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Kant's Refutation of Idealism Cuts Both Ways

In this paper I argue that Immanuel Kant's Refutation of Idealism serves to
refute his own transcendental idealism. Kant utilizes the Refutation to
demonstrate that we have an experience of 'outer' objects; that is to say,
objects spatially external to ourselves, in an attempt to demonstrate that the
empirical idealism taken on by René Descartes in his Meditations as an act of
determining what he can 'know' is false. The problem that I raise (in pulling
from Gardner) is that Kant's own transcendental idealism is not safe from his
Refutation. I argue that Kant's understanding of a transcendental object means
that our representations of objects serve as a strong enough grounding for the
argument. Kant must provide some way to get the existence of an object out of
this representation, and he must provide some sort of justification for why we
can know such a transcendental object actually exists spatially external to
ourselves. If he does not, then his refutation of idealism not only serves to
rule out empirical idealism, but also his transcendental idealism. 

Kant follows the Analogies with his Refutation of Idealism. He takes idealism in
this case to be of the empirical strain. Kant calls out René Descartes and
George Berkeley as the primary trumpeters of this philosophy. He dubs the former
one with a 'problematic' idealism, one which rejects the existence of all but
the indubitable 'I am', and the latter one with a dogmatic idealism, one which
declares space and the objects within it to be imaginary (B275). Kant believes,
however, that he has summarily refuted Berkeley's dogmatic idealism in the
Transcendental Aesthetic with the way in which he has argued the nature of space
to be - as a form of our inner intuition, and thus not empirically real but
instead transcendentally ideal. Thus, Kant focuses in on Descartes form of
idealism and does not target Berkeley at all in his argument. Descartes idealism
appears to escape Kant's understanding of space. To refute this problematic
idealism Kant declares that he must demonstrate that we have experience of outer
objects and that our inner experience is only possible with these experiences of
outer objects. Kant needs an experience of an outer object and not just an
imagination of one because Kant needs that the representation is from an object
outside of the mind - this stops Descartes from merely declaring that the
representation is only in our mind. 

Kant adds, in the revised preface found in the B edition, that a statement
within his argument is to be exchanged for another to make his argument more
clear. His edited argument runs as follows: it can be agreed, at least by
Descartes and others subscribing to his idealism, that I am conscious of my
existence as determined in time. This determination presupposes, however,
something persistent within my perception. This persistent thing cannot,
however, be some sort of intuition that I have inside of myself. This cannot be
the case because I have in my consciousness only representations that I have
been given from appearances, and thus are not things in themselves. I instead
would require something more than this representation; that is, something
distinct from it which is persistent. Through this distinct persistent thing I
can take my relation to that object through its persistence in time and
determine my own existence. Thus, the determination of my own existence relies
entirely on actual objects as things in themselves existing outside of and
separately from myself. As my consciousness in time is 'necessarily combined'
with my consciousness of the possibility of this time-determination, it is in
fact necessary that this be tied in with the existence of things outside of me -
that is to say, the consciousness that I have of my own existence in time is
likewise my having an immediate consciousness of objects who exist outside of
myself (B276). 

Kant's argument is rather tricky, so I will now elucidate a few portions that I
find key to understand his argument. Kant states that the time-determination
presupposes something persistent within my perception. This is the case because
if this time-determination did not presuppose something that was persistent in
my perception - there was something perceived - how would I measure my own
existence through time? I would not have a way of ordering my
self-representation - there would be no sensations by which I could order
experience. Kant also states that this consciousness is immediate. For if it
were not of an immediate sort, it would violate what Kant has stated in the
First Analogy; it would "require me to identify the time-order of my
representations prior to that of their objects" (Gardner 182). Thus, this
consciousness must be immediate, and so my consciousness of my own existence and
of other objects spatially external (that is to say, spatially located in
general) to me, and it is precisely this latter consciousness that gives me the
persistent thing to which I am allowed to make a time-determination of my own
awareness of my consciousness. With these points, Kant has shown that Descartes'
'mental objects' are not enough to determine my own persistence - these mental
objects are representations which I am conscious of simultaneously with my own
consciousness of my existence, and these representations are of objects
spatially external to myself. Thus, my consciousness of my own existence relies
on my consciousness of persistent, external objects. That is to say, there is a
real world of which I am conscious, and empirical idealism is false. 

If one thinks considers what this argument has presented, one recognizes
something that Kant seems to leave implicit in his talk of the representation of
an object and the object itself. This argument makes no reference to Kant's
transcendental idealism. The question then, of course, is whether or not this
argument could possibly argue against the idealism Kant worked so hard to build
up earlier. If he has in fact left something implicit within the declaration of
an existing object in his argument, then we must consider what this assumption
is. We can immediately rule out a kind of knowledge of an actually existing
object - Kant does not want to say that we can have knowledge of things in
themselves, and so we can't know if an object in itself actually exists.  What
Kant needs to say is that "the existence of X (the object) can be inferred from
the necessity of our representing X, because X is something whose very existence
is a function of such necessities" (Gardner 186). However, these 'objects X'
only play this kind of justificatory role via the representations that we have
of them. Kant denies that we could have knowledge of objects as things in
themselves, and his framework does not provide any kind of robust way of
determining anything about the transcendental object itself.  Indeed, Kant
states at points throughout the 'Critique' that he does not know what the
transcendental object is or that it can at all be known: "Now, however, as soon
as I raise my concept of an object to transcendental significance, the house is
not a thing in itself at all but only an appearance, i.e., a representation, the
transcendental object of which is unknow"n (B236). Kant seems to want this
representation to correspond to some sort of transcendental object, and this
line of argumentation would seem to suggest that the transcendental object is in
fact the object in itself - some actually existing thing. It would seem to be
the case then that all one would have to do to deny the transcendental
idealist's position would be to ask why exactly an object is required if a
representation does just as well. That is to say, the representations that we
have seemed to do all the work that we require, so why demand anything more of
them? Thus, it would seem as though Kant's refutation of idealism does no work
to defend Kant from the skeptic who would declare this point: it suffices to be
conscious of a representation of an object in order to ground my consciousness
of my existence. Therefore, Kant's refutation of idealism does not only refute
the 'problematic' idealism of Descartes, but it also refutes Kant's own
transcendental idealism. 

Thus I have shown that Kant has refuted his own idealism. Or, at the very least,
Kant must do additional work and give us a reason to believe that the
representation that we have of an object is sufficient to surmise the existence
of any sort of object. But he must also show why this does not grant us
knowledge of an object in itself if this is the case. Instead, he must show that
this knowledge is of a transcendental object, and that this knowledge does not
grant us knowledge of how the object really is. Although the argument perhaps
could be fixed with this work being done, I do not think that it provides enough
firepower against the position of the skeptic - it does not give any kind of
reason to accept that knowledge of a transcendental object could at all be had,
a least not with how we construct our knowledge. 


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