Kant on pop-philosophy

In his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Immanuel Kant attempts to derive what he calls a metaphysic of morals—an experience-free and absolute grounding for the core principles of morality. On his way to that end, Kant expresses a nuanced view about the secondary aim of making one’s arguments and positions accessible for popular consumption.

“This condescension to popular concepts is to be sure very laudable when the elevation to principles of pure reason has already been achieved to full satisfaction, and that would mean first grounding the doctrine of morals on metaphysics, but procuring entry for it by means of popularity, once it stands firm. But it is quite absurd to want to humor popularity in the first investigation, upon which depends the correctness of principles. Not only can this procedure never lay claim to the extremely rare merit of a true philosophical popularity, since there is no art in being commonly understandable if one relinquishes all well-grounded insight; this produces only a disgusting mish-mash of patched together observations and half-reasoned principles, in which superficial minds revel, because there is always something serviceable for everyday chitchat, but which insightful people disregard, feeling confused and dissatisfied without being able to help themselves; yet philosophers, who can very well see through the illusion, find little hearing when for certain occasions they decry this supposed popularity, in order, through acquiring determinate insight, finally to gain the right to be popular.” (Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Chapter II)

Kant’s view here is nuanced. He seems not to commit to the general principle that more serious, and less popular, philosophy must always precede the attempt to make one’s findings accessible. Rather, he is concerned to defend only a special case of the principle, applying to the derivation of principles of pure reason. Nevertheless, the passage raises important questions about the putative requirement for accessibility, questions that have reflexes outside philosophy in, for example, the exact sciences. To what extent should one aim, from the outset, for accessibility in one’s work? Must one’s claims and arguments be widely accessible in order to carry conviction, or could competence to follow a piece of argumentation—however presented—be congenitally limited? Might the operative thinking of a specialist be by nature incommunicable to the non-specialist, at least in advance of the additional labour of translation into common idioms?

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8 comments
  1. While I appreciate Kant’s concern that Philosophy be done right in the first place before it is vulgarized for the masses, I question whether that distinction holds in most areas of Philosophy, if at all. At first blush Kant seems on target. Yet, the idea that Philosophy has to be ‘translated’ for the average person sticks in my craw. Let’s just say that any Philosophy that needs to be ‘translated’ is likely not worth understanding at any stage in the explanation process.

    • Thanks. You don’t say why you think there’s that restriction on philosophy, but it’s an interesting suggestion. Kant himself thinks that the capacities required to be governed by basic moral principles are universal amongst the (I guess) more or less minimally rational. So, in a sense, he may hold that that case meets your condition. However, he expresses scepticism concerning the work carried out in the First Critique. Anyway, the question remains, why would philosophy be of value only if it were accessible to the average person? Is that a principle that governs just any cognitive or quasi-cognitive activity, or is philosophy a special case for some reason? For example, would it be an objection to a putative proof in mathematics that it was only (apparently) accessible to a small number of specialist mathematicians? And is it really a constraint, or do we have reason to think that genuine principles of reason and understanding must all be shared by the average thinker?

      • When I recently read Kant’s FIrst Critique I was immediately taken aback by his elitist views of Philosophy in this regard. There is no doubt in my mind that there is good reason to think that genuine principles of reason and understanding must be shared by the average thinker. I don’t know on what basis this should be limited to Philosophy. The ability to understand any cognitive or quasi-cognitive activity is shared by all.

        How do we know this? Well, I don’t know if Kant was really saying what we seem to be thinking he was saying (i.e. that some people have the mental tools to think about things that other people can’t understand because they are not similarly equipped). With the exception of a person with mental impairment, all people would seem to share the same raw capability, imperfect I.Q. tests notwithstanding. What are intelligent people other than those who have developed a greater facility of thought? Innate intelligence has always been a question mark for me. Science may have more to say on this than Philosophy. As far as Kant, I just think he thought that for those to whom Philosophy is a passion is left the dirty work of doing the hard thinking, the fruits of which can be later shared with others. I don’t think he thought such Philosophical findings could not be shared with others because they wouldn’t be able to follow along due to an organic inability to comprehend such matters.

        The issue of the value of thought related to its accessibility is therefore a bit of a false issue if all people have the capability to understand. There really should not be any thought not accessible by all. If it is actually the case that some cannot understand due to some lack of capability as opposed to disinterest, the issue of value looms large, but in more of a social-political sense. Knowledge then becomes in some instances the exclusive domain of the intellectuals who can wield it for or against the common good. Should limits be put on the use of such knowledge, and who should make such decisions.

        Finally, I just started Einstein’s book explaining his Theory of Relativity which was written by him for the general public. He states that anyone with a college level education should, with some effort, be able to understand his theory. My thought is anyone could understand it, although without a college education it would just be more work. The book went through 15 editions as of my copy printed in 1952, so he must have been right that such specialized knowledge can be shared with the general public.

