Kantian and post-Kantian approaches to scientific representation

Robert DiSalle

Western Ontario

Abstract: 
Kant’s account of the foundations of science foundered, according to a wide- spread and plausible view, because of the progress of science in the century following his death. Non-Euclidean geometry emerged not only as a rigorous part of mathematics, but also as an empirically possible description of the space of our experience; Euclidean geometry therefore could no longer be defended as expressing the necessary form of our spatial intuition. In physics, emerging theories of electromagnetism, gravity, and atomic structure called into question the Newtonian conceptions of space, time, and causality, making it difficult to defend the Newton’s laws as expressing the universal and necessary “metaphysical foundations of natural science.” Friedman (1992), assessing the fate of Kant’s account, emphasized its positive character as an analysis of the presuppositions of geometry and physics in Kant’s time—a character that helps to explain its overthrow by scientific developments involving radically different presuppositions. The neo-Kantian tendency of the later 19th-century, by contrast, emphasized what may be called the negative character of Kant’s account, as defining general a priori constraints on possible scientific inquiry; in the face of revolutionary scientific progress, the synthetic a priori foundations of science could be sought in more general constraints, not particularly tied to Newtonian mechanics or to any other temporary stage. But Kant’s original project was not only to identify the universal and necessary presuppositions of science, but also to explain how theoretical forms of science manage to represent the world of our experience—in other words, to explain the connection between the mathematical structure of the world as described by physics and the forms of our spatial and temporal intuition. The immediate connection between Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics made this connection seem straightforward to Kant, even though he acknowledged that it must have psychological elements that were not fully under- stood. In the late 19th century, however, Helmholtz and Poincaré sought to make this Kantian connection in an appropriately empiricist way, through a kind of philosophical analysis informed by physics, physiology, and psychology. The extent of their success in illuminating Kant’s problem was some- what obscured by their followers among 20th-century philosophy of science, who construed representation as the arbitrary “coordination” of an abstract formal structure with concrete experience; one legacy of this misconstrual is the contemporary “problem of representation” as posed by Van Fraassen and others. I suggest that we find a better way of formulating the problem, and even the possibility of a solution, in the 19th-century efforts to follow Kant’s line of thinking into its post-Kantian scientific context.