Friday, February 12, 2021

Non-Duality and the Problems of Western Idealism – Part 2: Berkeley and Kant

In my previous post I discussed Eastern non-dual spirituality and how it focuses on the Enlightenment experience of non-dual consciousness as the way to Liberation. I explained in particular how the key to non-dual consciousness lies in recognizing that one’s individual person is part of the object side of experience (together with the ‘outside’ world) and that therefore the individual person cannot be the true subject of experience this true subject being rather non-individual consciousness free from the subject-object duality of individual and outside world. The immediate intuition of this non-dual, non-individual consciousness is what the Enlightenment experience in Eastern spirituality is all about. In this post I will turn to the topic of Western Idealism. Despite all the similarities with Eastern spirituality concerning the fundamental status of consciousness, the Enlightenment experience of the non-individual nature of non-dual consciousness is conspicuously lacking in Idealist philosophers from the West. The theoretical lesson to be learned from the Enlightenment experience is therefore also lacking in Western forms of Idealism. Although Western Idealists acknowledge the fundamental status of consciousness, they keep falling back mostly as a matter of habit into the familiar model of individual consciousness with its subject-object duality of individual and outside world. Hence, the question of the “external reality” outside of consciousness kept reasserting itself for Western Idealist thinkers, simply because of their unfamiliarity with anything like the Eastern Enlightenment experience of non-individual consciousness. In this post I will show how this problem emerged for the first Idealist thinkers in the West, namely Berkeley and especially Kant, who exerted the most influence on later Idealism. In a later post I will do the same for Kant’s successor in German Idealism, Fichte.  

The turn to subjective consciousness in early modern philosophy
To understand why Western Idealism never really broke free from the paradigm of individual, subjective consciousness, we have to take into account the history of Idealism in Western philosophy. We must see how it emerged from the epistemological turn to subjective consciousness in the 17th century. With this “New Way of Ideas” (as John Locke called it), philosophers started to focus on individual consciousness as the epistemological foundation of all knowledge, including knowledge about the “external world” outside the individual. This is, however, quite a complex story which we cannot fully narrate here; that would take us too far afield (for the full story, see here and here). In the following, therefore, I will give a short summary of the epistemological turn to subjective consciousness in early modern philosophy and how this gave rise to Idealism in Berkeley and Kant.

The turn to subjective consciousness taking place with thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume was occasioned by two main cultural forces: (1) the generally felt desire for certain knowledge and the Cartesian solution of the self-evidence of subjective self-consciousness (“cogito ergo sum”), and (2) the rise of atomism in physical science and the subsequent realization that sensible qualities such as color, sound and smell cannot be objective properties of ‘external’ physical objects but must be merely subjective phenomena in individual consciousness.

These two developments conspired to lock the individual knower up inside the confines of his subjective consciousness, cutting him off from the outside world. Descartes’s cogito argument seemed to show that certainty can only be found within consciousness, whereas the other development the scientific insight that sensible qualities are not objective properties led to the idea that we never experience anything outside of our own consciousness anyway. The general picture that thus arose was of the knowing subject as ‘imprisoned’ inside his “circle of consciousness”, with physical objects impinging on it from the outside, causing subjective perceptions within the circle. As the Cartesian philosopher Antoine Arnauld summarized the situation: “We have no knowledge of what is outside us except by mediation of the ideas within us.” (Arnauld 1964 [1662]: 31)

The Way of Ideas and the problem of skepticism
Although the epistemological turn to subjective consciousness in 17th century philosophy was motivated by the desire for certain and scientific knowledge, the irony of the situation was that it produced a radical skepticism that seemed to undermine science (a skepticism that became rampant with Hume’s attack on causality). For if certainty pertains only to what is inside consciousness, how then can we know what is outside, the external reality? If all we know with certainty are the contents of consciousness, how then can we know whether these contents correspond to external objects? After all, as the problem was frequently put, we cannot step outside our consciousness in order to inspect its correspondence, or lack thereof, with the outside world. Thus, the very medium that should give us cognitive access to external reality namely, sensory experience became a “veil-of-perception” hiding reality. As Barry Stroud put the problem in his classic work on skepticism, summarizing the upshot of the New Way of Ideas: “We are restricted to the passing show on the veil of perception, with no possibility of extending our knowledge to the world beyond. We are confined to appearances we can never know to match or deviate from the imperceptible reality that is forever denied to us.” (Stroud 1984: 33-4)

Berkeley and Kant: Idealism as solution to skepticism
It was in response to this skeptical threat that modern Idealism emerged in Berkeley and Kant. As both of them pointed out, the skepticism invited by the epistemological turn to subjective consciousness was premised on the assumption of a reality external to consciousness; simply strike that assumption, they argued, and the threat of skepticism vanishes. If reality is ‘just’ a product of the mind, then surely its knowability can pose no problem? Berkeley and Kant, then, attempted to solve the problem of skepticism by cutting the Gordian knot: there is no “external world” outside of consciousness, the only world to be known is the phenomenal world appearing in consciousness.

