The philosophy of Chairman Mao

Brian asked:

Kindly let me know what does Mao mean by saying, ‘It is only when there is class struggle that there can be philosophy.’ Can it be understood as an expression of unity of theory and practice that Marxists persist on it?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

I think what Mao means, is that firstly, there is material practice before we reflect or theorise about it. This is in keeping with the general thrust of Marx’s Historical Materialism as distinguished from Philosophy, which maintains ideas do not arise from nowhere nor are they primary as the only motives in human history but, can be deduced as arising from specific social contexts.

The dialectic proffered by Hegel in his Science of Logic, is a dialectic between emanations of the Concept: Abstract Understanding can only understand things immediately, prima facie. Negative or Dialectic Reason discovers oppositions or distinctions in such abstract immediacy. Speculative or Positive Reason overcomes such oppositions in a process Hegel calls Aufhebung — translated as supersession of, sublation of, superseding of the negative element but preserving it on a higher level of unity. The dialectic process begins again.

This process occurs in the movement of human consciousness overcoming the oppositions with itself in its other — famously termed the Subject-Object dialectic — until final unity of the two is reached; unity in the Absolute Idea which is the overcoming of all otherness of human consciousness. In Hegel’s Philosophy of History, human history is the dialectical process of Freedom, overcoming manifestations of itself expressed in the battle between Principles and Ideas embodied in world-historical individuals such as Socrates and Napoleon.

Following the famous ‘inversion’ of Hegel’s Idealist dialectic by Marx, Marx’s employment of the Dialectic is applied to social processes. Most generally, this is the contradiction between the Productive Forces and Social Relations which is simultaneous with class struggle. Thus in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx declares human history to be the history of class struggle.

Dialectical Materialism — a term coined by Russian Marxist Georg Plekhanov — maintains that contradiction is inherent not only to the social world but also, to the Natural world. Hence we have The Dialectics of Nature and the Anti-Düring both by Engels (and as Marx contributed a chapter to the latter, presumably it had Marx’s approval) where dialectic is allegedly found in mathematics, nature, history, chemistry — in short, it is omnipresent. Thus, dialectic, initially focusing on the social world extends beyond it to the non-social world of nature. Engels modified Hegels’Hegel’sts of the Dialectic to reveal the three Dialectical ‘Laws’:

1. The Interpenetration of Opposites.
2. Quantity into Quality and vice versa.
3. The Negation of the Negation.

This is a contentious issue in Marxist Philosophy with ‘Hegelian Marxists’ such as Karl Korsch, Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs emphasising contradictions as occurring, like Hegel before, in the phenomenology of lived experience, in consciousness, ideologies and culture upon the basic contradiction between the productive Forces and Relations. They are less disposed to extending dialectic to Nature.

Mao Zedong in his 1937 essay On Contradiction, uses quotes from Lenin and Engels which advocate the omnipresence of the dialectic, as described above:

“The law of contradiction in things, that is, the law of the unity of opposites, is the basic law of materialist dialectics. Lenin said, “Dialectics in the proper sense is the study of contradiction in the very essence of objects.” Lenin often called this law the essence of dialectics; he also called it the kernel of dialectics.”

In other words, contradiction is everywhere. Every thing, each phenomena is a unity of opposites.

As usual, the distinction is made between Idealism and Materialism in Philosophy. The two world outlooks are discussed by Mao and unsurprisingly, Idealism or Metaphysics is rejected. It is rejected primarily because it cannot account for or accept the primacy of change or becoming. Materialist Dialectics can and does.

Previous Philosophy while at most, recognising the Becoming of Being, (such as Heraclitus) did not articulate this to the degree Hegel had with his use of Dialectic. Reaching fruition with Marx, philosophy in the guise of Dialectical Materialism, promulgates the position that ontology is change and not the settled metaphysical finalis of Plato’s Forms, Aristotle’s teleology, the afterworlds of the Abrahamic religions and so on.

