On March 29, 1781, the philosopher Immanuel Kant sat at his writing desk in Königsberg, East Prussia, and opened his new book, A Critique of Pure Reason.
Spring clouds were building over the Baltic.
The book quickly gets to this:
Human understanding is the sole branch of human knowledge that has the special curse of being burdened with questions which can’t be resolved since they are created by reason itself, even though, as they exceed all its faculties, it can’t answer them.
You could just as easily say that
Human perceptions are the sole branch of human knowledge that have the special curse of being burdened with questions which can’t be resolved since they are created by perceptions themselves, even though, as they exceed all its faculties, they can’t answer them.
Human emotions are the sole branch of human knowledge that have the special curse of being burdened with questions which can’t be resolved since they are created by emotions themselves, even though, as they exceed all emotion’s faculties, they can’t answer them.
And if that’s not a contrast, here’s the emotional art the Germans used to make of it.
You can keep substituting forever, so,let’s not take Kant at face value, not in this spring of war, when the Baltic is definitely in Russia’s sights, to link it by land to Russia and a generation of young philosophers are either holding Kant’s philosophy up as a tool for asserting the morality of climate remediation or as an example of how old white men have missed the mark and are fiddling while Rome burns. Both are a little off course. The story is not what Kant thinks, or lectures, but the environment he stands within. That’s the point of environments. But, to get there, it’s useful to read Kant, who goes on like this:
Reason doesn’t land in this embarrassing situation on its own. It starts with first principles, ones unavoidable in the course of experience and which prove themselves satisfactorily enough. Modern society in its desperate inability to form judgments will take every individual for what he considers himself and professes himself to be and will judge him on that basis.
There’s nothing there about the life he is embedded within, and nothing to explain what these “first principles” are, but, don’t worry, he gets onto them soon enough.
Deep meditation and long-continued contemplation are noble, but heavy and unfit for a person in whom the casual charms are intended to show nothing but a beautiful nature. Difficult learning or embarrassing brooding, if it should bring a woman up to it, destroys the advantages that are peculiar to her sex and can make them the object of cold admiration because of their rarity, but at the same time they will weaken the charms, whereby they exercise their great power over the opposite sex.
Let’s not jump too readily to conclusions, although the cultural gap with today is pretty big.
The point is not that he is dismissive about women. He’s dismissive about human bodies in any form at all:
The beautiful mind chooses for its subjects all that is closely related to the finer feeling, and leaves to the industrious, thorough, and deep mind abstract speculations or knowledge, which are useful but dry. Accordingly, the woman will learn no geometry; it will only know as much of the principle of sufficient reason, or of the monads, as is necessary to hear the salt in the satirical poems which the shallow brooding minds of our sex have permeated.
And there go the poets and anyone else (shallow, brooding minds, all) who doesn’t build rational castles out of experience. Indigenous people, too, rational or not.
We are not bound to accept this assessment of Kant’s physical world at face value, nor do we have to accept the way he lays down one thought and then another on top of it, like clouds building over the water. I’m not making this up. Listen to him:
On this foundation, and because they are caught in the flow of their own nature, they build higher and higher on themselves into ever-more-distant constructs.
Now we’re all watching the clouds float by towards Russia. Presumably, we are to admire how Kant has transformed physical observation into a rational scheme, as follows:
Since it is observable that, as they arise in this way their continual springing forth must always remain unfinished — given, after all, that the questions they pose never stop — they find themselves pressed to take refuge in foundational principles that exceed experience yet seem so innocuous that common sense accepts them at once.
Look how Kant is modelling his thought processes, which is to say his perceptions of the weather, in his sentence structure! He really shouldn’t have dismissed poets so quickly, based on only one of their qualities (emotions), or, for that matter, the Earth on human perceptions of it. He is deeply involved, even though he has relegated it to women, and denigrated any man whose imagination follows the lines he has ascribed to women. That’s just a cultural moebius strip. Now, to be fair, Kant was aware of these problems. Really. Look:
It’s because in doing so reason lurches into darkness and contradictions, out of which it can deduce that there must be a hidden mistake somewhere, yet it can’t uncover it, given that its foundations, exceeding experience, no longer acknowledge experience as a touchstone.
His solution, though, is to separate reason from emotion, so that the error vanishes.
I guess in the end if readers are really going to have a chance to grasp something, they have the right to discursive clarity, or logic, presented as concepts, and at the same time, I guess, to intuitive clarity, or art, through perceptions.
He has in mind examples or concrete demonstrations… of reason! It’s like a dog chasing its own tail. Imagine if we were to separate the Earth environment today from human perceptions. Why, we’d have a wild nature that was being degraded at will. Kant might have argued for morality, in terms of environmental relationships, but in practice his morality was different than what the Earth needs now. So, here we are today, in a spring of war, with philosophers of the environment, and activists as well, reading Kant for his philosophy, even though Kant was reading the clouds, and mirroring them.
In other words, if one is to quote Kant, one should look at some clouds. He built a philosophy out of them. So can anyone else, in conversation with both clouds and Kant.
It’s not that in this age of climate catastrophe we shouldn’t be reading Kant, but that reading Kant philosophically leads us to reading the world in Kantian terms, while reading Kant environmentally sets aside a world in which a translation stands in for an experience and a thing once argued in one social and moral context can be said to be proven in another.
If we don’t read Kant, we miss the environment that binds us, get stuck in social time, and are back in 1781. Look up!
This is not just perception. It is not just emotion. It is morality and ethics. You can discover it for yourself. Do. Please.