Kant's Theory of Normativity: Exploring the Space of Reason by Konstantin Pollok
Konstantin Pollok's ambitious aim in this book is to formulate a unified theory of normativity that runs throughout Kant's three Critiques. Specifically, he argues that, on Kant's view, synthetic a priori principles structure "the space of reason" and determine the validity of our judgments. Such principles are constitutive of our epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic practices by setting the conditions for what makes a meaningful judgment in those areas, but they are also normative in that the particular judgments we make can be right or wrong depending on whether we successfully apply the principles. For example, to be making knowledge claims, we must use the pure concepts of the understanding to interpret our experience; but we may use the category of causality wrongly if we misidentify the cause of an event or attribute causality to what lies beyond possible experience. Pollok provides the vocabulary to explain what is happening here: in claiming that our judgments are valid, we acknowledge the rational standards against which our claims can be understood as claims about something, we can fail to meet these standards, and the judgments can be imputed to us. [End Page 177]
The book is divided into three parts. Part I sets Kant's theory of normativity in its historical context. Pollok interprets Kant's Copernican turn as a rejection of rationalist perfectionism. Instead of focusing on the reality of ideas, and subjecting them to norms (i.e. different degrees of clarity or perfection), Kant focuses on relations of ideas (i.e. judgments) as the medium of normativity. Pollok then sets out a taxonomy or division of judgments for nature, freedom, and purposiveness that defines possible judgments in terms of several dichotomies: a priori or a posteriori (regarding the source of a judgment's propositional content), analytic or synthetic (regarding its scope), objective or subjective (regarding a judgment's validity), determining or reflective (regarding the extrinsic and intrinsic guidance of the power of judgment), and constitutive or regulative (regarding the justificatory status of principles).
In Part II, Pollok turns to what he calls Kant's "transcendental hylomorphism." Hylomorphism is the idea, traceable to Plato, that objects are the result of matter and form together. Kant's hylomorphism is transcendental because the form of a given judgment determines, or is a condition for the possibility of, how propositional content or matter becomes available to us. What makes a form reasonable is its adherence to synthetic a priori principles. The content of our judgments must be determined according to these forms to count as experience, moral maxims, or aesthetic judgments. Pollok talks at length about how matter and form are related in our use of concepts, our judgments, our inferences, and a system of knowledge.
Pollok demonstrates the need for synthetic a priori judgments in Part III. The norms of thinking and acting are inherent to the nature of reason—he draws on the natural rights tradition to explain this—and thus they are universal constraints for any imperfectly rational being. He argues against Christine Korsgaard's constructivist interpretation of Kantian normativity, claiming that self-legislation is a matter of holding ourselves to the laws of reason that make epistemic, practical, and aesthetic judgments possible. We do not create such laws, but subject ourselves to synthetic a priori principles by engaging in norm-governed practices. Pollok concludes the book by applying his theory to judgments of experience, practical judgments, and judgments of taste, in order to show how these judgments are made possible by synthetic a priori principles, and how communication among rational beings is governed by them.
I have no doubt that Pollok's interpretation of Kant is mostly correct. Those who appreciate Robert Pippin's and Terry Pinkard's work on Kant and Hegel will find this book especially compelling. Pollok's resistance to naturalistic interpretations of Kant is well-founded because explaining judgments in naturalistic terms misses the normative dimension of whether and how our judgments are justified ('ought' versus 'is'). Furthermore, Pollok correctly emphasizes the public nature of reasoning and the shared standards of validity to which we subject ourselves in rational discussion. One concern is that Pollok does not explain what impact his reading should have (if any) on contemporary philosophy. Is this (or some version of this) the correct theory of normativity? Does it challenge or anticipate current approaches? Another issue is that Pollok's own penchant for systematicity and exhaustiveness often makes his discussion needlessly complex, to the point where it would almost be easier to read Kant's primary texts than Pollok's interpretation. His nested structure of epistemic unities and his taxonomy of judgments are cases in point. This book is for Kant specialists, not students. The good news is that those select readers will appreciate Pollok's well-researched account of the unity of the critical philosophy and his explanation of how, on Kant's view, we can be bound by norms. It is an important piece of Kant scholarship. [End Page 178]