Kant's Mystical Plato

Stephen Boydstun's picture
Submitted by Stephen Boydstun on Sun, 2006-11-05 15:39

Merlin Jetton is partly to blame for this note. I had been reading his 1995 Objectivity essay “Time, Prescience, and Biology.” In the third section of the essay, Merlin examines Kant’s concept of a priori concepts. It was in this section I came across a reference I could not resist looking up. That igniting reference is to the last chapter in the Critique of Pure Reason (A852–56 B880–84), which contains some remarks on Plato.

In this final and brief chapter, Kant sketches different conceptions in its history of what is the discipline called metaphysics. Concerning the legitimate object of metaphysical thought, Kant contrasts the purely sensualist philosophers, such as Epicurus, with the purely intellectualist philosophers, such as Plato. (See also A466–72 B494–500.)

“The philosophers of the sensualist school assert that actuality is to be found only in the objects of the senses, and that everything else is imagination. Those of the intellectualist school, by contrast said that in the senses there is nothing but illusion, and that only the understanding cognizes what is true. Yet the sensualists did not by any means therefore deny reality to the concepts of understanding; but this reality was for them only logical, whereas for the intellectualists it was mystical.”

Kant is there saying that Plato’s realm of the intellect was mystical. As concerns the origin of our concepts, Kant poses Aristotle as the head of the tradition holding that concepts are derived from experience, Plato as the head of the tradition holding that concepts have an origin that is independent of experience. Kant goes on to say that “Locke has followed Aristotle, and Leibniz has followed Plato (although keeping sufficient distance from Plato’s mystical system).”

Again Kant is painting Plato’s philosophic system as mystical. What elements of mysticism is Kant imputing to Plato? Is that imputation accurate? Presumably Kant’s own philosophy does not contain those elements of mysticism. Are its correctives correct?

A good dictionary definition of mysticism is the American Heritage one (1976). It lists three senses of the term mysticism. The sense primary for the present note is: “Any belief in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension but central to being and directly accessible by intuition.” Rand used the term mysticism in this sense. In her 1960 essay “Faith and Force,” she writes that “mysticism is the claim to the perception of some other reality—other than the one in which we live—[which] is to be perceived by some form of unnatural or supernatural means,” means of knowledge “apart from or against the evidence of one’s senses and one’s reason,” means of knowledge “non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifiable,” means of knowledge “such as ‘instinct’, ‘intuition’, ‘revelation’, or any form of ‘just knowing’.”

Kant writes: “From the way in which Plato employed the expression idea we can readily see that he meant by it something that not only is never borrowed from the senses, but that far surpasses even the concepts of understanding—with which Aristotle dealt—inasmuch as nothing congruent with it is ever found in experience” (A313 B370). Pure mathematics is a splendid achievement of intellectual reflection. “Captivated by such a proof of reason’s might, our urge to expand [our cognitions] sees no boundaries. When the light dove parts the air in free flight and feels the air’s resistance, it might come to think that it would do much better still in space devoid of air. In the same way, Plato left the world of sense because it sets such narrow limits to our understanding; on the wings of ideas, he ventured beyond that world and into the empty space of pure understanding. He did not notice that with all his efforts he made no headway” (A4–5 B8–9). “For Plato ideas are archetypes of things themselves and not merely keys to possible experiences . . . . Ideas, in his opinion, flowed from highest reason, from where they have been imparted to human reason; now, however, human reason is no longer in its original state but must laboriously recall the ancient ideas” (A313 B370).

All of the preceding remarks of Kant on Plato were in both the 1781(=A) and the 1787(=B) editions of Critique of Pure Reason (translation of Werner S. Pluhar). The mysticism imputed to Plato so far in our look into CPR is this much: Plato holds there is a realm of original and most important truth that is accessible only by turning from the world of sense to a world of ideas not observed by sense, a world of ideas not obscured by sense, a world of intellectual understanding not restrained by sense. That much would place Plato only at the door of mysticism, following my dictionary definition of mysticism or following Rand’s definition of mysticism. That much is true of Plato (Phaedo 74b–75d, 78d–79d, 99d–101e; Republic 507–17c, 596–97d, 602c–3a; Timaeus 28b–29b, 43c–44c, 45d–47c; Sophist 248a, 252e–54a).

