III Nature

The Role of Regulative Principles and Their Relation to Reflective Judgement

This chapter takes cues from insightful views that Gary Banham formulates about the different notions of ‘regulative’ in the Critique of Pure Reason (CPR), as well as the notion of reflective judgement in the Critique of Judgement (CJ).2 The theme which connects these topics is that of unity. In the Transcendental Analytic of the CPR, the dynamical principles play a regulative role for the unity of experience. In the Transcendental Dialectic of the CPR, it is the projected unity of nature that is at stake, with the ideas of reason playing a regulative role by providing maxims for the employment of our understanding. In the CJ, this unity of nature is further characterised through the concept of purposiveness that guides the reflective use of the faculty of judgement.3

The following questions which Banham addresses in his writings are discussed in this chapter: how can the notion of regulative principle used to describe the Dynamical Principles in the Analytic inform our understanding of the regulative principles of the Dialectic? What is the transcendental status of the latter? How are these principles related to the account of reflective judgement Kant gives in the CJ? Given the scope of these questions, this chapter cannot claim to cover more than some aspects of the issues they raise, and the focus will be upon seeking a consistent account in which novel interpretative perspectives upon these questions are proposed.

The Appendix to the Transcendental Dialectic: Logical, Weak and Strong Objective Principles

In the Appendix to the Transcendental Dialectic, Kant discusses the ‘regulative use of the ideas of pure reason’ (A642/B670), which introduces a positive perspective on these ideas. The Dialectic had shown that the ideas of reason, when used in an ‘extravagant’ (A643/B671) way, give rise to paralogisms (about the soul), antinomies (about the world) or ungrounded knowledge claims about God. The source of the problem was the ‘transcendent’ use of the ideas whereby they were ‘taken for concepts of real things’ (ibid.). It is in his resolution of the Antinomies that Kant first introduces the notion of the ‘regulative principle of reason’ (A508/B536). These regulative principles are directed at extending our knowledge by looking for further spatial regions, further causes for a given event and so on in all cases, with the aim of asymptotically approaching an unconditioned.4

This notion of regulative principle is at the heart of Kant’s identification of a positive role for the ideas of reason. Kant’s motivation for investigating the positive use of these ideas stems from his conviction that ‘[everything grounded in the nature of our powers must be purposive and consistent with their correct use [. . .] [so that] the transcendental ideas will presumably have a good and consequently immanent use’ (A642-643/B670-671). This claim of purposiveness is also present in Kant’s moral philosophy: for Kant, we take it as an axiom that ‘[i]n the natural constitution of an organized being [. . .] no organ will be found for any purpose which is not the fittest and best adapted to that purpose’.5 In both cases, the primary purpose of these claims is to guide the transcendental investigation.

Kant thus considers the nature of the faculty of reason as a faculty of systematisation (A645/B673) and examines the ‘hypothetical use’ of reason (A647/B675) which assumes a systematic unity ‘of the manifold of the understanding’s cognition’ (A648/B676). That is, a unity of cognition is projected and a heuristic is defined around it to enable the project of systematisation to proceed. Kant identifies three heuristic principles: ‘a principle of sameness of kind in the manifold under higher genera, [. . .] a principle of the variety of what is same in kind under lower species, [. . .] another law of the affinity of all concepts, which offers a continuous transition from every species to every other’ (A657-658/ B685-686).

  • 1. Kant’s first claim about these principles, which he characterises as regulative, is that they bring unity to the cognitions of the understanding ‘as far as possible and thereby approximating the rule to universality’ (A647/B675):6 in this role, these principles are essential to the progress of our cognition. This claim is generally considered fairly unproblematic, insofar as it reflects the positive role that projecting a unity of knowledge plays in the pursuit of knowledge. To illustrate this, Kant provides a good example at A686/B714, where the idea of God is seen to foster further investigation into the astronomical implications of the flattened shape of our planet.7 The systematic unity which is posited in this hypothetical use of reason is described by Kant as a ‘logical principle’ (A648/B676).
  • 2. Kant then asks whether it is also a ‘transcendental principle of reason, which would make systematic unity not merely something subjectively and logically necessary, as method, but objectively necessary’ (ibid.) And Kant’s answer to that question will be positive. Kant uses an example to show that the systematic unity that reason presupposes holds in reality (A650/B678).

