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Is Metaphysics Possible?

Laozi, Kant & Buddhist Pranama


Emmanuel Kant -- a major player in western philosophy -- asked the question: Is it possible to know what is ultimately real? -- whose corollary, in relation to the sub-disciplines of his academic milieu, was: Is metaphysics possible?

Now practitioners of eastern spiritual traditions such as Taoism pretty much take such a thing for granted. “Of course it’s possible!” they would say -- grounding this assertion in their own meditative experiences, along with those of generations of practitioners before them. While it may be true -- as the Taoist sage Laozi has suggested -- that “The Tao that can be told is not the Ultimate Tao” -- it’s equally true (such mystics/adepts would likely propose) that the Ultimate Tao can indeed be experienced in a direct, non-conceptual way. Otherwise, what would be the point of the various nondual traditions -- if not to facilitate an actual communion with, realization of Tao, Dharmakaya, Pure Awareness, Whatever?

But Kant was not a Taoist, Buddhist nor Advaita Vedanta practitioner. Rather, he was a western philosopher, interested in the question of whether or not such contact with and knowledge of the “ultimately real” can be established, can be justified within the terms of western philosophical discourse. In a nutshell, Kant is asking: Is it possible to have real knowledge about what is ultimately real? His more technical way of phrasing this question -- as a starting-point for constructing philosophical arguments to establish or refute it -- is:

"Are synthetic, a priori judgments about noumena possible?"

So let’s unpack this question -- "Are synthetic, a priori judgments about noumena possible?" -- by making explicit the conceptual categories that Kant is employing, and the assumptions implicit within them -- toward the end of placing them in comparison with those of Buddhist pranama (logic/epistemology): a framework which, as we’ll see, allows for kinds of experience and forms of knowledge which go well beyond those articulated within Kant’s system.

Kant’s Aspects Of Reality: Phenomena & Noumena

For Kant, the two major categories of existence (or what he refers to as “The Real”) are, on the one hand, appearances, and on the other hand, that which is “really-real.” The former he refers to as “phenomena,” and the latter as “noumena.” So, in summary:

Aspects Of Reality

* phenomena = appearances or the “temporal, spatial, causal manifold"
* noumena = reality or the “thing-in-itself” - the "transcendent"

Kant’s Ways Of Knowing: A Posteriori & A Priori

So then, if we wish to know phenomena, or to know noumena, how do we go about doing this? Kant’s answer to this -- and to the more general question of what counts as “real knowledge” or “valid cognition” -- is that to know something, in a reliable way, is to know it either “a priori” or “a posteriori.”

A posteriori knowledge is knowledge that is contingent upon (i.e. logically posterior to) experience. In other words, such knowledge is what we might call “empirically grounded.” It’s important to note here that -- in Kant’s system -- such a posteriori, experiential knowledge can have as its object (i.e. can be used to “know”) the phenomena (appearances) of the world, but never the noumena (what is really-real).

Important to mention here, also, that for Kant, perception/understanding of the phenomena of the world is always, and necessarily, structured by forms and categories of mind, most notably: space, time, cause and effect, unity and plurality, existence and non-existence. In other words, space, time etc. are, in Kant’s view, basically “hard-wired” into our cognitive/perceptual apparatus, making it literally impossible to perceive in ways that are not conditioned by these categories. The categories of understanding make knowledge (of phenomena) possible for Kant, but noumena cannot be known in this way, because what we know gets known through these categories of understanding as they relate to phenomena -- while the noumena exist in a separate “ideal” realm.

In any case, what this all means for Kant is that our entire experienced world, i.e., our entire phenomenal world as it appears to us in our daily experience -- i.e. as we are able to “understand” it -- is conditioned by space and time, by cause and effect, and by all the other categories of our minds. In this sense, sensory perception is never, and can never be, truly direct, unmediated, nonconceptual or naked.

A priori knowledge, on the other hand, is knowledge that is not based upon but rather is independent of experience (i.e. is logically prior to sensory experience). It is knowledge that emerges from and is justified by pure thought or reason, by logic or rational insight -- necessary truths which hold universally. In summary:

Ways Of Knowing

* a posteriori = based upon (i.e. logically posterior to) experience; contingent truth
* a priori = not based upon (i.e. logically prior to) experience -- rooted instead in logic or rational insight (e.g. mathematical knowledge); necessary truth

Kant’s Kinds Of Propositions: Synthetic & Analytic

Thus far, we’ve explored Kant’s two aspects of reality -- viz. phenomena (appearances) and noumena (the really-real) -- and his two possible ways of knowing these aspects of reality: one based upon experience (a posteriori) and the other independent of experience (a priori), but relying instead on logic or rational insight.

Now, if we wish to make philosophical statements, or propositions, about phenomena or noumena, or about our knowing of them, what kind of statements will these be? Kant’s answer is that these statements will be either synthetic or analytic.

A synthetic proposition, as its name implies, is one that proposes a synthesis of two distinct concepts, for instance: “The ball is purple” or “Pure Awareness is blissful.” Generally speaking, such statements require experience to be verified -- since the proposition does not contain, within itself, its own verification (e.g., balls are not necessarily purple).

An analytic proposition, on the other hand, refers to a logical tautology, to a statement which is logically necessary. It’s a proposition in which a single concept is simply expressed in two different ways, for instance: “A bachelor is an unmarried male” or “Pure Awareness is pure and aware.” Such propositions require no experience to determine their truth, since (assuming we understand the language they are articulated in) they contain, within themselves, their own verification. In summary:

Kinds Of Propositions

* synthetic = synthesis of two different concepts, whose relationship is not a logical necessity
* analytic = same concept expressed in two different ways -- i.e. a tautology, a logical necessity

Continued On Page Two


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