Immanuel Kant Interlude – Compulsory Idleness

What does it mean to orient one’s self in thinking? What does it mean to orient one’s self in life? I spent the years of my youth obsessed with visions. There was a lone oak tree in a wide grassy field by the sea that held a looming thunderstorm. If one moved north they would find willows, the ruins of a church, and a dense forest where perhaps the fae still roam. And across this earth, upon a tropical shore sits a golden throne and upon it a man adorned in yet more gold with a mask of gold and he stretches his hand out to you and his breath is disease. Within the seas roams a great beast of the tides but she is also a beautiful woman and perhaps even more. A city of spires that gleam with amber and ivory rises from the side of a mountain range, but it is now forgotten by the world.

I spend the years of my early maturity now remembering my visions. The images that called to me in waking or in sleeping states. These and many more. What does it mean for a man when these are the only things he can lay any claim to in his life? My God, these things are out there, even if only distantly echoed. Or as if heard through a wall. It is something that is almost with you.

Things sublime, beautiful, terrible, serene. A parade of images. What does it mean to possess nothing but an aesthetic yearning? Or, more truthfully told, an aesthetic hope. Not in this evil de-sacralized sense of our times but in the true sense of this word which itself designates the study of sense. I spent my boyhood years chasing angels and weeping. Please give me the strength and the means to be where I am supposed to be. Please let me enter the Abode of Peace, my Lord. Is it that which calls to me and leaves my fingers clawing at the door? It is a primal scream, and it has taken me years to remember that there is something that I have forgotten.

For months I have written nothing here. But with Kant there is an inexorable pull. The latter half of the Critique has contained critique of the standard scholastic and empiricist and rationalist arguments for or against things. In some ways it is an application of the system laid out, the system of transcendental idealism. I don’t feel the need to write any of it in summary until I finish the book. That should be worth a post. And then onward into the Critique of Practical Reason. Of growing interest to me is the work of Charles S. Peirce, Merleau-ponty, and some of the philosophers of the school of British Idealism. I suppose I shall have to climb through Kant into the other Germans and then Hegel if I am to move onto British Idealism, but the other two could be begun once the bulk of Kant is finished. God preserve us until that time and for many years beyond it, if He wills.

One of the last of the British Idealists, Mure, called empiricism a “worm’s-eye view” of life. Its a travesty that we live in a society that would have us all as worms. Let us draw back the curtains that hang over our windows and remember that there is a world out there. Kant calls us to sobriety. It is not the sickly and feigned sobriety of the false-empirical view of life but the sobriety that allows us to stop pretending that we can extend our knowledge over everything and then make it grey and controllable and pretend that we can even feel what it means to experience a sense of wonder about it. Life is a word with meaning and reality and it has enemies. Ruling shopkeepers count ducats and continue the legacy of double-entry bookkeeping, smug catalogers play at knowledge and fancy that this imparts power, and none of it means any thing. None of it is of real and tangible ontological substance. Mere shadow plays.

Kant may have been wrong but he was wrong in a correct way. He showed us that we have particular limitations imposed upon us by our perception and the way we are as humans; spatiotemporality structures us and is given. We need to be paying attention to where those limitations are and we can easily dispatch many of the foolish world-ideas of today that enclose us like prisons. Empirical science turned out to be successful at getting certain kinds of knowledge and made a lot of people very rich and it’s method is the reduction of things to quantitative simples and so now the basic structure of our language for discussing our experience remains that of a Cartesian in that we assume sensory simples. However, there are no sensory simples. This language has nothing to do with phenomena or percepts.

Whether or not the ideology is dominant, we were all basically given a Scientistic view of the world via our educations and the media. It’s in all the stories told by Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson and so on. It’s married to the liberalism of the Democratic party and this is because of a direct material relationship between those ideologies. They tell you that familiar tale, which weaves a thought of empirical data in with fireside mythology, which is that everything is billions of years old, has no intrinsic meaning, you are so much smaller than a galaxy and as a materialist all meaning that exists is merely measured in terms of size (???), you should feel awed by this and support the careers of professional scientists by giving them money or voting for people who will give them money. It’s a popular story. Some of it is correct. Things are indeed very very old, galaxies are indeed very very big. As you can see, there is plenty of “meaning” injected into this myth of our society, its just dismal and bleak. I don’t see why how much I matter should have anything to do with how big I am. And for me the measure of my worth is in relation to God. I don’t know who the measure of their worth is in relation to. Or how size became such a prominent factor in their discourse. Through a Kantian lens it is quite easy to see that this is yet another world-idea, something that exists only in our minds.

