Saturday, March 12, 2005

Informed consent

In The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno trope on Kant’s schematism of the categories, a crucial feature of his theory of mental activity, in order to say some things about false consciousness; that is the topic of this post. If you’re not interested in a digression through the Kantian background, please scroll through the following until you read again the names of Horkheimer and Adorno. You won’t miss much, I promise, for what follows is not so much a gloss of Kant’s schematism as a personal attempt to remember what it was I thought I was thinking when I used to read Kant, which, in spite of an impression one might reasonably derive from this page’s name, I don’t do very much these days. (An upcoming post might address the poetics of this name and adduce reasons for rejecting several others.)

Let’s begin with a familiar question from speculative philosophy of mind: how is it that our experience of the world can be rendered in language? One form of response goes something like this: our experience is already structured in such a way as to be taken up into language; the apparent heterogeneity or difference of medium between experience and language is illusory. We don’t have worry about explaining how language could be fitted to raw sensory input, because raw sensory input is no part of our experience of the world. We may introduce original, unprocessed impressions as explanatory posits in a theory of mental activity, but that’s not the same as saying that they’re phenomenologically available elements of our perception. What we experience—what shows up for us, as opposed to what merely happens in the brain—is already conceptually articulated and as such is amenable to linguistic expression. What we don’t experience—whatever it is that physically goes on in the dark back there—is a matter for empirical neuroscience, computational theory, etc., and no concern of philosophy, which starts and stops with the experience of humans in a world of humans.

One can read the Schematism chapter of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as addressing this issue, the apparent incommensurability of perception and thought. Let us consider first an empirical judgment like the plate is circular. Our ability to hold together in a single thought the representation of a particular individual we encounter in experience (the plate) and a general concept that applies to several individuals (circular) depends on a couple things. We must have mastery of the basic logical move of subsuming the particular under the general. And there must be something common to our empirical intuition of the plate and the geometrical concept of a circle that facilitates this particular subsumption—some common content that mediates these very different kinds of representation—in this case, roundness: “The roundness which is thought in the latter can be intuited in the former.”

When, however, we make judgments that subsume particular things under pure categories of the understanding—in judging, say, that the hammer caused the piggy bank to shatter—the situation becomes a good deal stickier. What content could our empirical representation of individuals have in common with concepts that we can encounter neither in empirical nor pure intuition? This is the problem Kant sets himself in “The Schematism of the Pure Concepts of Understanding.” The solution lies in a peculiar operation of the imagination that generates special representations—schemata of the categories—that are sensible as well as intelligible. These representations, though lacking empirical content, bear on empirical things because they share their sensible form, yet they are suitably abstract for the needs of the understanding. We don’t encounter the pure concept of reality in experience, but we do encounter its schema, themagnitude of a sensation during a period of time. We don’t encounter causality, but we do encounter events that always follow upon certain other events, or, schematically expressed, therule-governed succession of experiences. These schemata are a function of the imagination, which is tasked with shaping our experiences so as to fit the forms of logical thought.

Here’s Horkheimer and Adorno on this seemingly magical operation:
According to Kant, the homogeneity of the general and the particular is guaranteed by the “schematism of pure understanding,” by which he means the unconscious activity of the intellectual mechanism which structures perception in accordance with the understanding. The intelligibility which subjective judgment discovers in any matter is imprinted on that matter by the intellect as an objective quality before it enters the ego.
Let’s not worry about whether this is metaphysically true, or even a good summary of what Kant says. What’s important to Horkheimer and Adorno is the idea of a sort of representation that mediates between the particular and the general so as to ensure that the former conforms to the demands of the latter. You see where this is going:
The true nature of the schematism which externally coordinates the universal and the particular, the concept and the individual case, finally turns out, in current science, to be the interest of industrial society.
Our particular experiences are uncannily well-served by our powers of expression, as are our desires by markets and our interests by our elected officials—and not just because the general is condescending to the particular. Rather, the particular is produced according to the needs of the general; it always already contains its directives. And since the general is partially constitutive of the particular and not an accidental part of it, the execution of its directives is in a sense a spontaneous and original action. This is the scary thought: your desires are yours, and they are real, no matter how much external work goes into their manufacture. For those who are invested in our conformity to adopt a posture of deference toward our preferences, as if they sprung freely from our hearts or rationally from our minds—this flatters our sense of self-determination (the desire for which I believe is real and basic, no matter what ideological cast it is given) at the same time it obstructs its realization.
The shamelessness of the rhetorical question “What do people want?” lies in the fact that it appeals to the very people as thinking subjects whose subjectivity it specifically seeks to annul.
I promised last time to reconsider Kant’s definition of enlightenment, and now we’re in position to get picky about the “self-incurred” part of “the emergence of a person from self-incurred minority.” While it's got to be true that one’s own emergence from intellectual minority requires self-directed, active thought, no matter what institutions or norms are in place to support it, calling the predicament of being unable to speak authentically for oneself “self-incurred” ignores the powerful factions who take great interest in our intellectual dependence and spend massive sums to sustain it—not to mention the impersonal currents in social life that foster our minority, the shapes of which currents are way harder to trace than the motives of those agents who manufacture consent.


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