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Immanuel Kant and the origin of the dialectic.

The Copernican Revolution.

Dialectic and Aesthetics:
Adorno on Modern Music 2




IMMANUEL KANT WROTE at a time when the natural sciences, having broken away from philosophy, achieved spectacular progress. By contrast, Metaphysics, was ‘…for so many centuries…nothing but a process of merely random groping.’ The objective of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was to do as Copernicus had done in astronomy: to recast a whole new approach in philosophy. It was only a framework, and it remained for a Newton to fill in the detail.

According to Kant, philosophy had been at an impasse. It had not advanced beyond ‘the ancients’, with two remaining opposed views, those of Epicurus and Plato. Essentially, it was a debate between the Empiricists — Epicurus first, later Aristotle — and the Transcendentalist, Plato and his Pure Forms. Because the Greeks anticipated most things in philosophy, it is not surprising that the concept of the dialectic starts with them. In modern philosophy, Hegel credits Kant with its rediscovery. It is through a dialectical argument that he tries to navigate the impasse between Epicurus and Plato, and outline the foundations for a science of philosophy.

Drawing out the implications of a distinction between phenomena, or things for us, and noumena, or things in themselves, is Kant’s Copernican revolution.

Drawing out the implications of a distinction between phenomena, or things for us, and noumena, or things in themselves, is Kant’s Copernican revolution. By contending the earth revolves around the sun, and not the sun around the earth, Copernicus established the possibility of astronomy. By denying the priority of the object, then supposing ‘…that objects must conform to our knowledge’, Kant follows ‘…precisely on the lines of Copernicus…’ and establishes the possibility of advances in metaphysics. When an astronomer fails to explain ‘…the movements of heavenly bodies…he might not have better success if he made the spectator to revolve and the stars to remain at rest.’ When a philosopher fails in metaphysics, cannot this be overcome by reversing the priority of object over subject, where, ‘Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects.’ Kant develops this argument, by saying:

If intuition must confirm the constitution of objects, I do not see how we could know anything of the latter a priori; but if the object (as object of the senses) must confirm to the constitution of our faculty of intuition, I have no difficulty in conceiving such a possibility.

In other words, metaphysics is only possible because intuition comes first. It lifts metaphysics from ‘mere random groping’ and is the basis of our understanding of phenomena, or things for us.

The phenomena of the natural world are objects of experience. Things for us, can be known by us because they conform to our concepts. This is a point made much later by philosophers of science, such as Karl Popper. In his language, theoretical interpretations are logically prior to observations. Kant’s way of expressing this point can be seen as a paraphrase of Popper. ‘In natural science…there is endless conjecture, and certainty is not to be counted upon.’ Kant develops these points in the following way.

…experience is itself a species of knowledge which involves understanding; and understanding has rules which I must presuppose as being in me prior to objects being given to me, and therefore as being a priori.

He continues, by bringing out the metaphysical implications of this, by stating:

They find expression in a priori concepts to which all objects of experience necessarily conform, and with which they must agree.1

This was Kant’s transcendental conclusion, and his solution to Hume’s problem of induction. It was challenged, of course, by realists. For example, in his early philosophical studies, Popper considered Kant’s Critique, and concluded he

…had been right when he said that it was…a copy or impression of reality…that knowledge was genetically or psychologically a priori, but quite wrong to suppose that any knowledge could be a priori valid.2

Parmenidian Monism and Socratic Pluralism.

FROM THESE PREPARATORY remarks on Kant’s project, and before outlining his dialectical solution, it is first necessary to return to the source of his problem and the dispute between Empiricism and Transcendentalism. Kant begins with Zeno, a participant in Plato’s Parmenides. Originally written as a straight narrative, John Warrington’s translation is presented as a dialogue. It has two parts. In the first, shorter section, Zeno — a forty-year-old student of Parmenides, and twenty years his younger — joins his teacher’s questioning of Socrates explication of an earlier version of Plato’s theory of Forms. It centres on the problem of the One and the Many, the metaphysical dispute between Monism and Pluralism. Some had questioned Parmenidian Monism,3 because ‘…many absurdities are involved which contradict the argument itself.’ This is Zeno’s reply:

My treatise…is directed against those who assert a plurality. It pays them in their own coin with a vengeance; and it is meant to show that their hypothesis (‘Reality is Many’), when closely examined, involves yet greater absurdities than our assumption of the One.

It remained for Parmenides to draw out the complexities in this debate. First, the sensibility of the material world and their possible relations must be explored. Then there are the universal predicates, Plato’s theory of Forms, and their relationship to the natural world. Finally there are the relations within and between the Forms. Parmenides starts to summarise this for Socrates at the end of the first section.

