Thoughts on Art, Theory, and Idealism – part two

In my first post I introduced, in a very convoluted way, Idealism, and the very basics of Bishop George Berkeley’s Idealism. Today I want describe, in an equally condensed but hopefully accessible way, Immanuel Kant’s Idealism, which is different to Berkeley’s in one important way: Kant, like the art world academics I described the other day, believed that the material world, which he called “things-as-they-are-in-themselves”, existed, but Kant also believed that we couldn’t know anything about “things-as-they-are-in-themselves”, only about “things-as-they-appear-to-us”. Kant called this “Transcendental Idealism”. Like my art world lecturer, Kant’s perspective is not “all is discourse”, just “all is only accessible in terms of discourse”, and again the latter amounts to much the same use as the former. Perhaps an excerpt from philosopher Alan Musgrave can help us to grasp just why Kant’s Idealism with its “things-as-they-are-in-themselves” does not get us much further than Berkeley’s Idealism where there is no such thing as “things-as-they-are-in-themselves”:

Kantian things-in-themselves are most peculiar things. The only thing we can say truly of them is that they exist. They possess none of the qualities or properties that they appear to possess: no shapes, sizes, weights, motions, colours, tastes, or smells. These are all qualities of their ‘appearances’ […] Nor do ‘things-in-themselves’ exist in space and time, since space and time are ‘forms of sensibility’ and only things-as-experienced-by-us (‘appearances’) exist in space and time. Nor […] do things-in-themselves cause experiences, since causality is a category which applies only to things-as-experienced-by-us, too. The idea that objects or things-in-themselves are nowhere, at no time and do nothing is very odd.

p221, Common Sense, Science and Scepticism; A historical introduction to the theory of knowledge. Alan Musgrave. 1993.

So the idea that there are some mysterious “things-in-themselves” we can never know proves not to be very useful. It is useful in one way, and that is that “things-in-themselves” almost allowed Kant to avoid evoking God’s will, as Berkeley had done, to explain why people experienced the same sorts of things so consistently. I say “almost” because Kant never quite manufactured a good enough reason for anyone to accept that “there are things-in-themselves” was any better an explanation than “God does it!”

However it pays not to be too hard on Kant, he was doing a lot of hard work under very difficult historical conditions, an excuse that modern Idealists don’t really have. Kant’s ideas were progressive, whereas nowadays Kantianism when we meet it in Lacan, or Foucault, etc, is reactionary and regressive, usually denying, in ways that Kant did not, that we can have certain or universal knowledge about the real world. In the 18th century, science – humanity’s most powerful toolkit for exploring the material world – was still only developing, and all around Kant there were other philosophers taking positions akin to Berkeley’s Idealism for granted. It is not surprising that Kant, trying to conquer Idealism, came up with a new Idealism that could so quickly collapse back into something as silly as Berkeley’s Idealism. It is surprising that over 200 years after Kant’s death, the art world is rehashing the same problems as Kant was then. Philosophy certainly didn’t stop with Kant, and it is only really by politically-motivated negligence about the academic work of those 200 years that any modern academic can find themselves back in Kant’s unenviable position.

At this point I could take these posts in one of two directions, and I think I need to go off and decide which. The first option is to look at what happened to the Idealism/Materialism (materialism here just means “the world is made of real physical stuff and isn’t just ideas in our or God’s head”) debate across those 200 years, so that I don’t leave you relying on your common sense alone. Common sense is useful, but not perfectly reliable a thing to depend on, after all, it only allows us to get a very vague measure of matters. The other option, and this is a very tempting one, is to look specifically at some of the backwards views that crop up among art academics, and to unpick how they rest on the same sorts silly and unhelpful beliefs that grew out of Berkeley’s Idealism. This might be very gratifying for me, but I think it might be best to be patient, and to really dismantle any illusions you might have in Kant or Berkeley’s position before you run away with them. I have, thus far, spent a lot of time calling them “silly”, but no time explaining very clearly what the less silly alternatives are. In short, I’ve trusted that you believe your desk is really there, and that you really see it when you look at it, and really talk about it when you talk about it. I hope you will appreciate that I trust you are so sensible.

[Edit: Part three]

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One Response to Thoughts on Art, Theory, and Idealism – part two

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Art, Theory, and Idealism – part one | Oily Mud on a Piece of Cloth

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