It is with the class struggle that Marx first notes that social being is becoming. (The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, The Holy Family 1845,The German Ideology 1845/6) Only later, as we’ve seen with Engels’ Anti-DuAnti-Düring and Dialectics of Nature (1883) does this extend to an analyses of Nature, chemistry and so on making the dialectic a omnipresent process, a ‘scientific socialism’. So the impetus of class struggle leads to a dialectical account of it. Later, the dialectical approach is extended to Nature etc. and the dialectic becomes the ‘philosophy’ of the Proletariat, as ‘Scientific Socialism’

Scientific Socialism, as the science of the Proletariat, would be the final word in Philosophy. For with the triumph of the Proletarian Revolution and the establishment of Communism, the truth of scientific socialism, of dialectical materialism is vindicated. Previous philosophies of metaphysics and Idealism will consequently have been demonstrated to be false, to be ‘ideologies’ in the service of of previous ‘ruling class’. Hence Materialism, Dialectical and Historical Materialism or scientific socialism is the truth. Not only has the riddle of history been solved but also, so have the riddles of philosophy. Philosophy or Theory informs practice and practice is informed by Theory: indeed, the ‘unity of theory and practice’. This echoes what Hegel had earlier concluded with his Absolute Idealism: ‘All that is Actual is Rational and all that is Rational is Actual.’

It is in this sense, in Mao’s view, that Philosophy — as Dialectical Materialism — could only exist in virtue of the existence of class struggle, being deduced from it.


Is life meaningless?

Tony asked:

What is the reason for existence if life is temporary, has no true purpose, and can be erased so easily?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The first thing to say about your question is that all three of your presumptions are mistaken.

Life is not temporary: It has been present on earth for upward of 3 billion years, and there is no sign of it disappearing in a hurry.

Nor can it be erased easily. Some life forms are so tough, they can survive inside volcanoes. It would take a lot more killing than we can do, to erase all of it, even with total nuclear warfare.

As for purpose, if you can’t think of what to do with your life, it may be that you are spoilt by too much affluence and ego gratification. As far as I can tell, all life on earth has the distinct purpose of keeping Project Life going, if only to ensure that consciousness, intelligence and intentionality have a place in the universe and give some meaning to this colossal morgue of dead matter.

I suspect however, that your question on purpose is rather more narrow and merely the common doubt born from a self-centred perspective. When you worry about life being temporary and easily erased, it is probably the shortness and vulnerability of your own life that bothers you. But you could take this on as a challenge to be creative with your little gift, rather than waiting for a meaning or purpose to be handed to you on a silver platter.

Alternatively, you could devote a little of your life to studying biology. You might find your respect for this unique condition of existence growing on you. This too is a good tonic for people whose life might not seem to be very purposeful.

At the very least, however, you should read Camus’ little book called The Myth of Sisyphus. It’s all about this issue, and he begins by asking why you should not suicide immediately, if life appears as senseless as you imply. You might find it curious that Camus is of the opinion that each of us bears an individual as well as collective responsibility for the meaning of life.


How Hume woke Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumber’

Tyler asked

How does Hume’s extreme skepticism influence the thinking of Immanuel Kant? How does Kant resolve the perceived dilemma introduced by Hume’s scepticism?

Answer by Graham Hackett

One year ago I would have answered this question in a quite different way to how I am going to (try to) answer it here Last year, I would have been rather more dogmatic about both Kant and Hume than I am now. I am less sure. I ask you to bear in mind this, when you read my response to your question. It is not that I am trying to show Socratic humility; it is just that the degree of subtlety in both of these writers is immense, and I don’t think it is possible ever to be definitive.