First inquire what will be its consequences for (a) the many in relation to (i) one another and (ii) the one, and for (b) the one in relation to (i) itself and (ii) the many. Next, ask yourself what will be the consequences if reality is not many, as regards (a) the one and (b) the many, relative (i) to themselves and (ii) to each other.

Parmenides continues, with even more complexity, warning this will turn out to a ‘stupendous task’. So he pleads with Socrates, is he not ‘…asking a great deal of a man as old as I…’? Because the younger Zeno is clearly not up to the ‘magnitude of the task’, Parmenides, ‘rather like an aged horse’, obliges.

In Warrington’s translation this is presented as ‘Eight Antinomies on the One and the Many’. Much later, in the history of philosophy, Kant himself presents a series of antinomies as part of his dialectic. In Plato’s case, however, some have suggested this labyrinth is a satire, because the antinomies, if true, destroy both Parmenides’ Monism as well as Socrates’ Pluralism. What is accepted is that Plato’s dialogue is the first presentation of the dialectical method. John Burnet, in Early Greek Philosophy, sums its up like this. The method of Zeno was, in fact, to take one of his adversaries fundamental postulates and deduce from it two contradictory conclusions. He continues:

This is what Aristotle meant by calling him the inventor of dialectic, which is just the art of arguing, not from true premises, but from premises admitted by the other side. The theory of Parmenides had led to conclusions which contradicted the evidence of the senses, and Zeno’s object was not to bring fresh proofs of the theory itself, but simply to show that his opponents’ views led to contradictions of a precisely similar nature.4

The Dialectic in Kant.

KANT’S READING OF the history of the dialectic is as follows:

Zeno of Elea, a subtle dialectician, was severely reprimanded by Plato as a mischievous sophist who, to show his skill, would set out to prove a proposition through convincing arguments and then immediately overthrow them by other arguments equally strong.

These two arguments Kant called the thesis and the antithesis. And he goes on:

To critics of his procedure he appeared to have the absurd intention of denying both of two mutually contradictory propositions.

Kant’s analysis then proceeds to show why they were not ‘contradictory opposites’. Although the notion of contradiction has become entwined with the notion of a dialectic since, Kant was of the view that dialectic, as a form of ‘opposition’, between thesis and antithesis, is not necessarily a contradiction because,

…two dialectically opposed judgments both may be false; for the one is not mere contradictory of the other, but says something more than is required for a simple contradiction.

In short, dialectical opposition is not simply proposing P, the thesis, and not P, the antithesis. Nor is there the suggestion that the Law of Excluded Middle does not hold; that something can be both P and not P.

The notion of dialectic first appears in Kant, in the Preface of the Second Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, as a form of pure a priori knowledge. It is presented as a thought experiment, or an experiment of pure reason. According to Kant, our knowledge of things for us, that is appearances, is distinct from our knowledge of things in themselves. Although its reference is the ontological distinction between phenomena and noumena, it is the epistemological claim that these two classes of objects are clearly heterogeneous. Accordingly, if an attempt is made to combine the two in harmony — to draw a synthesis — the combination can only be attained by accepting the initial heterogeneity. So, if the distinction is accepted, a synthesis must be denied.

The place of ‘contradiction’ in Kant’s dialectic is quite consistent with the rules of traditional logic. Although reason demands things in themselves as ‘unconditioned’, such knowledge, Kant believed, ‘cannot be thought without contradiction’ of the empirical notion of things for us. These are conditioned and within the appearance of a causal framework. But as soon as we recognise these different forms of knowledge are heterogeneous, ‘the contradiction vanishes’.

The Logic of Illusion.

THESE INTRODUCTORY REMARKS about the dialectic are explored by Kant in most of the second half of the Critique of Pure Reason. In this handbook for revolution, it is called the ‘Transcendental Dialectic’. He begins and ends by describing the dialectic as a ‘logic of illusion’. This is not an illusion, from the senses, of empirical understanding — such as the moon appears larger as it rises. It has nothing to do with appearances. ‘For truth or illusion is not in the object…but in the judgment about it…’ It is an epistemological claim about the subject. ‘The transcendental dialectic will…content itself with exposing the illusions of transcendental judgments…’ Through this logic these deceptions, or tricks, are exposed, though in so doing they can never be eliminated. This is similar to the empirical world, where the moon appears larger as it rises, even though we know this not to be the case. In the history of philosophy there are four antinomies that have never been resolved. The dialectic provides a resolution.

