Thoughts on Kant’s Motto and Preface: Notes toward an Anti-Kantian Tradition

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Critique is surgical, it begins with a corpse: a dead body of thought, a formal exercise in dissection and forensics. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason would even serve up the dead letter of the law, the motto of error, a foundation in utility and dignity from Francis Bacon:

Of our own person we will say nothing. But as to the subject matter with which we are concerned, we ask that men think of it not as an opinion but as a work; and consider it erected not for any sect of ours, or for our good pleasure, but as the foundation of human utility and dignity. Each individual equally, then, may reflect on it himself … for his own part … in the common interest. Further, each may well hope from our instauration that it claims nothing infinite, and nothing beyond what is mortal; for in truth it prescribes only the end of infinite errors, and this is a legitimate end.1

This was appended to the second edition. Why? Did Kant suddenly discover after the fact the coincidence in his precursor the long trail of a degradation? A foundation at once utilitarian and moral? A great renewal (instauration) of death, a slicing of time and the corpse of thought; applying a scalpel to the tribe of the dead philosophe’s, exposing in the entrails of their dead words the errors of thinking? Or did Kant after all have aspirations toward criminal intent: at heart a secret vivisectionist who harbored sadistic joys in the slow and methodical cutting away of the tissue of thoughts, a seeker after the entrails and nervous system of living ideas? Already a reason cut off from the outside world, bounded and formed in its own pure interior realm, based on errors and principles that leave it in a muddle and fantasia.

Kant sees himself as a surgeon that must slice and dice the sick body of reason and guide it back into health, deliver it from its dogmatic ways, and fend off the ancient institutions that brought it to its deathbed. Kant seems to become in his own eyes a new Parsifal of the Enlightenment. A barer of the Holy Grail of Reason, a staunch defender of the purity and purification of thought, a proto-Nazi who would deliver the template of the absolute abstraction of a final solution: Ouroboros eating the cannibal truth of past errors, refining the principals that will construct a new world from the ruins of the old one. Is this Kant’s inheritance? The moral imperative as pure evil: devoid of its ancient religious connotations, morality becomes the inversion of the theological into a perverse history of human errors? The perverse logic of Derrida written already in the quest to purify thought of its senses, its experience? Should we read Kant’s works as War Manuals? Isn’t the truth of two centuries of war written in these dark critiques?

Was Kant building a machine to stop time?

Like any good detective story one looks for the smoking gun, the one clue that will lead one to the killer. What did Kant find? How subservient and servile Kant is toward Baron von Zedlitz in his dedication. Although a typical feigning of subservience, the dedication to an superior and acquaintance shows a willingness to hierarchical placement and alignment in his thought and bearing to the low and base line of the academic treadmill. More than such subservience is Kant’s obscurantism from the beginning, setting up in the first paragraph a failure and a circle of defeat:

Human reason has the peculiar fate in one species of its cognitions that it is burdened with questions which it cannot dismiss, since they are given to it as problems by the nature of reason itself, but which it also cannot answer, since they transcend every capacity of human reason.

Fate? Reason as the agent of its own illness. Already in a quagmire reason is confronted with its inability to reason on itself, a blindness in the heart of thinking that is itself the main problem that will define two hundred years of intentional thought. But what is this “nature of reason” of which he speaks? Is their something essential about reason that makes it blind to its own circular logic? And why is it that such problems ‘transcend’ reason’s capacities? Why should we be bound to reason at all, what if anything would be able to answer such problems if not reason?

Kant will tell us that reason itself is not at fault, that instead its the ‘principles’ that bind it to a process of abstraction (“With these principles it rises (as its nature also requires) ever higher, to more remote conditions.”) Leaving the realm of senses and experience behind reason constructs fabrications of the mind that find it spinning worlds of fantasy: obscure and contradictory reason discovers it is but a dark troubadour of thought rather than its imperial emperor, knowing it is founded on a bedrock of quicksand and error, bound to the logic of a principles from which it is powerless to extricate itself, and cut off from the very sensible truth of human experience it falls into the black hole of metaphysics.

