3 Sep 2013: Review of Strawson’s Book “The Bounds of Sense”

A review (submitted to Amazon 3 Sep 2013) of PF Strawson’s book on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, “The Bounds of Sense”. Routledge 2002.

Strawson is overly creative in his reading of Kant, for it’s axiomatic (well, it is to me) that doing the history of philosophy including monographs on individual philosophers is itself philosophical whence the popular illusion that philosophers cannot stop arguing and make no progress. They stop arguing when they are dead, like natural scientists in Steven Kuhn’s account in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn 2012). And, they make progress, especially in the sense that each philosopher reads many of her predecessors, except for Ayn Rand, about whom the less said, the better.

Strawson’s Kant is a straw man.

Strawson’s review is dismissive and savage, filled with what seems to be a postwar hatred of German philosophers. A “fallacy of numbing grossness” is memorable and perhaps drew laffs down at Oxford, but Kant doesn’t do anything of numbing grossness. What was numbingly gross was Strawson’s apparent ignorance, that could have been rectified in minutes, of the fact that there are two editions of the Critique. It’s as numbingly gross an error as some Tea Partier here in America confusing the Articles of Confederation (circa 1781, the year of the first edition of the Critique) with our Constitution (1789, the year of the second edition of the Critique).

Dieter Henrich made a significant post-Strawson contribution to the forward progress of philosophy in Henrich 1969. Simply by including the 1787 edition in his analysis, Henrich created the neo-realist understanding of Kant, replacing the oversimplified idealist understanding in effect almost from 1781 to 1969.

Strawson creates an idealist strawman out of Kant whom we need not read (or read because we care about Strawson not about Kant), because at the time of his writing Bounds of Sense, Strawson was more interested in crafting his own analytic metaphysics…as were many philosophers of the 1960s.

Metaphysics was back in fashion because the anti-metaphysical, logical positivist generation of the 1930s was realizing something Kant recognized early, in reading Hume: denialist or reductionist metaphysics is still metaphysics. To deny castles in the air is precisely the same sort of activity as creating castles in the air.

[For more on this, cf. Bergmann 1978. The title is elegant: “The Metaphysics of Logical Positivism”. ]

Strawson bases his account of Kant on the 1781 edition of the Critique and altho this was a common error (Heidegger also did this), Henrich and a bit later Paul Guyer, now the leading Kant scholar in the world (Guyer 2010), based their neo-realist reading on the 1787 edition and a close reading of the most difficult part of a difficult work, the Transcendental Deduction.

The preceding chapter, the “Clue” or “Metaphysical Deduction” is reasonably accessible:

An intuition of sense is a judgement:

We don’t think “red” as a noun like a computer (would if a computer could “think” which it cannot):

We think the sentence “I see red” and we could be wrong: this is a *judgement* because (1) it is a complete sentence and (2) it could be false, we may not see “red”, we may be color-blind and not know it.

However, the next chapter or “Transcendental Deduction” is even post-Henrich still not fully understood and can drive you nuts. It is unlikely that Kant himself fully understood what Kant was talking about, and this was no vice, it was “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.

I have pointed out elsethread (https://spinoza1111.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/28-aug-2013-home-of-the-whopper/) that part of the reason for Kant’s infamous prolixity, verbosity and obfuscation is that (as in a little noticed sentence of *150 German words* on p. 712 of the 1787 edition: on p. 613 of Kant 1998: I call this sentence “the whopper”) Kant lacks a language, a language that was created post-Kant based on his own “boldly going”. This I call the “tragedy of Kant’s tools”.

Kant, in the “whopper” sentence, is struggling to parse the distinction Kant himself discovered but could not express: between a Platonic infinity specified as complete (often using the excluded middle), and an “intuitionist” infinity specified by a stepwise rule, usually recursive. At the time Kant wrote, this distinction didn’t exist. It wasn’t made until the twentieth century by the “mathematical intuitionists” Brouwer and Heyting…who based their distinction on Kant’s work! (Korner 1986).

In addition, the Logical Positivists, notably Rudolf Carnap, were heavily influenced by Kant who on the Continent was part of the philosophical, and, France, sociological, curriculum. Kant could have done with some symbolism to render his arguments less prolix but the use of symbolism was unknown in philosophy (outside Leibniz) until Boole. Again, Kant’s descendants developed tools that Kant himself would have used.