      • Thanks for the interesting comments.
        About shared raw intellectual capacity, I’m sympathetic, though I think it would be difficult to establish either way, and would depend on delicate issues concerning, for example, the extent to which intellectual capacity is a single, unified capacity, or rather a congeries of different, potential variable capacities. For instance, as far as I know, there is evidence of individual incapacity with respect to, for example, mathematics (forms of dyscalculia). Now even if that’s true, it doesn’t decide the issue. For it may be that dyscalculia can preclude one from making use of certain dedicated mathematical abilities, but needn’t–in principle–prevent one from doing maths by use of more general intellectual powers, e.g. logical capacity. It would also depend on whether the idea is that basic potential to develop capacity is shared, or rather that the output capacity is shared. I guess I’m inclined to think that the biological bases of intellectual capacity, together with variance in individual biology especially through development, makes it at least possible that intellectual capacity might be variable.
        As for Einstein, there are three questions. First, to what extent did production of the book involve translation and, more importantly, loss of essential content? Second, to what extent do we really have evidence that all attentive readers understand the book? (Being a best seller doesn’t decide the issue, I think. I don’t know how many of the very many who bought Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time even attempted to give it an attentive reading.) Third, to what extent would the broad accessibility of aspects of the theories of relativity indicate either that all science or philosophy can be made so accessible, or–more importantly–that it would count as an objection to that work if it couldn’t be made so?

  2. Arash Thomas Afsahi said:

    Brilliant. Sometimes the same ideas are better communicated than at others.

    There seems to be a property ‘accessibility’, with necessary, sufficient and contingent conditions.

    • Arash Thomas Afsahi said:

      There is an issue about the very nature of intelligence. Is intelligence a memory-heavy capacity? Knowledge can be expressly repeated without having been understood.

      A reference was made to how this regurgitated knowledge was seen by the memoriser to occur in everyday life and so provided grounds for both chit and chat. This is a basic level of application of what is learnt. So you learnt the rule, but can you recognise its application? They ask.

      Do you know why it applies? They might handsomely continue. Well here the grounds for the regurgitated fact are applicable. At the end of this investigation will be, beyond empirical facts learnt, principles of pure reason. Thus if these are learnt and applied a major issue of quoting profound insights is diffused by comprehending whether it really applies to a superior level of understanding. It also improves understanding of when an idea seems to apply but is really just a pretty pattern admist what one’s postulation does not apply to.

      • Arash Thomas Afsahi said:

        To be clear, I think Kant is saying to be proficient in reason is to be accessible.

  3. I don’t know if your questions regarding Einstein were rhetorical, so excuse me if they were.

    Well, your point about best sellers is well taken. How many people who bought “Godel, Escher, Bach” worked any of the problems, let alone successfully?

    Your first question is an especially interesting one. At the outset Einstein alerts the reader that they won’t have to understand a lot of math, because he has tried to limit it to basics. At the same time he notes that Algebra is all that is needed even in a detailed explanation. Yet, it is admitted some content is omitted. It does not appear there was a ‘translation’ required, so I don’t know if anything was lost in translation.

    Was essential content omitted? I’m not prepared to say, but my sense from Einstein’s comments is that no essential content is really lost in the process. Except for the math, the rest of his explanation is rather philosophical in nature. He literally starts out with discussing whether principles of Geometry can be said to be ‘true.’ He takes a rather Kantian approach noting that geometry does not come from experience and therefore is not subject to verification by experience – the result being that such principles are not properly to be considered ‘true’ because they cannot be verified by experience. In any event, an argument could be made that essential content is not lost.

    Your last question is really a return to your original query. My guess is that, while anecdotal, if you can explain Relativity to the masses without loss of essential content anything might be possible whether in Science or Philosophy in terms of practical accessibility. I’m not sure unified capacity or a lattice of variable capacities matters. I vote, tentatively, that such matters can be understood by the general public.

    Now, we can both imagine an example where something simply wasn’t accessible to all. What would be its value? Astronauts went to the Moon, but the accessibility of the knowledge was never in issue. That Science and all that flowed from it (don’t forget Tang) worked, so its value was never questioned – it was apparent. If we assume that the scientific knowledge behind that effort was inaccessible, the fact that only very few could understand such matters did not detract from its value, whatsoever. However, it would count as an objection to a work of Science or Philosophy if its inaccessibility caused problems. To keep with the space theme, when the Challenger spacecraft exploded over the Atlantic ocean it would have been unacceptable for NASA to tell the public ‘they wouldn’t understand’ so no explanation for the accident would be given. Such an approach would be problematic in a host of ways that even NASA would try to avoid. Thus, the simple description of the failure of the O-RIngs as the cause of the accident was sufficient to explain the incident, provide some basic understanding, and avoid the negative consequences. These two examples are a long-winded way to set up the answer to your question whether specialists should aim at accessibility in their work. The answer is “yes” because without accessibility things ultimately become problematic when there are undesirable results. It’s not because the Science doesn’t have intrinsic value, but because Science (or Philosophy for that matter) operates in the public sphere and is ultimately accountable to that public.

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