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Kant 4/4: The Takeaways

Closure for the crew of the A-Priori, learning the final dimension of Kant’s 1781 Framework

Jordan Lake, Chatham Co, NC © 2006 the author, Amberwood Media

It was a summer of adventures and some fascinating insights. Today was to be the last installment. The itinerary: a lake, a fishing boat, and the old man’s final thoughts on their favorite topic: Immanuel Kant.

The boat ride itself was not unusual for this trio. Both the old man and the boy were seasoned fishermen, the dog a loyal companion. The old man’s small craft, strangely dubbed the A-Priori, was sturdy and lake-worthy. So the dog piled in first without prompting, and the rest followed, claiming their familiar seats. With a hearty shove of an oar, the crew departed from a sliver of sandy beach.

“Thanks for taking us out today,” said the boy, adrift in anticipation.

“Of course, of course” the man replied, barely containing his own excitement. “Today we tie together our stories. Most philosophers seek synthesis to demonstrate the scope and scale of their theories. Kant was no exception. It’s about learning what’s been learned.”

Synthesis. The boy played the word back again and again. Bringing things together. He was glad for this final step. His past encounters with the old man had really been making him think .. in good ways, but much more deeply than he ever had before.

The Backstories: Outings 1–3

“We’ve covered much ground,” said the old man. “Let’s review the path we’ve travelled.” He repositioned his hat as if to reshuffle his fading memory, and cleared his throat. The old man had a flair for the dramatic.

“As we’ve traversed Kant’s Framework, each dimension had a purpose, as we went left to right in four columns. Then we considered different aspects of those dimensions as we moved top to bottom, down three rows. His framework was four-by-three.” The man drew an oblong tic-tac-toe board in the air.

“Twelve ideas to frame all knowledge. Four dimensions, three aspects.”

A steady gaze from both boy and dog confirmed their full attention. The man continued.

Kant 1/4: Levels of Abstraction. Knowledge Dimension 1.

“In our first talk, on the trail, we talked about Kant’s first dimension, or column. We considered abstraction, the key to unlocking his puzzle. For each abstraction level, or row, we asked, ‘Are we contemplating one, many, or all aspects of the knowledge domain we’re considering?’ Any option is valid, depending on the challenge at hand. It’s a choice.”

“That’s right,” said the boy, “like forests and trees, or just a single tree.”

“Absolutely.” The dog and the boy could hear the gentle lapping of the waves against their wooden craft, gently rocking as the man slowly rowed a lazy track down the bank.

Kant 2/4: Rule Systems. Knowledge Dimension 2

“Then, as we sat by the fire, we covered Kant’s second dimension, or rule systems. These align with the abstraction layers, and are often called .. it’s a big word .. do you remember?”

The boy was prepared for this. “Epista- .. epistam- ..” and the man waited patiently, until the boy found the word on the horizon. “Epistemology?”

“Well done, my boy. We use philosophy to study one variable, science to examine many, and complexity to consider all. We used sticks in our exercise, to help us see the differences. But in the end, Kant gave us three primary rule systems in the second dimension of knowledge.

“Science is cool,” the boy volunteered. “But complexity seems more useful. It explains the real world, situations we deal with every day.”

“Indeed,” the man said.

“Philosophy is harder,” said the boy. “I mean it’s easy in one sense, digging into ideas and concepts. If you think about it, it can almost tell us what’s possible.”

The boy’s comment interrupted the man’s train of thought. “Good gracious, my boy, hold that thought!” he exclaimed, “You’re almost there! But you’re getting ahead.” The boy grinned, glad he was on the right path. The dog wagged his tail in rhythm with the lap of the waves, secretly hoping fresh fish would be possible.

Kant 3/4: Patterns in Action, Knowledge Dimension 3.

“And so, when last we met by the river,” the man recalled, “we talked about Kant’s third dimension, seeing knowledge as a process. What actions can we take in each rule system to learn more? What are the unique patterns? On the river, through the lens of philosophy, we looked at the nature of water, literally, understanding what it is. Through the prism of science, we talked about proving causes associated with water, like current. And finally, understanding scenarios in complex situations, the turbulence of rapids gave us a visual metaphor to reflect on many scenarios.

Each level of abstraction and its rule system would unlock these diverse ways of exploring knowledge.”

The old man feel silent, signaling that he was done with the digression. The boy sensed the cue right away.

“Kant has explained many important things, hasn’t he?” the boy said.

“I believe he has,” the man replied. “He was showing how all aspects of knowledge could be systematically categorized and studied. Scholars have debated for centuries over the true purpose of science and philosophy. Everyone thought they had better answers. They even debated Kant’s framework.”

“But, even then, Kant understood that all aspects matter?” mused the boy.

“Perhaps better than all the rest. And he described complexity as a level beyond the limitations of classical science. That was 200 years ago” said the man, slowing for effect. Then he turned to face the boy. “Tell me. What do you think?”

The boy looked back at the horizon. The lake glittered a spectacular golden-yellow as the sun continued its steady descent, its glow broken only by shadows of a the tree line that framed it. It was pretty breath-taking.

“Seems to me, all those smart thinkers couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” said the boy.

“You’re an incredibly wise young man,” the old man said, smiling. “You’ll be a philosopher yet.”

