Mea culpa – Anachronistic Metaphor Interference: Synthesis as nexus and compositio 28 October 2018

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Mea culpa – Anachronistic Metaphor Interference:
Synthesis as nexus and compositio
28 October 2018

The postings on make no claim to perfection because the limits to reason are so ubiquitous and pervasive.  Furthermore, because the postings are (and must be) reflections stimulated by Kant’s writings, they make no claim to know what Kant “really meant.”  To make such a claim would be to succumb not only to the arrogance of hermeneutical certainty denied by the very limits to reason so central to Kant’s project but also to the illusion of the intentional fallacy.

Nonetheless, it is painful to have to acknowledge that one has made the same error that one has pointed out in the writings of other interpreters:  anachronistic, metaphor interference.  This is a label for the assumption that what a metaphor means today (or at the point in time of an interpreter’s writing) is what the metaphor meant for Kant.  Jean Paul wrote in his Vorschule der Aesthetik in 1804 in Sämmtiche Werke, Vol 42 (Berlin:  S. Reimer, 1827):  24-25 that “each language is a dictionary of faded metaphors.”   Given that all language is metaphorical, not literal, it should come as no surprise that the meaning of a term for a particular author must be arrived at through careful attention to its context of usage.  However, interpreters pro and con of Kant have acceded to metaphor interference with respect to core elements in Kant’s terminology:  a few examples are autonomous freedom, Enlightenment, a priori synthetic judgment, radical evil, Anlage  and Hang, critique, Copernican Turn, subreption, Ding an sich, Noumenon and Phenomena, regulative and constitutive ideas, “pure”/rein, Anschauung, etc.

When I have discussed a priori synthetic judgment in Kant, I have frequently cited the Critique of Pure Reason (B 201*) to distinguish between synthesis as the a posteriori determination of something “in common” (e.g., a concept) to a set of phenomena from synthesis as the a priori “adding to” the phenomena of something not given directly in the phenomena.  I took the term nexus to refer to a posteriori synthesis and compositio to refer to a priori synthesis.  I should have read B 201* more carefully.

Whereas Kant most certainly made the distinction between a posteriori synthesis and a priori synthesis (see B 748, 750, 751-752), his distinction between nexus and compositio at B 201* is concerned with two kinds of a priori synthesis.

B 201* is concerned with distinguishing between a priori  “mathematical” and a priori “dynamical” synthesis.  He is talking here about a priori “combinations” (syntheses) that are either “not necessary” (mathematical) or that are “necessary” (dynamical).  Unnecessary combinations he calls “compositio,” whereas necessary combinations he calls “nexus.”

The issue here, then, is not a priori (adding to phenomena) judgments versus a posteriori (deriving from) judgments but “unnecessary” and “necessary” a priori judgments.  Mathematical judgments (formal, logical conditions) are not necessary because they are “merely” logical.  Dynamical judgments (concerned with “forces” and “change”) are necessary because they are concerned with empirical phenomena.

Compositio are a priori syntheses that are not (!) arrived at out of “necessity” (in the sense of the necessary conditions of possibility for experiencing a set of phenomena) but logically, and they can be an “aggregation” (concerned with “extensive” size) or a “coalition” (concerned with “intensive” size).  Extensive size involves amounts and multiplicity and is concerned with the representation of the parts of a perception that make possible the representation of the whole – hence, the parts precede the whole.  It is a logical procedure.  Intensive size is concerned with contents and their diversity, logical significance, and fruitfulness for understanding insofar as the contents lead to multiple and significant consequences (not quantity but quality).

Nexus are a priori syntheses that are (!) necessary as the conditions of possibility for experiencing a set of phenomena (i.e., they are not simply logical).  Kant uses the examples of “substance and its accidents” and “cause and effect.”  These elements are not equivalent but are “connected” a priori.  Because they are not arbitrary or capricious, Kant calls them “dynamic” (concerned with “forces” and “change”).

My “metaphorical interference” was to take compositio to mean a priori “construction/adding to” the phenomena and to take nexus to mean a posteriori “discovery of a unity in the phenomena.”  However, for Kant both forms of synthesis are a priori and refer to two kinds of a priori synthesis:  “unnecessary” (i.e., logical), mathematical judgments (compositio) and “necessary” (i.e., required to understand phenomena), dynamical judgments (nexus).

In addition to the Critique of Pure Reason, we find Kant’s distinction between a priori and a posteriori synthetic judgment in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics § 22:

“[…] uniting in a consciousness is either analytic by identity [e.g., arrived at a posteriori], or synthetic by the combination and addition of various representations one to another [e.g., added a priori].  Experience consists in the synthetic connection of appearances (perceptions) in consciousness, so far as this connection is necessary.  Hence the pure concepts of the understanding [which are the necessary condition for a priori synthetic judgments] are those under which all perceptions must first be subsumed before they can serve for judgments of experience in which the synthetic unity of the perceptions is represented as necessary and universally valid.”

Here Kant adds a footnote:

“But how does the proposition that judgments of experience contain necessity [emphasis added] in the synthesis of perceptions agree with my statement [… made so often before] that experience, as cognition a posteriori, can [… give us] only contingent [not necessary] judgments?  When I say that experience teaches me something, I mean only the perception that lies in experience—for example, that heat always follows the shining of the sun on a stone; consequently, the proposition of experience is always so far contingent [emphasis added].  That this heat necessarily [emphasis added] follows the shining of the sun is contained indeed in the judgment of experience (by means of the concept of cause [emphasis added]), yet is a fact not learned by experience [emphasis added]; for, conversely, experience is first of all generated by this addition of the concept of the understanding (of cause) to perception [emphasis added].”