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In Kant's Transcendental Psychology (hereafter, KTP), Patricia Kitcher gives an insightful argument for the inadequacy of the law of association, which she asserts was Hume's primary explanation for how we come to believe in objects (KTP, p. 69):

"The law of association does not explain how we represent objects; the law is itself explained by the rules of synthesis that make reference to objects possible:" (KTP, p. 77)

Her argument is based on the idea that association is dependent on some other source of unity, or on some other determining principle to provide order to "multiple cognitive states from various sensory modalities" (KTP, p. 72). The diversity needs unity, and that diversity can't be the source of that unity. Furthermore, if the data, whose order we are trying to explain, depends on a unifying principle, it is no explanation to appeal to a law which also depends on a unifying principle:

"Without the assumption that ideas have determinate, repeatable contents, the law [of association] makes no sense. In that case, however, the law presupposes and cannot explain our ability to construct representations of objects and properties." (KTP, p. 78)

However, after expressing the argument so well, she said the following:

"However, the fact that this sense-based aspect of mental life is inadequate does not show the impossibility of some other, more subtle pattern of sensory stimulation being the basis of object representation." (KTP, p. 78)

This seems to be inconsistent with her previous argument. As she said herself, "Our senses do not take in whole objects or their properties through some type of migration" (KTP, p. 71). On what basis, then, can she argue the possibility of "subtle patterns" which seemingly could only be understood as properties that somehow migrated? She also rules out the possibility that spatiotemporal contiguity could serve as an explanation, saying, "The stream of cognitive states is too fluctuating and too varied to yield representations by the simple mechanism of spatiotemporal contiguity." (KTP, p. 79) However, in spite of that, she suggests that there might be some other way.

Kitcher goes on to criticize Kant's argument based on the possibility that her hypothetical "subtle patterns" actually exist:

"Because Kant's argument for a priori elements is really an argument against the law of association, it is not totally successful. He does not rule out the possibility just described, so he cannot legitimately claim that our representations of objects do not derive from the senses." (KTP, p. 80)

How can she suggest the possibility that the recognition of these sensory patterns is exempt from the inadequacy of the law of association that she argued so well to establish? According to her argument, this exemption would have to be due to an independence from any organizing principle, as if the patterns could arrive with self-explanatory properties. Is there some loophole to her argument which allows subtle properties to migrate along the neural pathways independent of any need for interpretation?

  • Maybe I am missing something but I don't see why association's inadequacy to "construct representations of objects and properties" precludes "more subtle pattern of sensory stimulation" being grasped by some other means. Kant's argument is transcendental, there is a problem with association and a priori synthesis solves it, this works only as long as a better alternative doesn't emerge, there is no inference from problem to solution. We now know from empirical psychology that perceptual unity is produced neither by association nor by a priori synthesis but by more sophisticated means. – Conifold May 10 '16 at 18:51
  • @Conifold. I see it as a question of either having an a priori determining principal or not. Her appeal to to these subtle patterns seems to be an effort to avoid the dependency on such a principle without subjecting to the inadequacy of association--i.e. pattern recognition without any such principle. I don't see how there could be a middle ground. What sort of means can provided perceptual unity without being characterized as a priori synthesis? If it' not a priori wouldn't it have to be a posteriori? And if it's not synthesis, wouldn't it lack the capacity for unity? – user3017 May 10 '16 at 19:12
  • Think of a metal rusting, the rust is neither what was in the metal before the rusting, nor what was in the air. The idea that perceptual unity either has to pre-exist in objects of perception (realism), or be imposed by subjects through synthesis (apriorism) is a false dilemma, it may be "forged" in the clash between the two, with nothing cogently "pre-existing" in either (rusting analogy limps on that). But it is a very tempting and deep seated dilemma indeed, Sellars called it the myth of the given, and McDowell writes that philosophy oscillated between its horns for centuries. – Conifold May 10 '16 at 20:02
  • @Conifold. Thanks. I'll look into it. By the way, I started reading Kitcher because of a reference you made elsewhere, and I have found some of her comments very insightful. – user3017 May 10 '16 at 20:16
  • Thanks, I am glad it helped. McDowell's book I was referring to is Mind and World en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McDowell#Mind_and_World_.281994.29 and myth of the given is from Sellars's Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind available online mcps.umn.edu/assets/pdf/1_11_Sellars.pdf – Conifold May 10 '16 at 21:59

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