Like any good bourgeoisie Kant will mythologize the enemy as an imperious Queen whose administrators are dogmatists, and whose rule is despotic.  Already the critique is bound to an ideological turn, a politics of the Enlightenment turn toward commerce, democracy, and the middle-class burghers of his own time. He’ll even march out the irruptive strains:

Yet because her legislation still retained traces of ancient barbarism, this rule gradually degenerated through internal wars into complete anarchy; and the skeptics,  a kind of nomads who abhor all permanent cultivation of the soil, shattered civil unity from time to time.

It’s interesting how he begins setting himself up in a mythic form that will already stack the cards in his favor, a narrative not of reason but of metaphor and rhetoric subtly parading as logical and discursive argument. Of course, being a man of the Enlightenment this was par for the course, he was probably unaware of his investment in such strategies except as to its usefulness to portray an opening toward his architectonic edifice as the answer to this dark hinterland of imperial thought.

It appears that he only mentions Locke as one bright light, but that he too, like the anarchists of thought was pounded back into obscurity by the institutionalized dogmatists where things have remained up to Kant’s time. He will set a new task for reason and judgement, one that will call into question the indifference of the schools of dogmatists: that of self-knowledge,  and to institute a court of justice, by which reason may secure its rightful claims while dismissing all its groundless pretensions, and this not by mere decrees but according to its own eternal and unchangeable laws; and this court is none other than the critique of pure reason itself. (KL 2379)

This sense of the Enlightenment and democracy against Imperial and dogmatic courtiers comes to the fore, the notion of a consensus of appeal, a court of one’s peers, etc. Yet, already he steps off into a quagmire with the notion that reason is founded on “eternal and unchangeable laws”; and, that the court is not other philosophers, but rather is the mode of critique that Kant himself has instigated. So that only Kant himself can be the new emperor of reason, founding a new dogmatism in the name not of reason but in the name of Kant.

It was just here that Kant fell away from exterior thought, from experience and turned inward, inventing faculties and categories, abstractions galore:

Yet by this I do not understand a critique of books and systems, but a critique of the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all the cognitions after which reason might strive independently of all experience, and hence the decision about the possibility or impossibility of a metaphysics in general, and the determination of its sources, as well as its extent and boundaries, all, however, from principles. (KL 2392)

Already he starts at the end rather than the beginning. He will begin with a ‘faculty of reason’ cut off from experience, then determine if such a reason can attain the possibility or impossibility of a metaphysics, determine its sources, and demarcate the boundary of its domain using the very principles (errors) he wishes to call into question. Isn’t this to already begin in defeat? Is reason a faculty? What’s the first concern is ‘reason’ itself: a term that has a loaded history, and is itself an abstraction that reduces a mode of thought and thinking to a logic and spatial system in his thought. (Kant seems to want to situate things using metaphors of inside/outside. Even his division of phenomena/noumenon will be based on ‘boundary’ notions of inside and outside or horizons.)

What’s always interesting about a preface is that it is done after the fact (a commonplace). Kant is happy with himself that he has “succeeded in removing all those errors that have so far put reason into dissension with itself in its nonexperiential use” (KL 2397). That he has done this using the very tool that he at first attacked: principles – “I have completely specified these questions according to principles and after discovering the point where reason has misunderstood itself, I have resolved them to reason’s full satisfaction” (KL 2399). This notion of reason as agent, as conscious agent and judge who is satisfied with Kant’s performance of his task goes by without thought; a personified reason that has its own thought and life, oversees the labors of Kant as he mercilessly dissects by vivisection the ‘faculty of reason itself. Kant will in fact admit to flattery not by others but in his own estimation, a self-valorizing gesture: “I flatter myself that in following it I have succeeded in removing all those errors that have so far put reason into dissension…” (KL 2397)

Even these errors become invading forces, enemies to be put down, to be defeated at the hands of this new reason with Kant’s help of course. But above all Kant knows reason better than reason itself does: “reason has misunderstood itself…” and Kant came along just in time to show it its errant ways and guide it back into the fold, tame its enforced and dogmatic principles clarify the darkness and ignorance within which it was lost, and most of all enlightening it with the help of new principles – illuminated by the lively mind of Kant himself. (If I’m satirical it’s just my quirky eye on such strangeness.)

