A conversation with A.W. Moore
This interview was originally published in The Kantian Catastophe? Conversations on Finitude and the Limits of Philosophy, edited by Anthony Morgan, published by Bigg Books in 2017, and available for purchase here.
Anthony Morgan: I was hoping you could start by offering a brief overview of why finitude plays such a central role in Kant’s work.
Moore: What you find in Kant is one of the most intense examples in the whole history of philosophy of somebody trying to come to terms with human finitude – with what it means to be finite creatures in the way that we are – and therefore one of the most intense attempts to come to terms with the human condition. And of course there’s a sense in which all the great philosophers are doing this, in their various ways, but Kant is really focusing, perhaps in a way that no other philosopher has done up until then, on what it is to be a finite part of an infinite reality, both in terms of the limitations that this means that we are subject to and in terms of some of the aspirations that it means we have.
So you’ve got this bipartite picture of a human being in Kant. And in a way, of course, you already have it in Aristotle, who tells us that human beings are rational animals. This means that there are two components to humanity: we’re animals with a biological constitution and all that this entails, and yet on the other hand we’ve got this faculty of reason that takes us into territory that other animals can’t enter into, that marks us off from other animals and means that in some fundamental respect we’re different from them. You’ve got that in Aristotle, and you’ve got it in Kant as well, since he too is keen to emphasise both our animality and our rationality. But it takes a slightly new form in Kant, because it comes to be seen as a conflict between the finite and the infinite: we’re finite creatures, with finite limitations, but we have this faculty of reason as well, in a way that puts us in touch with the infinite and helps to make us aware that there is an infinite reality beyond our own finitude.
So how is this distinctive from the appearance-reality dichotomy that stretches back as far as Plato insofar as this distinction touches on the tension we experience between the finite and the infinite?
Of course there’s a risk in exaggerating and suggesting that Kant is doing something entirely new in the history of philosophy! But what is genuinely distinctive in Kant is a particular story about the form that the appearance-reality distinction takes. There is this picture in Kant that I think is helpfully captured in the analogy of a pair of spectacles. It’s as if we view things through native spectacles that we carry around with us, and this means that at some fundamental level we’re only presented with appearances and not with how things are in themselves. We have these spectacles that equip us to experience the world in a certain way, but the one thing we can’t do is to take them off. So there’s a sense in which the appearance-reality distinction comes across as altogether more profound than it had been in earlier thinkers, and the very fact that we see the world through these native spectacles is one of our most fundamental limitations and one of the most fundamental marks of our finitude. It’s because we’re finite creatures that we have to see the world in this way at all. The fact that we’re finite means that reality is out there independent of us: we can’t know anything about it without somehow being receptive to it, and we can’t be receptive to it unless we’ve got a basic framework that equips us to be receptive to it, which is the role played by these native spectacles. And what all this means is that we end up being presented with how things appear rather than how they are in themselves.
But we are in a curious way in touch with the infinite as well, because the very fact that we can sit here and have this kind of conversation, the very fact that we can be self-conscious about our limitations, the very fact that we can recognise that all we can know is how things appear: these very facts show that we have some sense of the underlying reality as well. They show that we have some grasp of this contrast between appearances and reality that we have been discussing. Now that’s not giving us any insight into reality (that’s the whole point) but it does mean that we have a sense of reality.
Insight into reality suggests that we can know about reality, while having a sense of reality suggests that we can only think about reality. But what place does this kind of thinking have in philosophy? Is it not the kind of thinking that Kant would call ‘empty’ and Wittgenstein ‘nonsense’? Is it not in the end simply pub talk, philosophically speaking?
In a way that’s the pivotal question. There is this fundamental distinction between what we can know and what we can think, and this is a very important distinction for Kant. The limitations that he is so exercised by are limitations to our knowledge. Our knowledge is confined to how things present themselves to us through the spectacles, but we have the ability to think beyond that. So the very fact that we can be self-conscious in this way about the distinction between appearance and reality means that we’re able to think about reality even if we can’t know it directly. But what is the status of these thoughts? I think it’s very important for Kant that they don’t just count as nonsense, that they are genuine thoughts that we’re capable of having about reality. They exceed what we’re capable of knowing, but they can still take the form of genuine speculation about how things are in themselves. So this isn’t nonsense, but the other question you raised is whether they are in some way empty thoughts.
