Immanuel Kant I. – Opening Volley

Of all fortresses of the mind, I would call Kant’s one of the most foreboding. He has constructed something not only walled by sheer breadth but also a spartan style and Teutonic syntax. These alone would not hold were they not supported by what Deleuze will describe in his lectures on Kant:

It’s an excessive atmosphere, but if one holds up, and the important thing above all is not to understand, the important thing is to take on the rhythm of a given man, a given writer, a given philosopher, if one holds up, all this northern fog which lands on top of us starts to dissipate, and underneath there is an amazing architecture. When I said to you that a great philosopher is nevertheless someone who invents concepts, in Kant’s case, in this fog, there functions a sort of thinking machine, a sort of creation of concepts that is absolutely frightening. We can try to say that all of the creations and novelties that Kantianism will bring to philosophy turn on a certain problem of time and an entirely new conception of time, a conception of which we can say that its elaboration by Kant will be decisive for all that happened afterwards, which is to say we will try to determine a sort of modern consciousness of time in opposition to a classical or ancient consciousness of time.

So imagine that these walls enclose this terrifying thinking machine of Kant’s. It is with the raising of this edifice that much would change. Deleuze identifies time as central to Kant and in his lectures, which have been invaluable to me and to which I will have recourse throughout this campaign, he will try to determine what happened with Kant and time and what time was like prior. Mostly, it will be a juxtaposition of Platonic and Kantian time, with a certain Gilles Châtelet giving us an account of Plotinus, who falls somewhere outside of both of these. Though Deleuze would find Plotinus to be less than significant, the account gave a certain flash of curiosity to me and I have since named Plotinus as a someone worthy of a much deeper look.

But returning to the matter at hand, we have arrived at the locus of one of the necessary transhistorical investigations: the battle for time. Deleuze will describe Platonic time as having been formed, at least in part, from the observations of the celestial bodies that occurred in antiquity. The Chinese, Indians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks all took great notice of the firmament which was focused into a growing technical capability for its observation. Deleuze will tie together the notion of an eternal circular time with the seemingly eternal and circular nature of the motions of celestial bodies, such as is described in Timaeus. An infinite time, that measures motion and is thus tied to change and to objects, going around and around forever. It cannot be doubted that this conception was powerful and dominated certain men and certain times.

Thus the Kantian reversal is that he freed time from being shackled to change and thus to the objects experiencing alteration that it measured. Time became the pure form of inner experience, a form emptied of all content. We and our perceptions are tied to this pure, empty time now. And the circle became a line. A line which will become the limit of thought. For within the system of Transcendental Idealism, space and time can only be said of our subjective experience and not posited about the existence of the thing-in-itself or the thing beyond my apprehension of it. This is why space and time are called the forms of our experiences, for they structure and order it. And when I attempt to represent myself to myself, since time is the form of inner experience, I can only do so through time. In this way, time is said to be an auto-affection.

To return to Plotinus, and perhaps establish a brief glimpse into what must be pursued further at a later date, I will give you the summary of Gilles Châtelet’s exposition:

In Plotinus there is an abstract operator which is called the One, which is without any qualification and something degrades once we leave the One. Certainly time measures degradation in relation to eternity. Plotinus says that time is the irreparable addition of being to itself. Time is a fall, i.e. a degradation, and Plotinus speaks of aspiring towards God. The mathematical figure which would go with what Plotinus says is called a projective straight line, time is a straight line, but a straight line which has been curved. It’s not a circle either. It’s a circle minus one point (the One). Time in Plotinus would be a sort of projective time, there is already the idea of irreversibility. In Plotinus time flows from the One and the One is transcendent to time. Time is not exactly a cosmic being, it’s the soul which appreciates time in so far… Time is already an equivalent of eternity, it has neither beginning nor end and the point outside the circle is not in time, the One is above, we never begin. It’s rather paradoxical.

In response to this there is a somewhat obscure comment made by Deleuze:

When I said that time un-curves itself, becomes a straight line… There is something equivalent in this modern conception of time where it is at the same time that an empty form of parametric time appears and a complementarity with something which makes a function, whether it is the caesura in the tragedy, or else the cut in mathematical instrumentation. I am just a bit bothered by the key role that Gilles Châtelet gives to Plotinus. In antiquity it is much more complicated than has been said till now. There were in fact two directions and the two directions had at least something in common: in the two directions time only has a modal character and never a ???? character. However the two directions are time as number of movement, thus subordinated to the physical cosmos, subordinated to physis, and then Plotinus breaks away there, but he is not the first to break away, and he makes a conception of time which is subordinated not to physis but to the soul. I wouldn’t completely agree with Gilles Châtelet on the importance of this point, of Plotinus, and on the one hand the two attempts: time subordinated to the soul, time subordinated to physis maintain or at least have in common the affirmation of a purely and uniquely modal character of time, thus time as the image of eternity, a secondary and derived character of time, and the two have a point of convergence in the Antique theory of the soul of the world.

