense is a philosophy of being qua being. We do not have to be Heideggarians or full-blown Kantian’s to admit that any investigation into being is conducted by a mind, namely our mind, an interpreting, concerned, and historically situated being. Hence, philosophy is an interrogation into the Being of beings by that being to whom being reveals itself. As a Platonist, I think there are resources to conduct such a search within the Platonic tradition. That is, while I think Kantian or even Heideggarian ways of approaching philosophical questions helpful, the transcendental method being perhaps the most helpful, I do not want to give the impression that I am sacrificing the core tenets of traditional Platonism or subordinating them to German idealism. On the contrary, if anyhing needs to give, it is the later tradition inasmuch as it does not far enough with its own methodology. Thinkers after Kant, including Heidegger himself, approach the question of intelligibility almost exclusively in the first way—though transcendental subjectivity, spirit, or interpreting and concerned Dasein. What is lost in this account is the primacy of givenness. The world gives itself over to mind to be understood. We must always already assume that being as such manifests itself qua determinate, intelligible, and amenable to mind. For as Plotinus puts it:

What does the searching is a soul, and it ought to know what it is that is doing the seeking, so that it should first of all learn about itself (i.e. how it is possible for it to be the kind of thing that understands being); whether it has the ability for seeking such things, whether it has the right sort of ‘eye’ that is able to see, and whether it is fitting to seek these things. For if the things sought are alien to it (i.e. if being does not intelligibly manifest itself to mind), why should it seek them? But if they are of the same lineage (συγγενής), it is fitting for it to seek them, and it is possible to find that which it is seeking.

Plotinus’ account of συγγένεια, of the kinship between mind (or soul) and world is ever fertile ground of metaphysics, ground which must be explored transcendentally, through an inquiry into the conditions of subjective cognition of being and being’s objective and intelligible manifestion or self-giving to mind.


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