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Kant on Subjectivity and Self-Consciousness

  • Author(s): Sethi, Janum
  • Advisor(s): Warren, Daniel
  • Ginsborg, Hannah
  • et al.

Kant on Subjectivity and Self-Consciousness

by Janum Sethi

Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Hannah Ginsborg, co-chair

Professor Daniel Warren, co-chair

With his ambitious argument in the Transcendental Deduction, Kant claims to have established that a certain purely formal self-consciousness -- the mere consciousness that my thoughts and judgments are mine -- guarantees the objectivity of those thoughts and judgments,that is, their claim to represent the world as it is. But this intended conclusion gives rise to two questions:

(1) If merely being conscious that my thoughts are mine guarantees their objectivity, does Kant mean to deny that I can ever be conscious of thoughts that are subjective?

(2) Does Kant's apparently exclusive focus on formal self-conscious-ness in the Deduction mean that this is the only way he thinks a cognitive subject can be conscious of herself?

Both questions can be seen as versions of a more general worry about whether a robust account of subjectivity is compatible with Kant's description of cognition in the first Critique. It is the project of my dissertation to argue that such an account of subjectivity is not only possible, but essential to Kant's analysis of cognition. Much of the existing secondary literature on the topic, I claim, overlooks the fact that the two questions I list above are related, and can be jointly answered.

To motivate such an answer, I argue against the standard interpretive response to (1), according to which a subject can judge in away that is `merely subjective' by expressing what is true from her particular spatiotemporal point of view rather than from every point of view. I argue that this suggestion misunderstands Kant's objective/subjective distinction: merely subjective judgments are not about the world at all, whereas judgments made from a spatiotemporal point of view surely are.

I also challenge the widely accepted response to (2), on which a subject can become conscious of herself by introspectively becoming aware of her representations as representations. Whereas this entails that empirical self-consciousness is incidental to -- and an interruption of -- object-directed cognitive activity, I argue that Kant strongly indicates that empirical self-consciousness is involved in and essential for carrying out such cognitive activity in the first place.

In light of these arguments, I develop an alternative account on which I respond to (1) by arguing that judgments count as `merely subjective' according to Kant insofar as they express combinations of thoughts that a subject finds herself having as a result of psychological associations that hold in her particular case. Furthermore, I claim,it is consciousness of such combinations that constitutes the empiricalself-consciousness discussed in (2). Such consciousness is necessary for cognition, I argue, because it explains how we first come to acquire new concepts.

Kant's claim that a subject's empirical character is as essential to he activity of cognition as her transcendental character finally amounts, on my view, to the familiar Kantian dictum that both receptivity and spontaneity are essential ingredients of cognition.

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