It was here that I realized that there would be a necessity for a full accounting of just what this Antique theory of a world-soul was and how it related to the various accounts in antiquity of time. However, at the risk of being drawn too far from the siege we return again to Kant. Beyond giving these lectures a full read, I also made use of the extensive introduction provided in the new Guyer-Wood translation of the Critique of Pure Reason to get a sense of Kant’s work up to the point where he releases the first Critique. I also watched the introductory lectures of both Dan Robinson and Robert Paul Wolff in their respective series concerning the first Critique. Robinson professes to be an Aristotelian as well holding a PhD in neuropsychology and Robert Paul Wolff was educated originally as a Harvard logician before moving into the history of philosophy and political philosophy and largely seems to be in line with the Anglo-American analytic tradition. They are appreciably far afield of any Deleuzian reading and in that way may be useful.

How radical Kant’s account of time is and how truly far reaching is something that will perhaps be revealed. Beyond this, the standard summary of Kant is that he attempted to refute traditional scholastic metaphysics as making claims that they couldn’t possibly support about the existence of God, nature of the soul, and so on (while maintaining that we can and should believe in these things on the basis of practical reason which will occupy his second Critique). He also attempts to refute the positions of Hume and Locke on causality and the capabilities of pure reason and to do the same with the rationalist tradition of Descartes and their skepticism of the usefulness and reliability of empirical sensation. All while defending against charges of being an idealist, as opposed to a transcendental idealist, which Kant will desperately attempt to show as being entirely different from traditional idealism. In hindsight, it seems that people now appreciate that defense as a very successful one, but at the time it was less certain.

Also of note is Kant’s obsession with Swedenborg, the Swedish mystic who claimed that he had received visions granting him knowledge of hidden things as well as events that took place far away from himself in both space and time. Some of this knowledge was verified and it seems to have excited within Kant a certain curiosity and generated a controversy concerning Kant’s true position on Swedenborg. It has been asserted that there are some interesting parallels between Kantian and Swedenborgian metaphysics which I would aim to look into for myself. I was also drawn to the comment of Scott Gammeter on Quora, who writes:

Before Kant’s masterpiece on pure reason, Swedenborg had already anticipated it’s essential insight, i.e. that we see the world through the predetermined prisms of time, space, causality, etc. These are cognitive (archetypal) structures. Kant was bewildered that the spiritual visionary had articulated this idea previoysly. Also, Kant has been credited with discovering the nebular theory of the creation of planetary systems. The idea was first formulated by Swedenborg.

This brings to mind the notion that spiritual intuition is one way of accessing knowledge later verified empirically or through reason, which has been purported to be a transhistorical phenomenon. Whether Swedenborg merely inspired Kant or in fact reached similar conclusions through different means is perhaps something that will never be entirely clear. Swedenborg and the idea of mysticism in general had, at this point, become increasingly apparent as another future site of exploration.

Having staged our position, the siege begins.

4 thoughts on “Immanuel Kant I. – Opening Volley

  1. I’m interested in Kant’s interest in mysticism. I wonder if you think Kant’s system could allow for such a thing as mysticism. It seems to me that his totality disallows “the exceptional.” Mystics, after all, transcend the plane of everyday existence through mysterious divine intervention. This, to me, looks like a step out of Kant’s apodictic certainty of reason to absolute metaphysical truth via spontaneous and divine transmission. Is this kind of exception something he cannot assimilate? Carl Schmitt has made it clear Kant’s political idealism disallows the exceptional, and I wouldn’t be surprise if his epistemic and metaphysical constructions have a similar problem.


    • Kant’s system would not deem mystical intuition to be valid knowledge, as its not support by pure reason or intuition (meaning sensory perception). The theories abound as to what his relationship is with Swedenborg. The wildest, and my favorite, is that he was secretly a total Swedenborgian who carefully hid it for fear of having his career utterly destroyed. Clergymen who were supportive or lenient to Swedenborg faced charges of heresy often enough. This guy wrote his whole dissertation on how Kant created a public defensible position that incorporated Swedenborgs main insights but denied his mystical knowledge as being valid essentially to save face. I plan on getting deeper into that in future for sure.


    • While I have never experienced mystical intuition, I am oath-bound to respect men who say that it is so, and thus I will not speak against it nor imply that I regard it any differently than they. There are certain standards in place depending on the claims you will be making regarding your mystical intuitions. For instance, Swedenborg said some things that were then verifiable to some extent. It was true so it was true. If you’re religious, your mystics wouldn’t be able to contradict what is known and true of your religion or lead people away from it, in my view. This would disqualify them in that realm as assuredly as making a patently false empirical claim would disqualify you in that realm. This seems to me to be a healthy and appropriate view. And within these bounds there is a great deal of mystical experience.


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