THE THOUGHTS IN QUESTION ARE EMPTY THOUGHTS, AS LONG AS YOU CAN HEAR THAT IN SUCH A WAY THAT IT DOESN'T MEAN THAT THEY'RE NONSENSICAL
So ‘empty’ and ‘nonsense’ are not interchangeable?
I think Kant would want to say that they are not interchangeable, and this is another important distinction that he wants to draw. The thoughts in question are empty thoughts, as long as you can hear that in such a way that it doesn’t mean that they’re nonsensical. The idea of an empty thought reinforces the point that we’ve already made: that they’re thoughts that exceed what we’re capable of knowing, or, in other words, they’re thoughts that don’t relate to anything that we can have direct experience of. The obvious example (although by no means the only example) is the thought that there’s a God. The question of whether or not there is a God is certainly something we can speculate about according to Kant, and it makes perfectly good sense to ask that question: you’re not just talking nonsense if you make claims about God. But if you make claims about God, or have thoughts about God, they are in Kant’s terms empty thoughts that are beyond what we are capable of ascertaining through experience. Scientific investigation is not going to help you settle this question one way or the other.
The next big question is what work these thoughts are doing – whether these thoughts are at the level of idle chit-chat that you might have with your friends down at the pub. For Kant these thoughts play a very significant role in our lives, but whether or not they play a significant role in philosophy is another question. We can philosophise about them, but can we philosophise with them? Well, in a way perhaps we have already answered that question negatively, because the whole point is that these are matters of speculation. But is it idle speculation? Kant thinks that these thoughts can play a very significant practical role in our lives, and there’s a famous quotation, in the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, in which he says that he has had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith. So this is Kant’s way of saying that, while he’s drawn this distinction between what we can know and what we can only speculate about, he doesn’t intend this as a way of disparaging what we can only speculate about. In a way it helps to reinforce the importance of what we can only speculate about, because sometimes in life we do need to go beyond mere knowledge.
So what’s the scope of this practical dimension? Presumably it can’t all revolve around faith in God.
Something else that is a feature of reality rather than appearance, and that we can have thoughts about but not knowledge about, is our own freedom. Now Kant does believe that human beings are free agents, but for various reasons he’s obliged to say that this freedom occurs at the level of reality rather than at the level of appearance. For what belongs at the level of appearance is what scientific investigation can reveal to us, what we can know through observation and experience. And what scientific investigation does reveal to us about the world of appearances is that it is completely determined by mechanical causal laws in a way that doesn’t leave any room for freedom. So if that were all there was to it, then we would have to deny that we were free agents.
This would not have been a problem for Spinoza’s account of freedom though, for example.
That’s true, but Kant is opposed to that conception of freedom. He doesn’t think that’s good enough. There may be a story to tell whereby freedom and causal determinism co-exist, and a lot of philosophers have tried to tell that story, but Kant is adamant that such a story is not going to work. So purely at the level of appearances we have to deny that there’s any room for freedom. At the level of appearances we’re just very sophisticated machines. But this does leave room for the possibility that we are free agents at the level of things in themselves, that the underlying reality involves genuine exercises of freedom.
So contemporary speculation about free will in philosophy departments is empty?
Kant is going to take issue with a lot of contemporary metaphysicians who think that we can establish that we’re free agents. He will offer his own rival conception of freedom which I think he will claim is as rigorous and as intelligible as theirs, but it is in the end an article of faith that we’re free. It’s almost for Kant an unavoidable article of faith. The fact that it’s an article of faith suggests that there is an element of choice about it, but there isn’t really for Kant. Kant thinks that we can’t help but think of ourselves as free agents – that if we really came to terms with the idea that we were just sophisticated machines our very self-consciousness would just disintegrate as we wouldn’t know what to make of ourselves. For the very idea that we are making anything of ourselves has connotations of freedom.
So Kant would turn to the determinist and say something like, ‘You haven’t really thought this through. You’re going through the motions when you make these claims. You can’t really think that that’s what it’s like’. Of course that may be what it’s like – it may be that there’s a fundamental mismatch here between how things are and how we’re able to suppose that things are – but at some very deep level Kant thinks that we can’t help but think that we’re free. But ‘think’ is the operative word. Yet again we come back to this distinction between thought and knowledge, because this is a matter of what’s going on in the underlying reality. To talk of ‘faith’ in our own freedom may be a slight misuse of the word, but the really important point is that we’re back with the distinction between what we can think and what we can know, and that as far as our own freedom is concerned the relevant word is ‘think’ rather than ‘know’.