Kant was very impressed by Hume, and remarked that he had been ‘woken up from a long slumber’ after reading him. Hume was doubtful about how much we could know through reason, and regarded empirical matters of fact, ideas and impressions as being all important. Added to this was the stunning success of the scientific model of knowledge; just a few laws developed by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton enabled the development of large and impressive bodies of knowledge. It is no wonder that Hume took a very dim view indeed of metaphysics, and dismissively opined about it in the following words;

“If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

I do not think that Hume was an extreme sceptic in the normal sense of the term; viz, that we can never know anything. This reputation partly comes from his view on the respective roles of empirical knowledge and reason. For Hume reason was involved in considering the relations between ideas, and was either a priori reasoning or based on matters of empirical fact. For some 18th century philosophers, like Clarke, reason was a much weightier matter, with metaphysical implications. For instance, Clarke, as a moral realist, thought that reason extended to matters of ethics as well as matter, for our actions would be fit or unfit even if no one could have any intuition that they were so. Physical matter and the fitnesses or unfitnesses of actions exist independently of us and are there for reason to discover. Hume, however, did not believe we have access to anything but ideas and impressions, so he thought that Clarke’s view must be incorrect; we cannot grasp anything outside the bounds of experience.

Hume also has critical views concerning causality and determination. He sees no causal laws in operation; only the constant conjunction of events A and B, from which we infer that A causes B.

Kant was enormously disturbed by the success of the scientific revolution and by Hume’s scepticism about such matters as the role of reason, causality, the timeless underpinning for our ethical beliefs and the usefulness of metaphysics in general. He wished to rescue metaphysics from the demise that Hume predicted for it because of the success of science. It is no coincidence that he referred to his book Critique of Practical Reason as beginning a ‘Copernican revolution’ for metaphysics, putting it on the same firm foundation as science.

It is possible to read into Kant’s division of existence into two worlds — noumena and phenomena — as a response to the attacks of the empiricists on metaphysics. The world of phenomena is the world which can be known empirically, by scientific discovery. It is the world governed by the natural law, and everything in it is structured by time, space and causality. Because we are part of this world, we are also governed by the natural law and our behaviour is determined. For Hume this is all there is.

But for Kant, there is also the noumenal world, which is outside space and time and causality via the laws of nature. We can know nothing certain about what is in the noumenal sphere, but because of Kant’s adoption of the ‘two standpoints’ we are part of both worlds. From the standpoint of theoretical reason, human actions are phenomenal events occurring in the natural world and are therefore completely determined by natural physical laws. However, from the standpoint of practical reason, actions are noumenal events that result from a free will that deliberates between alternatives, evaluates them, selects one, and thus acts freely by self determination. So humans are determined when viewed (theoretically) from a third-person perspective as an object, but free when viewed (practically) by the ‘self’ from a first-person perspective as a subject. This is a rather clever way of allowing us to have free will and yet still recognise the necessity of the laws of nature. It is also a good way of showing that despite the successes of science and empirical method, we can still find a powerful role for reason. According to Kant we can even formulate synthetic a priori knowledge, where reason is used, independently of experience to know things which are not self evident.

Hume would probably not have been convinced by Kant’s defense of reason and freedom against empiricism and the natural laws, but he would certainly have been impressed.


Answer by Craig Skinner

Hume’s views greatly influenced Kant.

Early in Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysic (1785; trans. Bennett J: online at, page 2) Kant says:

“David Hume’s attack on metaphysics was more decisive for its fate than any other event… since the earliest recorded beginnings of metaphysics’, and ‘It was my recollection of David Hume that broke into my dogmatic slumber.”

Kant felt he had cracked the Hume problem. Later in this text (page 36) he says:

“So the Humean problem is completely solved, though in a way that would have surprised its inventor… the complete reverse of anything that Hume envisaged — instead of the concepts (of the understanding) being derived from experience, that experience is derived from them.”

What then was the problem posed by Hume, what is Kant’s solution. and is it a good one?

Hume problem. Hume held that all knowledge falls into one or other of 2 categories (a view later termed ‘Hume’s Fork’ or ‘Hume’s Dichotomy’, and I take it this what your ‘dilemma’ refers to):

* matters of fact
* relations of ideas

Matters of fact are known from experience (known a posteriori), tell us something about the world, and are contingent truths (could have been otherwise) e.g. Paris is the capital of France. Relations of ideas are known simply by grasping the meaning of the ideas (known a priori), are necessary truths (couldn’t have been otherwise), but tell us nothing about the world e.g. truths of logic. Any statement which is neither a matter of fact nor a matter of logic can’t be knowledge. Talk of God’s essence and actions, immortality of the soul and other metaphysical ideas, are hot air. Hume’s famous last paragraph in his ‘Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’ (1748) reads:

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames; for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

So, for Hume, metaphysics is bunk.