For Kant is nothing else if not thorough (“comprehensiveness my chief aim”), nor is he without a little boasting and egoistic self-congratulations (“I make bold to say that there cannot be a single metaphysical problem that has not been solved here”); and, above all he has if not expounded the full details, he alone has provided the ‘key’ to the mystery (“or at least to the solution of which the key has not been provided”). This little bourgeoisie academic definitely wanted his light in the marquee of the Enlightenment to shine.  But who can challenge such a rotundity and circular reasoning as this:

In fact pure reason is such a perfect unity that if its principle were insufficient for even a single one of the questions that are set for it by its own nature, then this [principle] might as well be discarded, because then it also would not be up to answering any of the other questions with complete reliability. (KL 2406-2409).

Here we have pure reason setting its own agenda, asking its own questions of itself, all by the very principle of its own unfounded logic and circularity. Kant’s world is a closed loop of perfection, pure reason bounded on every side by perfection. Who could question such logic? Kant had to be happy with himself, a man whose self-regulating circles of pure reasoning could find not problem other than the circle of unity itself. Close in on its inward turn toward the pure faculty of reason Kant discovered paradise and found it good. One wonders where Adam and Eve are in this garden, and who the serpent might be?

It’s at this point that Kant wakes up and for the first time opens his eyes and beholds the face of his readers:

While I am saying this I believe I perceive in the face of the reader an indignation mixed with contempt at claims that are apparently so pretentious and immodest; and yet they are incomparably more moderate than those of any author of the commonest program who pretends to prove the simple nature of the soul or the necessity of a first beginning of the world. (KL 2409-2412).

So this is the pretentiousness of self-effacement with a mock grin, whose very curtailment implicates those others who more common than Kant himself will talk of mere substanceless things such as the “nature of soul” or origins. No Kant is not like these foolish others, his task is much grander and more urgent. It’s as if “see me, I’m not like those fools, I know better, what I have to say has actual pertinence unlike those silly prognosticators of souls and origins – those dogmatists… No, Kant will have none of this unbounded fantasy, his thinking deals with the bounded world of a unified reason, a calculus of bounded logic divorced from experience: a pure void of reasoning within these boundaries. A sort of Glass Bead Game within the carefully demarcated circle of magic that Kant himself has marked out where the edges must be forever bounded and controlled by taboos else the demons of fantasy might rush in like barbarians and defeat the temple of pure reason.

Like any good author he wants his readers to judge for themselves, yet he wants to intervene and guide his reader – give him a map, a lay of the land so to speak, help him to narrow down his field of vision and understand the temptation to fall into quicksand and mud holes, errors of detail and sidelines that might lead the reader astray from the overall argument: “Whether I have performed what I have just pledged in that respect remains wholly to the judgment of the reader, since it is appropriate for an author only to present the grounds, but not to judge about their effect on his judges. But in order that he should not inadvertently be the cause of weakening his own arguments, the author may be permitted to note himself those places that, even though they pertain only to the incidental end of the work, may be the occasion for some mistrust, in order that he may in a timely manner counteract the influence that even the reader’s slightest reservation on this point may have on his judgment over the chief end.” (KL 2427-2430).

Sounds like Kant himself was having doubts, second guesses, questions about certain weak points in his argument that needed supplementing and further bolstering against the dogmatists who would be reading him for errors in his own thought. One wonders why Kant didn’t clarify all this in the text itself rather than supplement it after the fact. Did he already have reason to believe that his work wasn’t all that full-proof? That he saw for himself certain weaknesses, certain linguistic ambiguities that might be misconstrued, that language itself was the enemy not reason or thinking per se. I’ll stop here. The rest of his preface tries to shore up those weak points. But that’s another thing entirely. All we discovered is that Kant believed he’d found the key of the ages: a way to describe the errors in principles that had led all philosophers before him into false paths, and that he alone had discovered the correct principles and a new path forward in describing pure reason divorced from experience, its calculous of logic and determination, its boundaries and zone of enquiry, a map of its capacities and principles.

