Seung’s Interpretation of Kant’s Philosophy (1969–2007)
Seung published three books on Kant over the span of thirty-eight years (1969–2007). In Kant’s Transcendental Logic (1969), he examines Kant’s claim that transcendental logic can generate a priori synthetic propositions. He views Kant’s transcendental logic as an extension of formal logic. This extension was made by joining formal logic to the pure intuitions of space and time and the pure concepts of understanding. Although his theory of pure intuitions has been discredited by the emergence of non-Euclidean physical geometry, his theory of pure concepts has remained relatively intact. But Seung has exposed a fatal flaw in this theory.
In the Metaphysical Deduction, Kant claims to derive logically his twelve categories from the twelve forms of judgment. It has long been a standard practice to dismiss the Metaphysical Deduction as one of Kant’s typical opaque passages and move on to the Transcendental Deduction. Seung argues that this practice leads to a serious misreading of the first Critique. If Kant were to assemble the categories empirically, they could not be distinguished from empirical concepts. For this reason, he openly disdains Aristotle’s empirical method of collecting his categories. By his logical derivation of the categories, Kant believes, he can prove their a priori origin because logic is a priori. With their a priori origin thus proven, Kant intends to use them as the logical premise for the Transcendental Deduction. But Seung shows that Kant’s derivation scheme was ill-conceived. The forms of judgment are syntactic elements; the categories are semantic elements. To derive the latter from the former was to derive semantic elements from syntactic elements. Although this was a logically impossible operation, Kant proudly flaunted it as his ingenious invention. Unfortunately, his ingenuity thrived only in exploiting his logical fantasy. Seung has dissected a series of fraudulent maneuvers in his derivation of the categories. But the fraud was recognized neither by the performer nor by the audience because it was executed in an obscure tricky language.
Kant’s apriorism has generally been taken as the central theme of his philosophy. But Seung has discovered one more enduring theme alongside it. This is the topic of Kant’s Platonic Revolution in Moral and Political Philosophy (1994), in which Seung explores the importance of Platonism for Kant. In his Inaugural Dissertation, Seung says, Kant expressed his enthusiasm over Platonic Ideas for the first time in his life. Although Kant launched his project of Critical Philosophy in the first Critique, he reaffirmed his earlier allegiance to normative Platonism in the Transcendental Dialectic, where he included Platonic Ideas in the pure concepts of reason. He emphatically distinguished the pure concepts of reason from the categories of understanding. Although the categories were indispensable for understanding phenomena, he maintained, they were useless for practical reason because they provided no normative standards. In the practical domain, he says, one cannot take a single step without appealing to Platonic Ideas as the ultimate normative principles.
By the time Kant wrote the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, he appeared to have completely disowned his normative Platonism. He does not even mention Platonic Ideas and tries to spin out moral rules by purely formal principles, which can have no connection with any transcendent entities such as Platonic Ideas. Consequently, Kant scholars have rarely recognized the relevance of Platonism for his ethics. Against this prevailing tradition, Seung has textually demonstrated that Platonism was an essential element in Critique of Practical Reason and Metaphysics of Morals, Kant’s two ethical treatises after the Groundwork. Plato’s influence is not limited to his ethical writings. Seung has shown that Platonic Ideas also play a critical role in the third Critique and in Kant’s philosophy of history. He finally concludes that the entire tradition of German Idealism has grown out of Kant’s enthusiasm with Platonic Ideas.
Kant: A Guide for the Perplexed (2007) provides an overview of Kant’s philosophical development. This development has been understood as his struggle to reconcile continental rationalism and British empiricism, which has produced his a priori formalism. But this is only one half of the story, according to Seung; the other half is Kant’s normative Platonism. In Kant’s own language, Seung says, his philosophy consists of two types of elements: transcendent and transcendental. The transcendental elements are a priori and innate to the subject of experience. The transcendent elements transcend the world of experience. The former was Kant’s appropriation of the Cartesian legacy; the latter was his adaptation of the Platonic legacy.
To reconcile these two legacies turned out to be a far more difficult task for Kant than the task of reconciling empiricism and rationalism. In his general scheme of synthesis, empiricism and rationalism complements each other like two sides of a single body, but the Platonic and the Cartesian legacies behave like two bodies of conjoined twins. Their harmonious union was so intractable that Kant had to revise it many times over and yet never achieved a satisfactory resolution. Seung supports this verdict by solid textual evidence. Although his three Critiques have traditionally been taken as three interlocking segments of his architectonic system, he points out, their interconnection is rarely, if ever, discussed in Kant scholarship. In fact, he says, Kant scholarship has been divided into three tightly segregated compartments, each of which clusters around one of the three Critiques and conducts its business without even considering the business of the other two. Obviously, there is no way to fit those three pieces together into a single edifice.
Seung has suggested that the most sensible way to read the three Critiques is to take them as Kant’s three attempts to bring together his a priori formalism and his normative Platonism. In fact, to write more than one Critique was not his original design. He had assumed that Critique of Pure Reason was sufficient for laying the foundation for his Critical Philosophy because there was only one pure reason. On the basis of this foundation, he was planning to write two metaphysical treatises: Metaphysics of Nature and Metaphysics of Morals. Instead of writing these two treatises, he changed his mind about the first Critique and wrote the second Critique. But he did not stop there. He changed his mind once more and wrote the third Critique. Even the first Critique marked a huge change of heart, which had terminated his dogmatic slumber in the Inaugural Dissertation. Seung textually substantiates these three revolutions in the development of Kant’s philosophy.
Seung concludes the preface to his Kant with the following observation: “Thus the three Critiques stand as the milestones for marking the three successive philosophical revisions. Therefore, it is a grievous error to regard them as three segments of a single unified architecture, as is conventionally understood in Kant scholarship. These three pieces can never be joined together in a single edifice because they are structurally incompatible with each other. Their connection can be understood only thematically because they mark the thematic development of Kant’s transcendental philosophy.” Thus Seung has launched a revolution in Kant scholarship by highlighting the hitherto neglected Kant’s normative Platonism and elucidating its dialectical tension with his a priori formalism. This was the irresolvable conflict between his own transcendentalism and Plato’s ancient transcendentism. He had to abandon one of them for the integrity of the other. Ironically, this has been accomplished by Kant scholars by blithely closing their eyes to the Platonic dimension of his philosophy. But he could not muster the courage to make the decisive move on his own. So he was destined to struggle with the two-headed monster of his own creation to the end of his life. This is Seung’s startling account of Kant’s profound epic struggle.
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