Furthermore, he felt that the role of human reason was overblown. Reason is only the servant of our feelings, helping us to plan the means to the ends set by our feelings, was his view. We think reason tells us there is an external world, an enduring self, and a necessary cause-and-effect relation, whereas we don’t really know there is an external world, we don’t actually see any necessary causal connection (only constant conjunction), and introspection reveals only a bundle of sensations and thoughts, no enduring ‘I’.

This extreme scepticism was too much for Kant. He wanted to show that metaphysics is possible (and indeed to write some actual metaphysics), and that talk of external world, causation and self was not empty. And that reason had a bigger role.

Kant’s solution. Kant agreed that if Hume’s Fork truly were an exhaustive account of kinds of knowledge, then metaphysics would indeed be impossible, for experience can’t justify a world, causation and a self; and purely analytic a priori reasoning does just yield what is already implicit in the concept we start with. So Kant cleverly suggested that Hume had overlooked a third type of knowledge, a third prong on the fork, as it were, one on which metaphysics could hang. He suggested that in addition to matters of fact (synthetic a posteriori knowledge) and matters of logic (analytic a priori and necessary knowledge) there was synthetic a priori knowledge i.e. necessary truths, known a priori, but which, unlike analytic truths, did tell us something about the world. In short, synthetic a priori knowledge makes metaphysics possible. But is there such a thing as synthetic a priori knowledge? Kant gives examples.

First, mathematics. Kant maintains that ‘7+5=12’ is not an analytic truth, known just by understanding the meaning of the numbers. The concept ‘7+5’ contains the uniting of 7 and 5 into a single number but doesn’t contain 12. We obtain 12 by amplifying the concept, using (at first) say our fingers to count on. This is easier to grasp with bigger numbers, say the concept ‘38976+45204’ which clearly doesn’t contain ‘84180’ So, whilst 7+5=12 is known a priori, it is not analytic, it clearly tells us something about the world and so is synthetic. Next, physics. Kant maintains Newton’s laws are known a priori yet apply to the world, and do so necessarily. Another example of synthetic a priori knowledge. Coming to metaphysics, Kant says the concepts of space, time, enduring objects moving in space/time and interacting causally, are all known a priori because these concepts are necessary for any rational mind to experience any kind of coherent world. In short they are the preconditions for any experience at all. Space and time are the forms of our sensibility (perception) and things with properties (substances and accidents to use the old terms) and causality are categories of our understanding, to use Kant’s technical terms. We don’t get these concepts by experiencing the world (as Hume thought), we are only able to experience any world at all by organizing our sensory input and thoughts according to these concepts. And so, the world, the self and causation are all restored. But the price of this, says Kant, is that we can only ever know what we experience, how things appear, never how things are in themselves, about which we can know nothing.

A good solution? We get back a world, a self, and causality, but we know these only of the world as experienced, not the world in itself. It’s a brilliant and novel tour-de-force of fancy philosophical footwork. But does it take us any further? One could imagine Hume saying, fine, you’ve explained why the world (as experienced) shows causation, but only because you put it in as a category (of our understanding), whereas I say we take it from the world by experiencing constant conjunctions; you derive it a priori and say it’s necessary, I derive it a posteriori but say no necessity can be seen, although of course we can’t do without the notion of causality both in science and in everyday life. But at least I consider that my constant conjunctions apply to the real world, whereas your necessary concepts and forms only apply to appearances. Scholars still argue the matter.

And this assumes that synthetic a priori knowledge exists. Most philosophers think mathematical truths are analytic, although attempts to reduce maths entirely to logic (Frege, Russell, Whitehead) have not succeeded. However Newton’s laws of gravity, far from being necessarily true, are not even true. But I forgive that. Pretty well all 17th and 18th century philosophers, and other thinkers, including Kant and Hume, revered Newton, thinking his laws to be the last word, and Hume models his intended science of the mind on Newton’s science of matter.