Kant’s second claim is therefore that the systematic unity that is posited by these regulative principles is not merely logical but also objective. This defines a transcendental principle, the Systematic Unity of Nature (SUN; A650-651/B678-679).

Kant does not offer much of an argument for this objective status but merely indicates that ‘it cannot even be seen how there could be a logical principle of rational unity among rules unless a transcendental principle is presupposed, through which such a systematic unity, as pertaining to the object itself, is assumed a priori as necessary’ (A650-651/B678-679). One might feel that this is not enough to achieve Kant’s aim here, which is to support the claim that the principle of the systematic unity of nature is a transcendental principle, that is, is objectively necessary. This is not overly convincing: what if reason found it useful, to advance knowledge, to posit some fictions? And, indeed, some of Kant’s language seems to endorse that possibility (A681/B709). One does get the impression that Kant himself is not convinced by the strength of the case he has made for this point, because he finds it necessary to refer to how widespread the endorsement of this principle has been in philosophy (A652-653/ B680-681).

3. Interestingly, Kant’s tactic is to support the second claim (which one might call the weak objective principle) by making a stronger one as to the purported transcendental function of such systematic unity. Kant’s third claim is thus that ‘the law of reason to seek unity is necessary, since without it we would have no reason, and without that, no coherent use of the understanding’ (A651/B679), or as he puts it, ‘without it no empirical concepts and hence no experience would be possible’ (A654/B682).8

This progression in the description of the function of this systematic unity lies at the heart of much controversy in Kantian scholarship. Following Abela, Banham describes the problem as the ‘central question that has bedevilled interpretation of Kant’s treatment of the regulative use of ideas of pure reason. Are these ideas to be understood only as heuristic or do they also have some kind of “realist” status?” If the first, then the problem lies in explaining Kant’s statements at A650ff/B678ff, where the principle of the unity of nature seems a requirement for cognition and therefore is seemingly assigned a ‘realist’ status. If the second, the problem arises from Kant’s earlier claim in the Introduction to the Transcendental Dialectic that such a principle ‘does not prescribe any law to objects, and does not contain the ground of possibility of cognising and determining them as such in general’ (A306/B362).

And if a realist status is granted to SUN, the further claim that it is a necessary condition of objective knowledge would seem to clash with the completeness of the Transcendental Aesthetic and Transcendental Analytic which, culminating in the Principles of the Pure Understanding, provide all the transcendental conditions accounting for our cognition of objects (A21/B36, A148/B188, B198/A159).

There are two important strands in the literature which define the responses to these two problems. A first response involves endorsing the idea that this principle is more than a heuristic one, that is, that it is indeed a transcendental one but rejecting the stronger claim that it is a principle of the possibility of experience.10 This amounts to what one might call a weak interpretation of the notion of transcendental condition. This solution has little to offer to explain how it is that Kant clearly states that this principle is a ‘necessary law’ without which we would have ‘no coherent use of the understanding’ (A651/B679) and ‘no experience would be possible’ (A654/B682).

A second response to this problem involves opting for an understanding of this principle as essentially heuristic and playing down any realist implications of the necessity it is endowed with.11 The problem this option encounters is that Kant explicitly distinguishes the regulative principles from a useful ‘device of reason’ (A653/B681) and further when he differentiates between ‘heuristic fictions’ and the regulative principles they serve to ground (A771/B799), as Banham points out.12 According to Banham, ‘[t]he advocates of a general heuristic approach to the regulative use of the ideas of pure reason must essentially reject the position that Kant states’13 when he says that without such regulative principles ‘no experience would be possible’ (A654/B682).

In this chapter, I shall follow Banham in defending an interpretation which upholds a strong version of the transcendental principle, that is, the claim that SUN is an objective principle which is required for the cognition of objects. To do so, a detour via an analysis of the commonalities between the two senses of ‘regulative’ found in the Analytic and the Dialectic will help us understand the move to a strong version of SUN.

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