NaBloPoMo: Immanuel Kant and Superman 3

11/05/2010 By Shawn Burns

The third Superman film sets the Man of Steel against a rich villain, Ross Webster, who has a gal Friday named Lorelei Ambrosia. Lorelei is usually portrayed as ditzy in the film, but in one remarkable scene she sits alone reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. She isn’t just pretending to read it, either; she’s engaging with it. “How can he say that Pure Categories have no objective meaning in Transcendental Logic? What about Synthetic Unity?” she asks aloud.

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, also known as the First Critique (there were two others, of Practical Reason and of Judgment), is Kant’s attempt to understand what questions our faculty of reason is really capable of handling, as well as to understand what it inevitably tries to handle. Philosophers had been trying to use reason to arrive at conclusions in metaphysics (is there a God, is time infinite, is creation infinite) for centuries and it seemed, to Kant, that fully coherent and fully contradictory answers to these questions were being produced. Kant hoped to constrain reason, to show it where its limits were, and in the process to end the fruitless game being played.

For Kant there were two parts to cognizing something: first there has to a perception of the thing in space and time (which, for Kant, the thinker himself contributed to the sense data); second there have to be ways of thinking about things that are also contributed to the sense data. These ways of thinking about things Kant called the Pure Categories. For instance, we cannot experience a dog without experiencing it as one dog, many dogs, or all dogs, the three options in the Category of Quantity. We cannot experience the sun without experiencing it as a possible object, an existing object, or a necessary object (the Category of Modality). We can have no experience whatsoever without the Categories, so of any object we can know necessarily that it will have a Quantity, Quality, Modality, and Relation. Experience is possible in the first place because the thinker himself contributes the Categories to the experience.

The Categories that apply to objects in our experience have no objective existence; they are just necessary conditions on the possibility of experience (which is what Kant often means by calling something ‘Transcendental’). The dog we experience has no quantity, quality, modality, or relation in itself. In itself it is actually unknowable, because all of our knowledge is structured by the Categories and we contribute those to experience. But when we synthesize our sensible intuitions with the categories we achieve a unity that permits cognition of the object.

So when Lorelei Ambrosia asks “How can he say that Pure Categories have no objective meaning in Transcendental Logic? What about Synthetic Unity?” she is deploying some real Kantian concepts, but asking a bit of a malformed question. The Categories have no objective existence, but meaning? They aren’t linguistic objects, so they aren’t going to have meaning. And the synthetic unity of apprehension by which we achieve cognition of objects doesn’t bestow objective existence on the Categories: they don’t start to exist in the objects themselves just because we are cognizing the objects.

So next time you are watching Superman 3 remember: the Pure Categories are just a necessary condition on the possibility of experience. And Ross Webster is no Lex Luthor.