These antinomies — the thesis and antithesis — are distilled from his four ontological categories. From quantity, there is the antinomy between the finite and the infinite. The thesis contends ‘the world has a beginning in time and limited in space.’ The antithesis contends the world has no beginning and no end. From quality, there is the opposition between parts and the whole. The thesis contends everything is divisible by simple parts. The antithesis contends the ’composite thing’ is the whole and not divisible into parts. From relation, there is the dispute between freewill and causation. The thesis contends causality of nature is distinct from the causality of freedom. The antithesis contends there is no freedom because everything is subject to the laws of nature. From modality, there is the conflict between an ultimate being and nothingness. The thesis contends an ultimate being is a necessary part, or cause, of the world. The antithesis contends ‘an absolute necessary being nowhere exists’.

Kant’s resolution of the four antinomies rests on an epistemological distinction between pure reason and understanding. Because understanding is rooted in the phenomenal world, of the empirical and the senses, the only unity to be achieved — a resolution between thesis and antithesis — will be a synthesis of appearances. This is not a successful unity, however, but an illusion. Appearances always fall into contradictions and the antinomy remains. Reason, as a transcendental principle, is ‘…an idea which can never be reconciled with appearances.’ Because

Reason does not really generate any concept. The most it can do is to free a concept of understanding from the unavoidable limitations of possible experience, and so to endeavour to extend it beyond the limits of the empirical…

In so doing, the antinomy is shown to be an illusion, and a resolution can be made in this ‘dialectical battlefield’ between the thesis of Transcendentalism and the antithesis of Empiricism.

Infinite regress arguments, as applied to both the thesis and the antithesis, are now marshalled. It proves the unavoidability of the antinomies and the reason why a synthesis cannot be reached. Take the example of the first antinomy, as illustrative of these arguments. If the world has no beginning and no end, as the empiricist’s antithesis contends, then it is conceptually too large to prove their point. A ‘…successive regress, can never reach the whole of eternity that has elapsed’ to show that there was no beginning. The reason for the application of this regress is to prove the antithesis cannot be established through empirical understanding. A similar regress argument can be applied to the thesis. If the world has a beginning in time and limited in space, then in the empirical regress, the world is conceptually too small for empirical understanding.

For since the beginning still presupposes a time which precedes it, it is still not unconditioned; and the law of the empirical employment of the understanding therefore obliges us to look for a higher temporal condition; and the world (as limited in time) is therefore obviously too small for this law.

To put it another way, Kant suggests:

If it is infinite and unlimited, it is too large for any possible empirical concept. If it is finite and limited, we have a right to ask what determines these limits.

Regress arguments apply to the antinomies because both alternatives are not mutually contradictory positions, but assume the synthesis will be empirical. By introducing the epistemic distinction between noumena and phenomena, Kant applies his ‘Transcendental Dialectic’ to uncover the illusions and resolve the antinomy.

With the antinomy between the thesis, that the world is finite, and the antithesis, that it is infinite,

…we are assuming that the world, the complete series of appearances, is a thing in itself that remains even if I suspend the infinite or the finite  regress in the series of its appearances.

That appearances are ‘things in themselves’ is, however, a transcendental illusion. Things in themselves cannot be known by us through appearances. Therefore, we cannot conclude that they are either finite or infinite. Kant elaborates:

Since the world does not exist in itself, independently of the regressive series of my representations, it exist in itself neither as an infinite whole nor as a finite whole. It exists only in the empirical regress of the series of appearances, and it not to be met with as something in itself.

With the illusion exposed, the antinomy thus vanishes.

…it is merely dialectical, and that it is a conflict due to an illusion which arises from our applying to appearances that exist only in our representations, and therefore, so far as they form a series…in a successive regress, that idea of absolute totality which holds only as a condition of things in themselves.

These infinite regress arguments are part of Kant’s transcendental method. With Adorno’s ‘feet squarely on the ground’, as he puts it, his ‘dialectical battlefield’ is on different terrain. There are, however, a number of common strategies – the thesis, the antithesis and the rejection of a synthesis, antinomies and the logic of illusions – that are deployed by Adorno in his empirical analysis of music.

Second in a series.

Dr Tronn Overend is the author of Social Idealism and the Problem of Objectivity (Queensland University Press, 1983) and the author of numerous articles on social theory and the philosophy of the social sciences. His essay “An Objective Theory of Modernist Aesthetics” appeared in The Fortnightly Review in 2018; his essay “The Beginning and the End of Art…in Tasmania” followed in 2019.


  1. For quoted material from Kant, see Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. Macmillan and Co. London.1933.
  2. ‘Autobiography’ in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, Vol. 1. The Library of Living Philosophers. Edited by Paul Schilpp. The Open Court Publishing Corp. Illinois. 1974:46.
  3. Plato. Parmenides and other Dialogues, Translated by John Warrington. Everyman’s Library. J M Dent & Sons. Ltd. London. 1969: 3.
  4. John Burnet. Early Greek Philosophy. Adam & Charles Black. London. 1971: 313-314.

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