Kant’s supposed relativism

To my friend who argued that Kant denied that we have any direct knowledge of the objective world and is therefore a relativist, I’ll give my take on Kant, and maybe one of my professional philosopher friends (at least one of whom I know is listening) can add his or her two cents.

My friend’s premise that Kant denied us any direct knowledge of the objective world is true. The conclusion, that Kant is a relativist, might then seem a no-brainer, but a close look shows that this conclusion does not follow from the premise.

Kant is indeed famous for subjectifying everything at the end of an eighteenth century which sought, through empiricism, to objectify everything. What is the most basic thing about the world as we know it? Space and time. Kant meticulously argues that space and time are not “out there,” not things in the world but ways of organizing the world. They are the subjective categories through which we make sense of the otherwise inaccessible flux of reality. But crucial is the idea that they are subjective categories and not objective facts. And if space and time are subjective categories, then it follows that everything we know about the world is subjectively constructed. Or, in Kantian terms, the world we know is the phenomenal world. It turns out that our knowledge presupposes a noumenal world anterior to the phenomenal world, but we have no access to such a world – it exists for us merely as an abstract, logical prerequisite.

This radical subjectification of the human experience would seem to throw us into a dizzying relativism, but not so in Kant. Indeed, Kant tells us in his early notebooks (before the Big Three critiques – of pure reason, of practical reason, of judgment) that his whole goal is to find universals in a world that seems to have spun off into relativism. It was David Hume who had carried empiricism to its logical conclusion, using the five senses to show that we have no evidence that external reality exists. Kant felt the justice of Hume’s argument, but like many was uncomfortable with the loss of all universal reference points. He felt that there is something universal about reality, that there is some shared universe we occupy. Kant’s epiphany came when he saw that if we were to have universals, we would have to locate them subjectively, not objectively. The objective world cannot give us universals because it is, insofar as we have access to it, always already shaped by subjective categories of understanding.

So how does Kant find a universal ground for ethics? I’m not sure because the Critique of Practical Reason is the one I’m least familiar with. But I can say how he does it in regard to aesthetics (the subject of the Critique of Judgment).

A true (valid) aesthetic judgment is (1) disinterested, (2) subjective, and (3) universal. Disinterested: “The satisfaction which we combine with the representation of the existence of the object is called ‘interest.’” I.e., if the satisfaction involves a vested interest in the existence of the object, it is an interested judgment. “You’re beautiful because our sex is great” is NOT a disinterested judgment: “A judgment about beauty in which the least interest mingles, is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste.” To be freed from such interest, a judgment must be subjective: “When the question is if a thing is beautiful, we do not … depend on the existence of the thing … but … judge it by mere observation … We wish only to know if this mere representation of the object is accompanied in me with satisfaction, however indifferent I may be as regards the existence of the object of this representation.” Only a subjective judgment is truly disinterested, and thus only a subjective judgment can be universal: “For the fact of which everyone is conscious, that the satisfaction is for him quite disinterested implies in his judgment a ground of satisfaction in all men.”

So to achieve an unbiased view, you must strip away all vested interest in the existence of objects at hand. Only then can your judgment be disinterested and therefore universally valid (and by definition, then, you are viewing it subjectively, as mere “representation” without regard to its objective existence).

I assume the analogy holds for ethics. An ethical judgment, to be valid, must be universal, and it can only be universal if disinterested, and only disinterested if subjective (stripped of all self-interest in the objective reality of the representation at hand).

What my friend who started this discussion wants, Kant would say, is not an objective ground of ethics per se; he wants a universal ground of ethics. And he would do best to find it subjectively, not objectively.

6 thoughts on “Kant’s supposed relativism

  1. Questions from the pragmatic pig-pen:

    Would not true (valid) disinterest preclude judgment (of any subject) altogether?

    How can I judge any subject unless I have at least some minimal interest in understanding it, forming a judgment about it and, to compound the interest further, communicating my judgment to others?

    Following conception and prior to death, how is it possible for any human (or any sentient being, for that matter) to be truly disinterested?

    Does Kant’s universal ground survive the answers to these questions?


    • I’ll try. “Interest,” like all words, is not metaphysically attached to one meaning, but has a meaning that blurs around the edges, changes over time, and is sometimes downright ambiguous. “Interest” as you use it is synonymous with “curiosity”; Kant’s usage I believe is closer to the meaning of “material self-interest.” E.g., if you and I are browsing a gallery discussing our judgments of various paintings, we are “interested” in your sense but “disinterested” in Kant’s sense – to Kant, we are judging the paintings as phenomena processed as such by human sensory apparatus. If the paintings have some objective reality independent of the processed phenomena we see, we couldn’t care less about that. Our judgments are not concerned with that. On the other hand, if you own one of the paintings, you now have an “interest” in the Kantian sense — you care not only about what it “looks” like but you are vested in the objective existence of the painting — and your judgment is liable to be clouded. Compare it to a judge at court. Each attorney represents an interest, but the judge must be “disinterested” in the Kantian sense (although he’s very interested in your sense) if he is to judge fairly.

      This leaves much space for further give-and-take, I know, and my own aesthetic theory is in some ways compatible and in some ways incompatible with Kant, but I think that would be Kant’s next move in the dialectic.

      The idea of “disinterestedness,” by the way, was common in eighteenth-century aesthetics and ethics – the idea that one must stand aloof as a judge in court stands aloof if one is to judge well. Kant’s hook is how he makes it a function of subjectivity and not a function of the objective world.