I wish I could get Kant and Hume into a room, give each of them a copy of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ (‘aha, of course’, I might overhear) to read and digest, and internet access to neuroscientific findings, And then to offer the following paragraph for their comment:

Our cognitive capacities are part of our evolved nature. They are likely to be adapted to important features of the way the world is, thereby favouring our survival. Those among ancestral human populations who had less well-fitting capacities left fewer descendants. We would expect that enduring aspects of the world might be hard-wired into our brains so that each generation doesn’t have to start from scratch. Features like space, time, objects and causal interaction. And indeed, experiments with very young babies indicate that they have the notions of space and of causation. Being hard-wired, this knowledge is a priori, and is necessary because all creatures necessarily evolved in such a world. And so Kant is right here. On the other hand, this account suggests that these are features of the real world, the world-in-itself, not just of the world of appearances. So Kant is not so right there. Furthermore, the hard-wiring is the end result of the cumulative experience of our ancestors (improved survival/reproduction in those who had favourable prototypes of our present cognitive capacities). So, ultimately, all knowledge is from experience, either our own or that of generations of our forebears, and so a posteriori. There is no a priori knowledge at all (empiricists rejoice), so it’s fruitless to worry about whether some of it is analytic and some synthetic.

Would they come to an agreement? From what I know of great philosophers, they might agree partially or on details but not completely on such a major issue.

Forgive my broad-brush, non-expert, punter’s account of (some of) Kant’s views. Kant is very difficult, systematic, subtle, wordy, sometimes obscure, even inconsistent. A lifetime could be spent trying to fully grasp him. And has been by some, but not by me. Incidentally, the short ‘Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysic’ is the best introduction to Kant’s writing on metaphysics, so clear, snappy and vivid, it’s difficult to believe it’s written by the same man who, four years earlier, wrote the long, dense, detailed, sometimes obscure and tedious ‘Critique of Pure Reason’


Nietzsche’s breakdown and his view on pity

Martin asked:

What do you think the horse episode before Nietzsche’s mental breakdown means if we consider it within the context of his philosophy as a whole? His reaction of pity towards an innocent suffering is indeed very surprising after reading his work and it really contradicts the kind of ideal man he wished to be?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

I think we have to define what Nietzsche means by Pity. I understand that people will use the incident where Nietzsche displays pity to attack his philosophy which is apparently dismissive of Pity. I think his philosophy can be undermined by other false premises — such as the non-Darwinian theories of evolution — it is based upon.

Nietzsche is condemnatory of pity in his wholesale rejection of modern ideas. He believed that Modern ideas ‘of equality and sympathy for all that suffers’ (Beyond Good and Evil 44) are the latest manifestations of Christian values, Christian values originate in a slave rebellion in morality. The slaves rebellion and underpinning values and perspectives were symptoms and semiotics of a declining and sick physiology.

As you probably know Martin, the slave rebellion in morality triumphed, usurping the master, noble morality of the aristocratic rulers. Consequently, the history of Western Europe is the history of slave/Christian inspired values.

The physiological sickness is attributed by Nietzsche to the disaggregation of the drives. The old slaves has sought to escape this sickness in the expression of ressentiment against the Aristocratic rulers. It was a temporary escape, a ‘narcotic’. Modern people — equally sick according to Nietzsche — vent their ressentiment against the existing state of affairs and those who uphold it. Hence in his time, Nietzsche attacked the political and social movements campaigning for the extension of the franchise for working people, attacked socialists, anarchists the ‘levellers’ in general; attacked all those who like the slaves before them, trace their suffering to the structure and nature of society and not, to their own inability to give order to their chaotic drives. Resentment seeks revenge against society in the establishment of another world, of a new tomorrow. The millenarianism of religious Christian and atheist Anarchist are in this respect, alike.

