Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Friday, December 28, 2012

Kant, still

A few years ago I wrote a very, very short review of Kant's philosophy -- not at all a summary or a précis, but what I hoped was a provocation to ordinary readers (that is, not those who usually self-identify as philosophers) to give him a try. I had in mind especially three shorter works -- the Prolegomena, the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, and (in some ways my favorite) the early Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime; I wrote there that
these works by Kant exhibit the absolute rigor and confidence of hard thinking. Reading them slowly, one almost recaptures the sense that, if the difficulties are simply thought through to the end, even the most immovable problems will yield to the irresistible force of the mind.
David Milliern has posted a welcome encomium on Immanuel Kant, where he admittedly does pretty much the same thing, but with more detail, more emphasis on the epistemology and natural philosophy, and expressly talking to philosophers. Milliern's praise may seem over-the-top--
in my opinion, far and away, the greatest thinker of all-time — and I mean it isn’t even close
--but I find this welcome, I say, given the reaction among some philosophers against Kant. This reaction has arisen largely in the wake of Meillassoux, whose critique of Kant is really a critique of a particular reading -- Meillassoux's reading -- of Kant, but because of the geniality and ingenuity with which Meillassoux makes it, the critique has caught on. On the other hand, there is Žižek's "Kant was the first philosopher" line, which like so much in Žižek overstates in order to provoke, and I read Milliern's enthusiasm in the same way, though he'd probably protest that he means it absolutely literally.

I deeply admire Meillassoux, and I spend more time than I like to admit arguing with him in my mind; but for all the talk about reversing the "Ptolemaic counter-revolution," I will bet anyone who dares to take me up on it that as the dust settles and people stop using "correlationist" as a swear-word, there will be more than one proposed synthesis of Kant and Meillassoux (or indeed of your Speculative Realist of choice). I note, for instance, that Kant singles out three questions -- the reality of free will, the existence of God, and the possibility of immortality -- as crucial to moral philosophy (and I am one for whom this is the centerpiece of his thinking in general). Very few major thinkers have seriously addressed immortality the way Kant did, and back when I first studied him I even thought he was making a kind of category mistake. But I've come to understand since then. And one of the signs that Meillassoux is the real thing is that the more you read him the more you realize that his thinking begins and ends with this very same issue. (There is a sense in which Meillassoux is Kant modulated into a new key: read the concerns about Ancestrality as the starry heavens, and the concerns about the world of justice as the moral law.)

As a Platonist, I'm on the ancients' side whenever I can be, but when I have to be a modern (and of course I do) I am (in certain crucial ways that have to do with the thematization of finitude) Kantian. Millierd prefaces his post with that famous remark of Kant about moral law and the starry heavens. I know this is over-quoted, like the first bars of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, but I don't care -- it really is gorgeous and as fine a one-sentence summary of philosophy itself as one could ask for -- and it is also (and not coincidentally) one of the places where Kant's kinship with Plato is most apparent. And with Meillassoux, now that I think of it.


  1. I would really like to read your thoughts concerning the ideas presented here, especially the parts about style and the sick man of Europe - http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/articles/haller.html .

  2. Gary,

    at first when I read the paper a little carelessly I thought-- Oh, another Sokalesque dismissal of "French theory." But there's a bit more to it than that, I see on a second look. I will read it more closely and try to say something better informed. Thanks for pointing me to this.

  3. First, let me clarify that, while I do maintain the above-cited opinion of Kant, I certainly do not think such an opinion implies a belief in the thoroughgoing correctness of his thought, at least, in my case. Second, I am fascinated by your thought that there might be a synthesis to be had between Meillassoux and Kant. I have recently written a paper that is moving in that direction, (http://milliern.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/flat-ontology-and-the-onto-epistemic-stance/ ). I think the key in a speculative turn for Kant and correlationism is absolutizing Kantian cognition. Kant's philosophy of cognition is amazing, in my opinion, but it is also a mess, as Dennis Sweet has pointed in his "Objective Knowledge and Self-Consciousness." For example, Sweet points out the incomplete status of the schema. I have had problems writing an article that, in part, makes sense of Kant's synthesis, primarily, because the Kantian synthesis is so different between the 1781 and 1787 version of the first "Critique."

    Before I ramble on, I should say that I enjoyed your post and I empathize with your position (Platonism, etc.)


  4. Hi David, and welcome.

    While I don't imagine anyone today thinking that a given philosopher was right from A to Z (we are too individualistic to be comfortable with party-lines, and must always feel the itch to correct our teachers), I certainly believe Kant's accomplishment is both under- and mis-esteemed in some SR circles. But there is plenty of traction for Kant. For instance, Harman clearly (though he seems not to like this representation) seems to maintain a radically de-centered Kantianism, a Kantianism in which any given psyche experiences only phenomena, while the noumena slip away. (I believe he once listed his personal "top ten" philosophers and included Kant as number 3.) Meillassoux obviously gives such credit to the correlationist position, that he just wants to radicalize it -- but in a different direction than he sees it being radicalized by Fichte & Hegel.

    However, my own Kantianism, such as it is, is not as amenable to the surface motives of Meillassoux. My sympathies with Kant stem from the Pax Konigsbergiana he established between faith and reason, which is more or less the reason why Q.M. finds Kant's legacy so very problematic. Meillassoux sees Kant as having propped open the door to all sorts of superstitions, at the very moment when the Enlightenment was finally going to crush the infamy. Hence his characterization of the Copernican revolution as Ptolemaic. This is a neat rhetorical ploy, and effective, but I think there is life in the insistence on the "limits of reason" yet.

    I should add that I discern in Meillassoux some deeper motives that are quite consonant with Kant. He too is interested in What we can know, What we ought to do, and What we may hope.

    Thanks for pointing me to your paper, which I had noticed before but not read carefully. I am intrigued with your attempt to use van Fraassen and a certain pragmatism in conjunction with flat ontology.