TA 108 (Green)


Commentary 1


by Herbert FJ Müller
4 June 2008, posted 14 June 2008


Lorna Green’s TA108 is an interesting piece of work, and merits discussion, in my opinion.  I have to confess that I find her ‘New Age’ way of thinking and communicating somewhat disconcerting, but her insights may to a large part be a consequence of her using it.


I want to start here with a discussion of her topic of a ‘Copernican Revolution’, particularly since I have recently been trying to come to grips with Kant’s use of the same term, and to understand what happened to this revolution after Kant. 


Let me first present my translation of Kant’s discussion of the Copernican Revolution of thinking, in the preface to the second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason (1787).  I have not broken up his long and complicated sentences.

“ I should think that the examples of mathematics and natural science, which have, by way of a once accomplished revolution, become what they now are, should be remarkable enough to reflect on the essential aspect of the change in the way of thinking, which has become so advantageous for them, and to imitate as possible inasmuch as their analogy, as science of reason (Vernunft), with metaphysics, allows, as least in an attempt.  Until now one has assumed that all our understanding (Erkenntnis) should be geared to the objects; but all attempts to say something about them a priori with the help of concepts, by which our understanding would be enlarged, have been defeated under this pre-supposition.  One ought then to try for a change whether we cannot become more successful in the tasks of metaphysics, if we assume that the objects have to conform to our understanding, which in that way already a priori agrees better with an understanding which should determine something about them before they are given to us.  With this it is just as with the first thoughts of Copernicus who, after things did not proceed well with the movements of the heavens when he assumed that the whole army of stars turns around the spectator, whether one might not be more successful when the spectator turns around, and leaves the stars at rest.  Now in metaphysics one can, as far as the view (Anschauung) of the objects is concerned, try something similar.  If the view should be guided by the properties of the objects, I cannot see how one could know something about them a priori; but if the object (as sense object) is guided by the properties of our ability to view, I can quite well imagine such a possibility.  But because I cannot remain at these views, when they should become understandings, but I have to refer them to something as object, and determine the latter by the former, I can either assume that the concepts (Begriffe) by which I effect this determination, conform to the objects, and then I am again in the same difficulty of having to know something about them a priori; or I assume that the objects, or which is the same, the experience (Erfahrung) in which alone they can be understood (as given objects), conform to the concepts, so I see at once an easier information (Auskunft) because the experience itself is a form of understanding, the rules of which, even before the objects are given to me, therefore I have to presume a priori, to which thus all objects of experience have to conform and agree with. ...”


Kant said here that our mental structures determine the world, rather than vice versa; the ideas = noumena = metaphysical things-in-themselves were no longer something one could know by looking at them but instead they are our structures which we create and try out.  But he still maintained that ‘objects are given’.  Despite the revolutionary change, this is an ambiguous or mixed message; the change is incomplete.  He went a bit further in his opus postumum.


What happened to this revolution after Kant ?  I think it is fair to say that his influence on English language epistemology has been rather limited (no wonder, considering his style of writing).  In the ‘continental’ European epistemology there was a complicated, and one might say ‘see-saw’, after-effect.  At first the notion of ‘noumena’ or ‘ideas’ as needed for thinking was strongly emphasized, and this gave rise to idealism, culminating in Hegel’s phenomenology which went so far as to claim absolute knowledge; implying in effect the subject’s disappearance in favour of the absolute (and it was later, by Marx & al, translated into a political practice, which emphasized the dialectics of  ‘correct’ ideas over subjects, individuals).  Then, starting with Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, there was a reaction against this, re-emphasizing the subject and this continued in 20th century phenomenology.  But the latter had many relapses into old-style metaphysics.  And simultaneously there were efforts to demolish or de-construct metaphysics (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida).  Still in effect, the ‘continental’ epistemology was not really much more successful at maintaining the subject in the picture than the English one which, besides wanting to automate truth, has by default still been pursuing old-style metaphysics until now, for instance in the case of analytic philosophy.


And thus, since Kant’s revolution has remained rather incomplete, and most of it is still to come, I think that Lorna Green is quite right in saying that a revolution is needed.  In fact one might consider her starting point on the mind-brain relation [0-2] the pivotal question for the viability of epistemological views.  This agrees with the aims of constructivism (see TA17 and TA43 in KJF  by vonGlasersfeld) and my own work on this topic (TA1, TA45, TA93, and others).  Kant’s opinion can actually be understood as an early though incomplete formulation of the constructivist principle.


Concerning her subsequent argumentation [3-5] I have however formulated things differently.  It is not that ‘consciousness is totally separated from the body’  -  this is an opinion that I would say cannot be defended.  But instead, as for instance discussed in my TA45 :  the brain is in the mind, just as is the whole of the body, and all of ‘reality’ :  the whole of our structures which we trust.  The mind (ongoing experience) is always first, and the only possible start point for thinking.


This formulation I suggest is compatible with both what Kant said about a ‘revolution’ of the use of metaphysics-ontology and LG’s wish.  It is to be expected that the ‘Copernican revolution’ will proceed further, despite the strong hesitancies which it encounters.  As I understand it, the content of the revolution is :  from subject-exclusion to inescapable subject-inclusion and –responsibility.  It requires a transformation of traditional metaphysics-ontology into working- (or as-if-) metaphysics-ontology, as I have proposed in various papers in this Forum.  Historically, this process has so far been incomplete, but further developments may be expected.

I will stop at this point for now, and hope for further discussion with LG and others, in case of interest.




Herbert FJ Müller
     e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>