One of the values valued by the modern ideas of the suffering majority is Pity. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes of this majority that:

“… they are likewise united in their religion of pity, of sympathy for whatever feels, lives, suffers (down to the animal, up to God — the excessive notion of ‘pity for God’ belongs in a democratic Age), they are all united in the cries and impatience of pity, in deadly hatred against all suffering In general, in the almost feminine inability to sit watching, to let suffering happen… they are United in their faith of the morality of communal pity, as if it were morality itself, the height, the Achieved height of humanity, the sole hope for the future, the solace of the present, the great Redemption of all guilt from the past: — they are all united in their faith in the community as Redeemer, which is to say, in the herd, in themselves…” (BGE #202)

United, collective Pity against suffering, against pain, against struggle, a unity for social revolution. The consequences a successful revolution with the institutionalisation of its modern values will be to prevent humanity from becoming what it could (#203 ibid). For according to Nietzsche’s understanding of evolution, its highest types (those who give coherence and direction to the struggle of strong drives of will to power) will be prevented by external law and internalised morality from taking risk, for being creative, from being who they are.

Life is suffering, in various degrees and modalities, for healthy life is expansive, vital: agonistic.

“… life itself is essentially a process of appropriating, injuring, overpowering the alien and the weaker, oppressing, being harsh, imposing your own form, incorporating and at least, at the very least, exploiting…” (BGE #259}

Institutionalised Pity would negate life itself, life understood by Nietzsche as the will to power.

This does not entail Nietzsche opposing all pity, only Christian pity — which as written, is expressive of a weak, degenerate life and is perhaps described as pathological pity. Pity can be expressed by strong, affirmative life along the lines of what might be called ‘tough love’. It is not about trying to avoid suffering, pain and the like-the ‘negative experiences’ of life — it is rather to recognise it is part of the economy of life, to learn from it, to embrace it, to incorporate such experiences and emotions in life so as to further grow. Witness Nietzsche’s distinction between ‘Pity for the Creature’ and ‘Pity for the Creator’ in BGE #225 of which I only quote little:

“The discipline of suffering, of great suffering -don’t you know that this discipline has been the sole cause of every enhancement in humanity so far?… In human beings creature and creator are combined: in humans there is material, fragments, abundance, clay, dirt, nonsense, chaos; but in humans, there is also creator, maker, hammer-hardness, spectator divinity and seventh day: — do you understand this contrast? And that your pity is aimed at the ‘creature in humans’ in at what needs to be moulded, broken, forged, torn, burnt, seared and purified — at what necessarily needs to suffer and should suffer? And our Pity — don’t you realise who our inverted pity is aimed at when it fights against your pity, as the worst of all pampering and weaknesses? — Pity against Pity then!…”

I don’t think Nietzsche’s reaction of Pity regarding the horse negates his philosophy, I think if he had had more time and clarity then in accordance with his philosophy, Nietzsche would have perhaps encouraged the horse to trample his tormentor and to stop allowing itself as being treated as a mere slave.

See my Nietzsche and the Politics of Physiologyin Philosophy Pathways Issue 176.

Hope this was useful Martin, it’s a big subject.


Kant on space and time

Brendan asked:

Space and time are named by Kant as the structures of our mind which shape sense data into perceptions, from which we formulate our ideas about the world. If you wouldn’t mind, could you tell me how Kant figures that space and time specifically are the mental structures by which we perceive the world? Through what order of propositions does Kant arrives at these specific structures? Why does he not simply conclude that the mind shapes perceptions, thus suspending judgment about why this is so?

I hope I am making myself clear. My understanding so far is that the human being is not a passive observer of objective reality; our knowledge of the world, from experience, is necessarily molded by the mind. We do not perceive the noumenal realm, because the noumenal realm is that which transcends perception. But that further step which posits ‘categories’ is what escapes me. Thanks!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The further step, as you call it, is in fact the opposite: It is the step that must come before all others; and this is precisely what escaped everyone before Kant worked it out and laid the foundations for our understanding of the mind. After all, the mind is not a Just-so story. It must have a capacity!

