I’ve spent years, and written close to hundred pages, on the problem of inner sense in Kant, and so it feels rather surprising that the major breakthrough of the past few weeks is framing the problem as the search for an answer to the following question:
Why do we need an inner sense?
Nonetheless, I think I’ve finally managed to come up with the right question. For it is far from obvious why we need an inner sense, even though it is quite obvious from the Critique of Pure Reason that Kant thinks we do; there is no agreement among commentators on what the answer to the question is, indeed, few commentators seem to have explicitly asked themselves the question at all (I am greatly indebted to Garth Green, reading his excellent book and interacting with him has definitely been the catalyst in my case); and the answers that have been put forward, either intently or by accident, are mostly underdeveloped and/or seriously flawed.
Inner sense has to do with time – yes. And it has to do with self-knowledge – yes. But the question of why we need it at all is primary. Only after understanding why it must be there in the first place can we go on to explicate time as its form, and why and how it can provide for self-knowledge. This is Kant’s philosophical methodology, of course: First and foremost an investigation into the conditions of possibility, in this case the possibility of theoretical experience. So what function, performed by inner sense, is a necessary condition of the possibility of theoretical experience? The question seems obvious, perhaps, but a look at the prevalent interpretations is instructive, and tells otherwise. The most common answers point precisely to time and/or self-knowledge: Inner sense is necessary because experience is only possible in time, or because it is a condition for self-knowledge. But both these answers encounter some immediate and in my view impassable obstacles. In short: Even if it is true that experience requires temporality, it is far from obvious that temporality must be given as the form of something properly described as an “inner sense” – why couldn’t the form of outer sense be space-time? And as to the second answer, self-knowledge is only a specific kind of experience, whereas the Critique is supposed to be concerned with the conditions of possibility of experience in general. (There is much to be said, of course, in defense of these positions. Indeed, that is what I’m working on at the moment, building up, all the better to tear down… The basic point, however, is that the answer to the question “why do we need inner sense?” cannot be temporality or self-knowledge as such, but in the best case a further explication of the necessary, inner, and sensible function “within” temporality or self-knowledge.)
It is wonderfully bizarre, how one can go on for years, poring over Kant’s texts, and his lectures, and his contemporaries, and his interpreters, and then the real progress comes not from some obscure Reflexion, nor from reading the Transcendental Deduction for the twelth consecutive time, but from being able to formulate a strikingly simple question about the subject matter one is studying. Is it normal, this huge gap between the time one starts researching a problem, and the time one actually manages to pose a question that gets to the heart of the issue?
I suspect it is (though maybe I’m just being defensive). For one thing, if I did not already have an answer of my own (to be elaborated in forthcoming posts), the question would have seemed much less clarifying and illuminating. I can see now why it is an important question, and how it frames the search for an adequate interpretation of inner sense in a most helpful way. But would I have been able to a year ago, or two? Without having swam about in the confusing details, the question would have been a mere empty reflection, a placeholder for something unknown. There’s something Deleuzian to be said here, about learning, about questions and problems, and about stupidity. Moreover, there are many other possible, simple questions that are positively unhelpful, problems badly posed, a nice topical example here would be the question “which has priority, inner sense or outer sense?” This has been an influential question in the secondary literature, one which has rather overshadowed the one I have been proffering in this post, but it is also a question without a proper answer. There is no single and exclusive relation of priority between inner sense and outer sense. And since the question leaves open what inner sense is/does in the first place, the door is then open to ambiguities and misunderstandings based not only on different understandings of “inner sense”, but also on different understandings of “priority”.