An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics

The Bounds of Sense had an immediate impact and continues tobe extremely influential. It altered the face of Kantian scholarship bysuggesting novel and very well supported interpretations and criticismsof Kant. It represents a sympathetic reading of Kant that any accountof him must now come to terms with. But it also, as Putnam remarks,‘opened the way to a reception of Kant's philosophy byanalytic philosophers’ (Putnam 1998 in Hahn 1998, 273). On oneinterpretation The Bounds of Sense represents a general andcontinuous essay in epistemology. Strawson's idea is that atraditional form of philosophical scepticism can be opposed by a styleof argument that Kant himself developed, in which the claims aboutwhich the sceptic is sceptical can be shown to be involved in thesceptics’ own understanding of his position and view. Thus, thesceptics says that their experiences afford no knowledge of theobjective world, but the ascription to themselves of experiences restson and requires acceptance of the judgements they are sceptical of. Thearguments which reveal the dependence are called TranscendentalArguments. As we saw, Strawson presented this same (or a related) styleof argument in Individuals. In the years following itspublication this anti-sceptical response was closely investigated, alarge literature on it was generated, including notably a number ofpowerful contributions by the American philosopher Barry Stroud. (SeeStroud 1968 and 1999.) One problem is that it is extraordinarilydifficult to show that there are the conceptual dependencies which suchtranscendental arguments rely on. Interestingly, Strawson himself soondevised a different response to scepticism, but it is also true thatthe anti-sceptical approach that Strawson developed here remainsappealing to a range of epistemologists, and this debate continues.

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In 1966, seven years after the publication of IndividualsStrawson published his third book, The Bounds of Sense.Strawson's aim is to isolate and defend what is valuable andworth preserving as opposed to those aspects he sees as the dubious inKant's Critique of Pure Reason. Strawson has no sympathywith Kant's description of his task as the explanation of thepossibility of synthetic a priori judgements, the notions not beingproperly explained, and he substitutes the idea of determining whatmodifications of and combinations within conceptual schemes we can makesense of. Even if the Kantian notions are dubious it may be wonderedwhether Strawson own categories are clear enough to identify atheoretical goal. Strawson also abandons Kant'sTranscendental Idealism, though he explores its interpretation withgreat care and considers why Kant might have adopted it. Any accounttrue to Kant must at least credit his view with acceptance of thethesis that real objects, things in themselves, are unknowable andbeyond our experience. But there seems no coherent way to fit ourselvesas objects into such a framework. If we do receive appearances, as Kantclaims, is that not actually a truth about ourselves that we know? Oris it only an appearance that we receive appearances? That is barelyintelligible. The rejection of Transcendental Idealism requiresStrawson to scrutinize Kant's arguments for it, and he verycarefully and sympathetically analyses, and of course rejects,Kant's arguments about space and time, and geometry, and also theargument, presented in the Antinomies, that transcendental realismgenerates contradictions. Strawson further abandons much ofKant's talk of mechanisms of synthesis in the generation ofproper experience. There seems no coherent way to explain what thematerials are that such mechanisms work on, nor really how theywork.


Individuals: An essay in descriptive metaphysics: …

Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (University Paperbacks; Up) [P.F

Indivduals is far richer in argument than I have been able toconvey. It occasioned, more or less immediately, considerable debate,and has continued to do so ever since. The epistemological conclusionsthat Strawson advanced, both about bodies and about other minds, wereclosely scrutinized. The overall arguments of the chapter on personsand the chapter on bodies were closely analysed. The contrast betweendescriptive and revisionary metaphysics, although briefly presented byStrawson, entered into the folk taxonomy of philosophy. As well asoccasioning disagreement, Strawson's book stimulated, over time,a series of books all of which could be described as essays indescriptive metaphysics with a similar focus to, though not withidentical conclusions to, Individuals. These include GarethEvans’ The Varieties of Reference, John Campbell'sPast, Space and Self, and David Wiggins, Sameness andSubstance. (For a good general critical discussion ofIndividuals see Williams 1961.)