Principles and Functions – notes

(Working notes, not likely to be accurate but part of the process of working through various thoughts as I continue writing – comments welcome if they bear this in mind.)


It is clear for anyone reading Kant that the priority of principles is central to his thinking. It is the clash between principles and experience which motivates the whole problem of the first Critique, we are told in the opening paragraphs of the ’Preface to the First Edition’(1). The nature of human reason is the problematic tension deriving from the combination of the rational principles and the sensuous experiences that constitute actual thinking. The sensuous experiences ’insure’ the ’truth and sufficiency’ of the principles – not, however, their production. The force of questioning which produces principles as answers or solutions soon finds that it goes far beyond, in its questioning, any solution we might propose. The force of questioning overwhelms the capacity to produce a testable solution. Of course, we might produce what appears as a solution, some abstract untestable principle that offers us a sense of solution to a problem but any real solution principle must needs be capable of being tested to be accepted or ’insured’ against falsehood. It is experience that is the testing ground and thus anything that is in principle beyond experience is untestable. The classic tension of the Kantian system is found in the fact that we can ask unanswerable questions.

Of course, this is not simply a Kantian tension. The very idea of an unanswerable question is, whilst peculiar in itself, something we find at various points within philosophy – for example, there is a strange resonance between the way in which Kant establishes the key productive problem of his transcendental philosophy and the way the verificationists would rule out of court any talk of God or Soul, even though they soon fell foul of the reflective moment which revealed the unverifiable dogmatism of their own central principle. This, perhaps, is not so surprising given the shared model of philosophy as a practice of giving answers which both Kant and the Verificationists possessed. The scandal of a discipline of reason that cannot provide final and definitive answers can be imputed as a motivation to Ayer as easily as Kant.

This emphasis, however, on the nature of the answers that philosophy can provide, is peculiar. It bears little relation to the original moments of the discipline as generally understood, lying as they do within the Socratic dialogue that professes only knowledge of its own ignorance and finds its role as the flea on the horses arse via the process of asking – not answering – difficult questions. It might be suggested, however, that such a process of irritating questioning is rather a pointless activity. It might be argued that to characterise philosophy, even Socrates, as little more than an irritating questioner tells at best only half a story and that all philosophers aim to produce some sort of answers. This might particularly be couched in terms of producing greater clarity. In this sense Kant could be seen as enabling a major step forward by clarifying quite what questions are worth asking. He establishes the limits of questions which, in principle, cannot be answered finally and with certainty and those that can. In doing this he enables the philosopher to continue to ask irritating questions but now aware of where it is appropriate to do so in a productive way rather than as a mere social or personal vocation.

This whole paradigm of questions and answers is askew. It lies like a dead weight upon the practice of philosophy. It presupposes something like an ideal game of questions and answers that is divorced from any practice, producing a practice without purpose. Why ask questions? What is the role of the question? Who do we ask the question of? What exactly is a question anyway? Philosophy engages in this practice of questioning and yet why bother? If it results from little more than a psychological drive, why is it not a redundant practice that confuses itself in its own irrelevance, creating ever circular patterns of self-sustaining inanity? If it reaches a place where it finds itself asking unanswerable questions, why does it not merely commit suicide, realising its own irrelevance and finally bringing to an end this incessant babble?

The purpose of philosophy is not to ask questions but to create thought. For a philosopher like Gilles Deleuze this is posed in terms of the creation of ’concepts’, though what Deleuze means by a concept is not necessarily the same as what Kant might call a concept. For Kant, thought exists and the job of philosophy is to make it perfect, to at least attempt to do so, through the process of being self-aware. This is posed in terms of principles. The key to understanding and clarifying the act of thinking is to begin to determine the principles of thinking, the unifying laws within which thought is productive and outside of which it becomes redundant. In doing so thought benefits from philosophy just as our other practices of life benefit from the technologies resulting from the scientifically established principles of reality. As we know the laws of nature, the principles of reality, we can begin to grasp in an increasingly broad sense the way things work. Analogously for Kant, as we begin to reveal the principles of thought we begin to grasp in an increasingly broad sense the way thought works. As such philosophy produces the necessary accompaniment to science, mirroring its search for laws or principles and producing the desired result of making thought more productive by showing how certain investigations are effectively a waste of time. All of this assumes, of course, the pre-existence of the realm of thought just like material science presupposes the pre-existence of the reality it investigates. This pre-supposition is what is challenged quite drastically by philosophers such as Deleuze(2).

We are not already thinking. We are never ’already thinking’. There is thus no such thing as a pre-existing realm of thought that can be mapped, outlined and delimited, whose principles can be established a priori. Thought is an event. Thought is a fact. Thought occurs in a concept. Thought, in this sense, is always radically contingent – it could be the case that we never thought. Nothing guarantees thought.

The first and most obvious thing to note here is that whatever is meant by the idea that thought is radically contingent involves some peculiar sense of thought itself. It is plainly not a mere cognitive activity that philosophers such as Deleuze refer to when they rely on this model of a radical contingency to thought. The distinction between cognition and thought is vital, the former a process of mental activity supervenient upon the physical organism and in effect reducible to a function of that organism, a function which might well be instantiated in another form. This presumably is what cognitive science refers to when it offers functionalist accounts of cognition, something like the function of a particular organ within the organism. Yet this is not what is meant by ’thought’ in a philosopher like Deleuze.

Any function is a contingent reality, something that not only could have been otherwise but (more interestingly) which could still be otherwise. A technics of cognition then beckons, in which an understanding of the principles of the functioning offers at least the possibility of engineering new functions in the same way that understanding the function of airflow, shape and lifting force offered the possibility of the new function of mechanical flight, resulting in the nightmare of air warfare amongst other things. A technics of cognition can produce nothing other than the contingent facts of scientific knowledge, which is in no way to demean the sheer power of these facts in the practical reality of living. ’Thought’, however, produces necessity, the very idea of necessity as well as the only instantiations of necessity and in so doing produces the very concept of the contingent, the necessity of which is entirely and only a thought. The creation of thought is the creation of necessity – and nothing besides.

The Kantian is not going to disagree with this account so far. Pure thought produces the form, the necessity of particular connections, but in itself is entirely unproductive. Reason must be conjoined with intuition to form a cognition of the understanding which is of any use, outside of the realm of mathematics in which the pure production of necessity reigns supreme and the constructions of reason have legitimacy and power. It is in the illegitimate application of this power of producing necessity to the realm of the real which produces the irresolvable disputes of metaphysics and forces Kant to establish his court of reason and set the limits to this productive power. It is not ’thought’ in the abstract, then, that produces necessity but rather reason as a particular faculty of cognition. This faculty is only one aspect of cognition, the faculties of understanding, intuition, judgment and the imagination all playing their own role in a kind of ’modular model’ of cognition which needs careful classification and analysis. The Kantian is not going to deny, in effect, that there is a role for the creation of concepts, merely limit such activity to the formal realm of mathematics. Outside of this realm construction is dangerous and liable to produce metaphysics, untestable speculations which are undecidable or ’uninsurable’. The Kantian, in effect, analyses the activity of cognition into the various faculties, establishes the root of the production of necessity within the faculty of reason and then shows both how it goes wrong and how it might be limited productively. Kant insures cognition against the uninsurable losses of the productions of pure reason.



1 Everyman edition, trans J.M.D.Meiklejohn, 1991: 1, henceforth in the text as (1991:n).

2 Heidegger’s name cannot be ignored at this point since this refusal of the presupposition that we ’are already thinking’ is also central to his work.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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