Kant's Aesthetic Epistemology: Form and World. By Fiona Hughes


Pp. viii, 324 , Edinburgh University Press , 2007 , $130.00.

Perhaps the deepest and most important philosophical question is that of the relation between mind and world. This question permeates Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Fiona Hughes' Kant's Aesthetic Epistemology deals with this issue as it arises in the first Critique.

Hughes' central claim is that we need to look to Kant's third Critique, the Critique of Judgement, to complete and understand the position of the first Critique (insofar as the latter should be considered a work of epistemology). This claim is defended in Chapters 5, 7 and 8, where Hughes builds an admirably meticulous case.

This book is definitely for Kant scholars; much background knowledge on Kant is required to get the most from it. This is evident in the first two chapters where Hughes delves, with a critical eye, into the secondary literature on Kant's Transcendental Analytic, which contains some of the more perplexing passages of philosophy ever written. Although her book is rich in its interpretation, she does not attempt to vindicate the position it ascribes to Kant.

In the opening chapters Hughes criticises a tendency to read Kant in a way that puts too much of mind into the world (i.e. is too ‘subjectivist’). This involves the view that the form in which the world appears is imposed by the mind in a problematic way – so that we lose the notion that there might be anything other than mind, i.e. any extra-mental reality at all. Hughes finds this tendency in seemingly disparate readings of Kant (e.g., those by Strawson, Guyer, Allison and Longuenesse, to name but a few).

Hughes is surely right to want to avoid the subjectivist tendency, but it is not clear to me that she is correct in charging some of the scholars she discusses – for instance Longuenesse – with this offense. Kant takes it that there are forms of sensibility, that is, forms in which we intuit things (famously, space and time). Longuenesse has an interesting reading of Kant that identifies what Kant calls ‘the understanding’ as in some sense the ultimate source of the form of sensibility. Whether or not Longuenesse is right, it is puzzling that Hughes thinks this thesis ‘would be very close to saying that the data of sensibility has its source in the mind itself’ (p. 75). This does not follow; further, Longuenesse accepts Kant's distinction between form and matter (see her Kant and the Capacity to Judge, especially Chapters 2 and 8).

Hughes is right to emphasise the importance of the extra-mental in Kant's philosophy, especially since this involves rescuing Kant from the charge of being a problematic subjectivist. Hughes develops her own position in Chapters 3 and 4. This interpretation is complex, as are the passages from which it is drawn (i.e. the ‘Transcendental Aesthetic’ and the ‘Transcendental Analytic’, in particular the two-editions of the Transcendental Deduction of the Categories).

A key feature of Hughes' interpretation is that there are extra-mental but still empirical objects that affect us (these Hughes calls ‘aesthetic’ or ‘sensory’ givens). This is anti-subjectivist since it admits objects that don't have, as far as their existence is concerned, a mental source.

Hughes' way getting the extra-mental into the picture is intriguing, since she doesn't identify the extra-mental with Kant's notorious ‘things in themselves’. This is helpful insofar as for Kant things in themselves are that of which we can know nothing; to assign them the role of affecting us so as to secure some extra-mental ground for experience would be internally unstable. However, Hughes' final position doesn't say much at all about these mysterious entities (or aspects) that Kant clearly does posit as in some sense grounding the world as it appears; she needed to say more.

Another feature of Hughes' interpretation is the way in which the imagination makes synthesis possible, and how this is the case in both editions of the Transcendental Deduction of the Categories. In fact, Hughes takes the Critique of Judgement crucial in clarifying the role of the imagination in Kant's philosophy. This view she presents as part of Kant's complex theory of mind, where mental activity conditions the possibility of experience through a dynamic interaction between a plurality of orientations, none of which are privileged (experience also requires, of course, the sensory given). Alas, the notion of a mental ‘orientation’ is ambiguous to the point that it is hard to know what this theory of mind amounts to.

There is another respect in which for Hughes the third Critique complements Kant's epistemology, namely that aesthetic judgement is revelatory of the conditions of the possibility for cognition (i.e. cognitive judgement), without itself being a species of cognitive judgement. Thus even Kant's account of aesthetic judgement (in a work on aesthetics) makes a contribution to his epistemological project. The way in which Hughes maps out and argues for the connections between Kant's epistemology and aesthetics are a significant contribution that should generate much discussion.