You might ask yourself: How does a newborn baby learn to see, hear, touch etc. and sort out what meaning those impulses have? And then, at a later stage, with the onset of a more refined degree of consciousness, what is the source of directional and temporal discrimination?

So you should ask ‘what is this capacity’? To approach this subject, let us ask how mechanical sensors (e.g. fire alarms, radios) detect impact. Here the answer is obvious: Certain parts of these contraptions have the disposition to react in a certain way upon the impact of specific causal occurrences. We call this disposition rather pathetically ‘sensitivity’. But it assists our understanding of the Kantian categories, as these implements possess a structure, imparted to them by their designer, which makes them react in a predictable way to a specified cause. Structure therefore has a clear meaning: if there is smoke, the detector’s equilibrium is disturbed and a stream of data ensues that will trigger a mechanical response, e.g. opening a water pipe to sprinklers. This outcome we might call the ‘contents’ of the structure. Evidently if there is no smoke, there is no content. The smoke alarm does not have the capacity to detect anything other than smoke. Therefore it’s normal state is the rest state.

From here we go on to examine the interaction of nerve strands and the mind. For simplicity’s sake, let us suppose that nerves conduct their data into the brain, where they are manipulated in order to derive a content. But this only brings us back to the aforementioned presupposition that the mind must have a capacity.

Before I proceed: you will observe that neither time nor space is an actually existing part of the operations. The space is presupposed and defined as ‘omnidirectional extension’. If the timing of the operations is important, a further mechanical or electronic device must be added. You should take particular note here of the fact any type of clock measures time in instrumental terms, i.e. the distance travelled by the hand of a clock or a specific number of electronic pulses. This gives you a first hint that time and space are intimately bound up with human understanding. Neither of them is an objective datum: The movement of the pointer is not time, nor the pulses.

But by these means we have cleared our path to an appreciation of the Kantian structures and categories.

Take any consciously aware human being, such as yourself: You find yourself situated in a crosshatch of dispositions which assign all knowable events to two kinds of locations inside a volume relative to the embodied self. The first of these, called ‘space’, is a measure of distance and an indicator of orientation; the second, called ‘time’, recognises some events as prior, and other events as simultaneous with the embodied self. We are furthermore disposed to anticipate more events to transpire in the future, though they cannot be known.

You will note in this conception of time that it can be interpreted as equivalent to space, in the sense that distance is also a duration, namely as much time as it takes for one object to come to a proximate spatial location to another. Remember that clocks with hands do not tell the time — this is a mental act you perform — but measure out a distance on a circular dial. This argument can naturally be reversed as well, so that distance is the time it takes by a moving object to transfer from one location to another at a certain velocity.

What Kant is telling us, therefore boils down to a predisposition on our part to spontaneously perform a spatiotemporal interpretation of any event relative to the embodied self, or scientifically to a posited residual observer. Although all animals and plants as well can act on analogous impulses, with humans it developed into a conscious mental performance.

As Kant correctly points out, this ordering of events into temporal and spatial intuitions is given. There is no compelling argument, nor demonstration, that time or space actually exist. Moreover, as this is done spontaneously, it need not be worked out by the mind. To this extent, the capacity for assigning all events and occurrences to a location in a spatiotemporal grid indicates that such is the structure of our mind. It is structural because it precedes perception, and ascertains that perceptions are of this kind, and not otherwise.

With the categories, we have an altogether analogous story. Once again, the point of Kant’s categories is not that he invented them, but that he subtracted from our multitudinous performances a handful of constantly recurring templates, or forms, or dispositions through which we sort out of what these experiences mean to us. His tables basically inform us that, when we form judgements on an event through such templates (innate dispositions), we do it by making a choice from among three alternatives — e.g. whether the event is actual, necessary or contingent.

Collectively the tables demonstrate the form of our thinking, therefore it is plain-sailing to refer to them as a structure of the mind.

