Two Minutes with Dr. Yahya: The Arab Manifesto: Kant’s View of the Mind
In this article, we will focus on Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) work on the mind and consciousness of self.
Some commentators believe that Kant’s views on the mind are dependent on his idealism (he called it transcendental idealism). For the most part, that is not so. At worst, most of what he said about the mind and consciousness can be detached from his idealism. Though often viewed as a quintessentially German philosopher, Kant is said to have been one-quarter Scottish. Some philosophers (often Scottish) hold that‘Kant’ is a Germanization of the Scottish name‘Candt’, though many scholars now reject the idea. It is noteworthy, however, that his work on epistemology, which led him to his ideas about the mind, was a response to Hume as much as to any other philosopher.
In general structure, Kant’s model of the mind was the dominant model in the empirical psychology that flowed from his work and then again, after a hiatus during which behaviourism reigned supreme (roughly 1910 to 1965), toward the end of the 20th century, especially in cognitive science. Central elements of the models of the mind of thinkers otherwise as different as Sigmund Freud and Jerry Fodor are broadly Kantian, for example.
Three ideas define the basic shape (‘cognitive architecture’) of Kant’s model and one its dominant method. They have all become part of the foundation of cognitive science.
- The mind is complex set of abilities (functions). (As Meerbote 1989 and many others have observed, Kant held a functionalist view of the mind almost 200 years before functionalism was officially articulated in the 1960s by Hilary Putnam and others.)
- The functions crucial for mental, knowledge-generating activity are spatio-temporal processing of, and application of concepts to, sensory inputs. Cognition requires concepts as well as percepts.
- These functions are forms of what Kant called synthesis. Synthesis (and the unity in consciousness required for synthesis) are central to cognition.
These three ideas are fundamental to most thinking about cognition now. Kant’s most important method, the transcendental method, is also at the heart of contemporary cognitive science.
- To study the mind, infer the conditions necessary for experience. Arguments having this structure are called transcendental arguments.
Translated into contemporary terms, the core of this method is inference to the best explanation, the method of postulating unobservable mental mechanisms in order to explain observed behaviour.
To be sure, Kant thought that he could get more out of his transcendental arguments than just ‘best explanations’. He thought that he could get a priori (experience independent) knowledge out of them. Kant had a tripartite doctrine of the a priori. He held that some features of the mind and its knowledge had a priori origins, i.e., must be in the mind prior to experience (because using them is necessary to have experience). That mind and knowledge have these features are a priori truths, i.e., necessary and universal. And we can come to know these truths, or that they are a priori at any rate, only by usinga priori methods, i.e., we cannot learn these things from experience (B3) (Brook 1993). Kant thought that transcendental arguments were a priori or yielded the a priori in all three ways. Nonetheless, at the heart of this method is inference to the best explanation. When introspection fell out of favour about 100 years ago, the alternative approach adopted was exactly this approach. Its nonempirical roots in Kant notwithstanding, it is now the major method used by experimental cognitive scientists.
Other things equally central to Kant’s approach to the mind have not been taken up by cognitive science, as we will see near the end, a key part of his doctrine of synthesis and most of what he had to say about consciousness of self in particular. Far from his model having been superseded by cognitive science, some important things have not even been assimilated by it. (656 words) www.hasanyahya.com