  2. On the ethical side, I think it works this way: If you want to act morally, you have take all your own self-interest off the table and assume a viewpoint that doesn’t bend to your self-interest or any else’s. In common language, we might call this being “objective.” In Kant, “objective” is a mischaracterization of what’s going on here. What we’re really doing is laying aside all interest in the objective world (i.e., removing “real people” and their objective state from consideration so we can view the situation in the abstract), and it is only by so doing that we can reach disinterested judgments that are therefore universally valid.


    • If this were 1812 rather than 2012, I would grant you the semantic leeway to hold my place in Kant’s tent. But since Freud in the 20th century and our experience thus far in the 21st, the concept of interestedness can now be diced so finely as to make Kant’s head (and certainly mine) explode. Even the museum-goer can have a material/psychological interest in his casual judgments of the works crossing his phenomenal palate. Holding forth judgments or opinions now implies the holder’s self-interest (egoistic demonstration of intellectual prowess or simple persuasion in the interest of intellectual competition). I get where Kant comes from; he truly believes in disinterestedness. I just find it a profound rarity these days.


  3. My take on Kant is to say that Kant was as much a relativist as Niels Bohr, which is to say: NOT. Although you might think that conflicting ideas or particle-wave duality are relativistic in whatever respect, they are only relative to mind, which comes up with conflicting ideas or senses those particle-waves. This means that mind, however mathematized, is most important for Kantians (Bohr not excluded). Mind for them is an absolute position, from which we need to begin any of our explorations, whether philosophical or scientific. But, if you follow a similar line of thought, relativism itself becomes so relativistic that one completely ignores that there is some absolute, metaphysical center from which relativists must look in order to believe themselves relativistic, and this center can be mind, ego, or light.

    Oooh, I quite enjoy ‘abstract, logical prerequisite[s]’, especially of the Kantian variety, but, in my world, the prerequisite must be nothing, absolute nothing, and only that can be real in the metaphysical sense, also truly (actually) infinite and eternal. But if there is such a prerequisite, we must wonder what the heck non-transcendental idealists constantly banter about. Where is true God, in absolute nothing, like Kant thought, or is He in Heaven, such as the one visualized by Plato at the end of The Republic? Because if any visualizations are allowed, would they not become mere figments of fantasy and imagination, which, at their very core, are nothing? But if the latter were true, would not the structured reasoning of Kant contradict itself to the point that it, too, is unnecessary, as it cannot apply to everyone (or can it)? Frankly, I still don’t understand Kant sufficiently to be able to answer on this question. He is a tough nut to crack for me. Help me out, if you can. 🙂

    The ‘disinterested’ and concurrently ‘subjective’ aesthetic judgements are also hard to understand for me. I mean, unless this subjectivity is nothing but the synthecized mind itself, why should we care about criticisms that don’t reflect a critic’s nature? Are we afraid of generating conflicts? No, I don’t think that the case. So what then? Do we really want to be ‘scientific’ (in the Kantian sense) about art? As for me, I want to express myself as much through criticism of art as through my own art. I think that’s another point of the path in which Kant and I diverge. On the other hand, our understandings of ‘subject’ are different. I think that a subject can only be a subject of something, rather than its own self, however ‘universal’ and ‘disinterested’ it may seem. I don’t remember exactly who spoke about consciousness being consciousness of something (related to the world outside), besides Objectivists. Was it Francis Bacon?

    Now, if by ‘disinterest,’ Kant meant non-attachment to surrounding objects, then that’s good, but I cannot understand this in relation to aesthetics. I mean, isn’t aesthetics, a priori, a field in which we express our interest in the objects of art whose existence lifts or lowers our spirits? I’ve never read Crit#3, so I am stumbling in the dark here. I am in the similar position as the first commenter (StKitt).

    Judging from your reply, I wouldn’t, however, say that ‘interest’ and ‘curiosity’ are equivalent, materially or not, to judgements of art. The human interest in art is indeed much deeper than mere curiosity. It is emotionally that we may feel when we judge a work of art. What kind of emotions does the work produce in us? If it is only curiosity, then we are surely not being serious enough about the art we decide to evaluate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes to non-relativist and primacy of mind. Kant is a tough nut for everyone to crack. In the case of judgment, a “subjective” judgment is one that is removed from any interest in the objective existence of the thing being judged. Take aesthetic judgment. There’s the thing, then there’s the image in my mind presumably based on the thing. The image in my mind may or may not resemble the thing. The thing may not even exist for all I know. When I judge the artwork beautiful, I’m basing that on the representation of the thing in my mind, without regard to what it might be like independently of the human mind (or whether it objectively exists as such). So my judgment is subjective – removed from any ground in the objective existence of the thing. I don’t know if “scientific” is exactly right for Kant’s aesthetics – “formalist” yes, with attention to the arrangement of perceived features, but not “scientific” in the sense of an empirical grounding in the objective world.

      Per “interest,” you can upgrade “curiosity” if you like, so long as you recognize that it has two meanings – one let’s say “seriously alert and attentive” and the other “material self-interest” – see my example of the judge. Each attorney represents an interest, but the judge must be “disinterested” in the Kantian sense (although he’s very interested in “alert and attentive” sense) if he is to judge fairly. When we form judgments about art, for Kant, to the extent that we form them like the courtroom judge – i.e., without an apriori self-interest to lean on way or the other – our judgments are universalizable. To the extent that they are clouded by self-interest, they are not universalizable.

      For the rest, you know more than I 🙂


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