Another of the three distinct senses of the term mysticism in my dictionary is: “Confused and groundless speculation; superstitious self-delusion.” Rand also used the term mysticism with this sense. Kant would think mystical in this sense Plato’s speculations that Ideas are divine and that at birth our minds have been thrust into a body that obscures those ideas. Kant would depart from Plato “in his mystical deduction of these ideas” and “in the exaggerations whereby he hypostatized them” (B371n110). Kant is likely correct to denominate these speculations of Plato mystical in the present sense, rather than to take Plato to be posing them as myth. Mystical in the sense of confused or groundless speculation would be: the existence of the soul prior to birth in this world and the different access the mind has to Ideas before and after birth; and the delimitation and organization of the Ideas (Meno 81; Phaedo 64c, 66b–e, 72e–77a, 81a, 91e–95a; Republic 517b–c; Phaedrus 249c–50c; Philebus 15a–18d, 20b–30d, 59c–67a). Rand too regarded as mystical in this sense Plato’s posit of self-subsisting archetypical Ideas when she writes that this posit “distorts reality into a mystical construct” (ITOE 53–54).

Let us now conclude Kant’s depiction of mystical Plato, returning to the sense of mysticism primary for our inquiry: “Belief in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension but central to being and directly accessible by intuition.”

Kant writes that “the sensualists [such as Epicurus] granted intellectual concepts, but assumed only sensible objects. The intellectualists [such as Plato] required the true objects to be merely intelligible and asserted that there is an intuition through a pure understanding unaccompanied by any senses” (A854 B882). Kant denies that we possess any purely intellectual intuitions. He divides cognitions into “either intuition or concept . . . . An intuition refers directly to the object and is singular; a concept refers to the object indirectly, by means of a characteristic that may be common to several things.” We have some concepts that are not empirical; rather they have their origin solely in the understanding. Kant reserves the name idea for a concept framed from wholly nonempirical concepts and “surpassing the possibility of experience” (A320 B377). (See also A568–69 B596–97.)

Kant is correct to fault Platonic Ideas as objects given by the direct and productive intuition belonging to divine understanding. And Kant is correct to fault Platonic “intuiting of these divine Ideas” here and now by us as in a shadow land [Tone of Superiority (1796) 8:391]. This is an error of mysticism.

We should notice, however, that Kant’s own account of ideas errs by what Rand called the (nonmystical) primacy of consciousness. One of the broad classes of ideas in Kant’s sense is “the absolute (unconditioned) unity of the thinking subject.” Another is “the absolute unity of the series of conditions of appearance [conditions of objects in experience]” (A334 B391). Kant conceives of both of these broad ideas as only ideas, “they have in fact no reference to any object that could be given congruently with them” (A336 B393). That does not mean Kant-ideas in these two classes are pointless. They are limitative ideas, bounding and unifying all conceptual thought concerning experience.

Kant thinks that the experience whose conceptualizations should be regulated under an idea of the unity of the thinking subject is experience more direct than the experience whose conceptualizations should be regulated under an idea of the unity of the series of conditions of objects in experience (B395n222). This is only the tip of an iceberg of error in Kant which Rand calls the primacy of consciousness.

In her philosophy, Rand upholds the primacy of existence over consciousness. “Existence exists.” Comprehending that thought implies that I think. Without some thoughts implying that existence exists, comprehending-thought is not possible. On Rand’s view, the existence, differentiations, and unities of thought depend fundamentally on mind-independent existence.

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Kant's Plato

Stephen Boydstun's picture

At the Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, in the session of the Society for German Idealism, Paul Redding will read “The Plato of Kant’s Critical Philosophy.” Paul Franks will comment.

The meeting will be held in Vancouver at the Westin Bayshore. This session will be on April 9th at 6:00–7:00 p.m.

Rational Intuition

Stephen Boydstun's picture

Merlin Jetton draws attention to a nonmystical concept of intuition. This is intuition in the following sense: an immediate cognition that is an implicitly rational hypothesis, one whose rational bases are not yet explicitly known.


The concept intuition posed by Merlin is not a mystical one. It is plainly not a “special sixth sense [that] consists of contradicting the whole of knowledge of your five” (AS 1034). It is not a dictaphonic faculty receiving beliefs on authority of a foreign intelligence (AS 1026–27, 1044–45).


