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What is reason?

 For Kant, reason is both a logical and a transcendental faculty. As a logical faculty, it produces so-called mediated conclusions through abstractions, as a transcendental faculty, it creates conceptions and contains a priori cognitions whose object cannot be given empirically.

‘The transcendental conception of reason is therefore nothing else than the conception of the totality of the conditions of a given conditioned. Now as the unconditioned alone renders possible totality of conditions, and conversely, the totality of conditions is itself always unconditioned; a pure rational conception in general can be defined and explained by means of the conception of the unconditioned, in so far as it contains a basis for the synthesis of the unconditioned’. (CPR, p. 223-224)

Difference between understanding and reason.

‘In the former part of our Transcendental Logic, we defined the understanding to be the faculty of rules; Reason may be distinguished from understanding as the faculty of principles.’ (p.211)

The difference drawn by Kant between Reason (Vernunft) and Understanding (Verstand) will be crucial for philosophy and human sciences. Hegel praises Kant for this distinction, whilst criticising his idea of the functions of Reason. In fact, we might say retrospectively and adopting the Romantics language that understanding is concerned with finitude as much as reason is with the infinite. To go back to Kant, then, understanding cannot supply synthetic cognitions from conceptions, in other words it cannot produce principles.
What is a principle?

Principles for Kant are a priori cognitions, like mathematical axioms (there can be only one straight line between two points). Kant ascribes them a purely regulative, rather than constitutive function. ‘Cognition from principles is that cognition in which I cognise the particular in the general by means of conceptions (p. 212)

So whilst the understanding operates by linking its structures to a content, Reason, in its logical and pure use, operates independently of experience. ‘The understanding may be a faculty for the production of unity of phenomena by virtue of rules; the reason is a faculty for the production of unity of rules (of the understanding) under principles. Reason, therefore, never applies directly to experience, or to any sensuous object; its object is, on the contrary, the understanding, to the manifold cognition of which it gives a unity a priori by means of conceptions – a unity which may be called rational unity, and which is of a nature very different from that of the unity produced by the understanding.’ (p. 213)

Understanding operates through judgement, whereas reason through syllogism. Whilst synthetic judgements always entail an element of intuition, syllogism works on the basis of pure concepts and mediatedly deduces the particular from pure principles.

The transcendental dialectic is developed according to a system of transcendental ideas. But first, we need to clarify what Ideas are for Kant.

What is an Idea?

It’s not just an idea; Kant repeats this over and over again. Nothing even goes wasted. Kant’s point against dismissals, for instance, of an idea of the absolute totality of all phenomena, which, due to its unrepresentability, remains an unsolvable problem, is that in the practical use of reason such an idea has an enormous importance in its regulative function. ‘The practice or execution of an idea is always limited and defective, but nevertheless within indeterminable boundaries, consequently always under the influence of the conception of an absolute perfection’. Thus, despite having no relation to or correspondence in the concrete [‘the idea can never be completely and adequately presented in concreto’], an idea is anything but superfluous.

It is difficult to establish how Kant read Plato, since it wasn’t until after 1800 that Schleiermacher launched an edition of the dialogues, but he does refer to Plato’s ideas, albeit in a confusing manner. In fact, whilst he claims to take up Plato’s theorisation of ideas in order to complement it, Kant’s ideas are very different from Plato’s. In the latter, ideas belong to the world of the hyperphysical and are ‘beyond’ reason, whilst Kant seems to imply that ideas emanate from Reason and are its absolute paradigms. Just as categories were pure conceptions of the understanding, transcendental ideas are pure conceptions of Reason. Kant summarises it very clearly in this passage:

‘The genus is representation in general (representatio). Under it stands representation with consciousness (perceptio). A perception which relates solely to the subject as modification of its state, is a sensation (sensatio), an objective perception is a cognition (cognitio). A cognition is either an intuition or a conception (intuitio vel conceptus). The former has an immediate relation to the object and is singular and individual; the latter has but a mediate relation, by means of a characteristic mark which may be common to several things. A conception is either empirical or pure. A pure conception, in so far as it has its origin in the understanding alone, and is not the conception of a pure sensuous image [all mathematical figures, for example], is called notio. A conception formed from notions, which transcends the possibility of experience, is an idea, or a conception of reason. To one who has accustomed himself to these distinctions, it must be quite intolerable to hear the representation of the colour read called an idea. It ought not even be called a notion or conception of understanding’. (p. 222, CPR)

Ideas for Kant are pure absolute ‘forms’ of the structural needs of Reason. So as sensibility had two a priori forms or structures (space/time), and understanding had twelve categories, so Reason is divided into a tripartite system of transcendental ideas.

Kant is very proud of his system, in fact at some point he even says that the progression between one transcendental idea to the next is ‘so natural, that it seems to resemble the logical march of reason from the premisses to the conclusion’…(p.231CPR)

So what is this system: as we have seen, reason operates through syllogisms. Kant identifies three kinds of syllogism in this system: the categorical, the hypothetical and the disjunctive. To these three correspond three transcendental ideas: psychological, cosmological and theological. Here we’d like to point out that just as Kant had used Aristotle’s categories in formulating corresponding judgements almost uncritically, here too he adopts the syllogism of traditional logic and applies them to three ideas which coincidentally happen to coincide with the specific object of Wolf’s tripartition of metaphysics…do we call this plagiarism? Well, as we shall see in the anthropology, the relation between Kant and Wollf is very important.

The paralogism of reason: the subject as substance.

Let us analyse the first element of the system of transcendental dialectic. The first ‘unconditioned’ of reason, so to speak, is the Soul. Rational psychology aims at finding this unconditioned principle, an absolute subject from which to derive all inner phenomena. The first ‘transcendental illusion’ and ‘error’ Reason falls victim of here constitutes a paralogism. Paralogisms are incorrect syllogisms where the medium terminus has two different meanings. Traditional logics names this error the quaternio terminorum. A syllogism has three terms, but if one of these –the medium- is understood differently from the two premises, it doubles, and we end up with four rather than three terms.

In rational psychology the paralogism consists in transforming the ‘I think’ and ‘self consciousness’, or from the ‘synthetic unity of apperception’, into an ontological unity of substance.

For instance, to simplify:

1)      I am thinking being

2)      All that thinks is

3)      I am substance

The verb to be is a copula in 1) and 3), and a predicate in 2).

Kant puts the syllogism in these terms:

1) That which cannot be cogitated otherwise than as subject, does not exist otherwise than as subject, and is therefore substance.

2) A thinking being, considered merely as such, cannot be cogitated otherwise than as subject.

3) Therefore it exists also as such, that is, as substance.

Kant says that thought has two completely different meanings in the premises. One applies to objects in general, the other to self consciousness. The only conclusion that could be drawn would be tautological in that it could only assert, if corrected, that ‘I can, cogitating my existence, employ my Ego only as the subject of judgement’.

Moreover, substance is a category and can be applied to what is given by intuition; thus it cannot be applied ot the ‘I think’ because the latter is pure formal activity on which categories are dependent. The I as thinking being can be the subject but not the object of the categories.

We are conscious of ourselves as thinking beings but we do not know the substratum of ourselves. We only ‘know ourselves’ as phenomena (spatially and temporally determined according to the categories) but we cannot reach through knowledge the ontological substratum (the Soul, the metaphysical I) that constitutes us. When we go beyond these limits, we fall into paralogism.