But, to tie this back in with God where talk of faith really is appropriate, Kant has the further view that, if we really are free and if we are to have a proper sense of how to exercise our freedom, then – because we are also finite creatures, animals with a certain biological nature – we need certain props, as it were. There’s this constant temptation, because of our biological nature, to abuse our freedom in various ways. Our biological nature leads us astray. It’s a classic Protestant picture of the human condition! This leaves us in a fundamental predicament, and Kant’s thought is that faith in God can help us in this predicament. It can give us certain props that help to sustain us in our commitment to doing the right thing. If it weren’t for these props, if we didn’t feel that there were some ultimate source of help in the universe, we might just despair and give up on trying to resolve the contradictions in our nature. So this is the practical difference that faith can make.
So if faith in God is lost, Kant is really painting a bit of a bleak picture of the human condition?
I think that’s true. He’s emphasised both the finitude of human beings and the sense in which we can be in touch with the infinite, but ultimately it looks from his picture as if the finitude wins out, as the really important things he emphasises are our limitations, as well as the significance of our animal urges or biological urges in dictating our lives. If all that’s left of our contact with the infinite is just that we have this bare idea of the distinction between appearance and reality, then that’s not much. In particular, suppose that Kant’s wrong about whether we’re really free beings. Suppose that, even if he’s right that we can’t help thinking of ourselves as free, that’s ultimately just an irresistible illusion. That takes away a huge amount! And of course, given that so much of our focus on the question of human freedom is related to what’s going on in the empirically investigable world, then Kant becomes his own worst enemy, as he would be the first to insist that we are not free at that level. He’s made a rod for his own back: he’s provided his opponents with some of their most powerful arguments!
His successors could easily turn to Kant and respond that it’s only the nasty bits of his picture that really survive scrutiny, while the good bits amount to a lot of wishful thinking. So the correct conclusion to draw would be that he has left us with rather a bleak picture. And there were many of Kant’s successors who responded in precisely this way, while those who did not want to draw this conclusion felt bound to react at a much deeper level: they wanted to challenge the whole system. So, for example, Hegel, who was Kant’s most important immediate successor, is hugely indebted to Kant and takes the whole Kantian system very seriously, but reacts against it at a very deep level. He is suspicious of Kant’s very sharp distinction between appearance and reality. For Hegel, it’s not clear that we have to think in these terms; it’s not clear that we have to accept this picture of native spectacles. And this enables him to present a very different vision according to which we don’t have to overcome the predicament that Kant leaves us in, as we are not in that predicament in the first place.
In The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics, you discuss what you refer to as ‘the Limit Argument’ that Hegel uses against Kant. Please could you offer an outline of the basic structure of this argument?
There’s a tradition throughout philosophy of trying to explore the limits of our own ability to make sense of things, the limits of our own sense-making. We don’t just find it in Kant, although it’s very clear in Kant. One by one, philosophers have come along and explored limits in various ways and argued that we can only philosophise or make sense of things within certain particular limits. It’s a pattern that’s repeated throughout the history of philosophy, from way back to the recent past. And it’s clear that we can place Kant in this category, that there’s a sense in which that’s his project as well. He’s interested in the limits of what we can make sense of, where what that means is what we can make sense of in the way that’s manifested in the natural sciences: what we can have knowledge of through experience and observation.
Portrait of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger (1831)
The Limit Argument suggests that the whole enterprise of setting limits may be misguided. Of course, a lot depends on exactly what limits you’re setting and what you’re setting them to, but let’s put it in very general and schematic terms. Suppose that somebody wants to show that we can only make sense of things within such and such limits. The argument purports to show that this may be an incoherent enterprise as we can’t successfully follow the project of drawing limits to what we can make sense of unless we’re able to make sense of the limits that we purport to be drawing. But we can’t make sense of any limits unless we can make sense of what lies on both sides of them. We recognise that the United Kingdom has certain limits, for example. We look on a map and see a cluster of islands with clearly defined limits separating what lies within the United Kingdom from what does not. And this is fine, because we can see both the outside and the inside. By contrast, the idea of drawing limits and not being able to make sense at all of what’s on one side of those limits looks as if it’s incoherent: it looks as if we can only draw limits within what we can make sense of. And Hegel thinks that Kant is guilty of trying to do this incoherent thing: he sees the Kantian project as an attempt to draw limits to what we can make sense of, and argues that Kant is unable to draw the limits that he tries to draw.