Thus Berkeley saw himself as restoring common sense when he expounded this Idealist principle that “to be is to be perceived” (“esse is percipi”). In his view, the Way of Ideas had violated common sense by seeing the object of sense experience as something radically different from the sensible qualities appearing in experience: “Upon the common principles of philosophers, we are not assured of the existence of things from their being perceived. And we are taught to distinguish their real nature from that which falls under our sense. Hence arises Scepticism and Paradoxes.” (Berkeley 1969 [1713]: 3) His principle that “to be is to be perceived” allowed him to say that the object of sense experience simply is the bundle of sensible qualities experienced, and nothing beyond that. Thus he could restore the common-sense belief that when we eat a cherry, and see its redness, taste its sweetness, etc., we are perceiving the cherry itself, not just its appearance as distinct from the real thing: “I see this cherry, I feel it, I taste it […]: it is therefore real. Take away the sensations of softness, moisture, redness, tartness, and you take away the cherry.” (Berkeley 1969 [1713]: 117)

In a similar manner Kant dealt with Hume’s skeptical attack on causality. Hume had undermined the notion of causality which is so crucial for physical science by pointing out that we only experience the sense impressions caused by external objects, not those objects themselves. Thus, we only observe the regular connections between the sense impressions, but this gives us no certainty about the nature or even the existence of causal relations between the external objects. As Hume said: “Thus not only our reason fails us in the discovery of the ultimate connection of causes and effects, but even after experience has informed us of their constant conjunction, ‘tis impossible for us to satisfy ourselves by our reason, why we should extend that experience beyond those particular instances, which have fallen under our observation.” (Hume 2003 [1739-40]: 66)

Kant was deeply disturbed by Hume’s attack on causality. His respect for the physical science developed by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton was so great that he simply could not stomach Hume’s dismissal of causal laws. Where Hume went wrong, according to Kant, was in his assumption that causality, if it exists at all, must be a feature of external reality, in other words, that causal connections must be connections between real objects, independent of our consciousness. But, as Kant argued, such external objects are “nothing to us”. Objects become something for us, i.e. they become accessible to us as experienceable and knowable objects, only if they conform to our forms of cognition, and causality is one such form. Raw sensations do not yet give us experiences of objects. The sensations have to be ordered by our forms of sensory intuition (space and time) and our forms of conceptual understanding (the categories, prime among which is causality); only then do we experience a single, ordered, integrated reality consisting of interconnected objects. Hence Kant’s Idealism: the world to be known by us is not an “external world” outside of consciousness, but a construction within consciousness, an ordering of sensory material by means of cognitive forms such as time, space and causality.

Kant’s Transcendental Idealism
I will say a bit more about Kant’s Idealism, because it was much more than Berkeley’s a crucial influence on subsequent Idealistic thinking, and also because the persistence of the paradigm of individual consciousness becomes especially clear in Kant. The first thing to note here is that Kant’s Idealism extends only to the forms of empirical reality, not to the sensory material structured by these forms. This is why Kant calls his philosophy “transcendental Idealism”, the term “transcendental” being his technical term for what pertains to the a priori forms of cognition: “I call all cognition transcendental that is occupied not so much with objects but rather with our a priori concepts of objects in general.” (CPR, A12) In extension, Kant speaks of the “transcendental subject” as the subject who applies the a priori forms of cognition to the sensory material.

Ultimately, the necessity of the sensory objects to conform to our forms of cognition has to do with the fundamental role Kant accords to self-consciousness in experience and knowledge. According to Kant, a process or state in my consciousness counts as an experience or belief only if I can be aware of it as my experience or my belief, thus only if it belongs to the unity of my consciousness a consciousness that forms a unity precisely because it is mine, i.e. because all episodes and states in it are related to me as their underlying subject. For a mental episode or state to be mine, then, I must as it were be able to prefix it with the qualifier “I think…”. By prefixing “I think…” (or “I see…”, “I hear….” etc.) to a mental content, I indicate that the content belongs to the unity of my consciousness. As Kant puts it:

