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Title:Kant’s theory of absolute spontaneity
Author(s):Ellis, Addison Clark
Director of Research:Newton, Alexandra M
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Newton, Alexandra M
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Bojanowski, Jochen; Sanders, Kirk; Sussman, David
Department / Program:Philosophy
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Abstract:The basic aim of this dissertation is to show that epistemic objectivity is only possible through the absolute spontaneity of the understanding. I spell out Kant’s concept of spontaneity as it appears in the Critique, and then sketch the implications both for Kant interpretation as well as contemporary accounts of objectivity in epistemology and philosophy of mind. In the first chapter, I do two things: (1) I spell out what it would mean for the spontaneity of the understanding to be absolute, and (2) I argue that Kant’s own view is that the understanding is absolutely spontaneous. I take the spontaneity of the understanding to be absolute when it has no outer boundary. Thus, the absolute spontaneity thesis rejects the view that there is anything external to what Kant calls the transcendental ‘I’: everything is, in some sense, internal to it. What we discover is that virtually every modern account of Kant’s theory of spontaneity assumes that there is something external to the ‘I’, and therefore virtually every modern account of spontaneity is a version of the relative spontaneity thesis. But, Kant’s theory of spontaneity is absolute, which can be understood through his claim that the ‘I think’ must be able to accompany all my representations. In the second chapter, I attempt to show why all versions of the relative spontaneity thesis fail the test that Kant has given us. As chapter one demonstrates, knowledge is essentially self-conscious. This implies that there is no judgment of reality that could take reality to be external to our self-conscious judging of it. Each version of the relative spontaneity view—including naturalism and functionalism about judgment—tries to allow for the kind of externality that Kant’s view does not permit, and so should be discarded. In the third chapter, I argue that the absolute spontaneity of the understanding is not inconsistent with the idea that our knowledge relies on a manifold given in sensibility. Understanding this point requires seeing how our sensible capacity can be internal to the understanding, and thus to the I of self-consciousness. We look at a view that attempts to make sense of this thought: the spontaneous-receptivity view. Finally, in the fourth chapter, we see that the spontaneous receptivity view is insufficient to account for Kant’s theory of absolute spontaneity. Understanding this point requires an examination of the nature of what McDowell calls the “unboundedness” of the conceptual. This, in turn, requires answering two related questions: what exactly does it mean for the conceptual to have no outer limit? And, what could it mean for something to be given to us in experience without limiting our knowledge? I argue that our dependence on sensibility is not the same as a limitation from sensibility. This allows us to consider Kant’s account of human epistemic finitude. I then suggest a possible answer to the worry that absolute spontaneity implies absolute idealism.
Issue Date:2019-07-10
Rights Information:Copyright 2019 Addison Ellis
Date Available in IDEALS:2019-11-26
Date Deposited:2019-08

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