Since Kant seems to be the mote in the eye of current philosophy we need to go back through him with a fine toothed comb to discover why so many philosophers seem to follow him, and why philosophers in our time think the past two hundred years of philosophical speculation was in error.

  1. Kant, Immanuel (1998-01-13). Critique of Pure Reason (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant) (Kindle Locations 2293-2297). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Kant’s Motto and Preface: Notes toward an Anti-Kantian Tradition

  1. Nietzsche took a shot at Kant in BGE:

    “It seems to me that there is everywhere an attempt at present to divert attention from the actual influence which Kant exercised on German philosophy, and especially to ignore prudently the value which he set upon himself. Kant was first and foremost proud of his Table of Categories; with it in his hand he said: “This is the most difficult thing that could ever be undertaken on behalf of metaphysics.” Let us only understand this “could be”! He was proud of having DISCOVERED a new faculty in man, the faculty of synthetic judgment a priori. Granting that he deceived himself in this matter; the development and rapid flourishing of German philosophy depended nevertheless on his pride, and on the eager rivalry of the younger generation to discover if possible something–at all events “new faculties”–of which to be still prouder!–But let us reflect for a moment–it is high time to do so. “How are synthetic judgments a priori POSSIBLE?” Kant asks himself–and what is really his answer? “BY MEANS OF A MEANS (faculty)”–but unfortunately not in five words, but so circumstantially, imposingly, and with such display of German profundity and verbal flourishes, that one altogether loses sight of the comical niaiserie allemande involved in such an answer. People were beside themselves with delight over this new faculty, and the jubilation reached its climax when Kant further discovered a moral faculty in man–for at that time Germans were still moral, not yet dabbling in the “Politics of hard fact.” Then came the honeymoon of German philosophy. All the young theologians of the Tubingen institution went immediately into the groves–all seeking for “faculties.” And what did they not find–in that innocent, rich, and still youthful period of the German spirit, to which Romanticism, the malicious fairy, piped and sang, when one could not yet distinguish between “finding” and “inventing”! Above all a faculty for the “transcendental”; Schelling christened it, intellectual intuition, and thereby gratified the most earnest longings of the naturally pious-inclined Germans. One can do no greater wrong to the whole of this exuberant and eccentric movement (which was really youthfulness, notwithstanding that it disguised itself so boldly, in hoary and senile conceptions), than to take it seriously, or even treat it with moral indignation. Enough, however–the world grew older, and the dream vanished. A time came when people rubbed their foreheads, and they still rub them today. People had been dreaming, and first and foremost–old Kant. “By means of a means (faculty)”–he had said, or at least meant to say. But, is that–an answer? An explanation? Or is it not rather merely a repetition of the question? How does opium induce sleep? “By means of a means (faculty), “namely the virtus dormitiva, replies the doctor in Moliere,

    Quia est in eo virtus dormitiva, Cujus est natura sensus assoupire.

    But such replies belong to the realm of comedy, and it is high time to replace the Kantian question, “How are synthetic judgments a PRIORI possible?” by another question, “Why is belief in such judgments necessary?”–in effect, it is high time that we should understand that such judgments must be believed to be true, for the sake of the preservation of creatures like ourselves; though they still might naturally be false judgments! Or, more plainly spoken, and roughly and readily–synthetic judgments a priori should not “be possible” at all; we have no right to them; in our mouths they are nothing but false judgments. Only, of course, the belief in their truth is necessary, as plausible belief and ocular evidence belonging to the perspective view of life. And finally, to call to mind the enormous influence which “German philosophy”–I hope you understand its right to inverted commas (goosefeet)?–has exercised throughout the whole of Europe, there is no doubt that a certain VIRTUS DORMITIVA had a share in it; thanks to German philosophy, it was a delight to the noble idlers, the virtuous, the mystics, the artiste, the three-fourths Christians, and the political obscurantists of all nations, to find an antidote to the still overwhelming sensualism which overflowed from the last century into this, in short–“sensus assoupire.” . . .

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  2. “Since Kant seems to be the mote in the eye of current philosophy we need to go back through him with a fine toothed comb to discover why so many philosophers seem to follow him…”

    A fine toothed comb? What a weapon! But yes, it might be the best tool around.

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