I don’t think Rand should object to Merlin’s concept intuition. In this sense, intuition is not a case of knowledge without means, and its means are a portion of the rational means of knowledge (FF 62–63, IBOA 89, ITOE 79–80). Moreover, it does not mistake results of conceptual processing for results of perceptual processing; it keeps them distinct, and it is itself placed squarely within the former. If it were contended that there is intuition that is not simply perception, but is an immediate cognition that could not be resolved into explicit concepts, then Rand should call this concept intuition an invalid, otiose concept (ITOE 49, 70–72). (See also Russell’s 1914 “Mysticism and Logic,” Section I “Reason and Intuition,” penultimate paragraph less one.) The concept intuition posed by Merlin is decidedly not defective in that way.


Here are a couple of examples of intuition, in Merlin’s sense, at work in the inventive process of mathematical discovery. In 2001 a deep result known as the Modularity Theorem was proven: “All rational elliptic curves arise from modular forms.” Modular forms are functions on the complex upper half plane satisfying certain transformation and holomorphic conditions. A complex elliptic curve is a quotient of the complex plane by a lattice. Rational elliptic curves are isomorphic to the complex elliptic curves having rational invariants.


In 1986 Ken Ribet had proven that if the conjecture later proven in the Modularity Theorem were proven true for a subclass of elliptic curves called semistable, then Fermat’s Last Theorem would be proven true in the same stroke. In 1994 Andrew Wiles succeeded in proving that restricted form of the Modularity Theorem. After three and a half centuries of failed attempts, Fermat’s Last Theorem was certifiably proven.


The conjecture contained in the Modularity Theorem was formulated in the early 60s by Goro Shimura. He reached it by precising and expanding a more nebulous form of the conjecture reached by Yutaka Taniyama in the mid-50s. (Taniyama took his life in 1958 at age 31.) In his account of the discovery of the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, Amir Aczel describes the conjecture of Taniyama: “It was an intuition, a gut feeling that the automorphic functions with their many symmetries on the complex plane were somehow connected with the equations of Diophantus” (99).


Andrew Wiles described his years of pursuing the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem in the following way: “Perhaps I could best describe my experience of doing mathematics in terms of entering a dark mansion. You go into the first room and it’s dark, completely dark. You stumble around, bumping into the furniture. Gradually, you learn where each piece of furniture is. And finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch and turn it on. Suddenly, it’s all illuminated and you can see exactly where you were. Then you enter the next dark room . . .” (xi). (Fermat’s Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem, Amir D. Aczel, 1996)


seddon's picture

Nice post. Although, just between you and me, I agree with Heidegger who said that if he had to give Kant a grade for his Plato interpretation, he would have to give him a straight F.

"the existence of the soul prior to birth in this world and the different access the mind has to Ideas before and after birth; and the delimitation and organization of the Ideas (Meno 81;"

The reference to the recollection story reminds me of a remark that Peikoff makes in his dissertation to the effect that he agrees with F. M. Cornford that there is never any doubt cast upon the doctrine of anamnesis in any of Plato's works. Bull. In the very MENO where the story is told (81ff) Socrates later says that he would only defend one thesis out of the whole recollection story, to wit and contra Meno, that we should bravely seek what we do not now know. (86b-c.) "SOC: And for the rest of the points I would not assert myself altogether confidently on behalf of my argument; but that in supposing one ought to seek what one does not know we would be better, braver and less lazy than if we supposed that which we do not know we are neither capable of discovering nor ought to seek--on behalf of that I would surely do battle etc." If that doesn't cast some doubt on recollection, I don't know what does. See also Klein's A COMMENTARY ON PLATO'S MENO p. 183 for more on this.

I go into greater detail in my book, but this should suffice for this post.


Thanks be to Merlin for getting you going on this.


Merlin Jetton's picture

I don't believe there is any cause for blame here. On the other hand, I credit you with pursuing your interest and clearly presenting your findings and conclusions.

I have one comment about intuition. It is often used without a clear meaning. As you note, Rand held a dim view of it, associating it with mysticism. However, I think there is a rational sense of it. A common definition of it is "knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes; immediate cognition." The legitimate sense is cognition when the rational processes are implicit rather than explicit. (Rand extensively used "implicit" in ITOE, didn't she?) It is to form a hypothesis when the underlying basis for it is only part known. Insight is a synonym. Since the basis is implicit and incomplete, the hypothesis may turn out to be wrong. But when the hypothesis turns out to be correct, that shows there was some rational grounds for it at conception.


Merlin Jetton's picture

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