One point to bear in mind is, that hypothetically there may be creatures in the universe whose thinking includes other categories than those named by Kant. But for us, such a perspective seems impossible (you can’t jump out of your skin!). We cannot perceive what is not part of the structure of our mind. We can only experience those occurrences to which in virtue of the Kantian dispositions we are able to decipher under their structuring. To mention just one instance, it is not possible for our mind, owing to its structure, to entertain any kind of intuition of six-dimensional space.

I hope you can see now that Kant’s categories and his disquisitions on time and space, are bottom up — foundations. If this is not clear when you study Kant, you are bound to miss much in the later discourse, where all this is now supposed as established.


Answer by Henk Tuten

An essential problem is that Kant without any doubt presumes that ‘mind’ exists. If mind does not exist the whole discussion about ‘structures of our mind’ is rubbish. That Kant believes in ‘mind’ is no surprise in our western in origin catholic civilization. Catholicism settled the dualist split of mind and matter. Two millennia of belief in immaterial things like ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ make belief in immaterial thing like ‘space’ and ‘time’ and also ‘understanding’, ‘consciousness’, ‘intelligence’ almost natural.

When you try to make sense of a notion like ‘intelligence’ you’ll notice that you meet the same problem as when you try to make sense of ‘space’ and ‘time’. You get lost in a jungle of basics/ presumptions to have been accepted since the Enlightenment. Then you recognize that all we can say is that we humans have got very specialized in using memory of experience when meeting daily challenges.

Kant just made a good guess. If you try to situate yourself in reality then sequence is always what you meet first. Sequence is that whose signal makes most sense (translated as ‘distance’ in ‘space’, and sequence in whose signals you noticed first made linear in ‘time’).

Kant’s view of reality was one with Laws of Nature, presuming that nature needs human made laws (morals). But Kant is clear that in his view our ‘mind’ creates a virtual reality. Part of this virtual reality is in Kant’s view always ‘space’ and ‘time’.


Divine command theory revisited

Ray asked:

John Arthur argues that without a moral standard provided by God through divine commands, there is no reliable means to distinguish between right and wrong behavior.

Answer by Stuart Burns

I would think that the existence of the moral teachings of Confucius (Kong Qiu, 551-479 BC) and Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, circa 5th century BC) would demonstrate that Mr Arthur’s arguments are based on incorrect factual information. The peoples of India and China, where Buddhism is popular, and the nations of East Asia where the moral teachings of Confucius have had a huge influence on their history and culture, would argue that Mr Arthur is simply incorrect in his statement.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What interests me about this question is that it presents the divine command theory as a decision procedure for discovering the correct answer to questions of ‘right and wrong behaviour’ — that is to say all moral or ethical questions.

This is a different, and stronger claim, from the theory that divine command, or the fact that God wills that we behave in a particular way and not in other ways, is that in virtue of which there exists a right or wrong answer to any ethical question; in other words, a theory of truth for ethics.

The view that God’s existence provides the ultimate basis for ethical truth is argued eloquently by Peter Geach in his chapter, ‘The Moral Law and the Law of God’ in God and the Soul (Routledge 1969). (See my answer, God, ethics and Euthyphro’s dilemma.)

Geach’s case, succinctly, is that if you believe in God, then you must believe that what God commands is what must be done, regardless of the consequences. You might try to argue for an objective basis for ethics without God, but then you are forced to embrace the view that any action, however bad in itself, can in principle be justified by a cost-benefit analysis. You can say that you will stick to your principles come what may, but at some point you will be forced to concede.

It is harder to justify the claim attributed to John Arthur, that divine command (the Ten Commandments, say, although this might also include the Koran, or the Talmud, or etc.) provides a reliable means to distinguish between right and wrong. Of course, there is always the option to say, ‘You can’t determine the correct action in every case, but you are still better off than if you reject the Bible’ (or the Koran, or Talmud or etc.). Problem is, the whole attraction of appealing to God is that we fallible human beings don’t have to reason out/ invent/ discover ethical answers for ourselves. Don’t worry, it’s all in the Book. But if it isn’t all in some book, then there will come a time when we are left in the lurch, having to think for ourselves — and lacking the means to do it, because we have always relied on the book answer.