This is a very basic objection that Hegel has to the whole Kantian project, and it’s part of what launches him off into his own quite different system. Of course, Hegel and other strong opponents of the Kantian system have huge respect for Kant. None of them are accusing him of being silly. They all recognise the depth and importance of what they’re reacting against, and they also recognise that they wouldn’t be doing what they are doing if Kant had not first of all done what he did. So even though they are in disagreement with him, they are fully self-conscious about the fact that the very questions that they are asking and the very issues that they are addressing are only there to be asked and addressed because of what Kant has said before them.
We tend to associate the infinite with terms like the noumenal and the transcendent. But is there a risk of conflating all these terms when in fact there are important differences between them?
Although there’s a package of ideas that do seem to go together – the infinite, the noumenal, things-in-themselves, the transcendent, and so on – we’ve got to be very careful about making overly glib associations, particularly where the infinite is concerned. There is a sense in which the infinite is as much a feature of appearance as it is of reality. And this ties in with the fact that even space and time are part of the world of appearances for Kant. Space and time themselves are part of these native spectacles that we carry around with us. But space and time are also infinite according to Kant (contemporary cosmologists may take issue with this idea, of course, but Kant wasn’t aware of 20th century physics). So there’s a sense in which the infinite is there at the level of appearances, not just at the level of things in themselves. It takes a particular form, specifically what some people have called the form of the mathematically infinite: beyond any stretch of space there’s always more to come, and so on. But these are aspects of the infinite within the world of appearances.
And then, conversely, there’s also a sense in which the world of reality, the world of things in themselves, has its own elements of finitude because, after all, we ourselves straddle the divide, and while it’s at the level of appearances that our finitude really shows up (because that’s where we recognise ourselves as animals with biological limitations, and so on) this is an appearance of an underlying reality. So even at the level of that underlying reality it’s true to say that in some sense we’re only finite, if only in the sense that we’re merely one part of reality. There’s this fundamental fact that we’re up against something that’s independent of us, and while that’s part of what it is to say that we’re only finite, it’s also part of the picture even at the level of the underlying reality not just in the world of appearances. So there are all sorts of associations that we make that perhaps we’re a bit too quick to make. There is a risk of oversimplification, and this is especially the case when we start tying these issues in with issues about infinity.
In addition to Kant, you also specialise in Wittgenstein. He certainly seemed to want to take some of the mystique out of the infinite. Could you say something about his ‘deflationary’ approach to the infinite?
The infinite is of course a very puzzling concept and people have wrestled with it and confronted various paradoxes when they’ve tried to think about it, so there is a temptation to think of the infinite as something grand and transcendent and mind-blowing. And this is where we find a characteristic debunking on Wittgenstein’s part. He says that, while we do make crucial use of the language of infinity, for example when we say that there are infinitely many numbers, it’s not a big deal: it’s nothing grand or transcendent. If I claim that there are infinitely many numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on – I’m not doing much more than I’m doing when I use the phrase ‘et cetera’. Suppose I write down ‘1, 2, 3, …’, using the three dots to indicate that this is a process that carries on forever. Wittgenstein says: ‘Let’s think of the infinite as no more mysterious than those three dots: the language of infinity is just part of the symbolism.’ This is all perfectly straightforward. It’s understandable in immanent terms, if you want to put it that way. Wittgenstein is drawing our attention to the way in which we use language, and the thought is that it’s not particularly mysterious. You can soon learn how to use three dots. There they are on the page. It’s not a big deal!
You write that you consider it axiomatic that there is ‘a human aspiration to infinitude’. Can we see similarities here between Wittgenstein and Rorty insofar as Rorty would argue that this whole aspiration for infinitude is simply part of a bad philosophical tradition that has created these urges in us, but that they can be demystified, debunked, deflated, and so on?