The Transcendental Deduction mess of 1781 was partly cleaned up in the Prolegomena and completely, as far as it was possible given the tragedy of Kant’s tools; but both Strawson and Heidegger lacked sufficient intellectual humility to see that since doing the history of philosophy is philosophy, the same rigor applies to both activities.

The bottom line? Don’t read The Bounds of Sense if you’re into Kant, read it if you’re into Strawson, an important metaphysician in his own right. And a word to professors: don’t adopt this book for a class on Kant or the Critique. University students pay too much for textbooks as it is.

More generally, since doing philosophical history including monographs is itself doing philosophy, use primary sources and RTFM, read the f*g primary source. This means the Critique itself preferably in German or a literal translation such as has been provided by Paul Guyer et al. (Kant 1998).

You won’t understand it on the first, perhaps on the tenth, reading. But instead of buying books sold by profit-seeking publishers, who have in this book’s case mislabeled The Bounds of Sense as a book about Kant, take a look at Dell Adams’ excellent Amazon review of the Critique, “How to Get Your Money’s Worth from this Book” (Adams 2001). The only book outside Kant that Dell recommends is Kant 2010, “The Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics”, which Kant wrote in 1782 when it appeared that many people were misreading the Critique as a crudely Berkeleyan denial of the reality of an external world. Kant was wounded by this accusation and the Prolegomena was his initial reply. The Prolegomena is Kant at his finest, urbane and elegant especially as compared to the Critique itself.

But beyond this there’s only sitzfleisch, that is enough Germanic butt fat (or a nice pillow) to sit down and understand Kant. Consider yourself fortunate, if you’re reading the Critique as part of a class, to be able to do so as opposed to working for some bonehead to pay school loans. If you’re doing so at Brown University under Prof. Paul Guyer, consider yourself blessed. But Strawson is not a good teacher when it comes to Kant.


Adams 2001: Dell Adams, “How to get your money’s worth from this book”, Amazon review, http://www.amazon.com/Critique-Reason-Cambridge-Works-Immanuel/dp/0521657296/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1378198975&sr=1-1&keywords=critique+of+pure+reason

Bergmann 1978: Gustav Bergmann, The Metaphysics of Logical Positivism. Praeger.

Guyer 2010: Paul Guyer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

Henrich 1969: Dieter Henrich, “The Proof Structure of Kant’s Transcendental Deduction”, Review of Metaphysics

Kant 1998: Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood, tr.: Cambridge University Press.

Kant 2010: Immanuel Kant, “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics”: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdf/kantprol.pdf

Korner 1986. Stephan Korner, “The Philosophy of Mathematics: an Introductory Essay”. Dover.

Kuhn 2012: Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: University of Chicago Press.

Nilges 2013: Edward G. Nilges, “Home of the Whopper”. https://spinoza1111.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/28-aug-2013-home-of-the-whopper/

2 Responses to “3 Sep 2013: Review of Strawson’s Book “The Bounds of Sense””

  1. spinoza1111 Says:

    (Sigh). Amazon won’t publish my review. It probably stands too tall and proud. We can’t have that from the little people. And who IS this Nilges guy? Don’t give him space any more.

    Here’s my email to Amazon:

    I need specific reasons from you so I can fix the review. I have been submitting reviews with no problem since 2000.

    In view of the half-literate and vulgar filth that ordinarily passes for a review on Amazon without censorship:

    In view of the organized attacks on authors mounted by personal enemies:

    In view of the misuse of your site by corporations:

    In view of the organized filth who attacked my book at its Amazon site (Edwatd G. Nilges, Build Your Own .Net Language and Compiler):

    In view of the fact that you have done nothing about that troll attack despite my request:

    I am asking that you do me the courtesy of more, far more in fact, detail ahout precisely what is “objectionable” about a review with citations, without the stupid errors in orthography and grammar one so often sees in so many reviews on Amazon, a review you should bloody well pay me for.

    I am very well aware of the way Amazon employs third parties to abuse the bodies of the people who fulfill your orders and for this reason I have ceased purchasing thru Amazon (as you can see on your records). But as virtual, if voluntary, slave labor, I have helped your site with reviews since 2000. So do me the courtesy of either posting this review, or else telling me precisely what I need to change. NOW.

    Edward G. Nilges

  2. spinoza1111 Says:

    (Sigh). When will I learn? I can publish here, or if not here, somewhere else, easily enough. And some people will get my message, most will not. The magic occurs not later when you’re followed as in the Emily Dickinson poem about notoriety, by “an admiring bog” but by a small number of adepts who get it.

    “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them: under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

    Matthew 7.6

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