“The I think must be able to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me that could not be thought at all, which is as much to say that the representation would either be impossible or else at least would be nothing for me… The thought that these representations […] all together belong to me means, accordingly, the same as that I unite them in a self-consciousness […].” (CPR: B132, B134)

According to Kant, the ultimate function of the forms of space and time and the categories of the understanding is to effectuate this unity of self-consciousness (a unity that Kant therefore calls “transcendental”, since it underlies the application of the a priori forms of cognition). Only by placing all my mental episodes and states within a unified spatiotemporal network of causal relations can I recognize those episodes and states as mine, as belonging to my (self-)consciousness. The resulting integrated unity of empirical reality, then, is for Kant only a reflection or projection of the transcendental unity of self-consciousness unto the unorganized manifold of raw impressions. The unity of the object, and thereby the object as such (because there is no object without unity), is really a manifestation of the unity of the subject’s self-consciousness.

The paradigm of individual consciousness in Berkeley and Kant
To repeat: Berkeley and Kant attempted to solve the problem of skepticism posed by the epistemological turn to consciousness by simply striking the assumption of a world outside of consciousness; hence their Idealism. This is, however, only one side of their story, for the jettisoned assumption of a reality outside of consciousness came right back through the back door of their systems, in the form of God for Berkeley and the thing-in-itself for Kant. Here we begin to see how Western Idealism never really broke free from the paradigm of individual consciousness and how this paradigm kept dictating the theoretical problems that Idealist thinkers were supposed to solve.

Even if Berkeley and Kant argued that “objective reality” reality as the object of sensory experience and rational knowledge exists only as a phenomenon within consciousness, they still felt they had to posit a cause for that phenomenon outside of consciousness: God for Berkeley, the thing-in-itself for Kant. Why? Well, so they reasoned, sensory objects do exist only within our consciousness, but we nevertheless have no awareness of having produced them; their appearance within consciousness is independent of our will, in contrast to those mental states that we can freely create ourselves (such as thoughts and fantasies). Thus, although sensory objects exist only within consciousness, they must nevertheless have a cause outside of our consciousness.

In this vein, Berkeley admits that humans have perceptions “whereof they themselves [are] not the authors, as not being excited from within, nor depending on the operations of their will” perceptions, then, that have an external cause. But since, according to Berkely, all being is being perceived, the being of that cause must be relative to a perceiving consciousness outside of us, another mind that installs those involuntary perceptions within our minds and for Berkely this can only be the mind of God, “the supreme spirit which excites those ideas in our minds” (Berkeley 1995 [1710]: 44-45). 

Kant reasoned much in the same way, though he ended up by invoking an unknowable “thing-in-itself” rather than God as the cause of the sensory material appearing in consciousness. Kant agreed with Berkeley that although Idealism avoids skepticism by placing “objective reality” within consciousness, it still needs to explain the external origin of the sensory material out of which “objective reality” is created. As said, according to Kant, the sensory material becomes an experienceable and knowable object for us only when it is ordered by our a priori forms of cognition (space, time, causality). With respect to those forms, then, we are active, “spontaneous” as Kant put it, meaning that we freely impose the forms on the sensory material. But with respect to the sensory material itself, we are passive, “receptive”, meaning that the sensory material arises in consciousness because we are “affected” from the outside. Here Kant agreed with Berkeley that human beings experience sensations “whereof they themselves [are] not the authors, as not being excited from within, nor depending on the operations of their will” (Berkeley 1995 [1710]: 44). Hence the well-known dichotomies drawn by Kant between spontaneity and receptivity, a priori and a posteriori, cognitieve form and sensory material, etc. It is to account for the alleged passive, receptive side to our consciousness that Kant felt necessitated to invoke something outside of consciousness, the thing-in-itself, as the cause of the sensory material appearing within consciousness. It was only in line with his Idealism when he then declared this thing-in-itself to be completely unknowable to us, given that the only reality we can know according to Kant is the phenomenal reality constructed in consciousness.

Kant on “inner” and “outer sense”
As I said above, it is here that we start to see how Western Idealism never really broke free from the standpoint of individual consciousness, thereby creating insoluble problems for itself. The point is that the sensory passivity of consciousness holds only for individual consciousness, i.e. for the individual subject who stands over against his object, the external world. Thus, the sensory passivity of consciousness still presupposes the subject-object duality. But hasn’t this duality been overcome once consciousness is recognized as the condition for the appearance of both subject and object, in the sense of the individual and his world? And doesn’t it then follow that this consciousness, that precedes the appearance of subject-object duality, is itself free from subject-object duality and is thus “non-dual”, as Eastern spirituality says? But if this is so, if consciousness is prior to the subject-object duality, why then attribute receptivity to consciousness when the very idea of receptivity clearly presupposes this duality? The lingering attachment of Western Idealists to the idea that there is a receptive side to consciousness is a clear category mistake, a confusion of the transcendental consciousness with the individual consciousness (which is better called the “individual mind”) which is just one of the appearances within transcendental consciousness.