The notion that its all purely empirical is farcical. None of the story they tell has anything to do with data. The wild success of the physical sciences extended a kind of cultural credit to the language of empiricism, or to appeals to its “certitude”. You establish authority in connecting yourself to an empirical science, even if its merely by association in peoples’ minds, by suggestion. This is part of the reason why the good Citizen-Atheists of our Academy today recoil at the notion of entrusting someone who believes in God with anything important. In their eyes, people who believe in God are incapable of interacting with empirical perception and thinking “rationally,” definitionally incapable of this, and so they couldn’t possibly do medicine or astronomy. Their belief is proof of a fundamental mental malfunction and the good Citizen-Atheists will cry out for some sort of social quarantine against this vile infection of thought. But let one of them explain to you how or why they reached this conclusion and you will discover rather quickly that it was not reached so much as given. It’s not a rational proposition but a received wisdom from the high priests of positivism or whatever it has morphed into these days. If any of them had to weather a competent epistemological critique of these views there would be nothing left but a wasteland.

Obviously, I do not subscribe to their world-idea. But it still lingers in the way I habitually imagine the universe to be and to work. It’s not about the data I am aware of so much as the story I was told too many times. It really did its best to turn everything around us into an ontological void. This thought returns me to the significance of the visions I mentioned. I wouldn’t expect to explain what they mean in any fullness, but here is a beginning thought. Deleuze says of Kant’s conception of the sublime that

Our point of departure is this: how can we explain that conceptual determinations and spatio-temporal determinations correspond with each other when they are not at all of the same nature? What is a spatio-temporal determination? We will see that there are perhaps several kinds. Kant poses the question concerning the relation between the two types of determination on very different levels. One of these levels will be called that of the synthesis, another of these levels he calls that of the schema, and it would be disastrous for a reader of Kant to confuse the synthesis and the schema. I’m saying that the schema and the synthesis are operations which, in a certain way, put a conceptual determination and a spatio-temporal determination into relation, but then it’s as if the synthesis will be shattered, pierced, will be overcome by a stupefying adventure which is the experience of the sublime. The experience of the sublime will knock over all the syntheses. But we do not live only on this. We live only on the syntheses and then the experience of the sublime, which is to say the infinity of the starry vault, or else the furious sea… The other case, the schema, is another case where spatio-temporal determinations and conceptual determinations come into correspondence, and there again there are conditions where our schemas shatter, and this will be the astonishing experience of the symbol and of symbolism. But the whole analysis of the sublime, and the whole analysis of the symbol and symbolism, the English had analyzed the sublime before him, but the whole novelty of Kant’s analysis is obvious: it will be the Critique of Judgement, in his last book, as if to the extent that he aged, he became aware of the catastrophe. Of the double catastrophe of the crushing of the sublime, the sublime crushes me, and the irruption of the symbol, where our whole ground, the whole ground of our knowledge which we had constructed with syntheses and schemas, starts to shake.
What is the synthesis? It’s the synthesis of perception. But don’t think that that goes without saying. I’m saying that it’s from this level of the analysis of the synthesis of perception that Kant can be considered as the founder of phenomenology. That is, that discipline of philosophy which has as its object the study, not of appearances, but apparitions and the fact of appearing.

Phenomenologically speaking, one of the attributes of mentally standing in that field before that tree is that the imparted ideology that constrains the freedom of my perceptual experience is destroyed. It has no purchase in that place. It means nothing. It’s not knowledge and applies to nothing there. And then I am free from it for that short time. I don’t know if I could call this exactly what Deleuze describes as the sublime, but it’s close enough for me to want to say that it’s a place to begin piecing together a recovered knowledge of such experiences. Of course, the post-Kantian world of phenomenology and metaphysics and so on is quite rich and it remains a process of finding out what others have done and how we can take up the mantle.

Let us be true friends and help each other. It’s easy to orient yourself when you’re not alone.

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