I think Wittgenstein’s philosophy does give us licence to be rather dismissive in this way. Within his framework there is room for a kind of debunking that does enable us to say that some of this is just bad faith, and that we should be trying to rid ourselves of the urge to go beyond the three dots, or however you want to put it. But at the level of biography, rather than philosophy, Wittgenstein himself was somebody for whom philosophy was not at all easy. This is a striking difference between Wittgenstein and a lot of Wittgensteinians. Philosophy becomes a fairly mechanical process for a lot of his disciples, who just go through the motions. For Wittgenstein, it was never that; it was always a real struggle. And although he says things that sound rather dismissive, a lot of the time what he’s doing is wrestling with his own tendencies and he’s fighting against himself at some quite deep level. And if you think, in particular, about the urge to transcend ourselves in some way, or the religious impulse if you want to put it in those terms, then I think these are things that are very strong in Wittgenstein himself, and he is going to be the last person to claim that there is an easy answer to the question of what to do with such urges: how to reckon with them, how far we should yield to them, and how far we should be trying to resist them.
IT'S THE PROBLEM OF HOW TO LIVE, AND ONE OF THE LIMITATIONS THAT PHILOSOPHY MUST RECOGNISE IS THAT IT CAN TELL US A LOT ABOUT THE QUESTIONS, BUT IT CAN'T ANSWER THE QUESTION
You write: ‘My finitude is not something I can escape. All I can do is to (try to) master the art of being finite’. So how are we to master the art of being finite?
I’m afraid that the answer that I give to that question is going to be very disappointing! I’m sceptical that there’s an answer that can be formulated. Any attempt to try to produce some kind of formula or some sort of recipe for how to live your life is going to be misguided, I think. It’s the problem of how to live, and one of the limitations that philosophy has to recognise is that it can tell us a lot about the question, but it can’t answer the question. Philosophy is not going to tell us how to live. That’s a practical problem that confronts each of us individually, and we each have to do our best to try to come to terms with that question in our own different ways. Philosophy may help some people in the project of living their lives, but it won’t help them by giving them an answer to the question of how to live, and in any case the operative word is ‘some’. Not everybody will find that philosophy plays any role in their lives at all, and that’s perfectly O.K. We don’t all have to be philosophers.
In The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics, while acknowledging that (1) we cannot make sense of anything transcendent (suggesting a limit), you also write that as philosophers we are (2) ‘free to make sense of things in a way that is radically new’ and (3) ‘engaged in a fundamentally creative exercise’ (both suggesting no limits). This is a very exciting vision but not one that most people would associate with the project of philosophy and metaphysics. So where do you see the limits of what can be placed under the category of philosophy?
It’s very gratifying for me to hear you say those things as that was meant to be one of the take-home messages of the book! It’s certainly an unusual conception of philosophy and of metaphysics more specifically. But I think that the really great metaphysicians of the past, and Kant is a classic case in point, have bequeathed really interesting new ways of looking at things. Whether their answers are right or not, whether we subscribe to what they’ve said or not, the fact of the matter is that they’ve given us really interesting new questions to ask. The very conversation that we’ve been having we just wouldn’t have been able to have if it hadn’t been for Kant. It’s in that sense that you can look upon it as a creative exercise. Here is one of the great philosophers, if not the greatest of all time, who has presented us with a whole new set of conceptual tools that enable us to think about things in new ways, frame new questions, and address new issues. At its most creative, philosophy is an exercise that gives us new ways to live so that philosophy will ultimately have a practical dimension as well.
Of course you’ve got to square that with the very thing I was just emphasising about philosophy’s limits, but here what we have is the distinction between thinking that philosophy can answer the question of how to live on the one hand (which I don’t think it can do) and thinking that it can give us interesting new tools for answering the question and living our life (which I do think it can). That’s part of what I had in mind when I wanted to emphasise that at its best it’s a creative exercise, and that there is always room for novelty in philosophy in general, and in metaphysics in particular. In this sense, philosophy’s never going to be in the service of anything, whether science or religion or whatever else it has been thought to be in the service of, because there’s always the possibility that one of its innovations will be a licence to look back at what we thought it was in the service of and find ourselves saying, ‘Well, that is not what’s really philosophically important.’
So, for example, a lot of people have thought that philosophy was only ever somehow in the service of the natural sciences, but a very innovative philosophy might (and there have been examples in the past) enable us to see the limitations of the natural sciences and realize that precisely what we shouldn’t be doing is thinking of philosophy as completely beholden to them. Kant himself would be a case in point of somebody who’s trying to get us to see this.
A.W. Moore is professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, specialising in the work of Kant, Wittgenstein, and Quine. He is author of The Infinite andThe Evolution of Modern Metaphysics.
This interview was originally published in The Kantian Catastophe? Conversations on Finitude and the Limits of Philosophy, edited by Anthony Morgan, published by Bigg Books in 2017, and available for purchase here.