It seems to me that this category mistake emerges clearly in Kant when he introduces the distinction between “inner” and “outer sense” into his Transcendental Idealism. This distinction is really Kant’s acknowledgment that the subject-object duality is merely an appearance within transcendental consciousness. For Kant, “inner sense” designates the psychological self-experience of the individual person, the sensing of individual mental states such as thoughts and feelings. It is through inner sense that the individual mind (“Gemüth”) “intuits itself or its inner state” (CPR, A23/B37). Correlatively, “outer sense” is for Kant the sense through which the individual mind senses the outside world; with the outer sense “we represent to ourselves objects as outside us” (CPR, A22/B37). Now, the crucial move on Kant’s part here is his recognition that transcendental consciousness is prior to both inner and outer sense: not only the objects appearing in the outer sense but also the objects appearing in the inner sense are just phenomena constructed by consciousness. Thus, Kant stresses emphatically that the psychological self-experience of inner sense is certainly not to be confused with the transcendental self-consciousness underlying all experience, the unity of the “I think” that unifies all what appears in consciousness (CPR, B153).

Kant’s category mistake: the receptivity of the transcendental subject
It follows that the transcendental subject, the I that holds together all phenomena in the unity of its self-consciousness, is not the individual self whose mind is experienced through inner sense and whose sensory affection by an external world is experienced through outer sense. But if this is so, why then does Kant attribute this sensory affection this “receptivity” to the transcendental subject? Clearly, Kant commits a category mistake here. The only evidence we have for the existence of receptivity comes from the phenomenal realm, from the dichotomy of inner and outer sense, thus from the experience of the individual person as limited and affected by his external world. So by attributing receptivity to the transcendental subject, Kant is confusing the phenomenal and the transcendental: he is attributing a phenomenal property (receptivity) to the transcendental precondition of all phenomenality, the transcendental subject.

In his own terminology, Kant is guilty here of an “amphiboly”, which is his term for the mistake he detected in his empiricist and rationalist predecessors, namely the confusion of the a priori and a posteriori. According to Kant, rationalist philosophers tended to mistake a posteriori givens with a priori products of the mind; here Kant targeted above all Leibniz with his extreme claim that all concepts are “innate”. Conversely, empiricist philosophers tended to make the opposite mistake of seeing the a priori as a sensory given; here Kant targeted philosophers like Locke who saw all concepts, including a priori concepts such as causality, as deriving wholly from sensory experience.

For Kant, seeing the truth in epistemology hinged on avoiding such “amphibolies”, thus on distinguishing clearly between a priori and a posteriori and on assigning each its proper role in cognition. In this way, Kant aimed to steer a middle course between empiricism and rationalism by recognizing both the spontaneous and the receptive side of consciousness. But isn’t it clear now that Kant’s own middle course is itself predicated on an amphiboly, and indeed a rationalist amphiboly, such that an a posteriori given (the receptivity of cognition) is mistaken for an a priori insight in the nature of transcendental consciousness? This is what Kant’s account of the distinction between inner and outer sense makes clear, namely that the duality of subject and external object and thus the sensory affection of the former by the latter is a phenomenon appearing in transcendental consciousness and therefore not a property of this consciousness which pre-conditions all phenomenality.

In this sense, Kant’s recognition of the phenomenal nature of the inner sense / outer sense duality should have clearly shown to him the non-dual nature of transcendental consciousness itself. That is, it should have made it perfectly clear to him that the transcendental subject, whose self-consciousness unifies all phenomena, is a non-dual subject, i.e. a subject without an external object (“one without a second” in the language of the Upanishads). The fact that Kant didn’t see this, that he continued to attribute amphibologically the phenomenal property of receptivity to the pre-phenomenal transcendental subject, testifies to the strong hold that the paradigm of individual consciousness exerted on Idealist philosophers in the West.                      
-Arnauld, A. (1964 [1662]), The Art of Thinking. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
-Berkeley, G. (1995 [1710]), A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
-Berkeley, G. (1969 [1713]), Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. Chicago: Open Court.
-Hume, D. (2003 [1739-40]), A Treatise of Human Nature. Mineola: Dover Publications.
-Kant, I (1998 [1781-87]), Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
-Stroud, B. (1984), The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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