“But wait. What’s the last dimension? Isn’t there more?”

Kant 4/4: Synthesis. Knowledge Dimension 4.

“Ah yes,” the man said with a grin. “The most important of all, synthesis. What can we conclude? We’ve been working up to that. In fact, you already touched on it, a minute ago ..”

The boy reflected. The horizon held his gaze, but it was providing useful perspectives. “The outcome of philosophy .. is .. knowing ‘what’s possible?’ ”

“That’s right,” the man replied, “Philosophy is the study of one variable of the world at a time, helping us see what’s possible. Well done.”

“And next?”

“You try,” said the man. “You’ve got the hang of this.”

“Ok,” said the boy. “The next level is science, the study of many variables.” There was a comfortable silence as the boat glided steadily across the water, the oars slicing the lake in a steady rhythm. The boy remembered thinking about the biology of a tree; a few sticks, arranged as seesaws; and still more sticks floating down the river. In each case, they’d explored what could be learned, or even proven, when examining the interplay of variables. They’d used simple experiments to understand causes. “Well,” the boy offered, “it seems to me that science gives us a chance to validate our thinking, to see what truly causes what?”

“Absolutely!” the man exclaimed, “and your choice of words is excellent. It’s about validating a truth. What can we confirm, or prove?”

“Ok, I can see that!” the boy declared, but then, with scarcely a breath, he moved in for the close. “but wait, we’re not done. Let’s fill in the last box.”

The man couldn’t contain his pride. Kant .. with some guidance from an old man in his boat .. had given the boy the tools to frame knowledge, increasingly by himself. Kant’s Framework was working its magic.

The man nodded his approval, to proceed.

From another time © 2006 by the author, Amberwood Media

The boy took charge of the oration. “So what can we take away for the final abstraction level, considering complexity and all its variables? Let’s think.” The boy looked at the trees above the bank, extending into the distance of the forest. His eyes scanned the lake. The boy’s father once said this lake was built as a reservoir for a nearby city, that would also generate its power. And he’d learned that where the lake now was had once been farmland, and a river with some amazing rapids that hosted difficult white water rafting. In the distance, he could just make out a seemingly misplaced tree stump, well out in the lake.

Decades ago, multiple scenarios had emerged, seemingly in conflict. People had to make choices. What had actually happened, in the end, was a function of many variables. What water could do. What people needed. How people could enjoy the land and the waterways. In the end, humans had learned to harness those resources, perhaps at the expense of some recreational options. At least, he realized, they could still go fishing.

The boy drew a long but decisive breath. “To me, complexity is about navigating scenarios. It’s about what can happen when we put together what’s possible, and what we can build, but we also have to think through what we need. People need water. We need electricity. But we also want to keep nature, and recreation choices. The decisions are all connected. Somehow, we need to find a balance.” And after a brief pause, he shared his father’s insight, “Did you know this lake used to be a river?”

“Yes!” the man exclaimed. “The lake emerged, because humans adapted and made the river into a lake. They used science to do it. But they had to correlate many factors like costs and environmental impacts. All the variables mattered, but they had to make choices that would result in a new outcome. That connectedness is often called an ecosystem.”

“It could have gone differently, you know” said the boy. “Today this could still be a farm, with a river and rapids nearby. We wouldn’t be in this boat. And we’d be a little thirsty after we got home.”

“Perhaps, in a darkened room?” the man added.

He stopped rowing, and docked the oars. The silence, save the lapping of the waves, was profound. In four short encounters, the old man and the boy had stepped through Kant’s entire Categorical Framework, first published in 1781. All knowledge was covered. All paths to knowledge had a way to be consistently abstracted, framed as rules, actively examined for patterns, and synthesized. Immanuel Kant, in the end, had built a framework for all knowledge .. just as he’d promised.

The boat continued to drift slowly with the lake’s gentle current. After all, under all this water was a river. The man and the boy contemplated the takeaways.

Meantime, the dog was focused elsewhere. With no fishing gear deployed, the hope of fresh fish was seeming less possible. So the dog unceremoniously launched himself through the air. He hit the water with a commanding splash, with lake water flying in all directions, drenching the old man and the boy, just like the day by the river. The two broke into uproarious laughter, shattering the sleepy silence as their laughs echoed across the lake. The scene lasted for some time, until their laughter ran it’s course, and finally died away. There was at once a sense of joy and of peace, in its wake. But there was also a deepening sense of understanding.

“All connected, indeed,” concluded the old man, wiping the water on this face with his sleeve. “We really should bring a towel next time.”

“Here,” said the boy, offering the towel he’d brought along. They both smiled and the old man winked, as the dog clambered back into the boat. At that, the old man grabbed the oars again, dipping one deep into the gentle current, making a long and lazy turn toward home.

You’re reading about thinking in Just Curious, a new Medium publication.

This is the last in a 4-part Series on Kant’s Categorical Framework. Watch for more here on Medium, as we discuss the implications. Meantime, let’s connect! — you’ll find me on Twitter, Instagram, and of course here on Medium — I love this place.

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CJ Amberwood

CJ Amberwood

Thinker. Instigator. Explorer of edges. Author. Top Writer in Writing. Editor http://medium.com/just-curious/ .. pour some coffee, stop in .. let’s connect

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